The changing balance of power in Asia and the rise of a new wave of international actors will play out in the Indian Ocean, says a leading expert from the ANU College of Asia and the Pacific.
Recently presenting to a Senate Committee inquiry on the Indian Ocean, Head of the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre Professor Brendan Taylor said that the Indian Ocean will provide the clearest indication of how the shift in power in Asia will evolve.
“Unlike the South China Sea, the Indian Ocean is of vital importance to all of Asia’s great powers. This body of water is perceived to be absolutely essential to the national interests of countries like China, India, Indonesia, the US and Australia. And this is for two reasons: economic and energy security, and status,” he said.
“On the first of these two factors, the Indian Ocean is already the world’s busiest commercial seaway and its importance will only grow over the coming decades as the energy needs of China and India increase exponentially. Just as significantly, the idea of commercial ‘access’ has been a concept underpinning US grand strategy in Asia for over a century, going back to the American opening to Japan and China in the 1800s, and there is nothing to indicate any deviation from this enduring trend.
“As for the second factor, the Indian Ocean also matters to Asia’s great powers because of the status associated with a military presence there. Some Indian leaders, for instance, see a clear link between their country’s naval expansion in this part of the world and India’s status as a great power. In years gone by the Chinese too regarded the Indian Ocean region as a ‘zone of influence’. Consistent with this, Beijing’s rekindled interest in the Indian Ocean can in part be correlated with larger aspirations to regain China’s rightful place in the world.
“Today India, China and the US are each expanding their presence in the Indian Ocean in line with these interests. Much of New Delhi’s energies over the past decade have been directed towards developing a security presence and a set of strategic relationships in the Indian Ocean region, with particular emphasis given to the so-called maritime ‘choke points’ which provide entry points to it.
"China has embraced a so-called ‘string of pearls’ strategy for the Indian Ocean which involves establishing commercial port facilities with friendly countries in the region which some analysts claim also facilitate naval access. The US too is contemplating ways to increase its operational access to the Indian Ocean whilst also encouraging India to play an even greater role as a counterweight to China’s burgeoning naval presence.”
Professor Taylor added that while the tide wouldn’t change anytime soon, Australia should still dip its toes in the water and start preparing for future developments now.
“Asia is currently in the process of transitioning from an order based around American strategic primacy to one best characterized as a competitive balance of power, but this transition is occurring at a far more gradual pace than some commentators suggest.
“However, as the Asian century unfolds, we will need to find more sophisticated ways for understanding that process –particularly as it applies to China and India – and its ramifications for the balance of power in Asia. Closely monitoring unfolding strategic trends and developments in the Indian Ocean provides an ideal way of seeing how things just might play out.”