The Indian Ocean region currently faces some of the most challenging and exciting geopolitical transformations in its playground with China and India playing a major role in determining the larger strategic manoeuvres of other regional states and extra regional powers such as the United States. The rise of new and emerging states such as Australia in this Geo-economic space has given rise to new geo-strategies that the nation wishes to increasingly employ, looking back at a region that for a long time had been ignored by the country.
India and Australia, in 2008, signed a ‘Joint Declaration on Security and Cooperation’ which wished to bring together the strategic perspectives of both the nation states through a ‘cooperative security framework’. One of the key features of this declaration was increased cooperation in the maritime domain at a strategic level. For Australia, the Indian Ocean region has a prominent place in its strategic calculations, having the longest coastline and largest area of maritime jurisdiction, the emergence of newer nation states within Indian Ocean has made its role greater in the region.
India, on the other hand, focuses on the Indian Ocean Region as being a ‘strategic bridge with the nations in its immediate and extended maritime neighbourhood.’ India has since the 2008 terror attacks in Mumbai, refocused its maritime policy and more particularly within the region. Its increased emphasis on the protection and assurance of ‘safe passage’ in the region comes from two factors; one is China’s increased presence and linkages with other Indian Ocean Littorals and the second, is India’s ambition to be a ‘net security provider’ to the region. The nation is also increasingly looking towards expanding its influence in the fast emerging construct of an ‘Indo-Pacific’ region. The ‘QUAD’ (Quadrilateral Security Dialogue) was a key enabler in expanding India-Australia partnership, within the Indian Ocean and the ‘Indo-Pacific’.
Geographically, Australia has approximately 86 million square km wide Exclusive Economic Zone along with the surveillance and defence of the AEEZ (Australian Antarctic EEZ) within the region. The nation’s responsibility to provide safe passage and navigation to ships and submarines could be one of the reasons why an increasingly aggressive China within the Indo-Pacific region seems to be of great strategic concern. A brief assessment of Australia’s maritime strategy gives one an understanding of the need of a comprehensive strategic outlook’s for the country to effectively pursue its national interest in the region.
There is however seen, a lack of coordination between national and state level instrumentalities wherein responsibility of Australian policy makers towards its maritime affairs seems to be largely ignored with some analysts calling it ‘sea-blindness’. In 2005, the then Chief Admiral of the Royal Australian Navy, Vice Admiral Chris Richie remarked on the ‘ambiguous place of the seas’ in Australian National life, urging for a re-examination of Australia’s land based identities.
India on the other hand is marking the 21st century as the ‘century of the seas’ for itself. The Indian Navy is central in promotion of the country’s national interest and security in the maritime domain. The country’s maritime security strategy, under the present leadership seems to be carrying a larger ‘strategic angle’ and wishes to embody an ‘Indian naval vision’ for the region. Former Admiral and Chief of the Indian Navy, R.K. Dhowan remarks on three significant developments in the nation’s maritime security architecture; First is India’s move from a ‘Euro-Atlantic’ to an ‘Indo-Pacific’ focus which seems to have largely repositioned the country’s global economic and military power within the region. Second, is the recognition of ‘new and emerging threats’ in the form of piracy and terrorism which has made India to relook its offshore and coastal security. Third is an acknowledgement on the part of the administration in enabling the Indian navy to perform a more strong and enhanced role in the country’s maritime security.
Australia has been one of the most vocal supporters to India’s ambition of being a ‘net security provider’ to the region. Australia aims to create a deeper maritime relation with India so as to present it as a counterbalancing force against China. The island state wants to avoid itself and the region to get embroiled in a confrontation between US and China and thereby find it picking sides. The country has been subtly stepping up its security cooperation with India, through extensive maritime exercises such as the ‘Indo-Pacific Endeavour’ which was hosted in March 2019,across the Indo-Pacific region and hosted at states of Vishakhapatnam and Chennai in India specifically.
India’s policies towards the Indian Ocean have a global perspective and appeal that could work in Australia’s favour as they continue to deepen and establish more meaningful bilateral security arrangements so as to ensure security of the Indian Ocean. There are however, some challenges to a fruitful maritime cooperation between both the nation states. The increasingly aligned intentions and interests of both the nations have been conducive in establishing a dialogue in academic circles of moving the partnership between India and Australia to a more concrete phase. Australia’s efforts to woo India have been more than evident whereas India still chooses to take measured steps towards enriching its relationship with the country. In 2011, Australia removed its ban on Uranium sales to India after years of its hesitation, showing clear intentions of the nation.
The ‘QUAD’, even when seems to have re-energised the spirits of the ‘maritime democracies’ of the Indian ocean states and the ‘Indo-Pacific’ states, has largely been a talking shop giving the reflection of the dialogue having more rhetoric than action. Another challenge for Australia is India’s insecurity as a nation wherein it believes that visibility is vulnerability and therefore feels that by closely aligning itself with US and its allies it may disturb an already delicate maritime chessboard of the Indian Ocean region and trigger the dragon. Apart from this, India also fears that Australia, which has been a strategic ally to the United States for a very long time may eventually isolate India in order to promote US predominance within the Indian Ocean leaving it high and dry.
The two nations therefore have vast opportunities to explore so as to ensure greater maritime cooperation. Joint exploration efforts in the region can be one of the ways by which a stable growth of both the nations’ economies can be benefitted. Participation of both the nations in institutions such as IORA( Indian Ocean Rim Association) and IONS(Indian Ocean Naval Symposium) can also be a catalyst in deepening relations between the two. However, different traditional instincts about security collaboration and a fear on the part of both the states to not instigate China is becoming a major hindrance in an otherwise fated marriage between both the nation states.
India and the Indian Ocean: A Briefing’, Institute For Defence Studies and Analyses, April,2016, See Website, https://idsa.in/idsanews/india-and-the-indian-ocean_skundu
‘ Ensuring Secure Seas: Indian Maritime Security Strategy’, Indian Naval Strategic Publication(NSP)1.2, Ministry of Defence, October,2015, See Website, file:///C:/Users/hp1/Documents/admin%20material/geopol/semester%20two/maritime/Indian_Maritime_Security_Strategy_Document_25Jan16.pdf
‘Inquiry into Australia’s Maritime Strategy’, Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs , Defence and Trade, The Australian Centre for Maritime Studies, November,2002, see website, http://www.tamilnation.co/intframe/indian_ocean/australia_centre_for_maritime_studies.pdf
Michael Evans, ‘The Third Way: Towards an Australian Maritime Strategy for the 21st Century’, The Australian Army, Commonwealth of Australia Army 2014, See Website, https://www.army.gov.au/sites/g/files/net1846/f/thethirdway_evans.pdf
Sidhant Sibal, ‘Australia Welcomes India’s Leadership in the Indian Ocean: Foreign Minister Marisse Payne’, DNA India, January, 2019, See Website, https://www.dnaindia.com/india/report-australia-welcomes-india-s-leadership-in-indian-ocean-foreign-minister-marise-payne-2706152
Fredric Grare, ‘India-Australia Strategic Relationship: Defining Realistic Expectations’, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, March, 2014, See Website, https://carnegieendowment.org/files/india_australia_strat_rel.pdf