Contest for the Indo-Pacific
Why China Won’t Map the Future
Collingwood, Vic: Black Inc Books, 2020
Paperback 320pp RRP $32.99
Reviewer: Kevan Anderson, September 2022
The way we see the world is reflected in the way we draw our maps. Conversely, looking at a different map gives us a different world view. For example, Mercator projections of the world as taught in American schools always show the world with the American continents in the centre, whereas if you purchase a similar map in Australia, it shows our island continent front and centre. “Contest for the Indo-Pacific” by Rory Medcalf suggests the Indo-Pacific is both a place and an idea Reproductions of several maps of the world centred on the area illustrate the point that a map readers’ frame of reference is manipulated.
The book’s subtitle, ‘Why China Won’t Map the Future’ addresses the question of whether China’s dominance in the area can be prevented without war? It is Medcalf’s central thesis. His book chronicles many events in the region to support the idea that China is intent on the same scale of dominance as exerted by the USA in the Pacific since 1942. Medcalf claims it won’t happen and suggests many potential pathways to limiting the conflict.
'Contest’ comprehensively describes the players and power dynamics at play in the region, making claims about the future and concludes there are risks to China’s expansion.
To claim the region is suddenly important is to ignore history. It may be argued that the global economic impact of the Indo-Pacific region, namely as the oil route supplying the whole Eastern Hemisphere, is less today than the spice routes were in the 16th century. In other words, the area has always been globally significant. It does, after all, cover a substantial portion of the globe. It may be that Medcalf only recently recognised the region’s importance because the book includes only a cursory history.
What has changed is the presence of an autocratic, non-democratic nation undeniably seeking incontestable control of the region and “Contest” chronicles many instances of China attempting to assert control. China’s energy demands are satisfied by oil, much of which originates in the gulf states and increasingly, coal from Australia so of course the area is important to China. The author glosses over the fact that a US oil embargo of Japan ignited last century’s Pacific war and any Indo-Pacific nations’ threat to China’s energy supplies may well have a similar effect.
Finally, his contention, that China won’t map the future is unconvincing for two reasons. The first is the hypothesis that other Indo-Pacific nations will fill the void left by the demise of American power. This flies in the face of overwhelming 1930’s style pacifism encouraged by pragmatic western economic greed dependent upon Chinese growth. Even Medcalf makes an each-way bet claiming, in the preface, that a US administration is necessary for regional stability and managing competition with China. The second is that the book was published before Russia’s invasion of the Ukraine. This event, if nothing else, undermines Medcalf’s claim that the world is rightly focussed on the Indo-Pacific. The book’s contention that the region is suddenly most important is not convincing. It is this reader’s view that world attention deflected towards Eastern Europe increases the likelihood of Chinese aggression.
‘Contest’ thoroughly presents the Indo-Pacific players and their plays - past, present, and potential. Each day brings new evidence for and against ever-changing options to continuously contest China and therein lies the books biggest weakness - timing - the pandemic and Ukraine invasion have substantially changed global dynamics. As Medcalf himself notes in his preface, it will be a long game.
I did find the book interesting albeit dry, lengthy and including, now, questionable precepts.
The RUSI – Vic Library thanks the publisher for making this work available for review.