Written by Tridivesh Singh Maini.

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.

The importance of Australia’s role in creating any form of Indo-Pacific order was higlighted in 2007, when Australia, Japan, India and the U.S. established the ‘Quadrilateral Dialogue’.

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’.

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.

The importance of Australia’s role in creating any form of Indo-Pacific order was higlighted in 2007, when Australia, Japan, India and the U.S. established the ‘Quadrilateral Dialogue’.  Due to Chinese pressure, Australia walked out of the alliance. A decade later, all four participants have a much clearer view over Beijing’s regional intentions and Australia is not likely to blindly toe the Chinese line this time.

A meeting of the Quad was held in Manila on the eve of the ASEAN Summit, with representatives from all four countries.  The statement of the Australian Foreign Ministry outlined the shared values which now bind the Quad together:

“The officials examined ways to achieve common goals and address shared challenges in the region. This includes upholding the rules-based order in the Indo-Pacific and respect for international law, freedom of navigation and overflight, increase connectivity,”

Conclusion

In the era of President Donald Trump, Australia is now emerging as a key stakeholder in the Indo-Pacific. In an increasingly illiberal world Canberra needs to be consistent in its commitment to free trade, open sea lanes and freedom of navigation. From the perspective of India, which views Australia as a partner in the Indo-Pacific, measures such as tougher anti-immigration laws which affect Indian citizens visiting Australia are viewed as insular and not in consonance with the aspirations of closer, more cooperative ties between the two democracies.

While being vigilant, the Indo-Australian relationship needs to be a beacon of cooperation and openness, something which has been emphasized by its Government and something the Quad stands for. The narrative need not be anti-China, but it has to have a clear and tough stand on certain values.

Tridivesh Singh Maini is a New Delhi based Policy Analyst associated with The Jindal School of International Affairs, OP Jindal Global University, Sonipat. He tweets @tridiveshsingh. Image credit: CC by U.S. Department of State/Flickr.

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