Event ReportsPublished on Nov 16, 2015
Tensions between India and Pakistan or North Korean provocations or South East Asia's maritime problems should not be perceived as local. The tensions in the South China Sea can single-handedly destabilise the region and the world, argues Prof. Rory Medcalf.
Tensions in South China Sea can destabilise region and the world

Tensions between India and Pakistan, North Korean provocations, or South East Asia’s maritime problems, should not be perceived as merely local, since a multi-layered strategic environment with increasing interdependence in the Indo-Pacific makes them supra-regional, argued Professor Rory Medcalf, Head of the National Security College at the Australian National University.

The tensions in the South China Sea can single-handedly destabilise the region and the world, Medcalf said while delivering a lecture on "The Indo-Pacific: Whose region, Whose Strategy?" at the Observer Research Foundation on 27 October 2015. It was moderated by Manoj Joshi, Distinguished Fellow, ORF.

The lecture was organised in the backdrop of the increasing tensions in the Indo-Pacific region, while the economic centre of gravity is shifting towards Asia. The rising but stable economies of this region have withstood global financial crises and emerged as growth engines of the world. Sustainment of this progress is dependent on maintaining peace and stability in this part of the world. However, recent geopolitical developments in the Western Pacific as well as the increasing militarisation of the Indian Ocean have showcased the potential for the probability of using force, leading to instability in this region.

As geography plays a primary role in international relations, Medcalf initiated his lecture by defining the geographical limits of the Indo-Pacific. It is the region incorporated between East Asia and South Asia via the Indian Ocean. The inclusion of the Indian Ocean is expected to give India a central role in shaping the geopolitical developments of this region. Although China is yet to express its opinion, it cannot ignore the reality of this construct. Medcalf underlined the need to constitute discussion forums and diplomatic connections to raise the Indo-Pacific architecture.

Medcalf highlighted the spread of Buddhism, Zheng He’s voyages and the vision of Panikkar about the Indian Ocean as evidence of a pan-regional political, cultural and diplomatic interconnectivity in ancient times. Today, a super region is coming into existence as India and China reclaim their political, economic and cultural influences along with a re-emerging Japan and the increasing significance of Singapore and Indonesia. The Indian Ocean became the lifeline for East Asian economies and the container trade in the East and South China Seas is about to supplant that of the Atlantic.

Coming to the point of strategic competition unfolding in this region, Medcalf opined that such issues cannot be narrowed down as specific to the South China Sea or the Indian Ocean with India looking and acting east, China looking west and Japan re-emerging while the US engulfs the whole region. China is trying to protect its investments in West Asia and Africa using military platforms traversing the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean. India is concerned with its neighbourhood, its commerce from the East and oil imports from West Asia. Japan has its presence in the Gulf of Aden and is increasing cooperation with India and Australia as it is more dependent than China on the Indian Ocean. Owing to these pan-regional presences and interests, these countries need to augment their cooperation for tackling the security problems.

Medcalf opined that through its rebalancing strategy, the US intends to operate in the larger Indo-Pacific region rather than confining itself to East Asia. Its partnership with India stands as evidence of this thinking. He said that Australia sees harmony in this change. These developments tend to facilitate security cooperation.

On China, he noted that Beijing is emerging as an Indo-Pacific power. Its Maritime Silk Road project can be understood as an Indo-Pacific construct with Chinese characteristics. China sees itself as the beginning and end through this road. He stressed that although this project might be about geoeconomics, the underlying geostrategic implications cannot be ignored. Clarifying the Indo-Pacific construct as not anti-China, he pointed out that it will prevent any one power from becoming overbearing, ensuring multi-polarity in the region. He divided the security architecture into bilateral, multilateral and minilateral arrangements, aided by forums like the ASEAN Defence Minister’s Meeting Plus allowing exchanges of views and diffusion of ideas.

Citing the Malabar defence exercises, Medcalf was optimistic about the India-Australia relationship. He also expressed desire for cooperation between the middle powers of the region without the necessary inclusion of the US, self-help being the logic of this cooperation. He opined that Australia is emerging as a minilateral hub to help tackle transnational challenges like terrorism, crime, migration and humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HADR) issues. Since India and Australia share interests and possesses certain capabilities and are willing to abide by the rules, there is immense potential for the two countries as core partners.

During the question hour, points on Australia's changing preferences, the lack of institutional support for the ‘Indo-Pacific’, varying interests across the region, joint investments in smaller countries and whether HADR leads to increased security cooperation were raised. Medcalf replied that there is no viable independent Indo-Pacific architecture but countries can play by its principles. He stressed that transnational challenges as well as restricting China from emerging as an unpredictable military power would be key to driving security cooperation between the Indo-Pacific countries. Although China should not be excluded from the discussions, he clarified that it should not be allowed to set the rules unilaterally. Commenting on investments in smaller countries, he opined that coordination should be practiced since joint investments were unrealistic. In conclusion, he remarked that such coordination should be displayed, for example, in increasing the maritime capacity of South East Asia.

Report is prepared by Vidya Sagar Reddy, Research Assistant, ORF Delhi. 

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