Stability in Indian Ocean : Don’t militarize the ‘great connector’

Posted on April 25, 2012

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Sandy Gordon, Perth, West Australia | Tue, 04/24/2012 12:27 PM

The Indian Ocean is Australia’s backyard — at least if one lives in the West. It also plays a major role in transporting energy from the oil- and gas-rich Persian Gulf to Australia’s principal trading partners, China and Japan.

With each passing year, these and other East Asian powers become more dependent on the free passage of oil across the Indian Ocean.

This dependency makes China nervous. India and China have an ambivalent relationship. On the one hand, they have common interests, based on growing trade and similar positions in the World Trade Organization and on climate change. But, on the other, they have abiding suspicions over the long-standing border dispute and what India sees as Chinese meddling in its own back yard: South Asia and the Indian Ocean region.

New Delhi is, above all, concerned about China’s friendship with India’s principal competitor in South Asia, Pakistan, and also with Beijing’s growing economic and military relationships in the Indian Ocean region.

For its part, Beijing is deeply concerned about India’s growing naval clout in the Indian Ocean. It fears that India, possibly in collusion with the US, could interdict its oil in times of rising tension or war. Even though India is far weaker than China, it has the advantage of occupying a strategic “box seat” in the Indian Ocean. It also shares many commonalities with the US in its longer-term strategic outlook and the two navies frequently exercise together.

All this gives rise to a classic “security dilemma” in the Indian Ocean region — one in which China fears India might cut off its oil, while India fears China’s counter-maneuvers are intended to “surround” it.

If this were not bad enough, the Indian Ocean is surrounded by some of the poorest, most troubled countries in the world. It confronts enormous issues of poverty and food and water scarcity. It suffers serious nonconventional security threats: Terrorism, people smuggling and trafficking, drug and gun smuggling, piracy and a host of environmental and natural disaster challenges.

Any actions that would have the effect of deepening this security dilemma, such as the proposals recently floated in Washington to base US reconnaissance aircraft on the Cocos (Keeling) Islands and nuclear-powered submarines at HMAS Stirling (the Royal Australian Navy’s largest base, located in the southern suburbs of Perth, West Australia) should be avoided. China would definitely interpret any such moves as an attempt to threaten its “soft underbelly” — its high dependency on Middle East oil — during times of rising tension.

What is needed instead is a strategy designed to provide for joint action in the “commons”, to alleviate the sense of insecurity on the part of the major powers that their legitimate interests in the Indian Ocean might not be met.

Unfortunately, the security-building mechanisms in the Indian Ocean are inadequate and show little prospect of improvement. Unlike the Asia-Pacific, where four great powers (the US, China, Japan and Russia) to an extent balance each other, India is by far the dominant littoral power in the Indian Ocean. Australia has the next most powerful navy, and it can only aspire to be a middle power.

This means that India is able to dominate the security-building mechanisms in the Indian Ocean: No India, no viable mechanisms. As with any great power, India will use its influence to ensure its wishes are met. Those wishes have more to do with locking out what it fears to be a China-Pakistan combination, rather than building a regime capable of solving some of the region’s manifest problems so that can all “rise on the same tide”.

So, Canberra should be working quietly trying to convince New Delhi that the best way to ensure that China doesn’t seek a permanent military presence in the Indian Ocean region would be to work with it to alleviate its concerns, through collective action to address the non-conventional and other problems of the region.

This would not be a short-term prospect, however. Australia’s challenge would be to convince Washington of this need, as much as it would be to convince India and China. But we must make a beginning. The Indian Ocean must remain “the great connector”, which has been its principal role throughout its long history.

If, indeed, US forces require reinforcing in the Indian Ocean, then at the very least it will be important to ensure that they are perceived to be, and are in fact, designed to assist the region meet its multifarious nonconventional security challenges. This would, in turn, require that Washington take a stronger interest in security building mechanisms in the region than it has hitherto.

Prof. Sandy Gordon is an associate at the Future Directions International, a think tank based in Perth, West Australia. He is a visiting fellow at the College of Arts and the Pacific, Australian National University, Canberra, and author of Security and Security Building in the Indian Ocean region.