[Rory Medcalf, Indo-Pacific Empire. China and the Contest for the World's Pivotal Region (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2020) 310 pp].
review / Salvador Sánchez Tapia
In 2016, Prime Minister Abe of Japan and his Indian counterpart, Narendra Modi, took a trip on the bullet train between Tokyo and Kobe to visualise the birth of a new era of bilateral cooperation. On the basis of this anecdote, Rory Medcalf offers the reader a reconceptualisation of the world's most dynamic region that leaves behind the one that, due to American influence, has for some time dominated under the label 'Asia-Pacific', and which does not reflect a broader geopolitical reality.
The degree scroll of the book is somewhat misleading, as it seems to allude to eventual world dominance from the Indo-Pacific region, and the struggle of China and the United States for it. This is not what the book offers.
For Medcalf, an Australian who has spent many years working in his country's foreign service, "Indo-Pacific" is an alternative geopolitical concept that encompasses a vast and eminently maritime region comprising the Pacific and Indian Oceans, through which most global maritime trade flows, as well as the coastal territories connected by both seas. At the centre of this immense and diverse space are Australia, acting as a sort of hinge, and the area of Southeast Asia that includes the Strait of Malacca, a vital maritime passage.
The proposed geopolitical approach serves as an argument for articulating a regional response to China's growing and increasingly threatening power that does not involve confrontation or submissive capitulation. In the author's words, it is an attempt, made from a liberal point of view, to counter China's desire to capitalise on the region to its advantage.
In this sense, Medcalf's proposal is about the region's middle powers - India, Australia, Japan, Korea, Indonesia, Vietnam, etc. - achieving greater coordination to shape a future that takes into account China's legitimate interests, but in which these powers effectively balance Beijing's power. The future of the region must be designed with China, but not imposed by China. Nor by the United States, which is nevertheless recognised as an actor core topic in the region, and whose support the author is counting on to flesh out the idea.
The book follows a chronological storyline with three distinct parts: past, present and future. The first part sets out the historical reasons for considering the Indo-Pacific as a region in its own right, and sample the shortcomings of the "Asia-Pacific" view.
presentation The present block is descriptive in nature and briefly describes the main actors on the Indo-Pacific stage, China's growing military power, and how China is using it to return, reminiscent of the time of the Chinese navigator Zheng He, core topic to the Indian Ocean, which has now become an arena of geo-economic and geopolitical confrontation, as well as an important part of China's economic growth as a route for the resources the country needs, and as a maritime part of the global project of the new Silk Road.
As for the future, Medcalf offers his proposal for the region, based on a geopolitical outline in which Australia, of course, occupies a central place. On a scale ranging from cooperation to conflict, through coexistence, competition and confrontation, the author argues for the coexistence of the Indo-Pacific players with China, and proposes actions in the three areas of promoting development in the countries most vulnerable to Chinese influence - and in some cases Chinese extortion; Deterrence, in which the United States will continue to play a central role, but which cannot be based exclusively on its nuclear power, but rather on the growth of the military capabilities of the countries in the region; and diplomacy, exercised at various levels - bilateral, multilateral, and "minilateral" - to generate mutual trust and establish norms that avoid an escalation towards confrontation and even conflict.
These three instruments should be accompanied by the internship of two principles: solidarity and resilience. The former seeks a greater capacity to manage China's rise in a way that promotes a balance between balancing power and rapprochement, avoiding the extremes of containment and accommodation to the giant's designs. Second, the region's states are becoming more resilient to China's power and more capable of recovering from its negative effects.
There is no doubt that this geopolitical approach , which follows in the wake of Japan's "Free and Open Indo-Pacific" policy, is made from a distinctly Australian perspective and that, consciously or not, it enhances the role of this continent-nation, and serves its particular interests in defining its place in the world and maintaining a secure and stable environment in the face of an increasingly threatening China.
While recognising this motivation, which is a logical consequence of applying the old concepts of realism, the proposal vision is not without merit. For one thing, it allows China to be conceptualised in a way that captures the interest in the Indian Ocean as integral to China's view of itself in relation to the world. For another, it serves as a wake-up call, both to the many Asian middle powers and to the small Pacific island states, about the Chinese threat, offering the manna of an alternative to conflict or uncritical submission to the Chinese giant. Finally, it incorporates - at least conceptually - the United States, together with India and Japan, into a multinational effort capable, given the economic and demographic weight of the participants, of balancing China's power.
If the intention of the concept is to foster awareness in the region of the need to balance China's power, then it can be argued that the overly Australian-centric proposal completely omits China's land dimension, and the desirability of incorporating into that balance other regional middle powers that, while not among the maritime powers, share with them a fear of China's growing power. Similarly, although the coastal nations of Africa and the Americas might be thought to form an integral part of the entity defined by the Indo-Pacific basins, they are conspicuously absent from the geopolitical design , with the exception of the United States and Russia. References to Africa are rare; Central and South America are simply unnamed.
It is, at final, an interesting work that addresses an important global issue from a novel, realistic and considered perspective, without falling into doomsday scenarios, but opening a door to a somewhat hopeful future in which a China that is dominant but whose power, it is argued, may already have reached its peak, can give rise to the flourishing of a shared space at the heart of a reconnected world in a way that the ancient navigators could not even have imagined.