C. Raja Mohan is a Lowy Institute Nonresident Fellow. He gave a lecture at the Lowy Institute on 9 October 2013 entitled 'Indo-Pacific balancing act: in search of a middle power coalition', the audio for which is available online.
At the Sea Power Conference 2013, which concluded yesterday in Sydney, the emerging web of naval engagement among Asia's middle powers was put into bold relief.
In the session on regional engagement, chaired by the Lowy Institute's Rory Medcalf, this new trend was highlighted by Euan Graham from RSIS and myself.
Dr Graham pointed to the fact that beyond the collective efforts of the ASEAN to promote regional cooperation on maritime security, there was an expanding network of bilateral agreements for maritime security cooperation among key members of ASEAN and between them and other regional powers like Japan, Korea, India and Australia.
My presentation focused on India's emerging naval diplomacy across the Indo-Pacific littoral — from Southern Africa to the South China Sea. I also highlighted a number of policy transitions that Delhi must complete before its impressive naval engagement realises its full potential.
Central to that challenge is the political baggage of 'non-alignment' that limits India's naval diplomacy. I believe India will eventually move from the emphasis on 'strategic autonomy' to the idea of 'strategic influence'.
Put another way, the challenge for India as an emerging power is not about insulating itself from the external environment but about activley shaping it through engagement and partnerships.
As India struggles with the political legacy of non-alignment in thinking through the consequences of the unfolding US-China rivalry, it has one important option to consider — to build a regional coalition of middle powers.
Such a coalition will neither seek to substitute the American alliance system in Asia nor present itself as one more component of a US effort to limit China's rising role in Asia. What it can certainly do is to help Asia better cope with the inevitable twists and turns in the relations between America and China. The emerging web of security cooperation among Asia's middle powers might have cleared the ground for a more conscious political effort at building a regional coalition.
Image courtesy of the Royal Australian Navy.