Danielle Rajendram is a Lowy Institute research associate. Her work focuses on Indian foreign and domestic policy, India-China relations and Asian security.
One slightly jarring note in this week's Australian foreign policy debate was the unusual way Shadow Foreign Minister Julie Bishop chose to define Australia's region. Evidently reluctant to use the term 'Indo-Pacific', Bishop instead opted for the considerably more awkward 'Indian Ocean Asia-Pacific'.
Appearing in the 2012 Australia in the Asian Century White Paper, and used to define Australia's strategic focus in the 2013 Defence White Paper, 'Indo-Pacific' has recently become shorthand for how Australia understands its region. Yet Bishop seemed at pains to avoid endorsing the term, presumably because she wants to avoid being perceived to be advocating a turn of phrase adopted by the Government.
While seeming to broadly endorse Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa's proposal for an Indo-Pacific Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation, she appeared unwilling to call it by its full name. Arguing that 'we need to adopt what Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa has called his idea for a treaty of friendship and cooperation', Bishop's oblique reference meant that the significance of her support for this inclusive regional treaty was diminished.
This is particularly misguided because 'Indo-Pacific' isn't a loaded partisan term. Although it has been employed by the current government, it is a description of the region adopted by senior figures in several of Australia's key partners, notably India, Japan, the US and Indonesia.
In substantive terms, Bishop's conceptualisation of our region doesn't depart from the way the Government has defined it. Her 'Indian Ocean Asia-Pacific' is in essence the same region defined as a strategic priority in the 2013 Defence White Paper: the arc extending from India through Southeast Asia to Northeast Asia, including the sea lines of communication on which the region depends.
Bishop's preference for 'Indian Ocean Asia-Pacific' seems to be simply an attempt to distance herself from the Government's supposed ownership of the term. But this doesn't change the realities of the evolving region those words describe.
The important question is, should the Coalition win government come 7 September, will Bishop's reluctance to use 'Indo-Pacific' be significant in defining her foreign policy priorities? Given that she's essentially referring to the same thing, probably not. Nonetheless, it seems particularly odd for a prospective minister with a West Australian outlook to avoid conceptualising Australia's region in neat established language that automatically privileges her state in the way this nation sees the world.