Regional order building in the Indian Ocean Region – evolving opportunities, enduring challenges
3 Jun 2014|

Australia and IndiaNarendra Modi’s election as India’s Prime Minister has fired the hopes of Australian India-watchers keen to forge a stronger strategic partnership between Canberra and New Delhi. As Canberra has recast its strategic geography in Indo-Pacific terms, Australia’s interests in nurturing a stable regional order in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) have grown. And India’s unique combination of demographic weight, geographic centrality and gargantuan military and economic potential makes it the IOR’s natural fulcrum. Seen in that light, Modi’s aspirations for a more strategically extroverted India ostensibly auger well for an Australia keen to work with New Delhi to build a more robust Indian Ocean regional order.

But boosters of the bilateral relationship must be careful not to downplay the obstacles that may yet frustrate collaborative efforts at regional order building. In particular, the IOR’s distinct historical evolution radically distinguishes it from East Asia, and presents correspondingly different challenges for aspiring regional order-builders. Likewise, Australia and India’s histories have bequeathed them different—even dissonant—order-building traditions. Those divergent traditions quash hopes of converging on a common vision of regional order any time soon.

Since 1945, Australia’s attention has overwhelmingly centered on the Asia-Pacific. That preoccupation is unsurprising, given the traumas of the Pacific War and the Cold War. But it’s worth recalling the distinctive features of the Asia-Pacific that distinguish it from the IOR.

For over six decades, American hegemony preserved regional order in the Asia-Pacific. Washington upheld the peace by maintaining a ‘hub-and-spokes’ alliance system and an extensive forward deployment of conventional (and at times, nuclear) forces. Economically, Washington’s sponsorship of export-oriented industrialisation meanwhile resuscitated erstwhile rivals (Japan and later the People’s Republic of China), while energising dependent allies. In brief, the United States constructed a deeply institutionalised hierarchical international order, which regional security multilateralism later supplemented rather than supplanted.

By contrast, America’s involvement in the IOR is far more recent, and has been markedly less multi-dimensional and institutionalised. Following Britain’s 1971 retreat from east of Suez, the US assumed Britain’s traditional responsibilities of maintaining the freedom of the seas, as well as successfully guarding against the threat of Soviet encroachment. But for all their importance, those achievements were the unilateral product of American naval supremacy, and didn’t rest on a bedrock of local collaboration. The epicentre of Third World non-alignment, the IOR never supported the dense networks of alliances, forward-deployed US troop concentrations, or globally integrated production networks that underpinned the US-dominated hierarchy in the Asia-Pacific. Bitter regional splits (most notably the Indo-Pakistani rivalry) moreover retarded the development of regional security multilateralism, both during and after the end of the Cold War. 

Having been engaged in starkly different primary strategic theatres, Australia and India have evolved radically divergent strategies of regional order building.

Australian traditions of order building have centered on two pillars—alignment and enmeshment. Since 1951, the ANZUS alliance has been the cornerstone of Australian security, underwriting everything from Australia’s preference for coalition expeditionary warfare, to its decision to forego nuclear weapons in return for promises of American extended nuclear deterrence.

More recently, as the region’s multilateral security architecture has matured over the last two decades, Australia has actively sought enmeshment in regional institutions, at times even embarrassingly over-reaching itself in its sponsorship of the rapidly orphaned ‘Asia-Pacific Community’.  

By contrast, India’s order building strategies have centered around two different pillars—non-alignment and exclusion. Historically a champion of Third World non-alignment, India has traditionally repudiated alliances as mechanisms of entrapment and escalation, rather than guarantors of regional stability. New Delhi’s allergy to alliances contrasts profoundly with Australia’s reflexive reliance on ‘great and powerful friends’.

India’s longstanding sponsorship of regionalism as a device aimed at insulating the region from superpower involvement provides a further contrast with the Australian experience. Whereas Australia has historically feared exclusion from its home region, and since the early 1990s has sought enmeshment in regional security architectures wherever possible, India has fretted more about the prospect of neo-colonial encroachment, and attempted to shape its immediate region primarily with that negative goal in mind. The result has been an anemic, under-developed and largely atrophied regional security architecture, which remains woefully unsuited to managing the security challenges IOR states now confront.

The foregoing differences by no means preclude meaningful Australia-India security cooperation. But recognition of the countries’ disparate order-building traditions is essential, both to manage expectations and also to guide policy-makers’ approach to strengthening IOR security.

To seek a convergent vision of regional order between Australia and India would be a Sisyphean enterprise. Instead, regional order building between Australia and India must occur from the bottom up, around an incrementally expanding web of cooperative habits focused around managing shared non-traditional security challenges. Such an enterprise will hardly fire the imaginations of anyone yearning for a super-sized Australian grand strategy to match its expanded Indo-Pacific outlook. But it recognises the real and enduring contrasts that differentiate the two regions—and promises a surer route to successful Australian-Indian strategic cooperation in future.  

Andrew Phillips is an Australian Research Council Discovery Early Career Research Award fellow and senior lecturer in the School of Political Science and International Studies at the University of Queensland. Image courtesy of iStock.