skip to navigation skip to content skip to footer

Australian Journal of Defence and Strategic Studies

AJDSS Volume 2 Number 1

Contest for the Indo-Pacific: Why China Won't Map the Future

By Rory Medcalf

La Trobe University Press in conjunction with Black Inc. (March 2020)

Reviewed by Jeffrey Wilson

At no point since the end of the Second World War has Australia's regional environment been in such a state of upheaval. Great power conflict, the gradual failure of international institutions, trade warfare and now the COVID-19 pandemic — all epicentred in Australia's region — are posing formidable challenges for foreign and defence policymakers. Professor Medcalf's Contest for the Indo-Pacific therefore comes at a time when an understanding of the history, architecture and fracture-points of the Indo-Pacific is sorely needed. But while Contest promises and delivers an excellent account of the Indo-Pacific story, it is insights on the prospects for middle power diplomacy in the region for which it should be recognised.

The Indo-Pacific is still sufficiently novel that any book review on the topic needs to begin with terminological ground-clearing. The Indo-Pacific is a new concept to describe the region of the world roughly centred on Asia. It builds on the prior 'Asia – Pacific' concept developed in the 1980s, geographically extending the region westwards to include the Indian Ocean littoral. Proponents of the Indo-Pacific concept argue that the scope of economic and security interdependencies today spans both the Indian and Pacific oceans, warranting this 'Asia to Indo-Pacific' frame shift in foreign policy thinking. The Indo-Pacific terminology for the region has now been formally adopted by four governments (Australia, Japan, India and the US), has entered into de facto use by most others in the region (including ASEAN), and is only explicitly opposed by the People's Republic of China (PRC).

As Professor Medcalf has been one of the most vocal public advocates for the Indo-Pacific concept for around a decade, it should come as no surprise that his first book on the topic has been widely anticipated. Indeed, it does not disappoint. Contest provides a detailed telling of the Indo-Pacific's history, a sophisticated analysis of the strategic conflicts that are emerging and concludes with a vision of the future that puts the region at the centre of world affairs. Written accessibly for a popular and international audience, it lacks the detail to offer a 'definitive history' of the Indo-Pacific, but its clarity and engaging narrative make it an excellent general treatment.

Readers wanting a specialist analysis of particular domains of regional politics — such as maritime security or the institutional architecture — should still look to the academic and think tank literatures. But for those wanting to connect the individual threads of the Indo-Pacific concept into a cohesive and comprehensive narrative, Contest is perhaps the best book yet written.

One of Professor Medcalf's most important contributions is to resolve a longstanding confusion regarding the definitional status of the Indo-Pacific. Many debates over the Indo-Pacific are afflicted by authors arguing at cross-purposes: some view the concept as a 'theatre', some as a 'strategy', others as a commitment to a certain set of ideological beliefs (such as democracy), others as an assemblage of institutions. This lack of definitional clarity has led analysts down a garden path of arguing over whether the Indo-Pacific 'really exists', employing competing definitions to make their case.

Read more

To cite this article: Jeffrey Wilson, 'Review: Contest for the Indo-Pacific: Why China Won't Map the Future', review of Contest for the Indo-Pacific: Why China Won't Map the Future by Rory Medcalf, Australian Journal of Defence and Strategic Studies 2, 1 (2020): 160-174,

Published online: 21 August, 2020