Indian Ocean Region experts call for India-Australia strategic ties to 'stand alone'

21 June 2013

(Reported by Sripathi Narayanan, PhD Candidate, Centre for South and South-East Asian Studies, University of Madras, Chennai, and Visvak Sen, I Year, Symbiosis Institute of Media and Communication, Pune)         

The Indian Ocean Region (IOR) is home to a wide variety of people, cultures, languages, ethnicities and State systems. This body of water ties together three of the five continents, namely, Asia, Africa and Oceania (including Australia) and is the world’s busiest maritime trade route. For these reasons and others, it is now at the centre of global discourses on geo-politics and geo-strategic security.

Against this backdrop, the Australia India Institute (A.I.I), The University of Melbourne, and the Australian Consulate-General, Chennai, in association with the Observer Research Foundation (Chennai Chapter) organised a day-long workshop on India, Australia and the Indian Ocean Region: Stability and Security in Chennai, capital of India’s southern state of Tamil Nadu on May 27, 2013. The workshop touched upon a wide range of issues that are of common concern to Australia and India in the IOR, drawing extensively from the A.I.I Task Force Report on The Indian Ocean Region: Security, Stability and Sustainability in the 21st Century, published in March 2013. The workshop focused on strategic issues to the exclusion of the economic and human development aspects that formed a part of the Task Force study.

The proceedings in Chennai were initiated by Mr David Holly, the Australian Consul-General for southern India at Chennai, who began his address by referring to the Australia in the Asian Century White Paper published by the Australian Government in October 2012.  The White Paper identified India as an Asian nation with which Australia should develop closer ties. To this end, there has been a significant rise in the level of interaction between the two governments, the Consul-General said. Mr Holly also used his presentation to contextualise the A.I.I Task Force report and the workshop, as part of this process. Mr Holly pointed out that over the next couple of years, Australia would be taking over from India as the Chair of two important IOR institutions – namely, the IOR-Association for Regional Cooperation (IOR-ARC) and the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium (IONS).

The Indian Ocean is bordered by several “two-ocean nations”. Australia and Indonesia border both the Pacific and Indian Oceans, while South Africa borders the Indian and Atlantic Oceans. The increased use of the term “Indo-Pacific Region” in geopolitical discourses reflects the region’s location and its place at the intersection of global trade and security issues.

Challenges of security and stability

The first business session of the workshop explored the question of whether the definition of the IOR and existing IOR institutions like the IOR-ARC should be expanded in their scope to include nations like China. This session was chaired by the President of the Centre for Security Analysis (CSA), Chennai, Lt-Gen V.R. Raghavan (retd). Lt-Gen Raghavan framed the debate by outlining shared Australia-India concerns in the geo-strategic sphere, with particular reference to the IOR. Following him, Mr Ashok Malik, a Delhi-based columnist and inaugural A.I.I Chair at the Observer Research Foundation presented a regional perspective on the ‘Challenges of Security and Stability in the IOR’.

Mr Malik stressed the opportunity available to India and Australia in the IOR and how increased co-operation between the two nations could reap rich dividends not only for themselves, but also for all the littoral States. He also stressed the importance of regional structures such as IOR-ARC and the need for involving the so-called ‘white elephant’, China, in any such configuration. Mr Malik said that the time has come for India to overcome ‘the unproductive divide that it has set up between regional and the extra-regional powers’. Such notions have been counterproductive to Indian interests, resulting as they have in New Delhi not being asked to lead maritime operations in the IOR, such as anti-piracy operations in the Malacca Straits.

Presenting an “Indian’s perspective”, Rear-Adm Mohan Raman (IN-retd), formerly of the Indian Navy, broadly explored the opportunities and challenges in the Indian Ocean Region. He laid the groundwork for the discussion by examining the origin of concepts such as naval power projection and imperial expansionism in the Indian Ocean. He also put the IOR security debate in context with respect to all the stakeholders in the region, major and minor.

Admiral Raman said that the issues being faced by the littoral States in the various sub-regions of the IOR are different and non-compatible in nature. This was primarily a result of the wide expanse of this Ocean, which created a variety of challenges. Thus he felt that the question of expanding the IOR-ARC to include non-littoral states and widening the reach of this water-body to include the Indo-Pacific would complicate the existing situation. There were enough concerns in the IOR that warranted the attention of littoral states without nations like India venturing into distant waters like the Pacific. At the same time, the IOR states had individual perceptions of security, accompanied by varying strategic concerns that are also non-compatible in nature.

Indo-Pacific Security

The second business session, entitled ‘India, Australia and Indo-Pacific Security’, was chaired by Mr Siddharth Varadarajan, Editor of the Chennai-headquartered newspaper The Hindu, and a member of the A.I.I Task Force. Other panel members included Rd. David Brewster, Visiting Fellow, Strategic & Defence Studies Centre, Australian National University, and Dr Lawrence Prabhakar, Associate Professor of Political Science, Madras Christian College (MCC), Chennai, specialising in strategic security affairs.

The question of non-compatibility relates in part to the security alliance memberships of some IOR nations, so strategic thinking was the crux of this session. The Chair, Mr Varadarajan, said that IOR nations like India harbour reservations about any form of targeted, long-term security/military grouping as this might impede their sovereignty and strategic autonomy. Dr Brewster added that the security and strategic culture of Indian Ocean nations and those in the Asia-Pacific region have been different from one another. The difference in the approach towards security is one of the main reasons for the IOR remaining a divided house. 

Dr Brewster spoke of the need for greater co-ordination between Australia and India in the Indo-Pacific, a relatively new construct that has been acquiring increasing geo-political salience. He also explained the major hurdles, from the Australian perspective, that need to be overcome for the relationship with India to improve. India’s traditional strategic autonomy and the slow pace of its bureaucratic machinery, for instance, were a major stumbling block in his view. But he expressed a firm belief that despite such obstacles, as the pre-eminent powers in the IOR, there was a strong possibility, but also a distinct need for India and Australia to develop a partnership based on trust and shared interests.

Dr Prabhakar put forth an Indian perspective to the debate, and provided much-needed theoretical grounding. He raised questions about the need for an India-Australia partnership in the face of a strong, permanent presence of American forces in the region and Australia’s close relationship with it. The session highlighted the existing landscape in the Asia-Pacific region as well as in the IOR. Discussion points included the perceived decline of the US and the rise of China, both of which have been exaggerated panel members observed. The shift in international relations from the Atlantic Ocean to the Indo-Pacific was a reality that the world had acknowledged.

‘Grand strategy’

The final session, aptly titled ‘Policy and Research Implications’, picked up from where the previous session. It was pointed out that the IOR as a region does not have any specific dispute among nations that can alter the security architecture in this part of the world. However, disputes in the South China Sea and the one between China and Japan fit the bill of a ‘Grand Strategy’ debate that can have an impact on the strategic calculus of Indian Ocean nations.

It was felt that ‘rogue Sates’ like North Korea could alter the security architecture as well as the geo-strategic approach in Asia. In light of this uncertainty, evolving ties between nations like India, Japan, South Korea and Australia gain significance. The session stressed the need for Australia-India ties to be treated as a stand-alone development, not to be clubbed with other strategic considerations that plague Asia.

Also highlighted was the need for further research on the IOR, in the specific context of Australia, India and Indonesia’s bilateral and multilateral ties, since those nations can play a prominent role in the IOR. At the same time, the workshop also underscored the need for greater interaction between India and Australia, and also the attendant requirement for removing apprehensions between the two about each other.

The discussions also focussed on India’s strategic autonomy and American influence on the Australian agenda. The Indo-Pacific as a broad political construct was the target of much scrutiny, with a number of participants expressing the opinion that it was geographically too vast to hold any actual political or strategic relevance. While consensus remained largely elusive on issues such as India’s role within the Indo-Pacific and a possible IOR-ARC security configuration, all acknowledged the need for increased India-Australia co-operation.

To this end, recommendations were made for greater cultural exchanges between the two nations so as to highlight the commonalities between their peoples and promote greater trust and understanding. Specific projects aimed at promoting further research, leading to policy options for the two Governments should be undertaken, participants said.

Earlier, at the commencement of the day’s proceedings, Mr Robert Johanson, Chair of the Australia India Institute and Deputy Chancellor of The University of Melbourne, outlined the work of the A.I.I, and welcomed participants. Mr Johanson urged participants to come up with recommendations that could help take current initiatives forward. Dr Amitabh Mattoo, founder-Director of A.I.I, in his keynote address cited the recommendations of the Task Force Report, and commended the security and stability-related aspects of the same for the consideration of the workshop.

At the conclusion of proceedings, N Sathiya Moorthy, Director, Chennai Chapter of the ORF, proposed a vote-of-thanks. He referred to the paucity of Indian scholarship on Australia compared to the high level and quality of India-related academic work in Australia. All three speakers hoped that the workshop would be an opening, particularly in South India, which has greater proximity to Australia, for more engagement between the two nations.