Climate, geoeconomics and regional architecture: an agenda for the Indian Ocean
Baani Grewal, Australian Strategic Policy Institute
The Indian Ocean region has gone from once being merely fashionable in strategic discourse, to now being viewed as essential to the Indo-Pacific’s geopolitical, economic and climate stability.
The region is astonishingly vast and complex, stretching from the Horn of Africa to Western Australia. It includes diverse subregions such as the Middle East, South Asia and Southeast Asia, all with their own historical geopolitical disputes. It contains the majority of Asia’s fastest growing economies, is home to multiple fragile island states bordered by critical maritime trade routes and chokepoints which are crucial for global supply routes and Asia’s energy security.
At the same time, the region is in a period of flux, hurtling towards a new multipolarity.
It is crowded by traditional Indian Ocean naval powers such as India and France, and increasingly Australia and Europe. This strategic landscape is overshadowed by growing great power competition between China and the United States, the stresses of which will dominate the region in the coming decades.
India and Australia now find themselves as guardians of this increasingly contested region. Both share vast Indian Ocean coastlines and have strong interests in maintaining regional stability.
In 2020, Australia and India entered a new phase of their bilateral relationship. After decades of failed starts and disagreements, Delhi and Canberra signed on to become Strategic Partners as both embraced new strategic realities in the Indo-Pacific, united by concerns over China’s growing posture in the region.
As part of their new Comprehensive Strategic Partnership (CSP), Prime Ministers Morrison and Modi signed a joint declaration on a ‘Shared Vision for Maritime Cooperation in the Indo-Pacific.’ Simultaneously, they took part in the revival of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, now held at the leaders’ level, and their militaries participated in increasingly complex bilateral and multilateral military exercises. Both declared that future challenges in the Indo-Pacific ‘are likely to occur in, and emanate from, the maritime domain’.
The majority of these challenges will emanate from and shape the future of the Indian Ocean. Delhi and Canberra now have a unique opportunity to be prepared to meet these challenges. The CSP and Quad are the first steps in working together to insure regional stability. However, India and Australia share a fundamentally different view of the Indian Ocean region.
Delhi sees itself as the resident hegemon of the Indian Ocean, while Australia views it as its ‘second sea’ as it prioritises the Pacific and Southeast Asia in its foreign policy and defence posture. Both have previously viewed each other as minor players, an attitude which still echoes in their bureaucracies despite the political momentum being generated at higher levels.
Since 2020, Australia has taken steps to increase its engagement with the region. But the entire Indian Ocean region will have far ranging consequences for the Indo-Pacific, potentially more than the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, and both countries urgently need an action plan to address the unique challenges emanating from this area.
The first step would be to come to a shared understanding and action plan on the strategic future of the Indian Ocean. This should include building upon the existing joint maritime vision to address the regional uncertainties and coming to terms with each other’s differences and shortcomings.
Next, the Indian Ocean island states of the also present opportunities and challenges. One opportunity is to help these small states shape their maritime security capabilities and their ocean resources. But a challenge is how these island states will survive climate change, which could result in extreme humanitarian disasters and large-scale people migration. India and Australia, along with their Quad partners, need to anticipate these future challenges in planning how they cooperate on humanitarian assistance and disaster relief.
Canberra and Delhi should be cognisant that climate change refugees and people smuggling could be the region’s most pressing challenges over the coming decade. The 2022 economic crisis in Sri Lanka is a stark reminder of the risks.
Importantly, Australia and India need to work together to strengthen the existing regional architecture in the Indian Ocean, or build new hybrid – security and governance – groupings. Existing regional architectures – such as the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) and Indian Ocean Naval Symposium – remain ineffective. For example, in security governance, IORA lacks a pan-ocean wide maritime domain awareness mechanism. Most of the states bordering or in the Indian Ocean lack maritime security capacity and rely on India, Australia, the US or China for training.
Above all, a discussion of the region’s future cannot exclude the geoeconomic and connectivity stakes at play. India’s absence from Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership and its traditional reluctance to join regional free trade agreements (FTAs) is an impediment. India has warmed to bilateral FTAs but the region is far away from a Trans-PacificPartnership type agreement. And multilateral infrastructure initiatives such as the Indo Pacific Economic Framework and Blue Dot Network, must deliver quickly to compete with Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative.
Of course, going forward we cannot discount the dangers presented by a regional arms race, increasing grey-zone activities (hostile actions short of direct confrontation) and even open conflict. Another flare-up in the unsettled land border between India and China could spill over to the Indian Ocean, while Australia could be pulled into any potential conflict between the United States and China.
The future remains uncertain. But Australia and India can provide stability if they work together for the region, look past great power rivalry and build upon their growing bilateral relationship.
Baani Grewal is an Analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI), where she leads the International Cyber Policy Centre’s strategic engagement with South Asia, with a focus on India. Baani’s research focuses on India’s relationship with China and the Quad, India’s foreign, defence and critical technology policies, India-Australia relations, as well as the Quad’s critical technology cooperation. Prior to ASPI, Baani was a senior foreign policy research officer with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade at the Australian High Commission in New Delhi, India. She also worked in international development programs in India, with a focus on women’s rights. Baani has a Bachelor of Arts majoring in Asian Studies and International Relations from the University of New South Wales, Sydney.
This article was originally published in ‘Innovation, security, culture: the next 75 years of Australia-India relations’ an edited volume developed in partnership with the PerthUSAsia Centre in August 2022.