Three Indo-Pacific Powers to meet in New Delhi

17 September 2013

By Ashok Malik

Like many other countries – or perhaps more than other countries – India’s policy elite is transfixed by China’s rise and evolution in the international arena. In few other strategic communities is the “peaceful rise of China” so watched, debated, dissected and doubted as it is in India. Equally, in no geography is the rise of China more acutely felt than the Indo-Pacific, the continuum of the Eastern Indian Ocean and the Western Pacific.

However, history does not follow neat timetables. The relative strength of China will not overtake that of the United States at a clearly predictable and recognised juncture. The geopolitical system is at the beginning of a prolonged period of transition, one that could consume decades. To coin an oxymoron, Asia and the Indian Ocean (or Indo-Pacific) Region could be living with a long-term temporary.

What do second and third tier powers do in such a timeframe? Do they sit back and watch more resourceful powers engage in a subtle and sometimes not-so-subtle competition for influence – or do they innovate and cooperate, as and when the opportunity arises, to give themselves more space for manoeuvre and simply more options? The answer is obvious. It is also an answer that strategic analysts and academics from Australia, India and Indonesia will consider as they sit down in New Delhi on September 19 for the first Track 2 conference of this emerging Indian Ocean trilateral.

The impetus for this “Trilateral Dialogue on Indian Ocean” (TDIO) comes not merely from a shared geography but from the recent invigoration of a hitherto underexploited institutional mechanism, the Indian Ocean Rim Association for Regional Cooperation (IOR-ARC). IOR-ARC was born in 1995 as an African initiative – its secretariat is located in Mauritius – and in its early years was championed by Nelson Mandela, then president of South Africa. It was seen as a platform to unite littoral African countries with the growing economies of Asia. For much of its existence IOR-ARC has punched under its weight and not even come close to realising its potential.

The problem, a Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) official in Canberra once explained, is that the Indian Ocean rim by itself is not the basis for a “logical regional identity”. IOR-ARC has 20 member states. These range from Mozambique to Iran, Madagascar to Singapore, and Thailand to the United Arab Emirates. It is difficult to categorise such a broad and diverse group and find meaningful cultural, political or economic commonalities. As a result, aspirations for IOR-ARC have been pitched “too high” (a free trade association/area) or “too low” (minor agreements on tariffs and customs barriers).

However, this may finally be IOR-ARC’s moment. There are two reasons. First, Australia, India and Indonesia – neighbouring countries that have the makings of a trilateral synergy – are at the IOR-ARC high table at the same time. In November 2011 India assumed the IOR-ARC chair. After a two-year term, it will make way for Australia, the current vice-chair. Indonesia (vice-chair for the 2013-15 period) will become IOR-ARC leader for two years beginning 2015. This six-year window could redefine IOR-ARC. If the opportunity is lost, it may not come again for a long time.

Diplomats in Canberra, New Delhi and Jakarta recognise this. As such, it is important for Australia, India and Indonesia to leave behind an institutional and programmatic legacy for IOR-ARC at the end of their six-year stewardship. The trilateral is both an engine of this, as well as its logical product.

Second, while China is a dialogue partner of IOR-ARC and outside the formal membership structure, it is clearly the elephant at the door of the room. Officials at India’s Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) have long sensed the need to build relationships in the Indian Ocean region before Chinese influence becomes overwhelming and difficult to counter. At that point, arguments that China is not really an Indian Ocean country and is an extra-regional power would lose salience.

Speaking of the Indian Ocean region in 2010, former Indian Foreign Secretary, Shyam Saran emphasised that “India (is) developing its own perspective for the region, drawing upon US strengths wherever possible and feasible, but aiming to develop its own network of security linkages with the countries of the region”. Australia and the countries of South-East Asia (of which Indonesia is the largest by far) were among those to which Saran specifically referred. Cooperation under the rubric of IOR-ARC and the incubating of the trilateral are inevitable corollaries. 

As a senior Indian diplomat admits, “India’s chairmanship has given IOR-ARC an edge” among the MEA’s competing priorities, “with combating piracy and softer issues of culture” being used as confidence enhancers. “IOR-ARC,” he says, “will pick up in the years ahead. It has potential.”

How can IOR-ARC “pick up”? Measures to curb piracy, disaster response management, and humanitarian assistance programs recommend themselves. The proposed joint Australian and Indonesian proposal (“A Practical Approach to Enhance Regional Cooperation on Disaster Rapid Response”) at the sixth East Asia Summit in Bali in November 2011 could be a useful starting point.

Australia, India and Indonesia all belong to the East Asia Summit and also to the IOR-ARC. A variation of the proposal made in Bali could be tailored for IOR-ARC and sponsored by the three countries. Of course, for an area as wide at that covered by IOR-ARC it may be prudent to devise a segmented plan and a distribution of labour, with countries with requisite capacities taking on sub-regional roles. This would also address potential logistical and diplomatic challenges.

For instance, India assisted Iran after the earthquake in Bam in 2003, passing on lessons learned from its own rescue and reconstruction efforts during and after the 2001 earthquake in the Indian state of Gujarat. Such experiences could feed into future IOR-ARC disaster response architecture, and open new multi-lateral channels of communication between such nations as Australia and Iran.

Planning for disaster response under the IOR-ARC umbrella would also allow Australian, Indian and Indonesian navies to work in conjunction. This would avoid a front-ending of military cooperation that diffident political leaderships may consider premature or too high-profile for comfort. It would be an appropriate complement to the bilateral Australia-India naval exercises planned for 2015. In turn, this would complete a circle of two-country maritime arrangements that sees Indian and Indonesian navies exercising regularly – and planning ambitious long-term naval cooperation to bolster mutual capacities in the Indian Ocean – as well as Australian and Indonesian navies training together, most recently as part of Exercise Cassowary in August 2013.

At some point, the sum of the parts could well add up to something larger. That is the promise of the Australia-India-Indonesia trilateral and of the TDIO initiative.

The author is an honorary fellow of the Australia India Institute, and holds the AII-Observer Research Foundation Chair for Indo-Pacific Studies in New Delhi.