Trade and industry, International relations, National security, South China Sea | Australia, Asia, East Asia, South Asia, Southeast Asia

7 July 2017

With China making maritime inroads in the Indian Ocean, India, Japan and Australia have to start working together if they are to keep their heads above water, Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan writes.

Maritime security is an increasing concern in Asia. Asian countries depend not just on oil imports from the Middle East, but also on the ocean trading corridors through which the oil arrives. Almost 50 per cent of the world’s tankers, and more than 80 per cent of oil tankers from the Middle East to Northeast Asia pass through the Asian maritime region.

The rise of China as a more powerful force on the seas is one of the main reasons for Asia’s growing maritime anxiety. China’s navy has been actively making inroads into the Indian Ocean in recent years. Apart from creating friendly relations with littoral states using maritime diplomacy and other tools, the Chinese Navy today is also a frequent guest at the ports of Karachi, Colombo and many Southeast Asian countries.

Additionally, the Chinese navy has conducted numerous exercises well beyond its traditional sphere of influence, indicating a clear intent on its part to become a major player in this region. China’s expanding naval fleet and its pursuit of new naval technologies (such as a second aircraft carrier for instance) demonstrate that Beijing aims to be a major naval power in the region.

Given that the China challenge is one that confronts all countries in the region, is there a possibility that other major Asia-Pacific powers can come together to guarantee collective maritime security? Could the maritime powers of Japan, Australia and India shape the destiny of the Indo-Pacific region?

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Geography will compel Tokyo, Canberra and New Delhi to cooperate with each other in the face of the decline of American power. As the individual capacities of the three nations remain inadequate to secure the whole region independently, there is a clear case for trilateral cooperation in this area. While the Indo-Pacific is dotted with several navies, some of them quite capable, none of them have shown much interest or possess a capability for multilateral operations in the region.

For example, although Singapore has a formidable fleet for a country of its size, it is still too small for the task of managing maritime security in the region on its own, or even for contributing much to any multilateral venture. Realistically, the navies of Japan, Australia and India are the only ones with the tonnage and diversity to be able to assume a broad range of responsibilities in the region.

So what will it take to get the three countries working together? The answer is that Japan and Australia already have a bilateral defence agreement. If India wants to join a multilateral group, the Japan-Australia agreement provides New Delhi with a ready-made setting. And keeping such multilateral endeavours to a just three, at least initially, is likely to be easier to generate consensus. Other states in the region could join later.

If a Japan-Australia-India trilateral is to succeed, the countries must address several issues. First, there is the problem that the three nations all have vastly different domestic polities. For Japan and India especially, their domestic populations are not particularly comfortable with the idea of overseas power projection.

Second, the three countries have somewhat different perspectives on recent geopolitical developments in the region. For example, while all the three countries are worried about the rise of China, they have slightly different takes on how it must be dealt with. Though increasing interaction between the three is likely to lead to greater understanding, they may not yet have sufficient consensus to discuss undertaking joint operations.

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Third, there are the logistical challenges of capacity duplication, a lack of synergistic interoperability, and different standards and operating procedures. All of these are bottlenecks across the spectrum of trilateral cooperation. Yet the seriousness of the strategic challenge faced by all three could help them overcome these differences and difficulties.

A broader problem for regional cooperation is the fact that the region is beset with conflicting maritime territorial claims. These claims, backed by rising nationalism and increasing naval capabilities, have the potential to descend into conflict. Even if a conflict is bilateral in nature, it will still impact global trade, including that of India, Japan and Australia.

If nothing else, the economic risk may be enough of a case for the three nations to come together and create a mechanism to address these concerns. Confidence building measures, information sharing, and providing prior intimation of naval manoeuvres would all be a good place to start.

Given the possible absence of a committed security guarantor like the US in the future, India, Japan and Australia need to step up to ensure that this vacuum is not filled by China. This is a scenario that would spell bad news not just for the interests of the three, but for smaller states in the region too. The simple fact that no one country of the three has the capacity to fill the vacuum alone means that maritime stability and trilateral cooperation in the Indo-Pacific should be at the top of the agenda for New Delhi, Tokyo and Canberra.

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