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Centre for Geopolitics

Providing historically grounded approaches to enduring geopolitical problems
IndoPacific contest, connectivity and contagion

27 July 2020

Starting the conversation…

Rory Medcalf, Professor and Head of the National Security College at the Australian National University

The Indo-Pacific concept had only just become a new orthodoxy for thinking about strategy when the great disruption of COVID-19 arrived, putting all existing worldviews to the test. How will it fare? And can this pre-pandemic mental map help nations prepare for what comes next?

In a recent book, I argue that the Indo-Pacific reframing of an Asia-centric strategic environment – away from the more familiar (but no less invented) ‘Asia-Pacific’ of the late 20th century – is principally an objective description of new connections in geopolitics, economics and diplomacy, as a rising China extends its influence across the Indian and Pacific oceans (and beyond). Indeed, the Maritime Silk Road, the seagoing half of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), is essentially the Indo-Pacific with Chinese characteristics. The Indo-Pacific is larger than the Asia-Pacific – which tended to downplay or even exclude India and South Asia – and is the global centre of gravity for population, commerce and potential conflict, hence the growing interest it is prompting in Britain and Europe.

China has not chosen this phase of crisis as a time to abandon grand strategic designs of expanding influence and presence abroad

But the Indo-Pacific also serves as a canvas for framing policy responses to Chinese power, especially two overlapping kinds of balancing: a web of security cooperation based on the US alliance system, most apparent in the quadrilateral dialogue of America, Japan, India and Australia; and emerging middle power coalitions, involving Japan, India, Australia and occasionally others such as Southeast Asian or even European states.

How does the COVID-19 shock affect this picture? Less than one may have presumed. Were this cross-border contagion to permanently paralyse seaborne trade, or turn all nations inward to such a grim extent that they eschewed international ambitions or partnerships, then perhaps history would write 2019 as the high point of a fleeting Indo-Pacific moment. Instead, we are seeing the perpetuation of some Indo-Pacific dynamics and the acceleration of others. China has not chosen this phase of crisis as a time to abandon grand strategic designs of expanding influence and presence abroad, or to reduce the kind of tensions that make others seen safety in numbers: quite the opposite. Its horizon of risk and confrontation has become only more crowded: in the first half of 2020, witness coercion and clashes in the South China Sea, geoeconomically with Australia, and violently with India. The death knell has been sounded for the part-free Hong Kong the world knew, and Taiwanese sentiment unequivocally alienated. Comprehensive competition and even confrontation are the hallmarks of the new US-China relationship, extending into the Indo-Pacific with new aircraft carrier shows of force. And even as all nations look to their sovereignty and supply chain security, many are pursuing new and creative forms of dialogue and coordination across collapsed geographic boundaries, typified by the intriguing ‘quad plus’ arrangement of the four core maritime democracies plus Vietnam, South Korea and New Zealand.

Much more uncertainty lies ahead. The new decade will be poorer, more disorderly and more dangerous, to quote Australia’s prime minister. But the patterns of connectivity and especially of contestation, drawn over the Indo-Pacific over the first part of this century, are likely to play a large part in defining the policy challenges and choices ahead for many nations.


Yuichi Hosoya, Professor of International Politics, Keio University

The COVID-19 crisis has been affecting the strategic balance in the Indo-Pacific region in the last several months. The reported in late March of coronavirus infection of over 100 sailors of USS Theodore Roosevelt, a nuclear aircraft carrier of the U.S. Navy, might have become an unexpected signal for Chinese military that an opportune time had come when China could expand its sphere of influence in the Indo-Pacific region in the absence of mighty American military power.

Professor Rory Medcalf is a world renown expert on the strategic relations in the Indo-Pacific, and the publication of his newest book, Indo-Pacific Empire: China, America and the Contest for World’s Pivotal Region, is widely anticipated. He provides deep understanding into how the U.S.-China rivalry in the Indo-Pacific region currently constitutes the most important pivot of global geopolitics.

Should Professor Medcalf revise, or rewrite, parts of his book to address the impact of the pandemic? His conversation starter suggests, not very much. He states that “we are seeing the perpetuation of some Indo-Pacific dynamics and the acceleration of others”. Likewise, other leading strategic thinkers, such as Richard Haass, President of the Council on Foreign Relations, emphasized the continuity of basic nature of the current international politics.  He wrote in Foreign Affairs that “the world following the pandemic is unlikely to be radically different from the one that precede it,” because “COVID-19 will not so much change the basic direction of world history as accelerate it”.

A follow up question might be raised: To what extend is this true for regional politics in the Indo-Pacific where China is seemingly more active militarily than before? Professor Medcalf admits that greater uncertainty lies ahead. Yet, effective policy response demands that nations set and communicate expectations for the coordination of strategic actions. Even before this crisis, Japan has initiated the formation of the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), which came into effect on 30 December 2018 – regrettably without American participation to date. Japan also created the largest free trade area in the world to date with the EU-Japan Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA) – together with the EU-Japan Strategic Partnership Agreement (SPA) – on 1 February 2019. Both frameworks specifically set out priorities for bilateral cooperation across a range of emerging challenges in global security, economic competitiveness, development and environmental protection, which encompasses responses to Chinese economic expansionism and undermining of rule-based multilateral institutions, without singling out the PRC or ruling out cooperation on specific issues such as infrastructure development.

We should build on the prior momentum of bilateral and multilateral cooperation, in encouraging new dynamism in the Indo-Pacific region which includes an enhanced coalition among like-minded powers such as Japan and Australia. The U.K. has shown heightened interests in joining the coalition in trade negotiation and collective security exercises. In this way, the COVID-19 crisis provides a critical opportunity for middle powers such as Japan, Australia, and the UK to steer their own destiny in an uncertain time of the U.S.-China confrontation.        

C. Raja Mohan, Director, Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore

I agree with Rory Medcalf that the Covid-19 crisis has only accelerated the geopolitical trend lines in the Indo-Pacific that were already visible in 2019. But the pace of acceleration has been rather heady since early 2020. Well before the pandemic, the Trump Administration ended the ambivalence within the United States on the Indo-Pacific geography, renamed its Pacific Command, posited the return of great power rivalry, and revived the Quadrilateral security framework with Australia, Japan and India. Nor was there an attempt to fudge the proposition that the Indo-Pacific was, as Prof Medcalf underlines, “a canvas for framing policy responses to Chinese power”. This new clarity on the security side must, however, be seen in conjunction with President Trump’s quest for a trade deal with China that has been so central to his 2016 political and economic platform. 

What has changed since the pandemic is Washington’s apparent willingness to consider economic decoupling from Beijing. The US campaign to wean its allies away from Huawei and plans to reorient the China-based supply chains towards a network of trusted partners reflected a new set of convictions in Washington. And then some. As the prospects for the trade deal receded after the pandemic, senior Trump Administration officials (National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien, Attorney General William Barr, FBI Director Christopher Wray and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo) in a series of speeches declared that five decades of American engagement with China have drawn to a close. As Pompeo put it, if the free world does not change China, then China will change the free world. Might this total negation of America’s past engagement with China and the bold call to confront the Chinese Communist Party, survive the Trump Administration that is not certain to get a second term in the November elections? 

In comparison to what Trump officials are saying, the Democratic Party’s draft foreign policy framework sounds quite mild. While promising to challenge China’s unfair trade policies and human rights abuses, the Democrats want to avoid the “trap of a new Cold War” with China. They also argue that Washington must push back on China’s “malign behaviour while also pursuing cooperation on issues of mutual interest like climate change and non-proliferation and ensuring that the U.S.-China rivalry does not put global stability at risk.” Might this mean to a Biden presidency might return to the engagement of the past with China?  Part of the problem with Biden’s China framework is “the defensive tone in which Democrats challenge specific Trump decisions but accept his core narrative that American policy should confront China, not cooperate with it.”

Platforms, of course, rarely predict the foreign policy orientation of an incoming Administration. The Biden Administration’s foreign policy ramparts will be manned by many policy makers who served in the Obama Administration. It was during the Obama years that the China challenge was addressed with some vigour; the idea of a new Indo-Pacific geography, the importance of a security ‘pivot to Asia’, and a stronger security partnership with India, and the construction of a coalition of Asian democracies all gained ground. Yet, the Obama team had to balance these considerations against the strong imperative of cooperation with China, especially on global issues like climate change. The evolution of Biden’s policies towards China and the Indo-Pacific will certainly be driven by the imperatives of seeking some economic and political cooperation with Beijing, the deepening negative sentiment at home on China and the new imperatives of the Indo-Pacific geography.