Australia's new defence policy recognises India’s eastward orientation
The test will be whether Australia and India can turn their converging interests into naval exercises, technology partnerships and shared maritime surveillance.
A new plan for Australian defence policy has big implications for India. For New Delhi, the good news is that Canberra’s 2013 Defence White Paper (WP), launched by Prime Minister Julia Gillard last week, sharply redefines Australia’s region of strategic interest as being broadly the same as India’s: the Indo-Pacific.
The downside is that the Australian policy statement also seems to take a soft line on China at a time when some of Beijing’s actions — not least the latest challenge on the disputed border with India — continue to unnerve the region. Both these apparent changes in Australia’s defence outlook are worth clarifying, and the Australian government should move quickly to do so.
India should take comfort from the first shift. As the WP says, a new “Indo-Pacific strategic arc” is connecting the Indian and Pacific Oceans through Southeast Asia. This new framework is forged by several factors: notably the massive growth in trade, energy and investment flows between East Asia and the Indian Ocean rim, and the rise of India as an important strategic, economic and diplomatic power beyond South Asia.
This declaration makes Australia the first country in the world officially to recognise its region as the Indo-Pacific rather than the Asia-Pacific. It will almost certainly not be the last. Indo-Pacific thinking is also gaining traction in Delhi, Washington, Tokyo and parts of Southeast Asia. The term has been used by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, notably, last December, when he moved to enhance India’s relations with ASEAN. And it makes objective sense as a description of the commercial and security linkages that will determine whether the Asian century is marked by prosperity or conflict.
In turning decisively Indo-Pacific in its rhetoric, Australia has identified India’s rise and growing eastward orientation as a major and positive development in the changing Asian strategic order. The policy paper states: “The Indo-Pacific... adjusts Australia’s priority strategic focus to the arc extending from India through Southeast Asia to Northeast Asia, including the sea lines of communication on which the region depends.” Crucially, Australia is neither worried nor even ambivalent about India’s growing naval weight. The paper emphasises that Canberra wants to work more closely with Delhi and the Indian navy to keep that order stable and