When Tony Abbott arrives in New Delhi, his Indian counterpart Narendra Modi will be just off the plane from Tokyo. Their flight paths say a lot about the new geometry of Asian security. Australia and Japan are steadfast US allies, but in a changing region they are not putting all their strategic eggs in the alliance basket.
Amid a rising China’s assertiveness and uncertainties about US responses, it is time for regional powers to embark on new and creative ways to keep stability in Asia. This is not a replacement for partnership with the US or efforts to engage with China, but a complement to both; many countries are looking beyond traditional approaches to security: US alliances, non-alignment and multilateral institutions such as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
Coercive behaviour against Vietnam, The Philippines and Japan have alarmed security establishments, making them ponder whether this is the template for how a powerful China will behave. Meanwhile relations between China and the US have been on a troubled trajectory. Moments of co-operation, such as China’s involvement in multi-nation naval exercises off Hawaii, cannot mask mistrust or escalation of risk, such as the midair incident involving Chinese and US military aircraft.
Many governments in the region weigh the possibilities of US-China confrontation and conflict. But they must also be pondering a very different long-run scenario, a US accommodation of China that subordinates the interests of many countries in between. Thus, it should be no surprise that India, Japan, Australia and several substantial Southeast Asian countries are quietly expanding security cooperation, as well as with the US.
But this has been tentative and the time has come for a step change. In a recent research paper, we have proposed the creation of “middle power coalitions”: informal arrangements where regional players co-operate with one another on strategic issues, working in self-selecting groups that do not include China or the US.
Areas of co-operation could be security dialogues, intelligence exchanges, military capacity-building, technology-sharing, agenda-setting for regional forums and co-ordinated diplomatic initiatives to influence US and Chinese strategic calculations. This would build resilience against the vagaries of US-China relations, including against the extremes of conflict or collusion.
This new kind of regional self-help also would reinforce the multipolar quality of the emerging Indo-Pacific order, encouraging continued US engagement without unduly provoking China. It would promote prudent mutual assistance among regional nations and thus could hardly be caricatured as US-led “containment”.
How to begin? One promising option would be to build on the strategic partnership between India and Australia. These two countries may seem an unlikely couple: two democracies very different in economic development, population and diplomatic traditions. Yet Delhi and Canberra have drawn much closer in the past decade. Historical mistrust over nuclear matters has been surmounted, while their strategic interests have converged on issues such as maritime security, counter-terrorism and a regional order not dominated by any one power.
Australia and India have their own substantial capabilities, the benefits of their strategic geography close to vital sea lanes and the potential to engage and mobilise a wide range of partners between them: a mix of US allies and notionally non-aligned states.
The Prime Minister’s visit to India reportedly will involve the signing of a nuclear safeguards agreement, allowing Australian uranium to be sold to India for civilian energy purposes. This will erase an old obstacle of political mistrust and ease the way for Australia and India to pursue deeper security co-operation.
Part of their coalition-building could focus on Indonesia, an emerging maritime power that fellow multicultural Indo-Pacific democracies need to respect and cultivate. India and Australia would stand a good chance of involving Indonesia in a three-way security dialogue, and perhaps a maritime surveillance regime focused on the approaches to the strategically vital Malacca, Sunda, Lombok and Makassar straits.
India could use its ties with Vietnam, and Australia its defence links with Singapore and Malaysia, to encourage those states towards a more region-wide approach to security co-operation.
For its part, a more confident Japan is integral, not as the leader but as a valued partner. India and Australia could encourage Tokyo to continue its defence “normalisation” while helping it find ways to separate present policy from historical baggage. India, Australia and other middle players could form a ready-made grouping to work with the Chinese navy on issues such as disaster relief, search and rescue and counter-piracy.
Such initiatives would fit well with Canberra’s efforts to deepen Asian partnerships, and confirm that being a US ally is no impediment to an adaptable and independent foreign policy.