This article is part of the series — Raisina Files 2022.
The primary contest for the future of the Indo-Pacific region is simple: It is about preventing Chinese hegemony while avoiding catastrophic conflict. After all, the Indo-Pacific concept has become a useful organising principle for a wide range of nations seeking to manage and balance Chinese power. However, there is now a secondary contest for the Indo-Pacific—or more accurately a contest over the idea
of the Indo-Pacific—in terms of what constitutes the most effective set of regional policy responses to the China challenge. The contours of this new diplomatic terrain were starkly laid out in 2021 in contrasting visions by a range of generally like-minded nations and their groupings.
The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) and the trilateral security partnership between Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States (AUKUS) are strong manifestations of balancing strategies in the Indo-Pacific. They are also complementary: If AUKUS can deliver a stronger Australia, then Australia will become a more capable partner in the Quad. However, the challenge now for their member states is to reconcile these exclusive balancing arrangements with the more inclusive approach advocated by Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the European Union (EU). This will require Australia, in particular, to be more effective at articulating why AUKUS serves the interests of many partners, or at least why it does not undermine them. Canberra can make a sound case that AUKUS is, at heart, about improving national deterrent capability, not building a new alliance. At the same time, EU nations will need to openly acknowledge why balancing and deterrence postures may be increasingly necessary in a world where China–Russia collaboration threatens stability at both ends of Eurasia.
AUKUS and After: Submarine Turbulence and Deep Ocean Currents
The diplomatic storm of the Australian-British-American technology deal called AUKUS has become a familiar story. It involved Australia’s sudden abandonment of the programme with France’s Naval Group to build a fleet of advanced diesel-electric submarines.<1>
Instead, in September 2021, Australia announced an extraordinary agreement with the US and the UK to acquire nuclear-powered vessels, either the US Virginia-class or the UK Astute-class SSN.<2>
The French government cried betrayal and deception over the termination of a contract that reflected a wider strategic partnership.<3>
Australia insisted that it was simply pursuing the best military capability to protect its national interests in response to the growing threats from China. The mistrust will be slow to subside. But deeper ocean currents were revealed. For another character in this drama was something called the “Indo-Pacific”. A few years earlier, this word was barely heard in international affairs; now it has become a powerful diplomatic mantra—a term with many useful meanings, including a code for what to do about a powerful and assertive China.
“The future of the Indo-Pacific will impact all our futures,” said Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison at the AUKUS launch. His British counterpart explained the new three-nation partnership as, “working hand in glove to preserve security and stability in the Indo-Pacific.” True to the American tradition of grand foreign policy rhetoric, President Biden declared that, “the future of each of our nations—and indeed the world—depends on a free and open Indo-Pacific enduring and flourishing in the decades ahead.”<4>
Also in September 2021, the leaders of the so-called Quad countries—the US, Australia, India and Japan—convened in Washington for their first in-person meeting of this important new strategic grouping, widely seen as a diplomatic balance to China. With a less confronting agenda than AUKUS, the Quad is more focused on a “public goods agenda” ning vaccines, technology, environment and infrastructure. The member countries committed to “a region that is a bedrock of our shared security and prosperity—a free and open Indo-Pacific, which is also inclusive and resilient.”<5>
This programme has continued into 2022, with Quad leaders convening again on short notice in March to maintain momentum on the public goods agenda, while also managing differences over responses to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The leaders reiterated that the primary focus of the Quad should remain the Indo-Pacific.
A Family Feud Over the Indo-Pacific Idea
Canberra’s diplomatic activism has once effectively propagated the Indo-Pacific as a unifying idea. Now, Australia has become the centre of a family feud in which different democracies are preaching their own versions of the creed. France defined its outcry over the sunken submarines deal, not in the crude business terms of the global arms trade, but as a regretful “lack of consistency”<6>
in efforts to uphold shared interests and values in la région indo-pacifique.
After all, on the very same day as the AUKUS bombshell, the EU—long accused of ignoring the tense geopolitical realities of Asia—had released its own ‘Strategy for Cooperation in the Indo-Pacific’.
The European approach was high sounding, but its plea for multilateral diplomacy, inclusiveness and non-confrontation sidestepped the hard question of what should be done if China had other ideas, especially with its escalating coercion of Taiwan. By October 2021, armed tensions were escalating across the Taiwan Strait, with Chinese bombers making sinister daily air shows in skies it contested with the self-ruling island. Taiwanese President, Tsai Ing-wen, declared that “the course of the Indo-Pacific, the world’s fastest-growing region, will in many ways shape the course of the 21st
That included the increasingly real possibility of catastrophic war.
The Indo-Pacific, then, is more than a place: It is an idea and a wave sweeping global diplomacy. In the past few years, many powers and international groupings have invoked this term to define how they are rising up to the China challenge: The US, Japan, India, Australia, Indonesia, ASEAN, France, Germany, the Netherlands, the EU, Britain, Taiwan and more.
An Indo-Pacific future is rapidly arriving. In early 2021, the new US administration of President Joe Biden hit the ground running with its own evolution of the Indo-Pacific idea: An expansive map of what it described as ‘competitive coexistence’ with China. Such a policy was meant to be underpinned by the strengthened engagement of diverse allies and partners. Soon this was manifested in President Biden’s first international summit—the inaugural (if virtual) meeting of leaders of the Quad—followed by an in-person gathering within months. Such Indo-Pacific solidarity was then underscored in a firm American line against China in a diplomatic face-off in Anchorage; and extended a few months later in the Cornwall summit of the G7 and its new democratic partners, Australia, India, South Korea and South Africa.<8>
The North Atlantic Treaty Organisation subsequently cast its eye far east, warning that China posed “systemic challenges”.<9>
No longer an academic obscurity, the term “Indo-Pacific” is now standard language far and wide. This signifies one thing: The question of what needs to be done to blunt China’s bid to dominate the globally-vital Indo-Pacific region—in security, economics, technology and values—has now become a first-order question in global diplomacy.
Reconciling Inclusive with Exclusive: Towards an Adaptable Strategy
The Indo-Pacific answer amounts to a practical reimagining of the world map to suit the problem and the times. It reframes an Asia-centric region to reflect growing connectivity and contest across the Pacific and the Indian Oceans, driven in substantial part by China’s expanding interests and influence. This vision is useful to many nations because it explains and encourages the balancing and dilution of Chinese power through an array of new partnerships across collapsed geographic boundaries. We, thus, have a metaphor for collective action; a code for a pivotal region where China can be prominent but not dominant.
In a global discourse often dominated by Beijing’s transgressions and triumphalism, or simplistic narratives of US-China bipolarity, the Indo-Pacific idea offers a useful alternative. It is about steadiness and solidarity among many nations. It is about incorporating a more powerful China into a regional order where the rights of others are respected, and counter-balancing that power when those rights are not. And that is the point: It should be possible to reconcile the competing exclusive (US, Japan, AUKUS, Quad) and inclusive (EU, ASEAN, India) visions of the Indo-Pacific.
The key here is China’s behaviour: The strategy of others should be adaptable enough to pivot between inclusive and exclusive policy agendas, and to maintain elements of both simultaneously, depending on whether China is choosing to focus more on coexistence or coercion. I would contend that this dynamism has informed Australian policy for some years, even if that is not always apparent, or if its fruits are yet to be compelling. For instance, while placing the Quad and AUKUS together at the centre of foreign policy—as evidenced in the platforms of both major parties in the Australian 2022 federal election campaign<10>
—Canberra has quietly strengthened relations with its non-aligned neighbours in Southeast Asia. In 2021, Australia became the first country to finalise a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership with ASEAN.<11>
The AUKUS agreement had prompted brief expressions of concern in Indonesia and Malaysia, but received a better reception in Singapore and the Philippines, and does not seem to have alienated Australia-ASEAN relations overall. It is also worth noting that any concerns that AUKUS will somehow undermine the Quad were short-lived, more the stuff of excited media speculation than any serious policy thinking in either New Delhi or Tokyo.
A core part of the Indo-Pacific idea is the agency of middle players—not China or the US—in shaping the regional order. In fact, the spread of the Indo-Pacific concept was a quiet achievement from years of activist diplomacy by these powers, notably Australia and Japan. The turmoil of 2020 and 2021, with deepening concern about China as a threat, has had two divergent effects on the choices being made by nations. This captures a tension at the heart of the Indo-Pacific idea. On the one hand, it is about inclusion, multipolarity, risk-management and the choices of many nations across a shared space. But on the other hand, as China-centric rivalries worsen, the pressures will grow to emphasise strategic balancing and deterrent power. This tension—between one Indo-Pacific of diplomacy and inclusion and another of military balancing and US-China struggle—is what has been revealed and accentuated in the AUKUS crisis.
Other nations and groupings will need to develop their own sophisticated ways of navigating both these Indo-Pacifics—the inclusive and the exclusive. For instance, the Indo-Pacific democracies that have felt China’s pressure—such as Australia, Japan, India, the Philippines and Taiwan—may welcome the EU’s renewed interest in the region. However, there is a risk that the European focus on multilateral diplomacy, inclusiveness and non-confrontation sidesteps the hard question of what to do if China has more coercive and uncompromising ideas. Moreover, China’s support for Russia, ahead of and during the Ukraine invasion, suggests that the EU countries will not permanently be able to overlook the question of whether China poses a systemic challenge globally rather than just a regional threat to resident powers in the Indo-Pacific.
What Next for the Quad?
Likewise, India and other Quad members will need to keep refining their expectations of this institution. After all, not only has the Quad been characterised as an exclusive balancing alignment, but also has the potential to be the core of more inclusive arrangements in terms of its ‘public goods’ agenda. The shift towards a broad ‘public goods’ agenda is smart. It has helped ensure the Quad’s acceptance by many other nations and institutions, including ASEAN and the EU, as an enduring and stabilising part of global diplomatic architecture. This has blunted much of China’s criticism that the Quad is supposedly some quasi-alliance bent on containment and a confrontational, exclusive approach to security.
The Quad has made great progress in recent years: The two summit meetings in 2021 (and a shorter leaders’ virtual discussion in March 2022) affirm its priority place in the strategic policy settings of all four member states. At the same time, the establishment of AUKUS has become the new lightning rod for China’s diplomatic frustration. As of March 2022, China is seeking to define the Quad, AUKUS, Five Eyes and various bilateral US alliances as part of an allegedly coordinated ‘5432’ strategy.<12>
This is an example of China’s desperate recognition that it can no longer mount a credible diplomatic attack on the Quad per se.
A challenge now for the Quad is to focus on living up to the promise of delivering tangible outcomes and benefits to the regional community, such as through vaccine delivery in Southeast Asia and improvements to technology standards and governance. Other issues and opportunities ahead for the Quad include:
Preventing or managing fissures over Ukraine:
It makes sense for the Quad countries to air and address differences robustly through their trusted dialogue with one another. India’s dependence on Russia poses long-term risks for India’s interests in balancing China. How seriously can Delhi rely on a self-weakened Moscow that, in turn, becomes increasingly reliant on Beijing? Quad partners need to help India diversify its sources of military technology and energy. At the same time, the focus of the Quad on the Indo-Pacific needs to be restated and reinforced.
Adapting to the opportunities of coordinating with other nations and groupings:
Without necessarily expanding on an already busy agenda, Quad capitals would be well advised to identify early opportunities for ‘Quad Plus’ cooperation on specific functional issues such as critical technologies, vaccines, climate, disaster relief or infrastructure investment, perhaps with Britain, France, other European partners, South Korea (where a new government provides a real opening), individual Southeast Asian partners, Canada and New Zealand.
Anticipating future contingencies
: The Quad is not a treaty alliance, and its early success will be jeopardised if alliance-like expectations are placed on it. Although the Quad capitals are building a significant degree of trust and like-mindedness with one another, this will not immediately translate into concerted policy action. The Quad governments would do well to invest in helping each other build shared understandings of the security risks their nations—and the region—could face in this decade of disruption. Shared anticipation of potential strategic shocks is the first step in building towards policy coordination, or in tempering expectations. For instance, Quad nations would benefit from frank and confidential dialogue, perhaps in a 1.5 track format, about plausible strategic shocks in the region—such as a Chinese assault on Taiwan—and their implications for national interests and policy options.
The Quad has defied the doubters and is here to stay. Indeed, some internal strains actually reinforce the value of a flexible arrangement like the Quad to play a quiet bridge-building role between these key Indo-Pacific democracies. Those issues include not only divergence about how to respond to the Russian aggression but also, for instance, varying levels of risk appetite for overtly opposing China and differentiated patterns of applying democratic values to internet governance. To the extent that the Quad can be an island of trusted dialogue within a turbulent regional and global system, it can also set an example for other coalitions to counter coercion and build stability.
Andrew Greene, Andrew Probyn and Stephen Dziedzic, “Australia to get nuclear-powered submarines, will scrap $90b program to build French-designed subs,
” ABC News,
September 15, 2021.
Charbel Kadib, “Weighing up the options – Astute or Virginia Class?,
” Defence Connect,
November 30, 2021.
Chris Barrett, “’Crisis of trust’: France snubs Australia as it outlines Indo-Pacific vision,
” The Sydney Morning Herald,
November 24, 2021.
<4> Remarks by President Biden, Prime Minister Morrison of Australia, and Prime Minister Johnson of the United Kingdom Announcing the Creation of AUKUS
, September 15, 2021.
<5> Joint Statement from Quad Leaders
, The White House, September 24, 2021.
Bruno Tertrais, “France, America and the Indo-Pacific after AUKUS,
” Institute Montaigne,
September 20, 2021.
Tsai Ing-wen, “Taiwan and the Fight for Democracy,
” Foreign Affairs,
November/ December, 2021.
<8> 2021 Open Societies Statement
, G7 Cornwall UK 2021.
<9> Brussels Summit Communique
, North Atlantic Treaty Organization, June 14, 2021.
<10> Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s address to the Lowy Institute
, March 7, 2022.; and Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese’s Address to the Lowy Institute
, March 10, 2022.
<11> Minister for Foreign Affairs
, Government of Australia.
Ananth Krishnan, “U.S. trying to build ‘Indo-Pacific NATO’ says China,
” The Hindu,
March 7, 2022.
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