Why deeper Indo-Australian strategic partnership in Indian Ocean?

Since the end of the fifteenth century, the Indian Ocean has been key to global power.

By Professor Michael Wesley

When Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama arrived in the Indian Ocean in 1498 he laid the foundations for the rise of Portugal as a great power. It was the Netherlands’ displacement of the Portuguese from key Indian Ocean ports that paved the way for the rise of its own global Empire, and when Britain in turn seized the Indian Ocean ports it set itself on course to create the most extensive empire in world history.

The great power rivalry over the Indian Ocean is driven by its strategic value as an economic highway. Prior to da Gama’s arrival, the Indian Ocean was the main thoroughfare between the major economies of Asia and Europe.

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The Portuguese, Dutch and British in effect established a protection racket over Indian Ocean trade, requiring everyone to use their ports, buy permissions, or use their merchant shipping to conduct their business. The result was fabulous wealth and power.

The Indian Ocean slipped from the centre of global wealth and power during the second half of the twentieth century. During World War II, Imperial Japan was unable to mount a sustained campaign in the Indian Ocean, masking the rapid decline in the capacity of the British navy to keep hostile powers out of the region.

The US Navy stepped into the breach, establishing the country as the major power in the Indian Ocean. It has since maintained its primacy, despite a brief rise in concern about the development of Soviet naval capabilities in the Indian Ocean during the 1980s. During this time, the focus of global power competition moved to the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.

But since the beginning of the twenty-first century, the Indian Ocean has come back as a focus for global power competition. The growing dependence of the major industrial economies of North Asia on the Gulf region for their energy supplies has steadily increased the importance of the Indian Ocean as a major economic thoroughfare.

China’s emergence as the world’s largest oil importer, against a background of rivalry with the US, has transformed the Indian Ocean’s economic importance into a potential power resource. In the event of serious confrontation or conflict, the ability of the US and its allies to restrict China’s oil supplies across the Indian Ocean would be a major strategic asset. It would risk crippling both China’s economic viability and its war-fighting ability.

Consequently, China has been steadily increasing its naval capabilities in the Indian Ocean. The main attention has been on its ports in Djibouti, Gwadar and Hanbantota, and on its anti-piracy operations in the Red Sea. But much more significant has been the increase in its nuclear submarine presence in the Indian Ocean. Submarines provide the ability to protect commercial shipping while threatening other powers’ capabilities to blockade shipping.

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As Beijing’s strategic capabilities and ambitions have grown, so has the imperative to protect China’s Indian Ocean energy supplies. China’s greater assertiveness since 2008 has brought serious confrontations with India, Japan, South Korea, Vietnam, the Philippines and Australia. As a result trust in China as a strategic actor in the region has plummeted. The US and its allies are now searching for ways to shape and limit Beijing’s ambitions, further heightening China’s concerns about better securing of its energy lifelines through the Indian Ocean.

For Australia and India, this has changed the salience of the Indian Ocean in both countries’ strategic frameworks. Since European settlement, Australia has tended to overlook the Indian Ocean in favour of the Pacific.

Australia’s major population centres fringe the Pacific, and its major strategic threats, as well as its most significant economic opportunities, have been centred on the Pacific. However, as rising global strategic competition spills into the Indian Ocean, Australia has rediscovered its other ocean. Australia was among the first countries to advocate a conception of the “Indo-Pacific” as a strategic realm rather than just the “Asia Pacific”.

India has always regarded the Indian Ocean as central to its strategic concerns, identifying as a core security goal the need to exclude hostile interests from the area. But for most of the past 75 years since independence, the primary threats to India have come from its land borders with Pakistan and China. As a consequence of wars with both countries, India has invested heavily in its army and air force, at the expense of its navy. Now that is changing, with major investments in naval platforms and bases, and the expansion of maritime exercises with strategic partners.

The convergence of India’s and Australia’s interests in the Indian Ocean now lays the foundations for a burgeoning strategic partnership. Australia’s inclusion in India’s “Malabar” naval exercises in 2020, and India’s inclusion in Australia’s “Talisman Sabre” exercises, along with the Mutual Logistics Support Arrangement signed by both countries in 2020, are all establishing the scaffolding for a deeper Indo-Australian strategic partnership in the Indian Ocean.

Professor Michael Wesley, Deputy Vice-Chancellor International, University of Melbourne

Contributing Author: Professor Michael Wesley is Deputy Vice-Chancellor International at the University of Melbourne, responsible for leading the University’s international engagement. His research focuses on Australian foreign policy, Asia’s international relations and strategic affairs, and the politics of state-building interventions. His most recent book is Restless Continent: Wealth, Rivalry and Asia’s New Geopolitics. Previously, Prof. Wesley was a Professor of International Affairs and Dean of the College of Asia & the Pacific at the Australian National University (ANU), Director of the Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs at ANU, the Executive Director of the Lowy Institute for International Policy, Director of the Griffith Asia Institute at Griffith University, and Assistant Director General for Transnational Issues at the Office of National Assessments. He has a PhD in International Relations from the University of St Andrews, Scotland.

Note: This Op-Ed was first published in The Australia India Institute’s India Matters series and has been re-published here with their kind permission.