Australia’s defence white paper and India’s maritime strategy plot a course for the two countries to help bring stability to the region, writes Darshana M Baruah.
India has long considered Australia a distant continent with no immediate effects on its security or strategic interests. Canberra too didn’t see much in its engagements with India, especially given New Delhi’s silent role in the affairs of the Asia-Pacific.
The world and its politics, however, are changing, binding together nations and continents who would otherwise be outside of each other’s strategic realm. The changing geopolitics of the Indian Ocean and the Western Pacific – together with the Indo-Pacific – is forcing both New Delhi and Canberra to review their policies toward each other. The new Australian defence white paper clearly sets out a greater Indian role in the region – but what is the maritime potential of this relationship?
The rise of the Indo-Pacific as a new single strategic arc has complications and implications on the maritime policies of both India and Australia.
Power politics, maritime disputes, hostile actions and a rise in tensions in the Indian Ocean and the Western Pacific mean the two can no longer be treated as separate theatres. That means it is not enough for India to simply focus on the Indian Ocean without considering the strategic implications of the developments in the South China Sea.
On the other hand, Australia is trying to balance its role and approach on maritime matters in the South China Sea – an area where its ally the US is heavily engaged. Aware of its capabilities and its complex relationship with China, primarily due to trade, Australia is keen on formulating its policies for the region. While Australia and the US are on the same page regarding the South China Sea, this does not imply that the level of engagement and the approach to tackling the issue remain the same.
Which brings us to Washington’s role in the Indo-Pacific and its effect on Indian and Australian maritime policies. As America continues to roll out its rebalance structure, it is increasingly evident that Washington will rely on its friends and allies to maintain the current security order in the region. Both New Delhi and Canberra feature high on the agenda with one being a strong ally and other being the ‘lynchpin’ to the rebalance. Were there to be a crisis or conflict in the region, Australia’s role, responsibilities and commitment will be directly affected by Washington’s role while New Delhi will have serious decisions to make.
It is in the interest of India and Australia to forge a relationship strong enough to shoulder the challenges in the region.
These new geopolitical developments go beyond existing notions of security challenges seen in the post-Cold War era. The rise in competition in the region is also witnessing a simultaneous increase in opportunities for greater cooperation between nations. India and Australia possess both the opportunity and the capability to emerge as responsible middle powers stabilising the Indo-Pacific.
There has been some momentum in the bilateral relationship focusing on maritime cooperation, but more is possible. Deepening maritime engagements between India and Australia can lay the foundation to a strong and stable security architecture for the region. Conducting joint exercises and working together to uphold international norms would also be a positive step as new players join the theatres of the Indian Ocean and Western Pacific.
India and Australia are nations with a common goal to establish and maintain a stable maritime region. There is no reason New Delhi and Canberra cannot emerge as responsible and credible leaders.
Recent developments highlight that both India and Australia are keen to play greater security roles in the Indo-Pacific. Both countries’ interests in a stable security order are more aligned than different.
India’s recently launched maritime strategy and Australia’s 2016 defence white paper outline the growing importance of maritime security for both nations. Both documents emphasise the need for stability in the Indo-Pacific as well as strengthening maritime capabilities to match the complex security architecture in the region. The scope for cooperation between the two especially in light of bilateral maritime exercises in 2015 is significant.
To make it work, India must realise that the changes in its neighbourhood will affect India’s strategic goals for the region. As outlined in India’s maritime security strategy, interactions between regional navies will be critical in shaping the Indo-Pacific. Security architecture based on a multipolar system is in both Indian and Australian interests. New Delhi must now find the political will to stand tall on its maritime security policy challenges.
Australia too will have to go beyond its alliance system and pursue bilateral relationships independently. Canberra appears more than willing to take on the responsibilities for the region and continuing to pursue its maritime ties with India.
If New Delhi and Canberra continue to deepen and engage with each other, they can emerge as credible leaders of the Indo-Pacific. In a volatile and rapidly changing region, the two countries have the platform to bring stability and calm waters.