27 Nov 2017
Common challenges provide the platform for regional cooperation
One of the key messages of last week’s foreign policy white paper was that if Australia is to navigate the challenges in the Indo-Pacific then we can’t sit back while others engage in hard and soft power strategies to win influence.
We’ll need to innovate and co-operate with other partners to give us the greatest range of policy options to advance our interests. This month’s quadrilateral meeting of senior officials of Australia, US, India and Japan is one example.
Another example — and one that’s flown under the radar — is occurring today in Bogor, Indonesia: the first official trilateral dialogue between Australia, Indonesia and India.
The impetus for the trilateral grouping doesn’t just come from shared Indian Ocean geography. The three countries have closely co-operated in recent years to invigorate the key regional body in the Indian Ocean, the Indian Ocean Rim Association.
IORA is the only multilateral forum with a broad-based agenda and a membership that spans the diverse Indian Ocean region, covering the more than two billion people who live around the Indian Ocean rim.
For a six-year period Australia, India and Indonesia sat at the top of IORA’s high table and were its principal institutional contributors. In November 2011 India assumed the chair, then after a two-year term, it made way for Australia. Indonesia took over in 2015. (South Africa is the current chair).
The six-year stewardship of the organisation by the three countries has seen significant advancement by IORA in institutional and program terms. An IORA Concord, signed during the first leaders’ summit in Jakarta in March this year, for example, sets out norms to strengthen maritime regional architecture in the Indian Ocean region.
But Canberra, New Delhi and Jakarta now recognise that as neighbouring democratic countries they have the makings for trilateral co-operation beyond advancing IORA’s agenda.
As evidenced by the Bogor meeting, there’s now a recognition by the three states that practical measures around sustainable use of ocean resources and maritime safety and security can underpin trilateral co-operation.
Common oceanic challenges include maritime domain awareness, search and rescue, responsible fisheries management, (the three states can help build capacity, skills and governance), and combating the problems of illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing,(compared to the Pacific, the Indian Ocean is the “wild west”).
Other issues would include disaster-risk management, (the three countries mostly face the same maritime natural hazards), marine scientific research (the eastern Indian Ocean lacks a regional marine scientific research forum), sea lanes security and safety, the illegal movement of people and drugs, and offshore infrastructure security, (offshore oil and gas exploration poses challenges for the security of offshore platforms).
A trilateral dialogue offers the potential to influence security developments in the eastern part of the Indian Ocean, which apart from the trilateral states, includes Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore and Timor-Leste. The eastern Indian Ocean is part of the primary operating environment for the Australian Defence Force.
Regional co-operation is generally better developed in the western Indian Ocean than it is in the east. The three major Indian Ocean players might want to examine the option of creating an eastern Indian Ocean forum that would enhance prospects of a triangular strategic relationship between India, Southeast Asia and Australia — a potentially valuable link that’s currently underdeveloped. ASEAN as a regional body looks inward and towards its north and east, rather than to the west.
Trilateral co-operation is possible in naval exercises. The Indian navy now has at least one ship permanently stationed at the western approaches to the Strait of Malacca and they often take the opportunity to work with the Indonesian navy in the area. Given the recent large RAN Indo-Pacific deployment to the region, Australia has a real opportunity to join in here.
There’s also prospects for trilateral co-operation around our Indian Ocean offshore territories, the Cocos (Keeling) Islands and Christmas Island. These offshore island territories are closer to Southeast Asia than they are to main air bases in Australia. Cocos Island can act as a “lily pad”, extending the strategic reach of RAAF aircraft and sustain operations of unmanned aerial vehicles.
An expanded Australian strategic presence on our Indian Ocean island outposts would enable closer maritime security and other forms of defence co-operation with a range of Indo-Pacific partners, including India and Indonesia.
The latest strategy document of the Indian navy puts an increased focus on undertaking co-operation between various navies to counter common threats at sea. Given our Indian Ocean offshore islands are proximate to Indonesia there’s scope for maritime co-operation with Indonesia around these territories. We could, for example, invite Indonesian use of Cocos Island for its own aircraft patrols.
The Australia-India-Indonesia trilateral has the makings of a real three-way synergy in the eastern Indian Ocean and keeping the wider Indian Ocean as a peaceful maritime highway.
Anthony Bergin is a senior analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute and a senior research fellow at ANU’s National Security College