Review of Rory Medcalf's Indo-Pacific Empire

  • Published
  • By LCDR Blake Herzinger, USNR


Indo-Pacific Empire: China, America and the Contest for the World’s Pivotal Region, Rory Medcalf. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 2020.

Reorienting national attention toward the Indo-Pacific is the greatest American foreign policy shift since 2001. A region, as Adm Harry Harris, USN (ret.) used to say, that spans from “Bollywood to Hollywood, and from penguins to polar bears,” the very concept of the Indo-Pacific required reframing America’s approach to its new priority theater. The Department of Defense renamed the region’s geographic combatant command in recognition of the needed shift and has taken great pains to emphasize America’s role in the Indian Ocean, as well as aggressively pursuing closer ties with India itself.

The trap for the United States to avoid now is to assume that the Indo-Pacific is an American concept, attempting to overlay Washington’s own vision for the region without contextual understanding or consideration for the interests of its numerous allies and partners. This is where Rory Medcalf’s Indo-Pacific Empire comes in. A comprehensive and engaging treatment of the genesis of the very idea that the Indian Ocean and Pacific Ocean are indivisible, its narrative offers the reader three distinct lenses through which to view the question—past, present, and future. Medcalf, the head of the National Security College at the Australian National University, succeeds in incisively examining US–China competition without making the book only about that dyad alone. The unmistakable message is that the Indo-Pacific concept is as old as the region’s seafaring traditions, with countless empires trading and fighting across its expanse. Understanding of the Indian and Pacific Oceans as an inextricably linked region, he writes, was the rule rather than the exception for more than 600 years. However, the definitions for the region still vary by capital, as do the strategies for addressing it. The author takes the reader through these disparate views and strategies, addressing first the major powers with a stake in the game then following up with the middle powers forming an intricate network of shared interests, unforgotten conflicts, and new threats.

Medcalf observes that the term Indo-Pacific is occasionally dismissed as nothing more than an obscurant for various “geopolitical agendas: America’s bid to thwart China, India’s play for greatness, Japan’s plan to regain influence, Indonesia’s search for leverage, Australia’s alliance-building, Europe’s excuse to gatecrash the Asian century.” In fact, he writes, it is China’s quest for a modern empire (hence the book’s title) spanning the Indian and Pacific oceans that accelerated the development of Indo-Pacific strategies across the globe. Jakarta, for instance, sees Indonesia as a fulcrum at the confluence of the two oceans, with the aspiration to balance the multipolar region. Tokyo’s Free and Open Indo-Pacific strategy seeks to establish economic ties with east Africa and expand Japan’s development assistance and infrastructure investment across the region. Canberra has embraced the concept as one that effectively orients Australia’s attention to its own neighborhood, particularly Southeast Asia and the South Pacific. Each state’s conceptual framework reflects its perception of potential threats to its national interests and the need to exert influence on its own peripheries.

Indo-Pacific Empire is not just a history. An effective description of the contemporary state of play offers the reader reassurance that the die has not yet been cast: China does not dominate the Indo-Pacific. The United States, for its part, needs not feel pressure to dominate the region, Medcalf writes, but merely to ensure the region remains able to diffuse Chinese power. As we train a new generation of officers to operate within the realm of great-power competition, this is a critical point to understand and again underlines the fact that there is no prospect of American success without careful consultation and coordination with our partners.

Likewise, the idea that China might be contained or excluded from the Indo-Pacific is unrealistic. We must train our strategists to think in terms of competition and cooperation—or, at least, peaceful coexistence. Professor Medcalf points out that we may well be observing the People’s Republic of China at its flood tide, before issues of debt, demography, and imperial overreach begin to slow its meteoric rise. However, one need only look at China’s so-called “vaccine diplomacy” during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic to see the Chinese Communist Party’s ability to adapt to new circumstances and capitalize upon them. Whatever the future holds, whether China slips into decline, goes to war with Taiwan, or takes another unforeseen tack, China will remain a geopolitical challenge that must be addressed.

A good analyst provides not only historical record and current status but also forecasts the future. The truly skilled analyst prescribes based on those forecasts. Luckily for the reader, Medcalf is the latter. Written before the global pandemic of 2020 and the recently concluded US presidential election, the book still lays out several key areas for the United States to focus on in its priority theater. Chief among these is the issue of reliability. The United States, he says, has ground to make up in reassuring its allies—proving that Washington’s somewhat erratic approach to foreign policy was an aberration, not a harbinger. For the military reader, reliability is the foundation of American deterrence in the region and its allies’ willingness to trust in its long-standing security guarantee. Without it, the United States will quickly find itself without the support and access it needs to maintain its forward presence. However, reassurance and deterrence will not ensure a prosperous, free future for the region, Medcalf observes. China’s rise calls for new ways of doing business: reinvigorated diplomacy to create the sort of flexible network that can absorb the pressure of an ascendant China and development assistance to offer options to Indo-Pacific nations that might otherwise depend solely on China. A focused effort to improve the region’s resilience is required, he writes, if the region is to absorb a rising China without being subjugated to it.

Medcalf also highlights another coming paradigm shift that will cause revolutionary change in our military organizations. Although information technology has long since been incorporated across the force, accompanied by development of offensive and defensive cyber capabilities, he contends that “Data is the new oil.” As competition between the United States and China plays out in the cyber domain, with commercial battles over the future of global 5G networks as well as bans on companies and web platforms, it seems safe to assume that we have not seen anything yet.

By and large, Indo-Pacific Empire is realistic and persuasive. One point of contention is the author’s optimism with regard to the utility of confidence-building measures, or CBMs, in stabilizing ties with China. Medcalf cites the Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea (CUES) as well as the measures enacted between China and India after the 2017 Doklam crisis as evidence that China can be persuaded to moderate its behavior through a combination of diplomacy and force. China disregards CUES in areas under its claimed jurisdiction (which equates to the majority of the South China Sea and hotspots in the East China Sea). China’s 2020 encroachment of Indian-controlled territory in the Himalayas, and the accompanying loss of life, was initiated purposefully and ended with China controlling territory previously under Indian jurisdiction. China’s continued negotiations with ASEAN for a South China Sea Code of Conduct are widely understood as an effort to consolidate Chinese control over the maritime environment. While CBMs have been a feature of previous engagement with China, the author does not offer convincing evidence that they have succeeded or will succeed in future attempts to temper Chinese adventurism. It is by no means a central argument of the book, but it is one that is nonetheless disproven by China’s track record of bad faith agreements.

“Mateship” is commonly invoked when describing the relationship between the United States and Australia. As an ally, Australia has supported the United States without fail, shedding the blood of its native sons and daughters in conflicts from Vietnam to Afghanistan. However, true “mates” can also provide that sharp honesty that only a true friend can. Medcalf does that here. He points out that the US approach to the Indo-Pacific has been troubled in recent years and typified by a degree of neglect before that. However, this is not a story of the United States in the Indo-Pacific. It is a story of the region, and American readers should come away with a renewed appreciation of America’s role in it but also with the recognition that we are one actor in a multipolar region.

Medcalf’s account is particularly valuable to the diplomats and security professionals engaged in executing the US National Defense Strategy, particularly those engaging with partners and allies. Beyond its engaging history and well-crafted narrative, Indo-Pacific Empire’s invaluable contribution is in holding up a mirror to the United States, helping an American reader to better understand how our actions appear in the eyes of our mates. In a contest between two superpowers, the ability to understand the positions and goals of our middle-power allies is vital. Though the argument for building confidence may be fading as the divide between China and the United States deepens, Indo-Pacific Empire deserves a place on military reading lists across the joint force.

LCDR Blake Herzinger, USNR


The views and opinions expressed or implied in JIPA are those of the authors and should not be construed as carrying the official sanction of the Department of Defense, Department of the Air Force, Air Education and Training Command, Air University, or other agencies or departments of the US government or their international equivalents. See our Publication Ethics Statement.