The Indo-pa­cific cen­tury

The Indo-Pa­cific con­cept is a use­ful way of un­der­stand­ing chang­ing re­gional dy­nam­ics, but it also re­flects a key strate­gic chal­lenge – the re­la­tion­ship be­tween China and In­dia, two world gi­ants with grow­ing geopo­lit­i­cal am­bi­tions

The Myanmar Times - - Front Page - DAVID BREW­STER news­room@mm­ David Brew­ster is a se­nior re­search fel­low at the Na­tional Se­cu­rity Col­lege, Aus­tralian Na­tional Univer­sity, and a dis­tin­guished re­search fel­low with the Aus­tralia In­dia In­sti­tute, Univer­sity of Mel­bourne.

THROUGH the 1980s Aus­tralia was one of the fore­most pro­po­nents of the “Asia-Pa­cific” as a new and use­ful way of un­der­stand­ing the world around us. The idea be­hind the Asia-Pa­cific brought to­gether East Asia and the Pa­cific to em­pha­sise and pro­mote the in­ter­de­pen­dence of the East Asian tiger economies with Pa­cific coun­tries such as the United States and Aus­tralia. It suc­cess­fully locked those bits of the world to­gether in a pros­per­ous and mostly peace­ful em­brace.

Although con­tested by some at the time, the idea of the Asia-Pa­cific has now be­come al­most ubiq­ui­tous in our un­der­stand­ing of the world. The idea of this space as a “re­gion” un­der­lay the es­tab­lish­ment of new group­ings and fo­rums such as APEC and the East Asia Sum­mit to bet­ter man­age th­ese dy­nam­ics.

Aus­tralia is now at the fore­front of new de­bates about the con­cept of the Indo-Pa­cific as a use­ful men­tal map for un­der­stand­ing the chang­ing dy­nam­ics in our part of the world. The Indo-Pa­cific fo­cuses on the grow­ing strate­gic and eco­nomic in­ter­ac­tions right along the Asian lit­toral, from the Korean penin­sula to the Per­sian Gulf, with South­east Asia at its cen­tre. The con­cept of the Indo-Pa­cific is not in­tended to re­place the Asia-Pa­cific, merely to em­pha­sise that, at least for cer­tain pur­poses, we need to be con­sid­er­ing a broader ge­o­graphic space and a broader set of in­ter­ac­tions. The con­cept em­pha­sises the grow­ing in­ter­ac­tions be­tween the ma­jor East Asian pow­ers and the bur­geon­ing economies of South­ern Asia – in­clud­ing but not lim­ited to In­dia – and the strate­gic im­pli­ca­tions of th­ese in­ter­ac­tions, par­tic­u­larly in the mar­itime realm.

While the pa­ram­e­ters and nomen­cla­ture of the Indo-Pa­cific are not yet set­tled, the con­cept is in­creas­ingly be­ing over­taken by re­al­ity. Aus­tralia’s fast-grow­ing strate­gic part­ner­ships, with coun­tries such as Japan and In­dia, re­flect th­ese dy­nam­ics. In­dia’s “Act East” pol­icy, in which it is reach­ing out to new part­ners in the Pa­cific theatre, is the Indo-Pa­cific in ac­tion. China’s Mar­itime Silk Route ini­tia­tive, in which it is build­ing new mar­itime path­ways across the In­dian Ocean, is merely the Indo-Pa­cific with Chi­nese char­ac­ter­is­tics. But we are still play­ing catch-up in terms of un­der­stand­ing the strate­gic im­pli­ca­tions of th­ese de­vel­op­ments.

Two re­cent pub­li­ca­tions ad­dress dif­fer­ent as­pects of th­ese grow­ing Indo-Pa­cific in­ter­ac­tions. In March 2016, the Na­tional Se­cu­rity Col­lege at the Aus­tralian Na­tional Univer­sity hosted a con­fer­ence of emi­nent ex­perts and prac­ti­tion­ers to dis­cuss mar­itime se­cu­rity chal­lenges and co­op­er­a­tion within the frame­work of the Indo-Pa­cific. An edited vol­ume from this con­fer­ence ad­dresses sev­eral key ar­eas of Indo-Pa­cific mar­itime se­cu­rity. Crit­i­cally, they ex­am­ine new di­men­sions in Aus­tralia-Japan mar­itime se­cu­rity co­op­er­a­tion and the role of Japan in the In­dian Ocean, man­ag­ing mar­itime ten­sions in the East and South China seas, the po­ten­tial for co­op­er­a­tion on transna­tional se­cu­rity is­sues, and emerg­ing mar­itime se­cu­rity part­ner­ships in the Indo-Pa­cific.

One key set of is­sues ad­dressed is un­der­stand­ing Japan’s grow­ing se­cu­rity role across the Indo-Pa­cific. This is driven by con­cerns over the se­cu­rity of Japan’s sea lines of com­mu­ni­ca­tion through the Pa­cific and In­dian oceans, per­spec­tives on the need for new mar­itime se­cu­rity part­ner­ships with coun­tries such as Aus­tralia and In­dia, and de­bates about Japan’s fu­ture roles in the In­dian Ocean. Japan’s wider role as a key strate­gic part­ner will only be­come ever more im­por­tant for Aus­tralia. The Indo-Pa­cific is also forc­ing coun­tries such as In­dia and In­done­sia to re-ex­am­ine tra­di­tional per­spec­tives on mar­itime se­cu­rity part­ner­ships in the re­gion, in­clud­ing with Aus­tralia.

An­other cru­cial di­men­sion of Indo-Pa­cific se­cu­rity is the grow­ing in­ter­ac­tion of China and In­dia across this space. China and In­dia are faste­merg­ing as ma­jor mar­itime pow­ers in the Indo-Pa­cific as part of longterm shifts in the re­gional bal­ance of power. As their wealth, in­ter­ests and power ex­pand, the two coun­tries are in­creas­ingly com­ing into con­tact with each other in the mar­itime do­main. How In­dia and China get along in the shared Indo-Pa­cific space – co­op­er­a­tion, co­ex­is­tence, com­pe­ti­tion or con­fronta­tion – may be one of the key strate­gic chal­lenges of the 21st cen­tury.

But the Sino-In­dian re­la­tion­ship is a dif­fi­cult one: Se­cu­rity re­la­tions re­main rel­a­tively volatile and are com­pli­cated by nu­mer­ous un­re­solved is­sues. Not least is China’s grow­ing pres­ence in the In­dian Ocean. New Delhi per­ceives Bei­jing as at­tempt­ing to re­shape the strate­gic en­vi­ron­ment in its favour, in­clud­ing by form­ing align­ments with neigh­bour­ing coun­tries that could be used against In­dia.

A re­cent pub­li­ca­tion by the US Na­tional Bureau of Asian Re­search sheds light on this dy­namic through a col­lec­tion of es­says by lead­ing an­a­lysts, ex­am­in­ing Sino-In­dian mar­itime in­ter­ac­tions from po­lit­i­cal, eco­nomic and se­cu­rity di­men­sions.

What is apparent from them is the wide gap be­tween In­dian and Chi­nese un­der­stand­ings of their re­spec­tive in­ten­tions and roles in the In­dian Ocean re­gion. China seems in­tent on de­vel­op­ing its eco­nomic and mil­i­tary in­ter­ests in the In­dian Ocean in a man­ner that al­most in­evitably will have a ma­jor im­pact on the re­gional bal­ance of power. More­over, Bei­jing in­tends to de­velop this pres­ence with­out sig­nif­i­cant re­gard for In­dian views: In­dia will just need to learn to live with it.

For its part, In­dia sees the grow­ing Chi­nese pres­ence in highly se­cu­ri­tised terms: a mix­ture of acute de­fen­sive­ness over its pre­rog­a­tives and pro­tect­ing what it sees as its own back­yard, but also a de­sire to lever­age its own strate­gic ad­van­tages over China. Th­ese fac­tors are a rel­a­tively volatile mix, cre­at­ing a sig­nif­i­cant risk of strate­gic in­sta­bil­ity and com­pe­ti­tion in the re­gion in com­ing years.

Un­der­stand­ing the chang­ing dy­nam­ics of the Indo-Pa­cific and the key strate­gic re­la­tion­ships across that re­gion will be a con­tin­u­ing chal­lenge as we en­ter what could be­come the Indo-Pa­cific cen­tury.

– Pol­icy Fo­rum

How In­dia and China get along in the shared Indo-Pa­cific space – co­op­er­a­tion, co­ex­is­tence, com­pe­ti­tion or con­fronta­tion – may be one of the key strate­gic chal­lenges of the 21st cen­tury.

Photo: EPA

In­dian ac­tivists from the right-wing or­gan­i­sa­tion Hindu Sena burn posters por­tray­ing Chi­nese Pres­i­dent Xi Jin­ping, as they cam­paign for a boy­cott of Chi­ne­se­made prod­ucts at a protest in New Delhi, In­dia, on June 25.

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