The challenges of order-building in the Indian Ocean Region
30 Oct 2012|
BAY OF BENGAL (April 14, 2012) The Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson (CVN 70), the Ticonderoga-class guided-missile cruiser USS Bunker Hill (CG 52), and the Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Halsey (DDG 97) transit in formation with Indian navy ships during Exercise Malabar 2012. Carl Vinson, Bunker Hill, and Halsey are part of Carrier Strike Group (CSG) 1, and are participating in the annual bi-lateral naval field training exercise with the Indian navy to advance multinational maritime relationships and mutual security issues.

Recent contributions to The Strategist have provided valuable insights on the extent and limits of India’s willingness and capacity to assert itself as a nascent great power. Implicit in these discussions lies a deeper issue, specifically the challenge of how best to secure international order in an increasingly contested Indian Ocean Region (IOR). As both the epicentre of the struggle against jihadist extremism and an increasingly critical ‘energy superhighway’ linking East and South Asia to resource hubs in the Persian Gulf, East Africa and Northwestern Australia, the IOR is rapidly growing in strategic significance. But the absence of either a ‘hub and spokes’ style alliance system or a well-developed tradition of multilateral security diplomacy comparable to equivalent structures in the Asia–Pacific significantly complicates efforts to establish a viable regional security architecture. India’s ‘rise’—however halting and incomplete—thus occurs in a radically different regional context from the densely institutionalised web of security and economic cooperation that is presently shaping China’s ascendancy in the Asia–Pacific. For this reason, when trying to make sense of the magnitude and likely consequences of India’s rise, it’s necessary to contemplate the range of possible alternative regional security orders that may co-evolve alongside a stronger and more assertive India:

1) An Indian Ocean Pax Americana: The US Navy’s re-calibration of its ‘two ocean’ orientation (from an Atlantic/Pacific to an Indo-Pacific focus) and the greater interest in the IOR evidenced in the US ‘rebalance’ towards Asia both provide some grounds for envisaging a more overt US leadership role within the local security order. Nevertheless, a combination of limited US interest and likely regional resistance to US hegemonic pretensions—not least from India—make the prospective emergence of an IOR Pax Americana a remote prospect. Undoubtedly, the US Navy will remain the principal security guarantor for regional maritime commerce, and the US will increasingly work to strengthen defence and intelligence cooperation with regional partners. But even the staunchest boosters of American primacy are unlikely to see the value or the viability of attempting to replicate in the IOR the obtrusive, costly and densely institutionalised types of security orders that have underpinned US dominance in Western Europe and East Asia since 1945.

2) A ‘Neo-Nixon doctrine’ for the IOR: Walter Ladwig III has recently argued persuasively for an IOR order organised around a ‘neo-Nixon doctrine’, in which the US would sponsor key local partners—India, Indonesia, Australia and South Africa—to assume the primary burden for upholding regional peace and security. This proposal has significant merits, not least in the more reasonable balance it strikes between US leadership and local initiative. But a ‘neo-Nixon doctrine’ for the IOR runs the risk of overstating the degree of convergent security interests between its four presumptive sub-regional lynchpin states. The stillborn ‘democratic quad’ proposal in 2007 to strengthen security cooperation between India, Australia, the US and Japan furthermore cautions against efforts to build regional orders around democratic ententes, especially those that invite the perception of being implicitly anti-China in their inspiration.

3) India as local hegemon: Indian great power ambitions—stoked in recent years by America’s overt encouragement of India’s rise as a counterweight to China—leave open the theoretical possibility of India’s long-term emergence as a regional hegemon. The limits of New Delhi’s current military modernisation efforts nevertheless preclude this as a short-term prospect. India’s persistent rivalries with Pakistan and China are also likely to divert the bulk of its strategic attention towards a continental rather than a maritime focus for the foreseeable future, while sub-continental fears of Indian domination will continue to constrain India’s leadership aspirations. India’s great size and geopolitical centrality ensure that it will be an indispensible nation within any future regional order. But India’s internal governance challenges and its ongoing tensions with key neighbouring states will prevent it from being the indispensible nation within the IOR for some time to come.

4) An ASEAN for the IOR? Given that America is unwilling and India is presently unable to uphold regional order via hegemonic means, an alternative might be for India to co-sponsor with other like-minded states the development of a regional security architecture comparable to ASEAN and its varied offshoots (most notably the ASEAN Regional Forum and the ASEAN Defence Ministers’ Meeting Plus, or ADMM+). ASEAN’s success from 1967 in integrating post-Sukarno Indonesia into a viable local security architecture invites tantalising parallels with contemporary India, suggesting a means of binding India’s burgeoning power within an institutional framework capable of reassuring New Delhi’s neighbours and thereby aiding multilateral security cooperation. The lacklustre record of regional cooperation through existing structures (eg the Indian Ocean Rim Association for Regional Cooperation, or IOR-ARC) nevertheless fails to inspire confidence that such a ‘top down’ exercise in order-building would yield significant strategic benefits in the short term.

5) Small beginnings – the case for ‘bottom up’ regional order-building: In analysing the development of security architectures in the Asia–Pacific, Professor William Tow and Dr Brendan Taylor have noted that order-building can occur as much through ‘bottom up’ processes of incremental security cooperation as from ‘top down’ blueprints prescribing far-reaching institutional change. In the absence of either an uncontested ‘architect’, a strong pre-existing tradition of multilateral security diplomacy or a coherent and thickly institutionalised sense of regional identity, the best option for IOR states to pursue in building a regional order could be the cultivation of ad hoc and issue-specific practices of security cooperation. The Tsunami Core Group (involving the US, Japan, India and Australia) provided an early indication of the practical dividends that ad hocsecurity cooperation might yield in the area of humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, while more recent anti-piracy and counter-terrorism initiatives among IOR states demonstrate a continuing appetite for limited cooperative security ventures. While hardly headline-grabbing, such initiatives promise to deliver real security dividends for participants, while also potentially inculcating the everyday habits of cooperation upon which more ambitious order-building initiatives might subsequently be built. Within this context, Australia’s hosting in 2014 of the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium (IONS) provides a useful forum for Canberra to catalyse discussion regarding the IOR’s emerging security needs, potentially promoting in so doing the small-scale ‘bottom up’ exercises in practical security cooperation that the region urgently needs.

India’s rise is occurring within a deeply unsettled regional context, and India will confront many challenges as it aspires to a global leadership role commensurate with its great size and even greater promise. But India’s neighbours will simultaneously need to work with New Delhi to craft an order capable of peacefully accommodating the seismic power shifts now rapidly re-shaping the IOR. In this regard, pragmatism and a commitment to promoting more modest issue-specific practices of cooperation may ultimately prove more valuable than the quixotic promotion of grand designs in securing the peaceful and prosperous order on which all regional states ultimately depend.

Andrew Phillips is a senior lecturer in International Relations and Strategic Studies in the School of Political Science and International Studies at the University of Queensland. He was recently awarded the Crisp Prize by the Australian Political Science Association for his book War, Religion and Empire – The Transformation of International Orders. Image courtesy of Flickr user Official US Navy Imagery.