Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Indian Ocean: don’t militarise the ‘great connector’

The Indian Ocean is Australia’s backyard — at least if you live in the west — and it plays a major role in transporting energy from the oil- and gas-rich Persian Gulf to Australia’s principal trading partners, China and Japan.

With each passing year, these and other East Asian powers become more dependent on the free passage of oil over the Indian Ocean.

This dependence makes China nervous, not least because India and China have an ambivalent relationship. On the one hand they have common interests based on growing trade and similar positions in the WTO and on climate change. On the other hand, they have abiding suspicions over the long-standing border dispute and what India sees as Chinese meddling in its own backyard — South Asia and the Indian Ocean region.

Above all, New Delhi is wary of China’s friendship with India’s principal competitor in South Asia, Pakistan, and of its growing economic and military relationships in the Indian Ocean region. For its part, Beijing is deeply concerned about India’s growing naval clout in the Indian Ocean. It fears that India — possibly in collusion with the US — could interdict its oil in times of rising tension or war.

Even though India is far weaker than China, it has the advantage of occupying a strategic ‘box seat’ in the Indian Ocean region. It also has many elements in common with the US in terms of its longer-term strategic outlook, and the two navies frequently conduct joint exercises. All this gives rise to a classic ‘security dilemma’ in the Indian Ocean region — one in which China fears that India might cut off its oil and India fears that China’s counter-manoeuvres are intended to ‘surround’ it.

If this were not bad enough, the Indian Ocean is surrounded by some of the poorest, most troubled countries in the world. It confronts enormous issues of poverty and food and water scarcity. It suffers from serious non-conventional security threats such as people smuggling, drug and gun trafficking, piracy, and a host of environmental and natural disaster challenges.

Any action that might deepen this security dilemma should be avoided — including proposals recently floated in Washington to base US reconnaissance aircraft on the Cocos Islands and nuclear-powered submarines at HMAS Stirling in Western Australia. China would undoubtedly interpret any such move as an attempt to threaten its ‘soft underbelly’ — its high dependency on Middle Eastern oil — during times of rising tension.

What is needed instead is a strategy designed to provide for joint action in the ‘commons’. Such a strategy would help alleviate the major powers’ sense of insecurity about whether their legitimate interests in the Indian Ocean may or may not be met.

Unfortunately, the security-building mechanisms in the Indian Ocean region are inadequate and show little prospect of improvement. Unlike the Asia Pacific, where four great powers (the US, China, Japan and Russia) to some extent balance each other out, India is by far the dominant littoral power in the Indian Ocean. Australia has the next most powerful navy, but it can only feasibly aspire to be a middle power.

This means India is able to dominate security-building mechanisms in the Indian Ocean. This means there can be no viable mechanisms without New Delhi’s input. As with any great power, India will use its influence to ensure its wishes are met. And those wishes have more to do with locking out a potential alliance between China and Pakistan than with building a regime which allows all to ‘rise on the same tide’ by solving some of the region’s manifest problems.

Canberra should be working quietly to convince New Delhi that the best way to ensure China does not seek a permanent military presence in the Indian Ocean region is to work with the Chinese to alleviate their concerns through collective action. Such an approach would make it possible to address some of the region’s problems, including non-conventional security issues.

This would not be a short-term prospect, however. Convincing Washington of the need for collective action might prove as much of a challenge as convincing India and China. But the first move must be made to ensure the Indian Ocean continues to be ‘the great connector’ it has always been throughout the course of its long history.

If indeed US forces require reinforcing in the Indian Ocean, then at the very least it will be important to ensure that they are perceived to be — and in fact are — designed to assist the region in meeting its multifarious non-conventional security challenges. This would in turn require that Washington take a stronger interest in security-building mechanisms in the region.

By Sandy Gordon Visiting Fellow at RegNet, College of Asia and the Pacific, the Australian National University. East Asia Forum.This article was first published on South Asia Masala.

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