Geopolitics is back, with hard power as its driving force and the Indo-Pacific its centre stage. These were the key messages to emerge from the third annual Raisina Dialogue held in Delhi last week.

Jointly hosted by India’s Ministry for External Affairs and think-tank, Observer Research Foundation (ORF), the Raisina Dialogue provides a platform and venue for heads of state, cabinet ministers, defence and government officials, academia and media to discuss and debate cross-cutting challenges facing the region.  It is India’s answer to Singapore’s pre-eminent Shangri-La Dialogue.

Raisina 2018 addressed an expansive agenda over three days framed around the broad theme: “Managing Disruptive Transitions: Ideas, Institutions and Idioms”. It brought together an impressive array of presenters, some 33 percent of whom were women, according to Sushma Swaraj, India’s Minister for External Affairs.

While we can expect analysts and policymakers to pick over the broad Raisina debate for time to come, the three key messages were extremely clear. This is my early take on these issues and their significance for Australia.

Geopolitics and the Dynamics of Disruption

Great power dynamics set the scene, and against this background, China was cast as the primary disrupter. No surprises there, especially in India given the strategic rivalry that exists between the two. But rivalries aside, China’s increasing assertiveness and regional power projection—from its activities in the South China Sea to the unilateral economic ambitions of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI)—was the consistent theme underlying all aspects of the Raisina debates, and the statements became more strident as the sessions progressed. As Admiral Harry Harris Jr, Commander of the US Pacific Command put it, “The reality is that China is a disruptive transitional force in the Indo-Pacific, they are the owner of the trust deficit in the region.”

Some, including Indonesia’s Defence Minister, Ryamizard Ryacudu, were sanguine on the point of China, hinting at the layers of ambiguity that may fracture the wider region in the face of China’s increasing power.  And of course, the role of other powers in generating uncertainty and distrust did not go unnoticed: a retreating and increasingly unpredictable United States, an ambitious India, and a declining but capable Russia. But ultimately it was China that received the widest critique.

Other disrupters, including traditional and non-traditional threats—from nuclear proliferation to terrorism; from climate change to cybercrime, and the intersections between them—received substantial attention. There was much agreement as to the significance of these threats and the lack of robust and coherent mechanisms for dealing with them. For many, the outlook ahead is fairly bleak.

Hard Power as Paramount

Within this context, it’s worth noting that nearly every session, from the opening keynote delivered by Israel’s Prime Minister Netanyahu affirmed hard power—the power associated with the threat or use of force—as paramount to securing the interests and integrity of the state in a turbulent world. Netanyahu bluntly reminded his audience, ‘the weak don’t survive, the strong survive,’ and strength comes first and foremost through the instruments of hard power.

The overriding messages were somewhat jarring (at least for me, as someone who has invested more time in exploring the dimensions of soft power). For sure, hard power has never been absent from the international debate, but alternative discourses including those concerned with Joseph Nye’s ‘soft’ and ‘smart’ power or Anne Marie Slaughter’s ‘network’ power have provided important counterpoints in recent years.  At the same time, these alternative dimensions of power were not completely discounted. Economic connectivity was affirmed as a vital force for progress, while soft power, particularly when traded through values and institutions, offers a degree of coherence to interstate relations in a complex world. But their overall significance to regional order was downplayed.

Hard power’s resurgence has implications for region dynamics, most notably in terms of diplomacy. While Admiral Harris’ proposition that diplomacy without military power behind it is of little value, may be a stretch-too-far, we are already witnessing changes in the diplomatic tendencies of states, particularly those of great powers. Multilateral fora are increasingly eschewed in favour of more secure, efficient and flexible mini-lateral and bilateral alignments between states. Boundaries are more often seen as necessary barriers, rather than lines of facilitation. The world is becoming ever more multipolar, and the geometries of diplomatic practice ever more complex.

The Strategic Design of the Indo-Pacific

The Indo-Pacific was affirmed time after time during Raisina 2018. No longer a novel phrase bandied around at the edge of foreign policy circles, it has become the language of strategic design, providing the architecture within which the disruptions facing the region might be managed. For many nations, including Australia, it is a useful framework that draws timely and useful attention towards the challenges that rest in the vast maritime domain spanning the Indian and Pacific Oceans.

To this end, four democratic nations: the US, India, Japan and Australia (the Quad) provide the underpinning ballast and their shared commitment to the ‘rules-based-order’ (RBO), the necessary glue binding the aspirations of this regional architecture. While it’s too early to predict the significance of the Quad, the presence of all four naval chiefs on the Raisina 2018 stage added symbolic gravitas to the political rhetoric of this Indo-Pacific construct.

Yet, a word of caution is warranted, for two reasons. Firstly, the language, meaning and intent of the Indo-Pacific is ambiguous and such ambiguity raises difficulties within the region. For China, because it is seen as little more than a model of overt containment; for the nations of Southeast Asia, because they can’t easily locate themselves within it; and for Pacific Islands, because it undermines the long-term efforts to gain global recognition and diplomatic leverage as part of the established ‘Asia-Pacific’. Secondly the idea of coherent shared values underpinning the Indo-Pacific construct is deeply flawed. Different views on the significance of democracy, and inconsistent interpretations of the rules based order abound. But for now, these differences remain underexplored and untested.

Significance for Australia

Australia was mentioned in every session of Raisina 2018 as a central player in the Indo-Pacific. If nothing else, the visibility and profile directed towards Australia throughout the Dialogue solidified the nation’s place in the region, fed into the legitimacy of its strategic profile and aspirations, and affirmed the direction set by the 2017 Foreign Policy White Paper.

But the complexities highlighted throughout Raisina 2018, including in dealing with a more assertive China, signal that Australia’s diplomacy will be seriously tested within the region and watched across the globe in coming years. The message from Raisina is that Australia will need to invest in shoring up its diplomatic assets and infrastructure in the short term to manage what will be a long-term game.

Similarly, the significant maritime focus of the Indo-Pacific lends credibility to Australia’s oceanic gaze. The opportunities for cooperation with likeminded partners in the Indian and Pacific oceans are substantial; from joint naval and freedom of navigation exercises through to improved marine resource management and humanitarian disaster relief. However, meaningful cooperation will come at a cost, and some would suggest there is much work ahead to ensure Australia’s maritime capabilities are up to the challenge.

Importantly, Raisina 2018 was strategically positioned between two less visible yet similarly significant dialogues. On the one side was the inaugural India-France-Australia trilateral. On the other, the second Australia-India policy forum. Both engaged senior officials and decision-makers in frank discussion of regional challenges. Both offered positive rhetoric on the possibilities of partnership. However, they also revealed important differences of perspective, motivation and capacity. Ongoing dialogue at multiple levels will be necessary as Australia seeks to deepen these key relationships and build the regional heft required to manage the inevitable disruption and uncertainty of an Indo-Pacific future.

Professor Caitlin Byrne is Director of the Griffith Asia Institute.