Australia: A Key Player in the Indo-Pacific in 2018


Australia: A Key Player in the Indo-Pacific in 2018

Under Donald Trump, an unpredictable and isolationist United States has injected discord into the international system and no more so than in the Indo-Pacific region. The discomfort felt by U.S. allies and partners is exacerbated by the fact that Washington’s new unpredictability has been accompanied by an increasingly assertive China. One ally in particular, Australia, has now joined the likes of India, Japan and ASEAN members such as Singapore, in taking note of the Trump administration’s unpredictable approach towards the Indo-Pacific region and has begun to plan accordingly.

Australia’s reservations to US isolationism and Chinese expansionism

In a recent White Paper on Foreign Policy (2017), the Australian government  unequivocally argued in favour of more robust engagement between the U.S. and the Indo-Pacific Region. The White Paper while drawing attention to the new unpredictability in the U.S. approach to Asia, also highlighted the rise of China. While Australia has robust economic ties with Beijing, with bilateral trade estimated at well over $100 Billion in 2016 and Chinese investments in Australia estimated at over $15 Billion for 2016, the White Paper did not hold back from expressing concern over China’s assertive stand on the South China Sea:

‘Australia is particularly concerned by the unprecedented pace and scale of China’s activities. Australia opposes the use of disputed features and artificial structures in the South China Sea for military purposes’.

The Chinese media has been unsparing in its criticism of the White Paper. An editorial in Global Times went to the extent of saying that:

‘China can move its ties with Australia to a back seat and disregard its sensitivities’.

It is not just the White Paper which has drawn attention to China’s increasing influence. There has been wider skepticism with regard to the One Belt One Road Project. Commenting on the project, Foreign Affairs and Trade Secretary, Frances Adamson stated:

‘We know from our neighbours in the South Pacific in particular that infrastructure projects can come with very heavy price tags and the repayment of those loans often can be absolutely crippling and that’s why you’d expect Australia has an interest in governance arrangements’.

Australia’s Role in the Indo-Pacific and Quad Alliance

Keeping in mind the twin challenges discussed above, Australian policy makers and analysts have been working towards building an alternative narrative in the Indo-Pacific, relating to the shared interests in maintaining the liberal order. One of the most important is in developing closer ties with India and encouraging New Delhi to play a greater regional role.  This policy has a long heritage. Under Australia’s former Labour government, Julie Gillard’s state visit to India in October 2012 saw the issuing of a joint statement between her and Dr Manmohan Singh stating:

‘India and Australia share a common interest in the Indian Ocean and in the maintenance of stability and security through the Indian-Pacific region’.

A White Paper on Defence that was released the following year garnered headlines by referencing for the first time the ‘Indo-Pacific’ region, thus seeking to make India a stakeholder in the international order in Asia. Concerning ties with the subcontinent, the White Paper proclaimed that:

‘India and Australia have a shared interest in helping to address the strategic changes that are occurring in the region. Australia and India are also important trade partners and share a commitment to democracy, freedom of navigation and a global order governed by international law’

With rising Australian concerns over U.S. isolationism it is important to note Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s remarks on the eve of his October 2017 visit to India. Speaking at a Washington think tank event he delivered a speech which referenced the possibility of Australia ‘anchoring’ the India-Japan-US relationship.