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BY NATALIE SAMBHI
Over the past year, there’s been a flurry of regional leaders offering their vision of the Indo-Pacific, the geostrategic concept spanning two oceans that is slowly replacing the Asia-Pacific as a dominant security and economic paradigm. However, the Indo-Pacific, roughly stretching from Hollywood to beyond Bollywood, is an unwieldy area with numerous security challenges. With the exception of the United States, no country within the Indo-Pacific’s fuzzy boundaries seems willing, and able, to play a major role in net security provision. What security architecture might look like for the nascent Indo-Pacific is anyone’s guess, with only a few ambitious ideas, such as an Indo-Pacific Treaty, mooted thus far.
The daunting task of approaching complex challenges in such an expansive area can be made more manageable by tackling the Indo-Pacific bit by bit. For strong security relationships in the face of global disruption and fraying multinational institutions, we might consider giving Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo’s “building blocks” approach some serious thought.
During his visit to New Delhi in January, President Jokowi proposed that cooperation in the Indo-Pacific be strengthened through this “building blocks” approach, meaning the gradual linking together of existing bilateral and plurilateral ties between countries, and ties between security architecture. While Jokowi’s intent was to ensure ASEAN-centrality in this approach, the underlying idea of subdividing the region into more manageable units and eventually linking them is worth pursuing. The Indo-Pacific appears much less intimidating in this way.
But where to start? Given the underdevelopment of Indian Ocean institutions relative to the Pacific rim or Southeast Asian bloc, there is great potential to build up the southwest sector of the Indo-Pacific, which I term the “Indo-Australis.”
The Indo-Australis is defined as a strategic triangle within the Indo-Pacific, comprising Australia, India and Indonesia. More than maritime neighbours, these states are linked by shared interests in the Indian Ocean and a long, if not bumpy, history of cooperation. Of the countries within this part of the Indo-Pacific, Australia, India and Indonesia are middle and/or emerging powers, and possess maritime capabilities commensurate with the challenge posed by regional security issues and natural disasters.
The Indo-Australis is a formal banner under which the three states can rebrand existing trilateral cooperation in order to operationalise Indo-Pacific cooperation. Existing trilateral cooperation includes an inaugural strategic dialogue between senior Australian, Indian and Indonesian foreign policy officials that was held in November 2017 in Bogor, West Java.
The name Indo-Australis also reflects the geographic reality of all three states bordering the Indian Ocean rim and can foster a sense of belonging as a result of this oceanic bond. Grouping together as part of team confers a much stronger identity and purpose than something as bureaucratically bland, although functional, as “Trilateral Strategic Dialogue.” “The Avengers” is far more purposeful than merely “Trilateral Superhero Convention.” Indo-Australis is separate from, but still connected to, the Indo-Pacific.
Comprised of the three strongest pillars of the Indian Ocean Rim Association, Indo-Australis also reflects the joint responsibility for security in relation to the critical shipping lines that run through Indonesia and Malaysia and the Indian Ocean. A formalised trio also captures the best of IORA’s troika leadership model by knitting together the three most influential members and propagates their collective knowledge and habits of dialogue through annual meetings and activities, serving as a testbed for the wider Indo-Pacific.
But beyond this is the ability to capitalise on the significant convergence between all three states’ respective visions of the Indo-Pacific. In either key policy documents or major speeches, all three countries embrace similar characteristics of the Indo-Pacific future: Australia’s “open, inclusive and prosperous Indo–Pacific region in which the rights of all states are respected,” Indonesia’s Indo-Pacific based on “free, open, inclusive, and comprehensive” cooperation and India’s envisioning of a “free, open and inclusive” Indo-Pacific. All three states highlight the centrality of Southeast Asia (particularly ASEAN), but Australia differs slightly in identifying partnerships with the Indo-Pacific democracies of Japan, Indonesia, India and South Korea as being of “first order importance”.
All three countries are navigating the challenges of a more assertive and influential China, as well as greater strategic competition between China and the US. Indonesia and India are in the unenviable position of having to manage even more complex ties with China owing to proximity. While both grow their economic ties with Beijing, they have also faced terrestrial and maritime confrontations. India has seen escalating tensions in the Doklam border region, while Indonesia has faced sporadic clashes with Chinese fishing vessels in its Natuna Islands’ exclusive economic zone (EEZ).
It is little wonder that during Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s recent visit to Indonesia, Modi and Jokowi upgraded the bilateral relationship to a comprehensive strategic partnership based on “a common vision for maritime cooperation in the Indo-Pacific”. For its part, Australia is currently debating suspected Chinese government interference in politics, and introducing related legislation, while trying to avoid infuriating its biggest investment partner.
Indo-Australis in action
Beyond the power politics of this era, augmenting trilateral cooperation between Australia, India and Indonesia is needed to address the enduring maritime challenges in the Indian Ocean. India and Indonesia have committed to building up the latter’s most western port in Sabang, off the coast of Aceh, to allow commercial vessels and potentially submarines. This boosts protection for the western flank of the Malacca Straits and India’s Andaman Islands.
But what would Indo-Australis in action look like? On top of the Senior Officials’ Strategic Dialogue, there is always potential for 1.5 track dialogues (involving officials and non-governmental organisations or actors), augmented trilateral military exercises, table top exercises, maritime safety cooperation, and cooperation on nontraditional security. Australia and Indonesia’s Bali Process, which focuses on people smuggling, trafficking in persons and transnational crime, and of which India is a member, is a good example of bilateral achievement with net gain for the region that could be expanded in trilateral ways through its Ad Hoc Group mechanism. Counterterrorism cooperation and disaster relief are other obvious areas.
Full steam ahead?
Together with Australia, India and Indonesia form a southern anchor with collective responsibility for global maritime commons in this neighbourhood. But the nudge for a more closely identified sub-grouping of the Indo-Pacific does not gloss over the historical challenges between Indonesia and India, Australia and Indonesia, and Australia and India. The challenges of the Australia-Indonesia relationship are well known, but India’s long-held non-alignment has meant a certain distance with Australia. That said, there is a triangular-shaped window of opportunity with streams of support for closer cooperation among middle powers shining through.
This means it will really be up to Australia to promote the case for a rebranded trilateral relationship. India and Indonesia, despite their bitter estrangement during the Cold War, share a deep nostalgia predicated on achieving independence within years of one another, and on the personal bonds between their postcolonial leaders, Jawaharlal Nehru and Sukarno. Their common roots in Hindu and Buddhist traditions confer a veneer of cultural affinity despite recent tensions over Islam in both countries. Australia’s case will have to be built predominantly on realpolitik and overcome spurious arguments, often heard during ASEAN membership debates, of being the odd one out.
It is also up to India and Indonesia to walk the walk on “inclusive” rhetoric. There is no denying the strategic importance of the Indian Ocean and the complexity of its strategic challenges. It is high time for all three states to capitalise on their collective capabilities and, as the southeast anchor of the Indo-Pacific, form the Indo-Australis.
Natalie Sambhi is a research fellow at the Perth USAsia Centre where she focuses on Indonesian foreign and defence policy and a PhD scholar at The Australian National University’s Strategic and Defence Studies Centre in Canberra, focusing on Indonesian military history.
This article originally appeared in Indonesia At Melbourne