India-Australia partnership to balance Chinese aggression in Indian Ocean

Who would have thought the Indian Ocean would become a region in its own right? Up until now, it has been one of the world’s forgotten oceans. Since World War II and maybe for even longer, global attention has meant the Pacific and Atlantic dominated security and trade thinking.

But China’s use of power in the region plus the South China Sea combined with concerns about ‘belt and road’ have caused a rethink. Creating the Indian Ocean as a strategic force is more than a dream. Step by step it is happening.

The most recent example was when India and Australia signed a strategic deal that made the two countries much closer allies than ever before. The recent virtual meeting of Australia’s PM Scott Morrison and Indian PM Narendra Modi achieved just that.The new energised strategic friendship is all about China. India has very direct reasons to be concerned, with border issues with China. And Australia is finding how damaging China can be when upset –the trade wars have come to impact the relationship.

So now there are strategic arrangements which have ensured that for decades to come India and Australia will become even closer strategic friends, and that both will lead in determining power in the Indian Ocean.

First, allowing reciprocal access to each other’s military bases for logistics support such as refuelling and maintenance. Sounds mundane, but it is a key step to closer military exercises and training.Second a maritime cooperation agreement supporting the “rules-based” maritime order in the region, founded on respect for the sovereignty of all nations and international law, particularly the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. “Rules based” means “not China”.

Third, an agreement to cooperate on critical cyber and other technologies. There were six other agreements and commentators are saying the two leaders found many ways of implying that “this is all about China”.

Who else can shape the Indian Ocean region?

Likely additions would be Vietnam and Indonesia. Plus, Japan and the USA are much more than observers. The two countries –India and Australia –have middle-level defensive capacities and could unite a string of countries in the region in some form of security net.India said the strategic partnership with Australia will be values based. Modi told Morrison, “It is our sacred responsibility to uphold and protect values for global good like democracy, rule of law, freedom, mutual respect, regard for international institutions and transparency.” These values, he said, were under challenge.

Even though it is early days, I feel this Indian Ocean deal is bigger than it seems and could make the region one of stability at a time of China’s rise to power and the unpredictability of theUSA.