Commentary | 24 June 2013

Two nations take lead in securing Indo-Pacific century

In this opinion piece in The West Australian, International Security Program Director Rory Medcalf and Lowy Institute Nonresident Fellow Dr C Raja Mohan argue that Western Australia is a natural strategic link between Australia and India in the Indo-Pacific.

  • C Raja Mohan
  • Rory Medcalf

In this opinion piece in The West Australian, International Security Program Director Rory Medcalf and Lowy Institute Nonresident Fellow Dr C Raja Mohan argue that Western Australia is a natural strategic link between Australia and India in the Indo-Pacific.

  • C Raja Mohan
  • Rory Medcalf

Executive Summary

Two nations take lead in securing Indo-Pacific century

Raja Mohan and Rory Medcalf

The West Australian

24 June 2013

 

When India's Defence Minister A. K. Antony travelled to Australia this month, his first port of call was Perth. His Australian counterpart Stephen Smith's decision to invite him symbolised the growing convergence of interests between WA and India.
Today, the threefold logic of geography, economics and regional security is pushing India and Australia closer.

As Delhi and Canberra rediscover each other after decades of mutual neglect, WA is emerging as a strategic link between the two powers.

The logic of geography that binds WA and India has been evident since the sailors of the Dutch East India Company stumbled on to Australia's west coast in the early 17th century.

James Stirling, who established what would become Perth, had a distinguished career in the Royal Navy that included command of the battleship HMS Indus.

Stirling's Swan River Colony is now the pulsating heart of a State whose rich natural resources fuel the economic growth in Asia. India was the fifth largest trading partner for WA in 2011 but the full potential remains to be tapped.

Beyond its growing economic importance for India, WA is also becoming consequential in New Delhi's security calculus.

As China and India rise, they bend the spaces around them and reshape the traditional understanding of regional geography. For much of the second half of the past century, the Pacific and Indian oceans were seen as separate regions, not least because China and India had unnaturally closed economies.

As China and India rise to be trading powers, pursue interests far from their shores and seek to project power, the two oceans are now widely perceived as one geopolitical theatre.

Though the term "Indo-Pacific" might sound new, it refers to the same region that once bound India and Australia.

But the region needs more than a readjustment of mental maps. It needs a strong web of security co-operation among other powers that have long relied on the US.

The changing distribution of power and the Chinese challenge to US primacy demands that countries like India and Australia bear larger responsibility for security. The future of the Indo-Pacific can't be tied solely to the twists and turns of the dynamic between Washington and Beijing.

India and Australia can and should take a lead in shaping a new web of arrangements for co-operation, based on interests, capabilities and the will to share the burdens of regional security. This could begin with a candid three-way security dialogue with Indonesia.

Together, Australia and India could help ensure the new Indo-Pacific order is stable and predictable.

Mr Antony's visit marked a step forward with an agreement on regular exercises between the two navies.

As the Australian navy devotes more attention to its western front and the Indian navy looks east, we can expect to see Indian ships exercising with the fleet out of HMAS Stirling.

And new scope for partnership will open up as the two countries acquire the same kind of advanced maritime patrol aircraft from the US, meeting their overlapping needs for ocean surveillance.

Both countries are recognising the geopolitical value of their island territories. As the islands of the Indian Ocean become crucial real estate in the Indo-Pacific, India and Australia can work together in building the maritime capabilities of the small island states and helping them secure their exclusive economic zones.

Neither India nor Australia desire or aspire to exclude China from the security order. There will be times when these powers will train or work together on regional contingencies, such as disaster relief.Beijing has no illusions that Australia is a US ally or that strengthened India-US security links are here to stay.

Ultimately, though, all trading nations have a shared interest in keeping the sea lanes open for the commerce - much of it from WA - that is building, feeding and fuelling this Indo-Pacific century.

Raja Mohan is a leading Indian strategic analyst and a non-resident Fellow at the Lowy Institute. Rory Medcalf is director of the International Security Program at the Lowy Institute. They will be speaking tonight at the UWA Club.