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“Containment” no longer in the lexicon January 8, 2012

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Auriol Weigold

President Obama’s Defence Strategy Review, Sustaining U.S. Global Leadership: Priorities for the 21st Century Defence, published on 5 January 2012, states that “we will of necessity rebalance towards the Asia-Pacific region … This includes emphasising existing alliances and expanding cooperation to ‘ensure collective capability and capacity for securing common interests’”. Addressing China’s emergence as a regional power, the Review reports that both countries have a strong stake in regional peace and stability and an interest in establishing a cooperative relationship.  Nonetheless, the United States will continue to ensure access to, and an ability to operate across, the broader Indian Ocean region.

In an interview Australia’s Ambassador in Washington, Kim Beazley, said on 6 January, that the U.S. commitment is to access to vital waterways, “ … is a commitment to the global commons …  It is not a containment strategy”.  This makes all the more strange a statement attributed to Australian Foreign Minister, Kevin Rudd, however inaccurately reported by the Times of India on the 1 and 2 December 2011, that Australia, India and the United States may frame a tripartite security pact. Mr Rudd said that his message had been misrepresented.

Defence Minister, Stephen Smith, in India from 7-9 December to promote deeper strategic ties between Australia and India, said in an interview with the Canberra Times on 10 December, that Australia is not urging a trilateral dialogue with the US and India, “that the reporting was wrong”. He recorded that the idea was floated by a number of think tanks and not supported by the Australian Government.

A similar aspect of the story was put by Sandeep Dikshit in an article entitled “Smith denies India-Australia-U.S. strategic dialogue move”, in The Hindu, 8 December 2011.  Dikshit suggested that the idea had been proposed to India through “diplomatic channels” and Smith, aware of India’s position, had repeated that that media reports on a trilateral strategic dialogue were “misreporting” – and again that such an idea had been proposed by a number of think tanks.

A publication entitled “Shared Goals, Converging Interests: A plan for U.S. – Australia – India Cooperation in the Indo-Pacific”, published by the Lowy Institute with India’s Observer Research Foundation and the U.S. Heritage Institute, that called for a tripartite defence agreement, is likely to be the proposal referred to by Smith, and led to what may be seen as a series of blunders recorded in The Diplomat Blogs on 6 December.

The first, a spokesman for Mr Rudd’s office said that “The idea of trilateral co-operation between India, the U.S. and Australia is a thoughtful one that deserves further study.”

The second, in a subsequent interview with the Australian Financial Review, reported by The Diplomat, Mr Rudd is quoted at saying that “a new trilateral pact bringing in India was worth exploring because ‘from little things big things grow’”. He went on to say that the Indian Government response “has really been quite positive”, the claim denied by the Indian Defence Ministry in The Times of India on 2 December, and by its External Affairs Ministry on it website the following day.

Third, Rudd’s remarks as reported led to a statement by Australia’s High Commission in Beijing (again quoted by The Diplomat), to ensure that this country “has not proposed such a trilateral agreement”, to meet immediate Chinese objections – as had happened when the U.S. deployment of troops to Australia was announced during President Obama’s visit in November 2011.

Thus misreported or misrepresented, the Foreign Minister set off a chain reaction at a time when relations reached new levels of wariness, even mistrust, across the Indian and Pacific Oceans’ Asian and South Asian littorals.

A further element playing into the geopolitical arena was Stephen Smith’s Force Posture Review released in June 2011. It had set out the challenge posed by competition in the Indian Ocean, and recognized the Indian Ocean rim as an area of strategic significance. He cited as examples energy security, and security issues associated with expanding resource exploration and exploitation in Australia’s north-west. An examination of Australia’s on and off-shore vulnerabilities are to be undertaken as part of the Review.

Not unexpectedly, Smith’s Review flagged for consideration the strategic role of Australia’s off-shore territories, particularly the Cocos (Keeling) Islands some 2750 kms north west of Perth (see map). The Islands are around 2000 km south of India’s Andaman and Nicobar Islands and closer to Indonesia than to Australia, together creating an interesting arc crossing the entrance to the Straits of Malacca, the Singapore Straits and the Sunda, Lombok and other Indonesian straits.

Geopolitically the Cocos Islands have the potential to be in the order of importance to Australia as are the Andaman and Nicobar Islands to India.

In the days following President Obama’s visit to Australia at the end of November, a further announcement was made to the effect that Australia and the United States plan to operate jointly from an Indian Ocean airbase on the Cocos Islands.

This was the new element in play when Kevin Rudd allegedly supported a trilateral pact with the United States and India.

The idea of such a pact arguably assumed that the now frayed relationship between China and India would not become closer, but its proponents failed to appreciate that in no sense do those countries wish to become rivals. Neither the Indian nor Chinese governments are likely to complicate their regional geopolitical situation by engendering hostility. Nor would the United States be likely to raise the bar in this way, and there is no hint that it might do so in today’s Defence Strategy Review, commented on by Kim Beazley who saw no threat of containment as an option.

 

 

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