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Interview: Australia, China and the Indo-Pacific
#50: With Rory Medcalf
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Rory Medcalf is a Professor and Head of the National Security College at the Australian National University. He is the author of Indo-Pacific Empire: China, America and the Contest for the World’s Pivotal Region.
Why is the Indo-Pacific so important to China?
“The Indo-Pacific is proving a useful concept to redefine regional order in a way that encourages multipolarity, balancing, rules and respect for sovereignty. It frames a two-ocean region defined by connectivity to the world, thus confirming a legitimate role for the United States and Europe in Asia and prioritising the interests and agency of maritime states. All this serves to constrain China’s dominance and authority in Asia. It is little wonder that this framework is not beloved in Beijing. However the grand irony is that China’s own strategy and behaviour span the Indo-Pacific, under the label of ‘Maritime Silk Road’ – part of the Belt and Road. So China’s own interests and choices have prompted this Indo-Pacific era.”
How is Beijing trying to expand its influence in the region?
“It’s a multi-layered powerplay. Not only is China modernising its military, with a strong naval focus, but the Belt and Road brings political influence and economic dependence that can be leveraged in the future. So really we’re seeing a full-spectrum strategy from China: military, economics, technology, intelligence, influence, development, diplomacy. And of course some level of Chinese presence, investment and influence across the region is to be expected and welcomed. What is important is to ensure it does not infringe on the sovereignty and interests of others.”
There’s been a lot of talk about China’s attempts to form security pacts with Pacific island states. What makes Beijing a potential partner for these governments?
“Pacific Island nations have substantial and understandable needs, in terms of development, health, human security and protection from the impacts of climate change. They can and should seek support wherever they can find it. However, China’s efforts to fill the development gap in the Pacific bring many significant risks. There’s already a record across the Indian Ocean and parts of Southeast Asia of Chinese efforts to diminish sovereignty and influence, co-opt or even corrupt elites. There’s also the risk of unmanageable debt, economically unviable projects, poor environmental standards and political influence.
Nations such as Australia are particularly concerned about the Chinese security footprint in the Pacific. One possibility is the establishment of Chinese military bases in a largely unmilitarised part of the region, in ways that could threaten the interests of Australia, the United States and other democracies in the event of major confrontation or conflict. Another and nearer-term risk is the prospect of Chinese security forces policing small nations such as Solomon Islands – which could bring resentment and resistance from local communities, and thus justifying a stronger Chinese security role, the classic dynamic of colonialism. This could be a recipe for instability. The response from Australia and a range of other democratic partners of the Pacific has been to redouble our efforts to ensure that Pacific Island nations have a range of developmental and security partners to choose from.”
What is AUKUS?
“The arrangement called AUKUS has been misunderstood as a new alliance. It is not strictly an alliance or a piece of regional security ‘architecture’. It is basically an advanced technology-sharing arrangement among three nations – Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States – where there were already high degrees of strategic trust, defence cooperation and technology partnership. This has two pillars: to develop a nuclear-powered submarine fleet for Australia, ensuring we have superior capabilities in this regard; and to pool the science, technology and industrial bases of the three countries to keep them at the leading edge of advanced security technologies like quantum, cyber and hypersonics.”
What are the advantages of the deal for Australia?
“In essence, the point of AUKUS is to make Australia a stronger, more capable and credible military power in the Indo-Pacific. This will serve Australia’s defence and security, Australia’s partners in the region, and – yes – the alliance with the United States. It is meant to help Australia deter China – not single-handedly, but in coalition with others – and maintain a strategic equilibrium in the Indo-Pacific.
Of course there are questions and controversies about aspects of this, however the recent announcement by the three AUKUS leaders in San Diego confirms that there is a practical path forward, so that by the early 2030s Australia is likely to have its first nuclear-power submarines. These will be ‘second-hand’ American Virginia-class subs, but they will nonetheless be a powerful conventional deterrent operating out of Western Australia. Further on, into the 2040s, the intent is to build a whole new class of submarines, and that will be the real nation-building test of the whole project, because building something of the immense complexity of nuclear-powered submarines in Australia will require a coming-of-age of this country as a technologically sophisticated and industrial power. It’s doable, it’s possible, but the hard work has just begun.”
Seen from Australia, what is the realistic best-case scenario for the Indo-Pacific?
“We should not be completely focused on AUKUS and the deterrent side of the picture. Looked at comprehensively, Australian policy is about seeking balance, stability and predictability in regional order, so that we can focus on prosperity, coexistence and even cooperation against shared challenges, notably climate change. The current Australian Government has a foreign policy designed around the concept of ‘strategic equilibrium’ which is as much about pursuing stability as it is about deterrence. There’s a fresh focus on good relations with Southeast Asia and the Pacific, as well as our Quad partners the United States, Japan and India. Diversification is the name of the game. I anticipate that Europe and South Korea will also be significant priorities in the multipolar diplomacy Australia pursues.
As for the best-case scenario out of all this, I fear it is still quite constrained – coexistence with China rather than anything like full trust or cooperation. If confrontation and conflict can be deterred, and careful engagement managed, then we stand a chance of getting through the next 10-15 years – at which point it is quite conceivable that China will be dealing with its own limitations, such as an ageing population, a problematic succession and resource constraints. In the Indo-Pacific of the 2040s, there may well be new coalitions and constellations of power – consider the future of growing players like India, Indonesia and Vietnam for example – and China will have to accept a future of prominence without dominance.”
What’s the risk of a direct military escalation between China and the United States in the region?
“I resist the simplistic view that the future of the Indo-Pacific is all about China and the United States. Many powers and jurisdictions – and not only Taiwan – have a problem with China’s assertiveness and worse. Thus for example we see lots of nations strengthening their defences: look at Japan’s own recent Zeitenwende, outlined in the 2022 National Security Strategy and a prospective doubling of defence spending. But it’s true that the United States has, belatedly, developed a policy of pushing back against China’s efforts to dominate the Indo-Pacific. That includes the renewal of America’s deterrent posture and its military support for allies, partners and regional order.
So the risk of confrontation between Chinese and American forces is real, but I see that largely as boiling down to China’s choices: how much risk does it want to take? There’s a lot of concern at present that Beijing is on a timeline to invading Taiwan. I see more of the risk as relating to China’s campaign of extreme pressure – such as simulated blockades against Taiwan – which could provoke incidents, miscalculation and escalation. Even so, if US-led deterrence is mainly about ensuring that every day the PLA looks across the Taiwan Strait and says ‘not today’, then that should be firmly supported – including by Europe.”
Aside from Taiwan, what could spur a direct confrontation between China and the United States?
“The expansion of China’s interests and security pressure across the Indo-Pacific has generated a crowded horizon of risk. There are many scenarios and contingencies of confrontation and conflict that could unfold. Some of these are not directly between China and America, but rather between China and other powers: Vietnam, the Philippines, Japan, India, even Australia. Many such scenarios would soon involve America as an ally or partner for China’s adversary. Or we could see a Chinese intervention – in the Pacific, the Indian Ocean, even one day in Africa – lead to security entanglements and the use of force. Or a fresh crisis on the Korean Peninsula could – and would – enmesh China and America at an early stage.
So China and America – and the rest of us – need much stronger and clearer risk-reduction or confidence-building measures to ensure conflict does not occur or that it does not lead to escalation through miscalculation. China’s forces in the South China Sea, for instance, can’t keep using risk as a tool to expand their influence – as they do every time they challenge other nations operating within international law through legitimate overflight or navigation. One of the many lessons Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is teaching us here in the Indo-Pacific is that the possibility of war remains real in the 21st century, and once war begins, the consequences cascade out of control.”
To what extent can Europeans shape what happens in the Indo-Pacific?
“Potential European influence regarding the future security of the Indo-Pacific is substantial, but it is far from fully realised. It’s disappointing, for instance, to see the divisions within Europe that have been accentuated by the positions of the French and Spanish leaders on their recent visits to China. More impressive and genuinely strategic are the insights of European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, in recognising the need to ‘de-risk’ Europe-China relations, and in identifying the very real leverage Europe could have if it used its economic weight in a truly geopolitical fashion.
It’s a mistake to pretend that Europe’s role as a security actor in the Indo-Pacific is primarily about military presence. It is more about building regional resilience – helping Asian partners help themselves – and about pre-emptive economic deterrence. It is actually in China’s interests – and the world’s – that Europe consistently and credibly conveys the message that an act of military aggression in the Indo-Pacific would be catastrophic for Europe-China economic relations. Of course it is also good to have a degree of European military engagement and partnership in this region, particularly from France – already a resident power – but where possible from other EU states too, and also from Britain. I guess I’m more interested in the comprehensive picture: how can Europe expand the options of Pacific Island countries, Indian Ocean countries, Southeast Asian countries, when they look for development, technology, education, capacity-building, maritime-domain awareness, stewardship of resources, and all those things that will make their futures worthwhile. This is a way of limiting China’s domination without confrontation. This is another way Europe can truly matter to this region.”
What is a question you wish you were asked and what is your answer to it?
“Wow – that’s a nice opportunity! All right, ‘did you ever expect the Indo-Pacific to become such a big deal?’ Short answer, no. I’ve been helping to develop and promote the concept of the Indo-Pacific for more than 15 years now, long before it was fashionable. I’ve written a book about it. But it is always healthy to be sceptical about the very ideas one champions. I recall many lively debates with policymakers, scholars and think tankers over the years, in which they would argue variously that this Indo-Pacific thing would never take off, that it did not make sense to America, it was not appealing to Asian perspectives, and so forth.
And when the Trump administration embraced its own version of the concept in 2017, for their own reasons, I was somewhat unnerved, as that risked losing the sensible middle ground, conflating an inclusive Indo-Pacific too much with an agenda of confronting China rather than regional connectivity – and the truth is that the Indo-Pacific is both about connectivity and contestation. But it turns out that my private doubts about the viability of the Indo-Pacific idea have proven wrong. It’s quite extraordinary how rapidly the Indo-Pacific has become a wave sweeping global diplomacy: from the EU to ASEAN, from India to Indonesia to Canada to South Korea, it is a new orthodoxy. And, at least when ASEAN talks Indo-Pacific, the Chinese realise they have to at least pretend to tolerate it. A few years ago, the then Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi claimed it was an attention-grabbing idea that would dissipate like ocean foam. He’s not on the scene anymore but the Indo-Pacific is here to stay.”
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