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Looking west again – to the Indian Ocean and India February 16, 2011

Posted by southasiamasala in : India, Weigold, Auriol , trackback

Auriol Weigold

An article in The Australian, published on 31 March 2010, notes Australia’s inconsistent interest in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) in its headline ‘We must look west to the Indian Ocean …’.  It goes on to remind that Australia should be a ‘pre-eminent country’ in the IOR and notes that a ‘new maritime great game’ is visible as ‘strategic competition between India and China’ grows. These ideas, verging on directives, are drawn from Bateman’s and Bergin’s Australian Strategic Policy Institute Paper, Our Western Front: Australia and the Indian Ocean, launched by Australia’s former Foreign Minister, Stephen Smith, on the same day in 2010.  The Australian concluded its article by reporting that Australia’s policies vis-a-vis the Indian Ocean have been ‘relatively opaque and spasmodic’, and should be embedded in the mainstream of foreign policy.

Despite its inconsistent and often neglectful approach to engagement in the Indian Ocean as a whole, Australia has had an historical interest in the Indian Ocean, which is vital to its import and export markets and sea-lines communications. It relies on Indian Ocean sea-routes and access points for its globalised trade, and the ever-increasing importance of security and stability demand deeper engagement: geographically Australia is well-placed to play a prominent role in the Indian Ocean region.

Crew of HMAS Melbourne board a pirated Chinese tanker in the Indian Ocean,  Photo ABC

Stabilising its bilateral relationship with India is a part of that process. India currently chairs the Indian Ocean Rim Association for Regional Cooperation (IOR-ARC). Australia was confirmed as Vice-Chair at the Council of Ministers meeting in Yemen in August 2010 and will succeed India as chair for 2013 and 2014.  The IOR-ARC, which was founded in 1997 with Australian collaboration and includes eighteen Indian Ocean littoral states, brings together members of government, business and academia. As its chair the IOR-ARC will provide Australia with an ideal forum in which to contribute bilaterally and multilaterally, address transnational issues and demonstrate its engagement in regional issues.

Australia’s stop-start relationship with India, a key state too often on the periphery of Australian political vision, has been reflected in the inconsistency of its interest in the Indian Ocean region. Failures to engage substantially with India following the Second World War were based in Australian foreign policy focused on its Western rather than its regional interests. India’s non-aligned stance was anathema to the Menzies Liberal Government of the 1950s and 60s, and India’s determination as a republic to remain within the Commonwealth was a source of on-going conflict during the 1950s. While there have been peaks as well as troughs in the bilateral relationship, today, what became a “blame game” between Australia and India over policy disagreements continues on a number of fronts.

On Indian Ocean policy, Australia’s initially relied on Britain’s and the United States’ presence in the Indian Ocean to guarantee transit.  This reliance, based essentially on commercial rather than strategic considerations, clashed with the non-aligned or neutralist position of India and other Indian Ocean littoral states.  Australia also came face to face in the 1960s with Britain’s withdrawal from its bases east of Suez, and the Indian Ocean’s place in great-power Cold War calculations. The 1960’s recognition that, beyond bilateral trade as a driver of stability, some independent Australian thinking on Indian Ocean policy was desirable led to a progressive shift: in 1976 a move away from ‘forward defence’; the impact on Indian Ocean policy of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979; in 1987, the announcement of Australia’s “Two Ocean” policy; and Australia’s role in the 1991 Gulf War’s threat to oil supplies. Other White Papers with some focus on the Indian Ocean followed, and the intervening and subsequent years also saw the baton of policy discussion picked up by scholars and strategists in the lead-up to the formation of the IOR-ARC in 1997, adding depth to iterations of Australia’s “look West” policies.

In the complex of what “looking west” implies for Australia, drawing together the strands that link Australia’s bilateral relationship with India and its Indian Ocean policy adds emphasis to the pressing need for Australia to improve its on-again off-again relations with India.  As illustration, the build-up of India’s navy and its increasing presence in the Indian Ocean, particularly in the Andaman Sea, where it has sovereign territory. The Andaman and Nicobar Islands give it a strong strategic position with considerable implications for Australian, regional and international sea lines of communication. In terms of Indian Ocean security Australia and India have similar interests and should endeavour to promote sameness rather than difference in their “look West” and “look East” initiatives in the Indian Ocean.

After Australia’s initial engagement, waning enthusiasm for the IOR-ARC from 2000 gave rise to Ken McPherson’s comment in 2004 that “If the good ship IOR-ARC is to survive, its needs to be reshaped and given new impetus by governments …” (D. Rumley and S. Chaturvedi (eds), 2004, Geopolitical Orientations. Regionalism and Security in the Indian Ocean South Asian Publishers, Pvt Ltd, pp. 112 – 119). Australia’s revived role in the IOR-ARC as the present Vice-Chair, succeeding India as Chair for 2013-2014 provides a basis for a closer association with India not tarnished by the bilateral relationship’s flaws.

Extract from an article “Engagement v Neglect: Australia in the Indian Ocean 1960s to 2000”, to appear in the mid-2011 issue of the Journal of the Indian Ocean Region


1. Vikas - February 17, 2011

Indo-Australian cooperation is unlikely to take off unless Indians are sure regarding where Australia stands with respect to China’s peaceful rise. This issue has assumed greater importance after the Senkaku, etc incidents. In the context of Indo-Australian maritime engagement this relates to Australian stand on the role of China in the Indian Ocean. I am not sure if Australian policy-makers or analysts have addressed this issue to the satisfaction of their Indian counterparts.

I am not saying that China does not have a legitimate role in the Indian ocean. I am also not saying that Australia does not have the right to decide its foreign policy orientation. Only that Indian policy-makers responsible for security affairs have a veto on Indian foreign policy, which is not surprising, and they are unhappy about the Chinese naval build-up in the Indian Ocean. I do not necessarily agree that China has a string of pearls naval plan against India. But unless Australia clears its stand in this regard its well-meaning attempts to play an important role in IOR will fail to evoke a positive response from New Delhi.

Australian policy-makers have three options: (a) declare itself openly in favour of China, (b) declare itself openly in favour of India, and (c) credibly explain its foreign policy to New Delhi. In absence of a credible explanation, New Delhi can continue to resist meaningful cooperation by invoking emotional issues like uranium supplies and attacks on Indian students.

I will conclude by noting that Auriol’s earlier post and David Brewster’s response to it show that the Australian analysts are aware of this problem.



In a related post Brewster has highlighted that security concerns dominate India’s Indian Ocean policies.


2. David Brewster - March 3, 2011

I am not sure I could agree with Vikas’ comments.

Despite his claims to the contrary, there is a strong implication in his comments that India will only want to engage with Australia if Australia somehow joins an anti-China bandwagon in the Indian Ocean.

That, it seems to me, is unlikely to happen. Clearly both Australia and India need to do much, much more to understand each other’s perspectives on the region. But that does not mean that they will agree. For good reasons, Australia has a very different strategic perspective than India on the Indian Ocean, and I expect that will continue for some time.

There is a classic security dilemma building between India and China in the Indian Ocean. India feels threatened by the development of any Chinese commercial, political or military interests in the Indian Ocean. China feels threatened by India’s desire to dominate its sea routes to the Middle East. This security dilemma, and the prospects for India – China maritime rivalry in the region is not in Australia’s interests. Rather, it is in Australia’s interests to do what it can to reduce it.

There are no easy answers as to how that can be achieved, but it is in Australia’s interests to try. One hopes that in doing so, India does not assert any “test” of friendship.

I hope this adds to the debate.