Geopolitical analysis is partly based on geographical perspective. Writers on geopolitics tend to view the world from their home country’s perspective. Australian national security expert Rory Medcalf in his new book Indo-Pacific Empire uses classical geopolitics and an understanding of modern geoeconomics to survey the current struggle for power in the most contested and consequential part of the world. And he does this from an Australian perspective—an Australian, moreover, whose diplomatic postings included India. That said, his book is a tour de force of 21st century geopolitical analysis that should be read by strategists and statesmen throughout the region and the world.
Medcalf’s book reviews the history of the Indo-Pacific region that extends from the East and South China Seas to the east coast of northern Africa. The center of that region is a maritime highway that connects the Pacific and Indian Oceans, through which traverse two-thirds of the world’s oil and one-third of the world’s bulk cargo. The Indo-Pacific plays host to the rising powers of China and India, the still economically and increasingly militarily powerful Japan, Australia, Indonesia, the Koreas, Pakistan, the smaller nations and islands of Southeast Asia, and the global reach of the United States.
The term “Indo-Pacific”, the author notes, was coined in 1850 by British lawyer and scholar James Richardson Logan. Medcalf believes that Indo-Pacific is a more accurate geographical description of the region than the more commonly used “Asia-Pacific” and he reproduces an 1848 map that depicts its geographical boundaries. In reality, Indo-Pacific is not a substitute for Asia-Pacific (which refers to East Asia and its Pacific rim), but rather a conceptual enlargement of the region used to include India and the Indian Ocean. In the 1920s, the German geopolitical theorist Karl Haushofer described the Indo-Pacific as one of the great pan-regions of the world, a notion that found resonance in Japan’s quest for an Indo-Pacific empire before and during the Second World War. Medcalf today calls the Indo-Pacific the “most globally connected” region and “the main highway for commerce and energy between Asia, Africa, Europe, Oceana, and the Americas.”
The Indo-Pacific’s cultural, economic and political connections, Medcalf writes, go back millennia, and the Chola Empire in southern India, not China as is commonly assumed, was the cultural and political core of the region between AD 300 and Europe’s Medieval period. China, he writes, though a central player in the region as a whole, came late to the Indian Ocean, first appearing there (and only briefly) in the early 15th century with the voyages of Zheng He. What Medcalf is saying here is that until the 15th century, China’s focus was on land and the seas of East Asia. The most important geopolitical development of the 21st century is China’s return to the Indian Ocean.
Medcalf accepts Halford Mackinder’s view of the centrality of the Eurasian landmass to global geopolitics. He appears to share Robert Kaplan’s belief that China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) reflects China’s goal of becoming the predominant power on what Mackinder called the Eurasian-African “World-Island”. But fundamentally Medcalf is a neo-Mahanian in his geopolitical outlook. Sea power in its broadest conception, he believes, is the crucial element of global power. Chinese sea power involves not only warships, but also ports and infrastructure at key locations in the Indo-Pacific. What Medcalf calls China’s “mental map” is centered on the Indian Ocean, but it envisions global power-projection capabilities to protect China’s ever expanding interests in Eurasia and beyond.
On the other side of the Indo-Pacific region, China claims ownership of the South China Sea and has acted with increasing aggressiveness to substantiate that claim. China’s Pacific coast and adjacent seas are bounded by a series of island chains (including Taiwan and the Philippines) that form a geographical barrier to its access to the broader Pacific. In 1958, the American political geographer Hans Weigert published a map showing the series of island arcs extending from the Aleutians in the north down to Borneo in the south. The pathway between the two oceans contains the sprawling country of Indonesia, the Malay peninsula, Singapore, the Strait of Malacca, and the island continent of Australia.
The land portion of China’s BRI traverses the course of the old Silk Road through Central Asia to the Middle East and Europe. It is an ambitious—perhaps overly ambitious—project to extend China’s economic, cultural, and political influence throughout Eurasia. It is a grand strategy, Medcalf writes, to make China dominant in the Indo-Pacific, all of Eurasia, and beyond.
The “mental map” of the BRI is the Eurasian-African World-Island, the command of which, Mackinder warned in 1919, could lead to a global imperium. It is doubtful that China envisions or could achieve a world empire, but it is realistic to conclude that China seeks to replace the United States as the global leader, the shaper of the world order. A natural first step toward that goal would be for China to dominate the Indo-Pacific.
What is to be done? Medcalf repeatedly questions the reliability of the United States under the Trump administration, even though he acknowledges that under Trump the US has put meat on the bones of the Obama administration’s “pivot” or “rebalance” to Asia. He is troubled more by Trump’s words than his actions. He proposes vaguely the formation of a regional security architecture involving Japan, India, Australia and lesser regional powers, and backed by the United States, not to contain or engage China but to “incorporate” it into a multi-polar Indo-Pacific. He calls it “conditional engagement” and suggests that it will avoid the twin pitfalls of appeasement and provocation.
Medcalf’s confidence in his policy prescription is based in part on China’s internal problems, including declining economic growth, restless minorities, environmental pollution, an aging population, and fears of imperial overstretch. He also recognizes that China is still very far from attaining naval parity with the United States. (This book was written before the outbreak of the COVID-19 virus, which may damage China’s image around the world.) Such internal problems, however, and other threats to the Chinese leadership’s legitimacy may produce a more assertive foreign policy to turn its citizens’ attention to the foreign foe.
Japan’s Abe Shinzo and India’s Narenda Modi, Medcalf encouragingly notes, have begun talks on a multilateral approach to regional security. Australia and smaller nations like Vietnam recognize the potential danger of China’s bid for regional hegemony. The United States understands that it must lead any credible and sustainable opposition to China’s grand strategy.
The Indo-Pacific, however, does not lend itself to a NATO-like security architecture, which successfully protected Western Europe during the Cold War. Asia and America’s response will be different. At the dawn of the 21st century, Henry Kissinger wrote that Asia’s international order resembled 19th century Europe. In Europe’s case, a rising Germany destroyed the international order and led to two world wars. Hopefully, Medcalf’s book and others like it (for example, Kaplan’s Monsoon and The Return of Marco Polo’s World) will help statesmen and strategists to understand the geopolitical and geoeconomic realities that must inform the response to China’s rise.