Speeches | 21 May 2013

Whose Indo-Pacific? China, India and the United States in the regional maritime security order

On 21 May 2013, International Security Program Director Rory Medcalf made a presentation at the Asia-Pacific Centre for Security Studies Workshop on Maritime Cooperation in the Indo-Pacific Region: China, India and U.S. Perspectives. The full text of his remarks is included below.

  • Rory Medcalf

On 21 May 2013, International Security Program Director Rory Medcalf made a presentation at the Asia-Pacific Centre for Security Studies Workshop on Maritime Cooperation in the Indo-Pacific Region: China, India and U.S. Perspectives. The full text of his remarks is included below.

  • Rory Medcalf
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Executive Summary

It is a pleasure to be here, to share some of my observations as a strategic analyst with so many experienced practitioners of Indo-Pacific maritime security.

At one level, my remarks here today will be about what I was asked to address: the roles of the United States, China and India in something called the Indo-Pacific strategic order.

But to get there, I also want to talk to you about words, maps, geography and economics, and how this all connects to maritime security and ultimately prospects for cooperation or competition.

I will try to do two things. First, I think it is worth illustrating why we are truly entering an Indo-Pacific era and why it makes sense to talk about such a large region as the stage for maritime security cooperation – for the provision of security public goods – by the US, China and India as principal powers.

I am not going to offer a detailed breakdown on whether this serves the interests of some countries more than others. With one exception: I will try to point to some of the ways in which the economic and strategic interconnectedness of this new two-ocean super-region is both about mutual benefit and mutual vulnerability for China, India, the United States and other significant states.

Second, I will offer some preliminary thoughts on the principles for effective maritime security cooperation and reassurance to help maintain stability, peace and order during a time of great change in the Indo-Pacific.

This conference is timely. I have just come here from India, where I found myself in Delhi at the same time as Chinese Premier Li. His wise decision to choose India as his first international port of call in his new leadership role perfectly illustrates the growing centrality of the China-India relationship to this Indo-Pacific century.

And only last week, Indonesia’s Foreign Minister called for a region-wide treaty to safeguard what he termed the ‘Indo-Pacific’ engine of global growth.

These two developments make it clear that today’s conference, on maritime security cooperation in the Indo-Pacific, is not merely an academic exercise, with all due respect to the scholars present.

The map of Asia is changing. We need to think in terms of the Indo-Pacific, or Indo-Pacific Asia.

What may seem merely new and unusual vocabulary actually has deep strategic implications, especially for the three chief powers of this region.

In a speech in Washington on May 16, Indonesia’s Marty Natalegawa added his voice, the most significant in Southeast Asian foreign policy, to a number of other important voices that in the past six months have included the Prime Ministers of India and Australia as well as two US Secretaries of State.

All are redefining the global center of economic and strategic gravity not narrowly as East Asia but as an Indo-Pacific region connecting the Pacific and Indian oceans. All are looking for ways to manage strategic tensions arising from shifting power balances across this big canvas.

American officials are defining their country’s so-called strategic rebalance to Asia as being a tilt towards the Indian Ocean as well as the Pacific.

Of course, in this town the term promoted by Admiral Locklear and PACOM is Indo-Asia-Pacific, though I hope to have an opportunity to propose to our friends at PACOM that calling it Indo-Pacific Asia would be more elegant.

In all of this, my country, the land down under is front and center. Australia, with its two-ocean geography, recently released a defence policy white paper that made it the first country in the world to define its region of strategic interest as the Indo-Pacific. That makes sense for us as a nation dependent on maritime trade, exports, a rules-based order and the great regional commons.

Australia, like Indonesia, like Singapore, indeed like Burma in its way, has an unusually central role in this new super-region, a role out of proportion to our size. And it is based on our geography but also the nature of our strong relationships with the big three powers of the Indo-Pacific, China, America, India, not to forget another major Indo-Pacific power, Japan.

Now, not everyone in Asia seems fully convinced yet about the new way of talking, Indo-Pacific. I realise that some of our friends in China may have uncertain feelings about this term. After all, the expression Indo-Pacific does seem to give a certain prominence to India.

But I think it is factually incorrect to suggest that the Indo-Pacific idea is somehow about excluding China. It is not. Quite the opposite.

China has indisputably important interests in the Indian Ocean region.

In fact, China will need to get used to this new way of defining its region because it is in some ways the quintessential Indo-Pacific nation, the most Indo-Pacific of nations, because of its expanding and legitimate interests across the Indian Ocean.

It is true that the new shape of Asia as the Indo-Pacific means that China is not the only large power in the region. This is too big a region for any nation’s pre-eminence. So the power of all nations is diluted in this big context. And that is why there is a greater need than ever for all major powers to contribute to public goods and the maintenance of stability across this region.

At its essence, the Indo-Pacific means recognising that the past decade’s rapid growth in energy, economic and security connections between the Western Pacific and the Indian Ocean region has created a single strategic system.

More important than notional outer boundaries, the region has some clear organising principles, notably the economic and strategic interactions of great and rising powers. Such a transformed way of seeing the world is mapped in large part by the critical needs of China and other East Asian economies for energy, resources and trade across the Indian Ocean, India’s emergence in the Pacific, and the critical strategic role and presence of the United States in both.  It links the growing wealth, interests, reach and military heft of China and other traditionally Pacific powers like Japan with the Indian Ocean region's resources, shipping routes and problems, from piracy to political and environmental fragility.

The Indo-Pacific not only breaks down the late 20th century idea of East Asia and South Asia as separate strategic settings, it emphasises the sea as conduit for commerce and competition. The Indian Ocean is now the globe’s busiest and most strategically significant trade route, carrying two thirds of world oil shipments and a third of the world’s bulk cargo. Moreover, the needs and demands of Asia’s growing middle classes will accelerate the exploitation of that ocean’s own resources, mineral and fish. East Asian fishing fleets have long trawled Indo-Pacific.

This super-region is defined, not by its vast and fluid outer boundaries, which are hard to agree on, but by the intersecting interests of its chief powers, China, India and the United States. These are the three powers that today’s conference rightly puts at the heart of security dynamics in this maritime super-region. These are the three countries that have the largest interests at stake and the most to contribute, but which among them are navigating complex relationships.

Now the United States maintains deep strategic equities and a crucial strategic presence throughout the region. The Indo-Pacific is nothing new to PACOM.

And of course part of the Indo-Pacific story is about India’s emergence as a trading power and its engagement with East Asia.

But more of the story is about China, including Beijing’s expanding interactions with New Delhi. Let’s look at China’s interests in the Indo-Pacific a bit more closely. China is now India’s top trade partner, with most of that commerce going by sea.

About 80 percent of China’s oil imports cross the Indian Ocean. China-Middle East trade is projected to reach half a trillion dollars by 2020. China is among Africa’s top five investors and has a more than a million of its nationals living and working there.

So at one level, this Indo-Pacific story is about economics and people.

But while the roots of the Indo-Pacific are economic, the consequences are strategic.

Pacific powers now have deep equities in the security of the Indian Ocean, and India increasingly so in the Pacific. Thanks to the pirates of Somalia, the Chinese and other Asian navies have reason to be in the Indian Ocean for the long haul.

But in responding to transnational threats, there is of course a risk of adding to inter-state suspicions. Unilateral, exclusive or badly-explained efforts to provide public goods can create fears about more strategic agendas at work.

As power balances shift and strong states project their navies into each other’s traditional zones of interest, mistrust, misperception and risks of confrontation will deepen. And this cuts both ways – while for instance India may be suspicious of China’s activities in the Indian Ocean, China will harbour concerns about India or the US strengthening their own partnerships in what is, after all, a region of Chinese maritime vulnerability.

Every power’s capabilities and partnerships in the Indian Ocean will increasingly affect security in the Pacific too. As China’s growing strength raises risks for the United States in some conceivable East Asian contingencies, so will the Indian Ocean and maritime Southeast Asia matter more to American planning.

It’s time to bring a few other countries into the picture. Let’s call them core Indo-Pacific players, Australia, Indonesia, Singapore. With their central locations and value as staging points for American forces, there is no doubt that countries like Australia and Singapore have some scope to help Washington swing capabilities between the two oceans, for all kinds of scenarios.

But, along with Indonesia, these countries are also perfectly placed as hubs for inclusive, reassuring forms of security cooperation, potentially with China, America, India, Japan and other stakeholders in the Indo-Pacific order. This could encompass exercises in such areas as maritime coordination, counter-terrorism and disaster relief. It could also include dialogue to increase military transparency and craft rules or understandings to reduce risks of unintended conflict at sea.

Now, the Indo-Pacific nexus of trade and security is about both transnational and interstate challenges. The safety of Chinese nationals in Africa and the Middle East is already taking Chinese military assets to unfamiliar places, as the assisted evacuations of thousands of Chinese from Libya and Egypt in 2011 attests. And the role of the Indian navy as a security provider is also growing, in the Indian Ocean and beyond.

But of course the ultimate security threats that major powers are seeking to guard their expanding interests against are each other.

For now, much of this is observed in the ballet of security diplomacy – like whose navies train together, whose ships and envoys go where, who talks behind closed doors about what.

For example, the Japanese and the Indians are developing a promising Indo-Pacific security partnership. But despite or because of their growing mutual wariness, China and India have started their own formal maritime security dialogue, endorsed by leaders this week, and this is a wise, far-sighted initiative – to build dialogue before trouble arises, not after.

All this is part of the context in which America must shape its Indo-Pacific rebalance, cooperatively with China and India, but also in a way to reassure allies and others partners.

What can be done?

All of this this leaves key questions about how China can be incorporated into a two-ocean regional order without worsening the security anxieties of others.

A diplomatic and maritime security infrastructure is needed to reduce risks of conflict as great powers expand their interests and reach across this vast shared space. These are uncharted waters but some basic principles can be identified.

Coexistence among the big powers, especially China, India and the United States, will obviously be vital to the super-region’s peace and stability, but others will want a say. Indeed, even if the big three represented here today can ever overcome mistrust or unilateral habits and coordinate as maritime security providers – an Indo-Pacific concert of powers – then there would be a need to convince other powers that that is in their interests too.

Yet the disparities, differences and distances among so many Indo-Pacific countries mean a fully-inclusive regional organisation is not the solution either. It cannot be effective for practical matters like counter-piracy operations or agreements to manage incidents at sea.

Asia’s paramount diplomatic institution, the East Asia Summit, is already Indo-Pacific, as are its kindred ASEAN-centric gatherings. These have begun some good but modest work on dialogue and transparency about defense policy and maritime security tensions, but are typically constrained by consensus rules and Southeast Asia’s weakest links like, as we saw last year, Cambodia.

So to craft ways and rules to manage China’s entry to the Indian Ocean and India’s to the Pacific, an Indo-Pacific security order will need a third layer, between alliances and slow multilateralism.

This means practical ‘minilateral’ dialogues, exercises or security operations among easy-to-coordinate coalitions of self-selecting partners. Sometimes these will include China – as with the anti-piracy patrols – and sometimes not. When a catastrophic tsunami hit Southeast Asia at the end of 2004, a core group of America, India, Japan and Australia rapidly deployed forces to assist.

Today’s more capable China will not miss the next chance to provide a public good that is also good for China’s interests and reach. Its increasing inclusion in minilateral partnerships could help reduce its suspicion that these are the starting points for alliances against it, as was claimed with the short-lived quadrilateral talks that emerged from the tsunami core group.

Middle powers like Australia could help here; there is no reason why it could not host humanitarian drills with for example Chinese, Indian, Japanese, Singaporean and Indonesian forces alongside those US Marines in Darwin.

The principles for who gets to play in effective security cooperation and dialogue in the Indo-Pacific should be simple: those countries with 1. interests at stake, 2. serious capabilities and a readiness to use them, and 3.willingness to help shape and abide by rules and norms for a secure and stable region.

Australia has a strong record of bilateral security dialogue and cooperation with all the Indo-Pacific’s major powers – in fact, sometimes stronger with China than with India, though with India we are now catching up – so Australia is well placed to play a trusted, convening role. I have observed Australia-China naval exercises up close, and there is something worth building on.

The Indo-Pacific is also big enough and complex enough that sometimes, some countries will need to choose mixed partners – some partners for some forms of security cooperation, other partners for other forms.  Nor can any country expect a veto over the exercises, dialogues, or acts of cooperation among the other diverse powers in this setting. Sometimes some countries will see reason to pursue their interests in small self-selecting arrangements, based on the principles of interests, capabilities and willingness to contribute.

For America and India may sometimes choose to exercise or talk with a third party that is not China. And China may sometimes pursue its own arrangements, such as efforts over the years to build exercises or cooperation with specific ASEAN countries. It would be logical for Australia, India and Indonesia to cooperate on surveillance in their contiguous maritime zones.

And for as long as we see tension, uncertainty and risk in regional waters, especially East Asian waters, whether due to differences between some countries and China or due to the provocations by North Korea, then US alliances and partnerships will strengthen, and China needs to understand that as natural defensive behaviour.

Indeed, what is surprising and disappointing so far is how little of the good and practical cooperation, communication, coordination and confidence-building we have seen among navies fighting piracy in the Indian Ocean seems to have been transferred eastwards to manage the tensions in disputed East Asian waters.

There is certainly a need for greater maritime security cooperation and inclusiveness in the wider region, and I know that voices in China are calling for that. But such initiatives need to go hand in hand with genuine efforts to build communication and real confidence-building measures, including real-time operational dialogue to manage incidents at sea, for instance between China and Japan.

To end where I began: In my view, it’s too early for something as grand and inclusive as Mr Natalegawa’s Indo-Pacific treaty, though the sentiment is an excellent one, and the ASEAN Treaty of Amity and Cooperation provides a model. But real maritime security cooperation can begin with practitioners rather than at a political level.

Frank and constructive track 2 or track 1.5 dialogues such as this one will be a crucially important building block. I thank our hosts, I thank you for listening, and look forward to our deliberations.