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India and Australia: Maritime partners in the Indo-Pacific

  • C. Raja Mohan
  • Asialink
  • Image: Claire Whitehouse / report cover

    14 November 2011Discussing maritime security and trade relationships in the Indian and Pacific ocean, this essay examines the roles of India and Australia, as the US changes its approach to the Indo-Pacific and China.

    As East Asia struggles to cope with the growing challenges to maritime security in the Western Pacific—including changes in great power balance, the intensification of maritime disputes, and fundamental disagreements on the interpretation of the Law of the Sea—three new imperatives are redefining the geopolitics of the region.

    One is the growing recognition that the security problems in the East Asian waters must be addressed within the broader framework of the Indo-Pacific. The second is a weakening of the United States which has been the principal security provider in the Indian and Pacific Oceans for many decades. The third is a consequential change in India’s maritime orientation—from being a lone ranger to a partner eager to build maritime coalitions.

    Taken together these three trend lines open the space for Delhi and Canberra to consult more intensively on maritime issues and develop a framework for security cooperation in the increasingly turbulent waters of Asia.

    Traditionally the Pacific and Indian Oceans have been viewed as two different and self-contained worlds. A number of developments have begun to compel a more integrated view of the Pacific and Indian Oceans. East Asia’s high growth path has generated stronger economic links with resource rich West Asia and Africa.

    Unlike many East Asian countries that have relied on the United States for the maintenance of order in Asia’s high seas, China is building independent blue water naval capabilities to secure its expanding interests in the Indian Ocean. Beijing is also developing transport corridors and building oil pipelines from the Indian Ocean to Western and Southwestern China. It is actively constructing strategic maritime infrastructure in the Indian Ocean.

    Meanwhile, as India’s trade and economic relations with East Asia acquire greater weight, New Delhi’s ‘Look East’ policy has acquired a distinct naval dimension.The traditional clear distinctions, then, between the Indian Ocean and the Pacific are beginning to blur. While Indo-Pacific will always have distinct sub-regions, each with its own unique security problems, the rise of China and India has given it a definitive geopolitical character.

    The United States is reorganizing its military disposition in the Indo-Pacific for greater effectiveness, recasting its military doctrine to address such new challenges as access denial, reordering its security partnerships. Strengthening its traditional alliances with Japan and Australia and building new security partnerships with countries like India are now central to the new U.S. strategy that involves a measure of burden-sharing. Delhi’s changing maritime orientation provides a perfect foil to the changing U.S. approach to the Indo-Pacific.

    India and Australia have already declared their intent to develop maritime security cooperation. The rapid evolution of the geopolitical dynamic in the Indo-Pacific, however, demands that Delhi and Canberra translate that quickly into decisive policy actions.

    India and Australia must step up their consultation and coordination in such existing forums as the Indian Ocean Rim Association for Regional Cooperation (IOR-ARC) and the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium (IONS).The IOR-ARC, which brings together 18 countries of the littoral, aims at deepening economic cooperation in the Indian Ocean region, but has been moribund. Delhi, which holds the current chairmanship and Canberra, which takes charge next, have an opportunity to inject some vigour and purposefulness into the IOR-ARC over the next few years.

    Central to the creation of a pan-regional identity in the Indian Ocean is an active and enduring collaboration between India, Australia and other like-minded countries in the littoral.

    Image: Claire Whitehouse / Report cover

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