CAITLIN BYRNE |

The Indian Ocean is a vast and dynamic domain. Yet, much like its Pacific counterpart, it is too easily cast as a great emptiness, and too frequently the strategic dynamics shaping it are underestimated and underexamined. By drawing us to consider major/minor trends and their implications for the decades ahead, this activity encourages more creative and critical engagement in the possible and alternative futures of the Indian Ocean—with particular attention to the primacy of India and the supporting role of the United States.

The scenarios presented in this roundtable highlight the complex dynamics at play, bring key vulnerabilities to the fore and expose blind spots in strategic policy thinking. In particular, while conventional wisdom suggests that the great powers are jostling for power and influence in the Indian Ocean region, these scenarios also raise the interesting opposite problem: What happens if traditionally powerful states like India and the United States retrench from the region? This essay draws attention to three influential dynamics that might emerge: (1) the potential for a power vacuum in the Indian Ocean, (2) the evolving agency of littoral and island states, and (3) the need to sustain strategic Indo-Pacific partnerships. Each of these themes is discussed in turn, followed by a brief discussion of the potential implications for Australia.

A power vacuum in the Indian Ocean

To begin, it is worth restating the significance of India’s evolving leadership role in the Indian Ocean, bolstered by the presence of strategic partners, notably the United States. As Arzan Tarapore has observed, India remains the most consequential strategic actor in the Indian Ocean region, by virtue of its geographic centrality, economic and military power, and abiding networks of influence across the region. Should India pull away from playing such a consequential role, the resultant power vacuum would see “stepped up maneuvering” from a range of states seeking to fill it.

India’s past trajectory reveals the nation’s tendency to distraction alongside an ambivalent (or at least complacent) assumption of regional leadership, including in the maritime domain. With no shortage of potential distractions—whether arising from internal crises, political divisions, or external border hostilities—India could well turn its interest and investment away from the Indo-Pacific toward continental concerns.

Of course, no single actor would be as well-positioned to replace India’s significant position in the Indian Ocean. China makes for an obvious protagonist, with a significant presence in the region already and a growing influence throughout the Indian Ocean littoral among small island states. But it is not the only actor with aspirations for this ocean. Drawing on the rhetoric of “old friendship” and “joint engagement,” others, including Russia and Iran, may well seek to take advantage of a preoccupied India to enhance their own strategic presence in the maritime domain. Not to be left behind, European powers, including France and Germany, would look to ramp up their engagement to ensure that all-important maritime transit lines remain unimpeded in the emerging contest for hegemony in the ocean.

Quite separate from the challenge posed by state actors jostling for position in an Indian Ocean power vacuum is the potential for the proliferation of violent non-state actors. With a plethora of activities ranging from piracy to terrorism to transnational crime to illegal fishing, these actors would jeopardize the security of the maritime domain, bringing serious implications for the littoral and island states. Overall, the result would likely be a further contest that destabilizes Indian Ocean strategic dynamics into the longer term.

The significance of Indian Ocean littoral and island states

Cultivating the favourable disposition of littoral and island nations states has been a central component of India’s regional statecraft. Yet, as Darshana Baruah and Yogesh Joshi have noted, in the absence of any significant competition, “India ignored and often took for granted its relationship with its maritime neighbours.” Should India’s attention lapse further, the interests and agency of littoral and island states may prove influential in setting the regional agenda.

China has already been active in cultivating influence across the small island states of the region, targeting states such as Sri Lanka, Madagascar, Maldives, Seychelles, and Mauritius with lucrative infrastructure, economic, and cultural offerings. Although yielding uneven success to date, these activities provide a foundation from which China could exert significant influence on Indian Ocean issues, while marginalizing others, especially India, in the process.

The small island states of the Indian Ocean are not passive bystanders. They bring their own difficult histories, complex identities, regional associations, and future aspirations to the table.6 It should also be expected that they will seek to advance their own interests, exercising agency and exploiting their increasingly strategic position in the region in the process. While not yet having established the same kind of collective diplomatic clout as Pacific Island nations, Indian Ocean island states are well placed to act collectively in multilateral forums to advance their shared interests.

Territorial claims to Diego Garcia in the Chagos Archipelago provide a case in point. As the Mauritian claim for sovereignty over British Indian Ocean Territory gains traction and support within the international community, the archipelago is likely to become symbolic of the broader ambitions of island states and their pursuit of agency.

Currently a British territory home to a US military base, Diego Garcia offers a strategic Indo-Pacific asset. But with increasing contestation from within the region, ongoing support for the United States’ presence is not assured. India’s currently ambiguous position, in which support for Mauritian sovereignty (and more broadly moral support for processes of decolonization) is balanced with support for the British and U.S. presence, will be untenable over the long term. By contrast, China’s unsurprisingly unambiguous support for Mauritian sovereignty is viewed favourably by small states in the region and could tip the balance of support from Indian Ocean island states toward China, with long-term implications for regional order.

Strategic Partnerships in the Indo-Pacific

The evolving strategic partnership that exists between India, the United States, Australia, and Japan as members of the Quad is based on a common underlying commitment to secure a free and open Indo-Pacific. Largely motivated by a mission to counterbalance China’s increasing assertion of power and influence, the quartet reflects a broadly shared interest in preserving and protecting a liberal international rules-based order within the region.

The credibility of the narrative is underpinned by the extent to which the four partners commit to the region through their visible presence and the degree to which they each adhere to or contravene the rules-based order that they jointly support. Any waiver or deviation—including as the result of withdrawal from the region (as scenarios one and three suggest)—will test the durability of the Indo-Pacific concept itself.

Consideration of the implications of various scenarios for the Indian Ocean region underscores the need for expanding the nature of like-minded Indo-Pacific partnerships, both within the Quad grouping and beyond. A Quad Plus approach, which might engage others with existing connections and interests in the ocean, offers value. With existing interests in the Indian Ocean maritime domain, France, the United Kingdom, and South Africa, alongside Southeast Asian partners such as Singapore, Indonesia, and Malaysia, could play a constructive role in such a cooperative Quad Plus framework.

Regardless, greater investment in multidimensional traditional and public diplomacy will be required to secure the ongoing commitment of Quad partners, especially India and the United States, while also shoring up key strategic partnerships and strengthening necessary architecture to manage and enforce international rules and regulations.

Implications for Australia

For Australia, any disruption to Indo-Pacific dynamics brings further challenges as the nation reorients its political discourse, diplomatic and military effort, and public support toward the protection of the maritime domain to its west. Scenarios one and three, forecasting withdrawal by India and the United States respectively, are perhaps the direst.

In both cases, it is not clear that Australia’s capabilities in the immediate, medium or long term would be fit for a larger Indian Ocean presence and role, or whether Australia would want to take on the political burden that such a larger role would require. With initial vulnerabilities exposed in the northern Indian Ocean, Australia might look to shore up its presence in the Cocos/Keeling Islands and Christmas Island. However, further pressure to monitor access to the Antarctic via the Southern Ocean gateway will place an increased burden on the nation, creating the case for a more significant military presence on the western seaboard.

Diplomatically, Australia must consider the implications of any gravitational pull to the west, including an increased focus on small island states, territories, and emergent or informal institutions across the Indian Ocean. Greater attention to the preferences of Eastern African states would also play a role in expanded diplomatic efforts. Yet any reorientation toward the west could compromise existing capabilities, credibility, and trust that has been built up over recent years elsewhere, especially in Australia’s near Pacific neighbourhood. Pacific Island nations will pay close attention, and any lapse in or diminished commitment to the Pacific Step-up initiative will drive some states closer to China as a preferred strategic partner.

For Australia, the dual burden of significant military engagements toward both west and east creates a capacity conundrum with both immediate- and longer-term political, diplomatic, and strategic implications. Against this backdrop, the domestic political environment is likely to become turbulent. Domestic audiences, fatigued by the health and economic impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic and ongoing disruption to global supply chains, will be reluctant to support upsizing diplomatic or military investments or engaging in potential confrontations without any convincing justification.

New anxieties about the world could spark a return to the “populate or perish” arguments of old, prompting a major reassessment of Australia’s immigration and settlement strategies, with an emphasis on building the population along the Western coastline. At the same time, nationalist and xenophobic political forces are urging Australia to rebuild its sovereign capacities and retreat from global and regional engagement altogether. The narrative of a “free and open Indo-Pacific” will have little impact if domestic audiences are overcome with anxiety about the outside world.

The possibility that India or the United States might withdraw from their longstanding engagement in the Indian Ocean is rarely contemplated. Yet the impact on regional dynamics would be significant, with long-term implications for Australia’s international policy and positioning. In short, Australia might consider what is required now to ensure that the necessary leadership capacities, resilient and integrated policy mechanisms, and informed public audiences are in place to safeguard against any internal and external volatility that might arise from the Indian Ocean’s uncertain future.


AUTHOR

Professor Caitlin Byrne is Director of the Griffith Asia Institute, a Fellow of the Australian Institute for International Affairs (AIIA) and Faculty Fellow of the University of Southern California’s Centre for Public Diplomacy (CPD). This article first appeared as a chapter in the National Bureau of Asian Research  Asia Policy 16(3) and has been published with permission.