BOOK REVIEW: Contest for the Indo-Pacific: Why China won’t map the future

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Bob Russell-Brown examines a new book discussing power relations between China and other nations in the Indo-Pacific region.

PROFESSOR Rory Medcalf's book, Contest for the Indo-Pacific: Why China won’t map the future’, provides a deep understanding of the Indo-Pacific region and discusses its possible future.

Chapter one (‘Names, Maps and Power’) gives an overall coverage of Medcalf’s proposal, that the nations of the Indo-Pacific region could be and should be a counterbalance to the might of China. He points out that the 2050 projected population and combined GDP of India, Japan and Indonesia could be greater than China’s, as well as the combined defence budget.

China’s dependence on sea transportation for oil, iron ore, copper and coal explains the importance that China places on influencing the nations in the Indo-Pacific. However, gone are the days when diplomacy at the highest levels swayed populations’ opinions. The advent of the global electronic community allows a nation such as China to exert direct influence on multi-cultural societies and democracies.

Chapters two to four (‘Past’) are a well-written coverage of the geography and history of the Indo-Pacific. China has always played “the long game” and it now appears that Japan and India are learning to do the same. However, Medcalf points out that ‘India has no more right to exclude China from the Indo-Pacific than China has to exclude the U.S. from the Western Pacific’. He also suggests: ‘It is about incorporating Chinese interests into a regional order where the rights of others are respected’. Medcalf’s knowledge and grasp of this subject is phenomenal. A must for history students.

Chapters five to eight (‘Present’) provide insights into the mindset of the larger nations in the Indo-Pacific and the recent history that made them so. It then moves on to do the same with the “smaller” nations. The complexities raised demonstrate that foreign ministers must have not only diplomatic skills but also prodigious memories.

It is important to note that the advent of COVID-19 could make the Indo-Pacific a whole new ball game and could lead to Medcalf needing to write a follow-up book. Impressed by his intelligence and foresight, I would not be surprised to discover that he has already begun to do so.

Chapter nine (‘Future’) does what every responsible government should be doing. It discusses possible scenarios and how governments should be planning to handle those situations. Perhaps a prerequisite of becoming a government minister is attaining a high level in playing games such as Go or Chess.

In summary, this book is essential reading for heads of business and government.


My personal interest in reviewing this book stems from my study of Japanese language and martial arts, more than 25 years teaching Tai Chi as well as teaching Bahasa Indonesia to adults and being involved in Australian politics since 1972. This has given me a wide-ranging interest in the history and culture of the Indo-Pacific region. Whilst I don’t have academic credentials in this field and found myself well out of my depth, I recognise the importance of this topic and Professor Medcalf’s illuminating treatise.

‘Contest for the Indo-Pacific: Why China won’t map the future’ is available from Black Inc Books for $32.99 (paperback) or $14.99 (eBook) RRP.

Bob Russell-Brown studied communications engineering at UWA and worked for 20 years as an engineer for Telecom/Telstra (retired). He currently helps migrants to learn English and is the President of the Wanneroo branch WA Labor (still scheming).

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