Lowy Lecture Series: 'Indo-Pacific balancing act - In search of a middle power coalition' by Dr C. Raja Mohan
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Lowy Lecture Series: 'Indo-Pacific balancing act - In search of a middle power coalition' by Dr C. Raja Mohan

On 9 October 2013, leading Indian strategic thinker and Lowy Institute Nonresident Fellow Dr C Raja Mohan delivered a public lecture on the prospects of developing a middle power coalition in the Indo-Pacific. Please see below for the full transcript of the event.

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Executive Summary

Indo-Pacific balancing act: In search of a middle power coalition

Dr C. Raja Mohan

9 October 2013


Thank you, Rory. It’s a delight to be here this afternoon.

At the outset, I must say that it has been a great privilege to be associated with the Lowy Institute, both institutionally, as the ORF does a lot of things with Lowy, we do the track-2 Australia-India dialogue. We also personally have been collaborating on a number of things and I personally have been a Nonresident Fellow here.

I think this engagement for us has been a huge opportunity because in the last ten years we’ve seen the India-Australia relationship improve considerably. Therefore I think for us it’s been a huge opportunity for me personally to be able to engage our Australian friends – I see the High Commissioner sitting here – it’s been a great opportunity for us to reach out to the Australian strategic community.

The idea of middle powers has got long lineage in Australia, so I’m not going to bring coals to Newcastle, as they say, and nor would I get into a theoretical debate about what constitutes a middle power and what the middle powers ought to do here in that sense.

What I plan to do is really to begin by outlining some of the assumptions that I have and then briefly review the choices the middle powers have at this point, given what’s happening between US and China, and then a look at the web of security co-operation that’s begun to emerge. Those of you who are familiar with the Center for a New American Security (CNAS), they produced a report in the middle of this year that has outlined some related stuff. Then I’ll examine the logic and prospects for such a middle power coalition in Asia, and conclude with a broad proposition that a deeper co-operation between India and Australia could be a critical element in shaping the coalition for the longer term.

As I said, this idea is a work in progress so I’m looking forward to a lot of feedback and an interactive session, and of course that means actually please push back if you don’t like it. I’m sure a lot of you will do.

In terms of the assumptions I mentioned, whichever way you define middle powers, the fact is Asia has a large number of countries which have fairly large populations, significant resources, strong economic growth. So many of them in the region have significant military and other power potential and, unlike in Europe, many of these countries are not going to simply sit back and accept what the great powers are going to do.

Throughout the last 60 to 70 years the attempt by these countries has been to shape the environment and not merely to accept what is being given by the other powers. Now South Korea, Indonesia, Vietnam, Australia, all of them in different ways can be considered as middle powers, but there are also others who could emerge as middle powers. Take a country like the Philippines, which is highly under-rated, but if the Philippines continues to grow with its large population, in ten years down the road if they begin to build a significant maritime force, they can make a difference, too. So I think what you’re seeing is that many of these countries here will acquire considerable military capabilities in the coming years.

What about India? Does India fit into this notion of a middle power coalition?

Of course, one way of thinking about India is India is an emerging power; another way of thinking about India is India is a large middle power, and actually you can think of India as the weakest of the major powers and the strongest of the middle powers, whichever way you want to put it. I want to argue that India is part of this [middle power definition].

The second assumption I have is that many countries in Asia, I think, have a tradition of non-alignment, of not accepting the great power discipline that the Cold War or the confrontation between them has produced. I think many of them are beginning to figure out, some of them who were not non-aligned are also beginning to figure out the virtues of having greater freedom of space in operating.

There are other countries like Vietnam, which broke away from one set of alliances and is today trying to diversify its security co-operation with a large number of countries. And there are others like Philippines which pulled back from the US relationship but is today going back.

So I think what you have is then a considerable fluidity in the existing situation.

The third set of assumptions I want to talk about is that until now we had the dominance of the hub-and-spoke system, of the US bilateral alliances as opposed to the NATO type of multilateral alliance that you had in Europe. But what we’ve seen happen, and I think the CNAS report maps it quite well, is that the spokes are beginning to interact with each other. Each of the five bilateral alliances with Japan, Australia, South Korea, the Philippines and Thailand - ignoring Thailand for a moment - these four are beginning to do a lot more things with each other, and I’ll come back to that point a little bit later.

Finally I think that given this large number of middle powers, that they can, in one way or another, try and influence this environment around them rather than merely submit to the logic that the Sino-American rivalry presents itself.

That brings me to the second set of issues: how do we look at the Asian context, the rise of China and the US rebalance?

This is going to be, I think, quite a structural tension out there between the rise of Chinese power and the American alliance system out here. There is, one way or another, no way of ignoring this tension between China’s rise and the historic US primacy in this part of the world.

At the military level, of course, there is the tension between American forward presence and the Chinese military strategy which is to – what did Mao Zedong say many years ago? It’s all right, the Americans are snoring next to our bed and some day we’re going to tell them, so would you like to move on a little bit? That’s why I think that the balance in the region, that the Chinese strategy is going to produce a tension between the American forward presence.

Given this context, you can think of eight possible scenarios, eight possible ways in which this could play out. And what does it mean for the middle power?

One is, like many Chinese scholars in the US say, a Sinocentric order is the natural scheme of things so let’s just accept it, there’s no point resisting it. Of course it’s easy for the Americans to say it but for the Japanese, for the Indians, a lot of them are not going to simply accept the Sinocentric order, it’s not necessarily going to be acceptable to many.

Second is a cold war between US and China, but as I said, Asia is not Europe and Asia is not going to accept the – even assuming there is a tension between the two of them – we’re not going to simply submit to the kind of a discipline that comes with that.

Third, there is the G2. Very few of us like it and even less acceptable are other forms in which the US and China could accommodate each other.

There is the idea of spheres of influence, there’s one way they could do it, that would be even less acceptable to countries like India who would say, look, if you’re going to cede – as one of the Chinese admirals said, it depends on which side you’re looking at. If, say, west of Hawaii is with the Chinese and east of Hawaii is with the Americans, that’s fine for the Americans but it’s not going to be acceptable to those who live on this side of Hawaii.

Then there is the offshore balancer. That’s another option for the Americans, but then the questions will be that many Americans don’t like the idea and many Asians would ask, would the US be reliable with an offshore balancing strategy, so there is that problem.

Then, of course, there is the idea of a concert of powers. I think Rory and others from Lowy Institute have published something on this. We would love to be in the concert but I’m not sure everyone is going to like a concert that only has India-China-US or India-China-US-Japan. So constructing a concert in a traditional sense of the post-Napoleonic system is not going to be easy either.

Of course, the ideal solution would be a collective security system; then, of course, we can dream on but very few people believe that actually we could construct such a system.

So that leaves potentially a middle power coalition as one option.

The rest of my talk is really to see whether such a coalition can actually work.

At this point, one is not visualising this as in opposition to the existing American alliance system, before our Australian friends say, look, this is about subverting the American alliance system. No. In fact, I really would love the Americans to do the balancing in this part of the world, love to be a free rider. But it seems the days of free riding are coming to an end so therefore we’ve got to think deeper than merely saying, we have no choice, there is a China price to be paid, or there is no option but to merely attach yourself completely to the Americans.

So I think the essence of the middle power coalition is to look at those different options.

Now if you look in terms of the web of co-operation that has already taken place, as I said already, the spokes of the hub-and-spoke system are doing a lot more things with each other. All of them are also engaging countries which are beyond the alliance system, which is certainly a new thing for Japan. Japan is doing a lot of things today in Southeast Asia and with India, which are outside the American alliance system. But then people see the importance today in Japan of reaching out in South East Asia, India and the other countries.

Then there are the range of other countries, starting with India. I think in the last ten years of the number of defence co-operation agreements that have been signed by different middle powers in this part of the world. India started in 2003 with Singapore, a defence co-operation agreement, and since then it’s across the board, from Myanmar to Vietnam, from Japan to Australia. The scope and scale of Indian agreements has been significantly advanced over the last many years. Australia is doing the same. South Korea is doing the same. Vietnam has done the same. I was reading, Vietnam has put out something last week, sixty-five defence co-operation agreements. They’re just going anywhere. Whoever you can reach out to and do something with, keep doing it because the scale of the problem they visualise up there is so serious.

Even in the last two months, you have Vietnam and Indonesia sign a strategic partnership agreement. Singapore and Vietnam signed a strategic partnership agreement.

So what you’re seeing is an intense acceleration of attempts at constructing security partnership agreements.

How far can this go? At this point, many of them are merely dialogues; some of them are memorandums of understanding; some are declaratory; there are port calls by navies, there are goodwill missions, there are regular exchanges of different delegations including ministers.

In some cases, of course, they are little more serious, there are access arrangements. India calls regularly at the Changi base in Singapore, which gives it some advantage; we give facilities to the Singaporeans in India to do their testing of their artillery and other stuff in India. So there are slightly more than merely demonstrative things to actually co-operate between different groups.

Then there are arms transfers. I think you’re beginning to see some of it happen. You see Japan giving coastguard vessels to the Philippines; you have South Korea selling arms to Indonesia; South Koreans selling us mine sweepers. So what you’re beginning to see, what used to be historically arms transfers from outside, from the US, Russia and France, today you’re seeing some inter-regional arms transfers, and I think this is a new trend that is taking place.

There are also ideas for potentially joint research and development; for example, India and Indonesia – our ambassador here, High Commissioner here has served in Indonesia many years, presided over some of those agreements – but actually we’re looking at potential co-production of weapons systems.

Now this is the review, and that brings me to what is the prospect over the longer term for such co-operation.

One is clearly there is the fear of a rising China, which is the principal source of this regional activism on the different fronts. Few, I think, are willing to bet absolutely that China’s rise is going to be peaceful, so therefore you need to hedge.

Second, while most, as I said, would love to see the Americans do the heavy lifting, there are concerns about potential American decline or lack of American political will, it’s all over the papers in the last few days. These are temporary phenomena, I don’t see the Americans leaving these parts any time soon, but the questions about the long-term commitment and what they do, and the temptation to find some solution with the Chinese, that would generate some concerns here in Asia.

Therefore the question is: how do we insure against the twists and turns in the US-China relationship? Are we going to be merely responding to ups and downs of that relationship, or do we insure by doing more cooperation between ourselves so that we create a framework that, like a shock absorber, can take some pressure off the twists and turns in the US-China relationship.

Most countries here, I think, would want to do more things with the US. They also have a problem that you don’t want to put all your eggs in the American basket, given the uncertainty about the US role. And it’s not a secret that many countries in Asia still have a problem in terms of their governance being seen too close to the Americans, even among the traditional allies versus the new partners like India and Indonesia. So therefore what you have is a set of circumstances that limit or constrain how far you can go with the US.

Given that fact, how do we structure? For India, for example, it’s far easier for India to co-operate with Japan – politically, I’m talking about, where there’s much less political opposition within India to do more things with Japan than with the United States. There’ll always be somebody saying, why are doing this with the US, but where we’ve done things with Japan there’s very little resistance as long as it is seen as in a bilateral framework.

Now, is there any historic basis for this, to imagine a middle power coalition in this part of the world? If you look at the last 70 years, I think long before ASEAN was invented there was something called the Colombo Powers. The people who spoke in the name of Asia in the 50s were India, Indonesia, Burma, Sri Lanka at that time, we’re talking about Colombo Powers, essentially arguing, look, we don’t accept the framework that’s being laid down by US and Soviet Union and there are other ways of organising, shall we say, the Asian system of international relations. A lot of those ideas have come back today through ASEAN and EAS, but at that point it was quite bold to say we’ll construct an alternative form.

While that would seem an exaggeration of creating – you can get into that debate, I don’t want to go into Asia’s uniqueness and all the Lee Kuan Yew kind of stuff – what I want to say is that there is a tradition of an Asian way doing things or of Asians working together. Two agreements, for example, in the Indian case – we all talk about India’s non-alignment but it’s easy to forget the security treaties that Nehru signed. He signed two security treaties beyond the sub-continent: one was with Burma, one was with Indonesia - we’re talking about 1951. Even as he was talking about non-alignment, even as he was talking about Asian solidarity, there were two specific security co-operation agreements, both back to back. They were signed in March-April 1951, and were about being essentially willing to work with Indonesia and Burma, to look at the larger security dynamic.

So those in India who have today reduced non-alignment to a mantra, do not fully understand what Nehru was trying to do, which was, even while seeking space between the super powers, you were actually constructing room for yourself by expanding security co-operation. In fact, there was a project with Egypt, for example, India and Indonesia and Egypt tried to build a fighter plane. A bit of a crazy idea at that point of time but the fact was, the idea that you can actually do joint weapons production: that goes back to the 50s, at the very beginning of the non-aligned phase.

Then we have the Five Power Defence Arrangement. The British are there, I don’t know how many ships they’re bringing these days; I believe it’s mostly Australian ships. But here are other forms of alliance which were not merely reflective of the US or Russian structures.

Given all this background, where does this idea go in future? We can argue that there is room for significant expansion of this defence co-operation between the regional powers with Asia, because all of them are going to have more money to spend and they’re already doing that. You could synergise by sharing your capabilities, by sharing intelligence, by promoting interoperability, and by giving each other mutual access; like Singapore giving us access to Changi, which extends the range of the Indian Navy into the South China Sea.

Similarly there are other things one can do for each other, which would actually enhance the effectiveness of the armed forces, of each of them, if we work together, rather than merely each one living in a silo and saying, each one of us is a separate ship.

So I think there are ways in which you could expand this co-operation for everyone’s benefit.

What has been the reaction so far in terms of the major powers? The US, of course, is quite encouraging for India, for example, to do more on its own in East Asia, it supported India’s policies in this part of the world. I think as long as it is not seen as a counter to the American alliance system, many in the US, I think, would see this actually as supportive, not as disruptive. I think that’s what the CNAS report’s main conclusion is.

The CNAS report also talks about American fears of being dragged into a conflict by your friends. And precisely for that reason, I think, that an independently driven structure within the region will have much value on its own without having to be seen as dragging the Americans into a conflict or demanding that the US do a lot more than they want to at a given point of time.

The Chinese reaction, I think, we haven’t seen any so far. But my sense is the Chinese argument is so focused on what the Americans are doing that anything we do with the Americans becomes a plot to contain the Chinese. Of course, the Chinese never asked our permission when they were doing things with the Americans, but that’s a different story. At this point, the idea is that they can simply limit what India or other countries in Asia can do with the Americans by denouncing every act of collaboration with the US as somehow anti-China.

If you pull in Asian solidarity or intra-Asian defence co-operation, that’s going to be much harder for the Chinese to challenge politically and argue that this is some kind of plot by them. So in a sense this would have greater political salience, both domestically within each country as well as acceptability within the region, so I would think politically there would be a lot of space for such an approach.

Given that, let me come to the last two points. One, we certainly have a web today, as I said, an explosion of bilateral defence contacts, and some trilateral contacts, in this part of the world, but a web is only a web, it has no core. What you have is that countries on their own have expanded their engagement with each other but they can turn this web into a coalition. Because a coalition is more than a web, it is also less than an alliance. It could be an ad hoc coalition; it could be a coalition limited to a particular geographic region; it could be limited to a particular function.

So if we can think of potential coalitions which can be flexible or which do not involve the kind of commitments an alliance makes, but would still create sufficient synergies between the expanding military capabilities of the different coalitions.

To be successful, such a coalition would still need a core, and that brings me to the last point I wanted to make, which is really about - can India and Australia fill that role? Because Australia is a US treaty ally, India is non-aligned, but does that make a difference?

As I said already, for example, India and Australia have quite an expansive relationship – at least, declaratory-wise we have many declarations. From 2006 we had a declaration on security co-operation, and in 2009 there was something on maritime security. But if we look at the geography and look to the future, as long as we don’t try to impose one ideology on the other, India is not asking Australia to give up its alliance, Australia is not going to ask India to give up its non-alignment, but we have fairly significant maritime capabilities, both of us; can we pool those resources for common good? Are there things, for example, in terms of the ocean that is shared by us, can we do more practical things?

For example, Cocos Islands – I was just talking to friends, we’re not going to claim it, the East India Company found it, but that’s a mere historic record. The fact is, out there, if you look, talking about SLOCs, if you’re talking about sea lanes, if you’re looking at long-term security in the Indo-Pacific or the eastern Indian Ocean at least, there are things India and Australia can actually do, a lot more things that they can do with each other.

We’ve had our first visit by an Indian defence minister here, but I think that’s just the beginning. Historically, this is the first time an Indian defence minister has come to Australia, so I think we’re beginning to do things, but I think what we need to do is going to be a lot more.

I see the Australians are debating the future of their amphibious forces. India, for example, needs stronger amphibious forces, stronger special forces; so you’re talking about doing things together to strengthen India’s own capacity to project power.

We could pool our resources in terms of FPDA, for example. Can India be part of it in some way – because we’re going up and down between the two oceans all the time, if you do one single annual exercise, why not have India participate in it as an observer, whatever you want? There is an existing mechanism; in fact, if you go back to the history of FPDA – FPDA was a response to India’s inward turn. That we did not have the resources of the Raj to secure this part of the world, therefore we had to create alternative arrangements.

So I think if we step back and say, look, purely looking at it functionally, the many things that India and Australia can do in the coming years. And as we begin that process that could create a foundation on which there are areas where, for example, India and Australia can work with Indonesia, there could be areas where India, Japan and Australia can work. So I think once you have a core set of clearly understood terms on which India and Australia expand their defence co-operation, then I think it provides a basis for a much wider set of possibilities in the region.

Of course, this can be criticised in many ways, and that’s why I’m trying to anticipate some of the criticism that comes. Can coalitions really survive? Can you actually do without the Americans? Where is your basic weaponry going to come from? All that is true. We’re not saying that this idea is going to be implemented tomorrow. But I think if India and Australia begin to deepen their bilateral co-operation, it can create the basis for over the next decade, that we create terms and conditions for more expansive regional co-operation which is in tune with both Australia’s interests, even while it remains allied, and India’s own tradition of strategic diplomacy. That both can get reinforced if we can find a way of working together and to construct the core of such a coalition, then I think it generates options today that do not exist.

Those of us in India could say that you have no choice being a junior partner for the Americans, or a buddy of the Chinese. Or those in Australia who say there is no choice, America and China are going to share power and we’ve just got to live with it. I think the problem for all of us is none of wants a fight with the Chinese. The Chinese are going to be huge economic opportunity. But at the same time, the concerns about Chinese power will remain with us. And given the uncertainty in the US position, I think it makes every sense at least to create a structure which initially will create some diplomatic options for the middle powers, but over the longer term can be translated into more substantive military power and other dynamics that can be constructed by the middle powers.

Rory Medcalf: Thank you very much for that, and please don’t go away. I think you’ve planted some ideas here that are going to have a really fascinating germination. I’m going open to the room to discussion in a moment. I might just make a few brief points first.

A few things I neglected to do earlier. First I want to acknowledge a few other special guests here. I just realised the Indian High Commissioner has joined us, His Excellency Biren Nanda, and the Consul General, Arun Kumar Goel, you’re very welcome to the Lowy Institute. It’s notable that there’s an Indian warship among the foreign vessels here at the International Fleet Review; in fact, dare I say it, two of the most modern looking ships in the Harbour at the moment are Indian and British, so some of the historical connections you’re talking about there haven’t gone away.

I also want to give a very brief plug for a Lowy Institute publication while you’re all here. There’s a new research paper on defence policy released today by the Institute authored by my colleague, James Brown, and by me, on Australian defence policy. There will be copies of that at the back of the room. Please take one on your way out.

Finally, for those of you who are active on social media, we encourage you to tweet this event and get the conversation going. A few of my colleagues are already putting tweets out there.

Let’s now move to the substance of the thing. I might invite a few colleagues to open the discussion. I might invite Tom Mahnken to offer a few thoughts.

Dr Tom Mahnken, US Naval War College: Thank you. First off Raja, I thought it was an excellent talk and a very thought provoking talk. I had a number of thoughts. The central one really as a starting point is, how you frame the overall security environment in Asia in the Indo-Pacific - this is really key as a starting point. I think you framed it as a Sino-American competition.

I would actually rephrase that somewhat. I actually think what’s characterising the environment is the rise of China, also the rise of India, but the rise of China and responses to it. I think if you take that as a starting point, that actually takes you down a slightly different path.

Now you industriously laid out eight different ways that things could turn out. Let me offer a ninth. I think the idea of a middle power coalition is a provocative one and I think it’s a very intellectually rich one. I’d say also that it does presume some sort of equidistance between the US and China.

However, in laying that out, what I heard you say was concern about the rise of China and then, if I would paraphrase, concern about the staying power of the United States. Maybe that’s a fair characterisation; maybe it isn’t.

It seems to me if those are the two attractive or repulsive forces that are acting on the region, it seems to me there are a couple of different ways to go, one of which I think you laid out quite well – the sort of independent, middle power coalition.

Another way to go is actually thickening up ties to the United States, and in fact I think we see both things going on, so that’s leading to my penultimate point, which is that it is a matter of relative emphasis. There certainly is greater co-operation among Asian powers and I think, speaking as an American academic and a recovering policy maker, that certainly is something that the United States welcomes. We’re not a jealous girlfriend or mistress. So I think the greater co-operation among Asian powers that you outline is an important feature of the security environment.

The other feature is greater co-operation between Asian powers and the United States, going beyond allies but to include countries like Vietnam where there is very much of a different recent past history.

So I guess what I would urge going forward is how do you shade the relative emphasis between those two complementary trends?

Then finally, just maybe a provocative question, to which there is no right answer: If you were here and we were having this discussion in October 2016 instead of 2013, and maybe say in the face of a Chinese economy that’s slowing down and an American economy driven by resources and other innovations that’s actually doing pretty well, how would your argument be different, if at all?

Dr Raja Mohan: Just the two main points you made. I think it can’t be equidistance. There’s no question of equidistance. Because the source of your problem is your neighbour. The gap between Chinese capabilities and each one of us is dramatically expanding and will continue to expand for the foreseeable future, unless, of course, the Chinese slow down and waver – it’s not in the realm of possibility in the short term. So the gap and the capacity of the Chinese to coerce the region is going to increase significantly. And then, as the Chinese themselves say, Uncle Sam is far away, he is not going to come here and protect you, so therefore why don’t you just simply accept the logic of I’m going to be here, I’m big, so why don’t we accommodate to my new position.

So I think the challenge for us is not equidistance, so that’s why it is not non-alignment of the US-Soviet kind, where India was once removed from both and did not face a direct challenge from one of the superpowers. You could argue, this is about equidistance, or independent foreign policy or the Indonesians would say, free and active foreign policy, whatever it was.

Today I think China poses a fundamentally different problem, that it is a neighbour to all of us, it is growing stronger by the day. So then that leaves two essential options. One which is to accommodate the Chinese rise or you rely on the United States to balance the Chinese, which is where it looks to some Australians, for example. Others are arguing that you can’t stop the Chinese rise, you can’t be sure of the Americans, so therefore let’s find a way of accommodating the Chinese. But as I said, that’s not going to be acceptable to Japan, to India, to a large number of countries.

So this is not about trying that equidistance approach but to find a way of building enough capabilities that many of us actually have increased our relationship with the United States. India, which is non-aligned today, has a deeper relationship with the United States. Vietnam today is eager for the US relationship. Philippines, which walked away, is coming back.

So all of us want the US to be around, but then you’re taking an insurance against that by creating this capability, and this capability is not, as I said, meant to substitute the US alliance system or to counter it. But a coalition that is built on indigenous capabilities will have greater political credibility domestically in each of these countries, as well as more acceptability within the region, for example, and within the democratic world.

Everybody says, oh my God, the Americans are promoting India to do this kind of thing, but if you say, if Australia, Indonesia, democracies can stand up and say, look, we think democracy is a great idea, or if Indonesia joins IBSA (India-Brazil-South Africa) and we say, democracy is a good idea, that’s going to be a different argument to the Chinese than the argument that today is it all an American plot.

So I think it creates more space. That’s our main purpose, and I think on the economic thing, down the road, while America will come back, many of us hope that the US comes back, because you still need some American power to be able to balance the Chinese. For us in India, for example, our future is not by selling iron ore to the Chinese. We have a massive trade deficit with the Chinese. Our trade with the US is very different: it is high technology, future oriented industries. So don’t mistake the fact is that still doesn’t solve the problem of the rising Chinese power and the American uncertainties.

So I think the middle power solution is a nice thing in between, which creates enough space by creating synergies between the middle powers.

Rory Medcalf: James Holmes, do you want to take it a bit further?

James H: I’ll just make it a real quick one. I think Tom sucked up most of my words, so I’ll just say one debate that we always have with our students at the War College is whether you need a leading power, a strong leading power to have an effective coalition. How does that impact what you said? An awesome presentation but are we talking, you kept using the singular, talking about a coalition. Is that something that’s going to happen? Who’s going to be the leader, if you need one? What does the geometry of this system look like ten years down the road or what have you?

Dr Raja Mohan: I think that is the issue. As I said, this is a work in progress. I think once you have a strong partnership between India and Australia, or we could make the same argument between India and Indonesia, or Indonesia-Australia, you can take any two significant countries. But I think if you look at the military capabilities today, in the southern part of the Indian Ocean at least, India and Australia have significant capabilities.

The geometry is this: that it doesn’t have to be a fixed alliance-like structure or a NATO type of structure or a kind of rigid organisation which says this is what we are going to do, this is our charter. That’s why I said they can be coalitions, they can be an India-Australia-Indonesia coalition; they can be Australia-Indonesia-Japan coalition. Some of that, we’re beginning to experiment, for example, at least on the political side, there is an India-US-Japan dialogue, there is an India-Japan-Korea dialogue, there is an India-Indonesia-Australia dialogue.

 So I think there is experimentation going on at the political level, but not all of this might translate into the military domain. At least if two of us begin to say, here we are, we’re ready to work with others, as I said, it could be organised in an ad hoc manner, depending on the function. It could be organised in terms of geography. It could be organised in terms of shared values, whichever way you want to cut it. There are many possibilities, but you still need – a leader would be too strong a word, we’ve tried to do that once in Asia and we’ve given up, we’re not trying to lead anybody – but the thing is if two like-minded countries get together and say, here we are, we can do some things together, and can we work with others on a specific function or a specific purpose at a given point of time.

Rory Medcalf: Let’s open it up to the wider group. We’ve got a bit more time for discussion so let’s fire away. Please raise your hands if you’re interested.

Question: That’s an excellent lecture. I think you talked of the hub-and-spoke methodology, and the spokes are starting to talk to each other, but take the case of Australia and India. I think there’s a feeling over here that because we are all reliant on US and Australia will do whatever US will tell them there’s a feeling that Indian diplomacy is not doing much to build the relationships between India and Australia. So how can those spokes talk to each other better?

Dr Raja Mohan: I’m not going to speak for the High Commissioner. But I think where we were just 15 years ago, fighting, arguing, saying that Indian students were thrown out of the Australian Defence College, we kind of made it difficult for the Australian Ambassador in Delhi, the High Commissioner in Delhi. I think from where we have come in the last ten years, both the Howard Government, the Rudd Government, the Gillard Government, and surely the Abbott Government, have invested so much in transforming this relationship with India. I think India has reciprocated. There is so much goodwill today between these two countries. For someone who’s seen worse times, this is truly a remarkable transformation that has taken place and I think finally we are beginning to discover our synergies, our shared heritage, our common values. This is a happy moment in India-Australia relations. Indians in Australia are growing; they’re the fastest growing minority, I believe. And the trade. So you can see all indicators, everything is going upward.

The defence thing has just begun. We’ve had declarations in the past but the defence minister was here, we’re going to do a joint exercise. I think the challenge for us, those who are doing policy analysis, what can we do in the next five years on the defence side, going beyond declaratory visits and that kind of thing, to what is the specific co-operation? I think that’s where we are at this point. Any new ideas from the front would be greatly welcome.

I would say, for example, that we could think of working together to develop capacities in Cocos Islands or do more things in the island states, the islands across the Indo-Pacific, which have become the focus for international attention and maritime attention at this point of time.

Rory Medcalf: If I can add something to that – I join Raja in noting the extraordinary development of the relationship in the last ten to fifteen years. Yes, of course there’s a long way to go and yes, of course there are times when one side thinks the other should be doing more. I would argue that for much of the past five to ten years I’ve seen Australia do more of the running in the relationship, but I do think that has started to change and I acknowledge the many other priorities and pressures from the Indian side.

I do think in the last year or two we’ve seen a bit of a breakthrough in the Indian perception of Australia as a potential strategic partner and I think the challenge now is really going to be internally within India to devote resources to that. Frankly, we’re also going to have to be sure that our new government in this country has its priorities right on that score, but we’ve come a very long way.

I think a more interesting point that we might explore, and that maybe others might touch on in some of their questions as well, is the question of how far can we take all of this, because I think we got a few hints of that in the comments from our American participants here. We’re not talking about a treaty alliance; we’re not talking about an arrangement where essentially there’s a mutual defence agreement and therefore what are the limits of what middle powers can do when the chips are down.

I want to just plant that thought with you for a moment and maybe take one or two more questions from the floor.

Question: Just picking up from your point – I can see such a co-operative arrangement gives flexibility in diplomatic terms and raises the price if there’s any pressure on an individual country, and in terms of preventative measures I can see it creates good architecture. At the point, though, that there’s a real flash point, like a Taiwan Strait issue or something like that, and while there’s still a dominance of China and US, could it all just immediately collapse?

Dr Raja Mohan: Your question, it’s like the old story about who’s going to bell the cat. Are the rats going to be able to stand up when the cat shows up? That’s the question. You can start with the premise that it’s not just going to work, you’re never going to be able to stand up when the cat comes; or you take the proposition that we must prepare for that eventuality over a longer period or term, that we work together. That we create enough capabilities that while you might not be able to cope with Chinese power in Taiwan Strait the things that India, Indonesia, Australia can do which will, just as China has created a shift in regional balance in the western Pacific, the things that India, Australia, Indonesia can do, for example, among all the waterways that connect the Pacific and the Indian Ocean. So there are places where actually you can create capabilities and synergies which would make the Chinese think twice, the cat think twice before it wants to eat up one of the rats.

That’s where the political will comes in. It is finally about political will. When people say, in 1947 or 1950s, we’re going to find our own way, you’ll say, you’re crazy, or course. Some of it was crazy. But the fact is that India and China tried that for 30 years. OK, some good came, some bad came out of it.

I think where there is political will you can create conditions which create some room for playing the game. It’s really working towards that goal, and if things go well it has a value of its own. In a crisis period, of course, there will always be problems. Today, for example, everyone is relying on the US alliance.

People say, US is not willing to say at this point, if it’s going to stand with the Japanese on Senkaku Islands. Does it mean the alliance is useless? Or what do the Japanese do? So where do the Japanese go? One reason why they’re looking at partners is to create some insurance, some hedge against that possibility where the US might not back them.

Rory Medcalf: The question you ask is absolutely valid and it’s a question we’re asking ourselves when we do this thinking and this analysis. It also applies to some extent to the set of alliance relationships in the region. And I’m not talking purely or specifically about the Australia-US but it doesn’t matter in the end what the treaty says; countries will make judgements based on their interests and of course there’s an extremely strong imperative to honour a treaty obligation because it’s in your interests to do so. You think about the consequences the day after.

Even so, whether it’s Australia becoming involved in a crisis where India is more at the forefront or whether it’s Australia being dragged into a crisis where the Philippines is more at the forefront, or wherever it might be, a similar set of questions is going to be asked. What are our interests, our long-term enlightened self-interest in this game?

So I don’t think it’s quite as unique or different a situation from the alliance situation as it looks.

I think also that although we’ve talked a bit about or hinted quite a bit about China in this conversation, we’ve got to bear in mind that China is not the only issue on the table in the region, and in fact a lot of the capacity building that we’re talking about could be in areas like counter-terrorism, or to do with other transnational security issues. It might make sense if - I agree with this, and we’re working on this ‘core partners’ idea - India and Australia have so many commonalities, one could well be in the area of maritime surveillance, which could be turned to a whole lot of different purposes depending on what the future may hold, but if you’ve built a degree of trust and a degree of confidence and a degree of interoperability, then you’ve got a shared tool there for the future but it’s just my own added thought as we work through this.

Let’s take one or two more questions from the floor, or comments as well. We’re very happy to take some substantive comments.

Question: Dialogue is planned among these countries in the region, but it appears that India and China are also getting into their own understandings. The Chinese Prime Minister came to India on his maiden trip, and the Indian Prime Minister is again heading towards China. So what about the co-operation between these two countries? Is it that India will need the Asia-Pacific countries, or that India and China can accommodate each other? As they say that both have enough space to accommodate each other?

Dr Raja Mohan: I think that’s part of the problem, that is the central question everyone, the United States and every single East Asian country and India. China is the single largest economic partner. That’s a fact all of us are going to live with. That’s why I said this is not about distancing yourself from the US coalitions or opposing China for the heck of it. It’s not the US-Soviet Union case. China has the second largest economy in the world. It truly dominates the Asian economic horizon. So you don’t have that option of purely confronting China. The question is: given that tension that you have, that we all want to make money on China, but we are afraid they might do nasty things to you – how do you balance these two objectives? That is the issue.

When the Prime Minister came to India or the Prime Minister is going there, President Obama was there, he and Xi Jinping would have had a nice chat, they met in California – that’s not going to stop, but that is not also going to solve the problems. As I said, the tension between American primacy and the Chinese military power is going to be there. Or the fact that Li Keqiang can come to Delhi, make nice speeches, but at the same time we’ve got a crisis going on the border. That’s not going to disappear any time soon.

So that’s where the issues are.

No one is talking about isolating China or confronting China. You’ve got to keep that engagement going. But to create options for yourself within that framework, that is the main purpose of the coalition.

Rory Medcalf: We've talked a bit about what you might call soft balancing or a set of security arrangements, not a treaty arrangement but still have a kind of military edge to them, whether it’s in capacity building or whatever it may be. I just want to ask you a little bit about diplomacy because one way of looking at this loose coalition is as essentially a diplomatic caucus in the region, whether it’s in the East Asia Summit or other regional groupings, it’s perhaps about trying to find a common voice among middle powers and let’s call India a middle power for the sake of the argument. I haven’t yet come around to that terminology, but I’m happy to play with it - largest middle power or a smaller major power.

The East Asia Summit is meeting this week, unfortunately without President Obama, which is kind of timely for our piece. What role do you see for a kind of working coalition of these middle powers with shared interests in trying to shape diplomatic forums, or in trying to influence the positions of the United States or China in those forums?

Dr Raja Mohan: I think in the short term clearly the emphasis has to be on the diplomatic and the political, like for example today, the argument on the law of the sea. What you have is today, for example, as Asian economies has become so big and its waters have become so central, we have no common understanding on UNCLOS and everyone is for UNCLOS but what they don’t tell you is the devil is in the details. Like all committees, when you put them in a room, they’ll come out with a document, you can interpret it in a thousand different ways. The freedom of military navigation is an issue.

For India, the question is, for Australia, for India as maritime powers, we want to keep the seas open. Can we merely accept the Chinese attempt at territorialisation? Or if we consistently raise a voice in favour of getting, at least on the territorial disputes, you can get the UNCLOS mechanism going – I think if we weigh in together and consistently, it has an effect on the debate, so it’s not just Philippines trying to stand up in an East Asia Summit and the previous Chinese Foreign Minister told this guy, you’re a small country, why are you talking to me? That attitude, that if you have three or four of us to stand up and raise a voice, I think it creates a boost and I think it also places limits at least on the diplomatic space what the Chinese can do. But if you create military synergies, starting with small things, like on maritime domain awareness, mutual access, and of course I’m not from the government so I can say things, that if India has to operate – and India has interests in the South Pacific, you are the deputy sheriff – but the fact is can we work together?

So I think on a range of issues we have shared interests, where previously we were on the opposite side, but if you have two or three countries get together and say, is there a way we can synergise our stuff, then I think on the ground, even in military terms, it begins to produce some effects. But it’s long term. It will take maybe a decade or more, but it starts as a political and diplomatic caucus.

Rory Medcalf: We’re going to have to wrap up in a moment. If there’s any more questions from the floor, I can take a very quick one. Otherwise I might just throw one last comment at you, Raja.

This is a process that in some ways is already under way, but it hasn’t gone very far. How’s it going to begin in earnest? Will it be political leadership? Will it be militaries doing what they do and letting the political leadership work it out at a high level? What’s the first step?

Dr Raja Mohan: I think there are two levels. As always, one is subjective and one is objective. Objectively, I think the Chinese are going to put a lot of pressure on all of us, that we’re not going to have choices but to engage each other, because structurally I think as Chinese power rises it is going to turn the heat on most of us and that requires, that’s going to force us to do a lot more things together.

Subjectively, I think we’ve done all the other things right but on the defence, as I said, there is quite a lot that India and Australia need to do. We’ve had the declaratory stuff. We had the defence minister’s visit, we announced the first bilateral exercise, but I think the moment you think a little step deeper, for example, on MDA (maritime domain awareness); can we share intelligence, can we begin to, say, monitor the traffic in the eastern Indian Ocean and the straits of Malacca, Sunda, Lombok, can we give each other access? If India is given access to Singapore, I don’t see why we can’t – I don’t know if you’re stopping your expeditionary operations but we would like to see Indians come and contribute to the creation of new capabilities in Australia, for example.  If you want to develop new capabilities in Cocos, maybe India can contribute to that effort.

So I think there are different ways in which we can construct that, but subjectively I think it needs good leadership and I think as pressure on India mounts it will have to move. My sense is it will move and as I said, we need to take more initiative from the Indian side. I see that’s bound to come because if you look at the last ten years of India’s declarations, suddenly you find maritime security is kind of front and centre of every single bilateral engagement we have.

So in some senses the logic of circumstances is going to force India to look outwards, to secure its collaboration with other powers, and I think that’s a paradox. As the Indian Navy becomes strong and as India becomes a trading nation, you still need others, you need to work with others, and that’s why I think India will have to move from the lone ranger kind of approach we’ve had to one where you work with building a coalition.

So I think building coalitions would be the logical complement of India’s maritime strategy in the coming years.

Rory Medcalf: We’ve got a lot of food for thought here and certainly we’re going to take these ideas away, and watch out for the research paper in the near future. We’re going to have to maybe go for some Asian middle power metaphors as well; a few fewer deputy sheriffs and lone rangers, but we’ll come up with something.

I want to invite you to thank Raja Mohan for his presentation and once again thanks for coming to the Lowy Institute and watch out for other events we have coming up in the near future. Thank you. 

Areas of expertise: International security and defence; India-Australia relations; Asian strategic issues