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Indian Ocean ‘strategy’: don’t make China nervous March 30, 2012

Posted by southasiamasala in : Weigold, Auriol , trackback

Auriol Weigold

To borrow from an earlier piece published here at the start of this year (8 Jan 2012), I cited President Obama’s Defence Strategy Review, (5 Jan 2012) in which it was stated that “we will of necessity rebalance towards the Asia-Pacific Region …”, and I take this as an element in raising Chinese concerns.

In his excellent piece  “Indian Ocean: don’t militarise the ‘great connector’”, (29 Mar 2012) Sandy Gordon set out the security dilemma in the Indian Ocean region, and argued against any proposals, whether Indian ‘commonalities’ with the US in terms of strategic outlook, or borne of the US-Australian alliance, that make China nervous.

India, he has argued, is in a strategic ‘box seat’ in the Indian Ocean. Another view is that Australia is also in a box seat in the Indo-Pacific region. As a middle power able, if it chooses to do so, to take an independent stance in its own national interest – including its long-term engagement with China that is much broader than trade – and on its relations in the Indian Ocean region, notably with India and the US.

Australia is allied with the US while India has a strategic but uncommitted relationship with it, and does not want to jeopardise its sometime fragile relationship with China, but is determined that the overall balance of power in the Indian Ocean remains in its favour. Australia has clarified its security interest in its Indian Ocean coast where much of the country’s $200 billion hydrocarbon industry is located, and its on- and off-shore vulnerabilities are under are under scrutiny in the Defence Minister, Stephen Smith’s Force Posture Review.

Protection of sea lines of communication are of paramount importance to nations who rely on them, primarily to ensure their energy needs. There is much mistrust in the Indian Ocean, particularly amongst the major powers, and this goes some way to explaining India’s caution about the United States’ characterization of the Indian Ocean as global commons. As the US has not ratified the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) three questions emerge: what then is US policy towards the Indian Ocean and, secondly, does the US strategic community see India as its partner in managing the global commons? Thirdly, how might China interpret the concept  – as allowing freedom for it to install further establishments in addition to its aid, economic and infrastructure initiatives across the Indian Ocean region?

As Gordon also argues, Australia should work with India to alleviate China’s concerns. The latest speculation that the US will expand its already strong presence in Australia by seeking an agreement to utilise Australia’s Indian Ocean territory, the Cocos-Keeling Islands, as a launch pad for its unmanned drone surveillance flights, is the antithesis of this argument and appears to exceed any foreseeable Australian security requirement.

The Washington Post’s suggestion that the US and Australia are planning to expand military ties in this direction, (27 Mar 2012), will indeed make China nervous.

The Defence Minister responded that any discussion with the US on use of the Cocos Islands was an issue for the future.  The Government made various statements and political commentators expressed a variety of views – none of which put the issue to bed and will not alleviate China’s concerns, expressed recently following President Obama’s late 2011 visit to Australia, and the string of joint defence announcements then made.

An escalation in the US – Australia alliance to include Australian sovereign maritime territory that, along with India’s Andaman and Nicobar Islands, may be seen to dominate the entry to and exit from the choke points to our north including the Straits of Malacca, and the Lombok and other Indonesian Straits, underscore the risks of militarising the Indian Ocean.

Australia will, no doubt, relook at the issues surrounding an upgrade of infrastructure on the Cocos Islands with, just possibly, the intention to develop it for our own use as a less regionally-disturbing base. If the speculation becomes a reality then, as noted in “Indian Ocean: don’t militarise the ‘great connector’”, an understanding that any US reinforcement of its Indian Ocean presence is designed to meet the region’s many ‘non-conventional security challenges’ rather than militarization, and should be clarified.

 

 

 

 

 

Washington Post’s suggestion that the US and Australia are planning to expand military ties in this direction, (27 Mar 2012)

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