Sunday, May 1, 2011

Indian Ocean tensions offer rough sailing

FOREIGN Minister Rudd will need all of his skills as he seeks to turn Australia's gaze westward to the Indian Ocean, even though we're the largest Indian Ocean state in terms of area of maritime jurisdiction.

This is nearly six million square kilometres, or about 80 per cent of the landmass of Australia, and much of its continental shelf is rich in hydrocarbon reserves. We've got offshore territories there with large and potentially rich exclusive economic zones. Highly valuable oil and gas developments are under way off our west coast.

Australia's Indian Ocean gateway city of Perth will host the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in October. The Indian Ocean region is where half the members of the Commonwealth are located and contains 40 per cent of humanity.

It's a huge energy and international trade maritime highway, particularly for the booming economies of Asia. It's where key geo-political differences may play out between the rising powers of India and China.

In a few years India will be the largest country in population and it has economic growth rates approaching China's. Africa contains almost one-third of the world's mineral reserves but attracts only 5 per cent of its extraction budget. The Persian Gulf region is rolling in petro-dollars with oil above $US100 a barrel.

The Indian Ocean is the great connector; it carries the vast bulk of trade between Europe and Asia and millions of barrels of oil to the energy-hungry Asian powers.

Australia derives more than 30 per cent of its oil from the Middle East, if Singapore figures are included, and that figure will soon rise.

We'll also remain tied by umbilical cords of trade to the Asian economic giants that are increasingly dependent on Middle East oil shipped over the Indian Ocean.

China derives 58 per cent of its imported oil from that region, a figure set to rise to 70 per cent by 2015. For India it is 73 per cent and Japan 85 per cent.

China feels vulnerable: in the event of rising tension, or even conflict, with India, the US or a combination of those two increasingly strategically like-minded powers, it could have its energy flows cut off.

Chinese strategic commentators liken India to a giant aircraft carrier jutting south into vital Indian Ocean sea lines.

Because of these perceived vulnerabilities and for commercial reasons, Beijing is developing strong relationships across the Indian Ocean. Some Indian analysts have likened these interests to a "string of pearls" bases. This is plain wrong. There are no Chinese bases in the Indian Ocean. But there are certainly Chinese interests, including some powerful ones in New Delhi's South Asian back yard.

India feels surrounded: its naval doctrine cites China's growing Indian Ocean capacity, including its submarine-launched ballistic missile capacity, as justification for India's nuclear triad of ballistic missile, plane and submarine delivered nuclear warheads.

Strategic competition in the Indian Ocean is good for nobody, least of all Australia. Our challenge is to find a way to shift the gears of this competition and turn it into strategic co-operation.

In the mid-1990s then foreign minister Gareth Evans pointed to the success of the Asia-Pacific powers in producing regional consensus through forums such as the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation forum. He argued that similar methods be applied to the Indian Ocean, suggesting this could be achieved by creating a community of co-operation in areas such as trade, then proceeding to address sensitive strategic concerns.

These efforts sank on the rock of antagonism between India and Pakistan and between the littoral powers and users of the Indian Ocean such as China and the US. But the body created exists to this day in the form of the Indian Ocean Rim-Association for Regional Co-operation, although it has largely been ineffective.

The challenge is to make IOR-ARC a more inclusive and useful body. Australia has the opportunity; in September we'll take up the position of vice-chair of IOR-ARC, with India as chair. In two years Australia will become chair.We should approach India's friends, the US and Japan, to help persuade India that the IOR-ARC should embrace all littoral states, including Pakistan, and big external users such as China, the US and Japan. Only through a fully inclusive mechanism can competition be translated intoco-operation.

And there's no shortage of non-traditional security challenges for a body such as IOR-ARC, from people-smuggling, piracy and terrorism to illegal fishing.

Across the breadth of the Indian Ocean region, we find poverty, hunger, scarcity of water, acute environmental stress and all the political instability that goes with them. The region faces frequent natural disasters and extreme weather events.

Australia should increase its strategic presence in the Indian Ocean. We should promote ideas for maritime security at IOR-ARC and make a greater effort to ensure that fisheries management arrangements in the Indian Ocean are effective.

We should also promote co-operative marine scientific research in the Indian Ocean (the least studied of the world's great oceans) and enhance the ability of the region to predict and mitigate the impact of natural disasters.

As Rudd takes on the challenge of the Indian Ocean to develop practical steps towards regional co-operation he should sit down with Evans, another man of intelligence and energy, and ask him what we can learn from the history of the previous failed attempt to create an Indian Ocean community.

By Sandy Gordon professor at the Centre of Excellence in Policing and Security, Australian National University, and Anthony Bergin director of research programs, Australian Strategic Policy Institute, and co-author of Our Western Front: Australia and the Indian Ocean. “The Australian”

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