by Darshana M. Baruah. She is a Junior Fellow at the New Delhi based think tank, Observer Research Foundation, is working on the South China Sea and has completed her Masters in International Relations from Cardiff University in 2012.
The recently concluded naval exercise between India and Australia is testimony to increasing maritime collaborations in the Indo-Pacific. AUSINDEX (Australia-India Exercise) is the first ever bilateral exercise that took place from September 11-19 off the East Coast of India. The exercise was conducted within the ambit of the Framework for Security Cooperation between the two countries and aims to strengthen interoperability between the two navies and contribute to maritime security in the Indo-Pacific. The first of this biennial exercise was a successful event building on a stronger relationship between the two nations.
Although New Delhi and Canberra share a common vision on enhanced maritime security, it is truly the changing power dynamics in the Indo-Pacific which is facilitating maritime cooperation between navies of the region. The rise of China and the US re-balance to Asia-Pacific has stirred geopolitical changes which is now disturbing the existing security order in the Indo-Pacific. Incidentally, this development is creating a space for collaboration among countries in the region both at bilateral and multilateral levels.
The term Indo-Pacific is gaining popularity with most nations who are now using it to describe the area from the coast of Africa to the East China Sea. While most nations use it as per strategic convenience, the term essentially brings the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean under the same umbrella. Australia was one of the first nations to outline the Indo-Pacific as one geostrategic arena. Canberra’s 2013 Defence White Paper defined the Indo-Pacific as the arc “connecting the Indian and Pacific Oceans through Southeast Asia”. The White Paper also noted that “Australia’s security environment will be significantly influenced by how the Indo-Pacific and its architecture evolves”. For Canberra, managing the security developments in the Indo-Pacific — which are primarily maritime in nature — is forming a crucial part of its security policy. Over time, Australia’s bureaucracy has re-emphasised the need to collaborate and manage the evolving security changes in the region. Understandably, stability and cooperation in the Indo-Pacific features high on Australian foreign policy agenda at bilateral and regional levels.In achieving this stability, cooperation with India is vital for Australia. Strategically located in the north Indian Ocean, New Delhi is central to security in the Indian Ocean region. As Australian Defence Minister Kevin Andrews, mentioned, “India is the emerging democratic superpower of Asia. It is, therefore, sensible that the relationship between India and Australia be developed and strengthened.” New Delhi too is now looking to build on its maritime ties with other navies of the region in effect to strengthen its overall maritime strategy and presence. The rise of China and its naval expansion into the Indian Ocean is an underlying factor in both Australia’s concerns over managing the Indo-Pacific and in India’s need to strengthening its maritime links.
The emergence of a new actor into an existing security order is bound to create confusion and concerns amongst regional powers. While no country attempts to block Chinese presence in the Indian Ocean or has any legitimate reason to do so, its maritime outlook reflected through its behaviour in the South China Sea is a cause for concern. Additionally, China’s desire to be a great power would mean that it is looking to establish itself as a credible security provider not only in its neighbourhood but at a global level. History has taught nations to be a maritime power in order to be a world power. Sea routes have been the backbone of global trading since ancient times. The ability of a nation to project power far from its shores truly captures its military strength (see also Matthew Hipple, “Personal Theories of Power: Sea Power“, offiziere.ch, 17.02.2015). The Indian Ocean is quickly emerging as one of the busiest trading routes and has great strategic significance in geo-politics. Accommodating itself into the evolving security architecture in the Indo-Pacific would also mean that China will finally be able to secure its own energy and commercial routes transiting through the Indian Ocean.
The uncertainty surrounding these developments is creating a sense of worry and anxiety among the resident powers of the Indian Ocean region. For India, Chinese presence closer to its maritime boundaries significantly affects India’s strategic interests in the Indian Ocean. For Australia, Chinese expansion into the Indian Ocean alters the current security dynamics of the Indo-Pacific affecting Canberra’s security and role as a key actor in the region. The Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop early this year noted “(t)he great challenge of the Indo-Pacific era isn’t the rise of any one power however, it is the way in which, for the first time in centuries, we manage a region which is home to many powers”. The best way forward in the current evolving security architecture is to strengthen the network of naval collaborations and uphold the existing norms of behaviour in high seas. AUSINDEX appears to be a product of a similar policy discourse in both India and Australia.
Maritime security can emerge as a crucial area for cooperation in India-Australia ties and has the potential to elevate this bilateral relationship into a strong partnership. A multilateral security framework is the best way forward to manage the evolving security architecture and its complications. Both India and Australia should sustain this momentum to cooperate not just on traditional security issues but non-traditional areas such as Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief. Effective collaborations between the two navies will be critical in paving the way ahead for maritime security in the Indo-Pacific.
Read more about the growing maritime linkages in Indo-Pacific: India-US-Japan.