The Indo-Pacific not only breaks down the late 20 th century idea of East Asia and South Asia as separate strategic settings, it emphasises the sea as conduit for commerce and competition. East Asian fishing fleets have long trawled Indo-Pacific. This super-region is defined, not by its vast and fluid outer boundaries, which are hard to agree on, but by the intersecting interests of its chief powers, China, India and the United States.
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- Whose Indo-Pacific? China, India and the United States in the regional maritime security order.
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These are the three countries that have the largest interests at stake and the most to contribute, but which among them are navigating complex relationships. Now the United States maintains deep strategic equities and a crucial strategic presence throughout the region.
China-Middle East trade is projected to reach half a trillion dollars by Pacific powers now have deep equities in the security of the Indian Ocean, and India increasingly so in the Pacific. Thanks to the pirates of Somalia, the Chinese and other Asian navies have reason to be in the Indian Ocean for the long haul. But in responding to transnational threats, there is of course a risk of adding to inter-state suspicions.
Unilateral, exclusive or badly-explained efforts to provide public goods can create fears about more strategic agendas at work.
With their central locations and value as staging points for American forces, there is no doubt that countries like Australia and Singapore have some scope to help Washington swing capabilities between the two oceans, for all kinds of scenarios. But, along with Indonesia, these countries are also perfectly placed as hubs for inclusive, reassuring forms of security cooperation, potentially with China, America, India, Japan and other stakeholders in the Indo-Pacific order.
This could encompass exercises in such areas as maritime coordination, counter-terrorism and disaster relief. It could also include dialogue to increase military transparency and craft rules or understandings to reduce risks of unintended conflict at sea. Now, the Indo-Pacific nexus of trade and security is about both transnational and interstate challenges. The safety of Chinese nationals in Africa and the Middle East is already taking Chinese military assets to unfamiliar places, as the assisted evacuations of thousands of Chinese from Libya and Egypt in attests. And the role of the Indian navy as a security provider is also growing, in the Indian Ocean and beyond.
But of course the ultimate security threats that major powers are seeking to guard their expanding interests against are each other. For now, much of this is observed in the ballet of security diplomacy — like whose navies train together, whose ships and envoys go where, who talks behind closed doors about what. For example, the Japanese and the Indians are developing a promising Indo-Pacific security partnership. But despite or because of their growing mutual wariness, China and India have started their own formal maritime security dialogue, endorsed by leaders this week, and this is a wise, far-sighted initiative — to build dialogue before trouble arises, not after.
All this is part of the context in which America must shape its Indo-Pacific rebalance, cooperatively with China and India, but also in a way to reassure allies and others partners. All of this this leaves key questions about how China can be incorporated into a two-ocean regional order without worsening the security anxieties of others. A diplomatic and maritime security infrastructure is needed to reduce risks of conflict as great powers expand their interests and reach across this vast shared space. These are uncharted waters but some basic principles can be identified.
Indeed, even if the big three represented here today can ever overcome mistrust or unilateral habits and coordinate as maritime security providers — an Indo-Pacific concert of powers — then there would be a need to convince other powers that that is in their interests too. Yet the disparities, differences and distances among so many Indo-Pacific countries mean a fully-inclusive regional organisation is not the solution either.
It cannot be effective for practical matters like counter-piracy operations or agreements to manage incidents at sea. Sometimes these will include China — as with the anti-piracy patrols — and sometimes not. When a catastrophic tsunami hit Southeast Asia at the end of , a core group of America, India, Japan and Australia rapidly deployed forces to assist.
Its increasing inclusion in minilateral partnerships could help reduce its suspicion that these are the starting points for alliances against it, as was claimed with the short-lived quadrilateral talks that emerged from the tsunami core group. Middle powers like Australia could help here; there is no reason why it could not host humanitarian drills with for example Chinese, Indian, Japanese, Singaporean and Indonesian forces alongside those US Marines in Darwin.
The principles for who gets to play in effective security cooperation and dialogue in the Indo-Pacific should be simple: those countries with 1. I have observed Australia-China naval exercises up close, and there is something worth building on. Fourteen global agreements have been negotiated under UN auspices, including treaties against hostage-taking, aircraft hijacking, terrorist bombings, terrorism financing and nuclear terrorism. The United Nations brought about the first-ever treaty to combat genocide—acts committed with the intent to destroy a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.
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