Growing maritime linkages in Indo-Pacific: The role of middle powers

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.

A U.S. airman aboard a P8-A Poseidon surveillance aircraft monitors China's construction of artificial islands in the disputed South China Sea.

A U.S. airman aboard a P8-A Poseidon surveillance aircraft monitors China’s construction of artificial islands in the disputed South China Sea.

The maritime security domain of Asia and the Pacific is changing rapidly primarily driven by the rise of middle powers, growth and expanding ambitions. The rise of China in particular is of great concern not just for the nations of Southeast Asia but also for nations beyond the Malacca strait.

The maritime domain in Asia-Pacific has been fairly quiet and stable until 2012 when the disputes in the South China Sea began to increase tension in the region. Today, it’s one of the most volatile spots in the Asian maritime domain affecting the overall security environment. As tension continue to grow with no dispute resolution in sight, Chinese forays into the Indian Ocean is now raising concerns regarding the security architecture in the Indian Ocean region. As the security architecture continues to evolve due to the developments in the Asian maritime domain, collaboration between middle powers is emerging as a critical model in maintaining peace and stability in the region. It is in this context, that there is an increasing trend toward growing maritime collaboration in the Indo-Pacific.

A coalition — through engagements and collaborations — among the middle powers of the region is currently the best way forward in managing tensions and securing the maritime domain of the Indo-Pacific. For India in particular, growing Chinese engagements with Indian Ocean littorals is a major concern. While Japan is engaged with China in a dispute in the East China Sea, Canberra has articulated the concept of the Indo-Pacific as the security environment in both the Pacific and the Indian Ocean affect Australia’s strategic interests directly. Indonesia on the other hand could emerge as a critical swing state in the evolving security architecture given its geographic location straddling the Malacca Strait, while Vietnam is keen on a stronger maritime cooperation with most navies of the region.

The region has already witnessed some amount of new and renewed collaborations between these powers. India and Australia held their first bilateral exercise in September 2015. India facilitated Japan’s participation in exercise Malabar for a second consecutive time in October 2015 while hosting the first bilateral exercise with Indonesia in October as well. India, Australia and Japan too held their first trilateral at the Foreign Minister’s level which carried a strong maritime dimension.

Airbus Defence and Space imagery dated 20 September 2015 shows ongoing development of the artificial island created at Fiery Cross Reef in the South China Sea. China has completed the runway with markings installed, including helipads, suggesting a potential for use in the near future (© CNES 2015, Distribution Airbus DS / 2015 IHS) .

Airbus Defence and Space imagery dated 20 September 2015 shows ongoing development of the artificial island created at Fiery Cross Reef in the South China Sea. China has completed the runway with markings installed, including helipads, suggesting a potential for use in the near future (© CNES 2015, Distribution Airbus DS / 2015 IHS) .

The security environment in the Indo-Pacific is constantly changing. It will be a while before the region comes to stable security framework to maintain peace and order. As the geo-politics continue to evolve, tension, threats and the risk of an armed conflict will rise and fall with these changes. At this point of time, the middle powers of the region can play a crucial role in carving the way ahead for the region. Most initiatives put forth by either China or the US is viewed with suspicion challenging the potential of collaborations in the region. However engagement amongst nations such as — but not limited to — Japan, India, Australia and Indonesia at the both bilateral and multilateral levels will demonstrate a coalition of network committed toward keeping the region free of conflict.

One of the major concerns in the region currently is the freedom to use the seas as well as freedom of military navigation (see “Sea Control 100 – South China Sea, Freedom of Navigation and the problem of innocent passage“, offiziere.ch, 17.11.205). China’s construction of artificial islands and an aggressive stance to defend what it claims as its own in the South China Sea undermines international law and understanding between nations to come together to work on a common agenda. Based on Chinese behaviour in the Western Pacific the countries of the Indian Ocean region too are sceptical about Beijing’s expanding ambitions in the Indian Ocean. While one cannot point toward China as the sole reason for the changes in the maritime domain, Beijing is one of the driving factors in the evolving security architecture. The South China Sea disputes continue to simmer and flare from time to time and the possibility of an armed conflict due to a misunderstanding or an accident looms large. The Indian Ocean is witnessing a change in power dynamics which is fairly a new phenomenon for the region. Therefore, in the absence of a sustainable framework to diffuse tension, a network of coalition between the middle powers of the region will be the most favoured model in maintaining peace and security in the region.

Map of territorial disputes in South China Sea.

Map of territorial disputes in South China Sea.

This is not to take away from the efforts being made through dialogue, consultation and crisis management hotlines. However, policies and diplomatic offensive have so far failed to materialise a Code of Conduct when the region needs it the most. In such a scenario, instead of relying on the US to secure the seas for the entire region and uphold international norms, these nations as the residents of the Indo-Pacific, could lay down norms of behaviour in high seas through exercises, trainings and working with established rules of international law. Such a model will effectively deter unilateral actions on international waters as opposed to a show of power politics displayed through Chinese behaviour and the US challenges to those activities.

The scope of engagement amongst these middle powers need not be in the favour of or against any particular nation and be more toward achieving a security framework for the region largely accepted by the Indo-Pacific.

As mentioned above, there appears to be a move toward such a model although not in the capacity required by the region. As a perspective from India, New Delhi must increase its level and frequency of engagements with other nations working beyond its sphere of traditional friends and partners. There is no doubt that the changes in the maritime domain are quick and significant. It is in this regard that the response must be swift as well.

While there certainly has been a shift in India’s model of engagement and interaction with the navies of the region, it is time to step out its comfort zone and engage at a larger multilateral level. It is time that the middle powers of the Indo-Pacific pick up its pace, look beyond their immediate surrounding and play its role in leading the Indo-Pacific into a stable and secure maritime environment.

More information
Read more about the growing maritime linkages in Indo-Pacific: India-Australia and India-US-Japan.

This entry was posted in China, Darshana M. Baruah, English, India, Sea Powers.

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