Three major powers — which together account for nearly half of the global economy — are vying for influence in the Indian Ocean arena. India, China, and the United States each view the region through their own geo-strategic frameworks, ensuring intense jostling at best or conflict at worst.
Potentially the most important meeting in Asia this week isn’t on any official summit agenda, features no head of state and certainly doesn’t include China. Senior officials from Australia, India, Japan and the US—a set of countries known as “the Quad”—plan to meet today on the sidelines of a regional summit in Singapore.
The Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) is a step closer to achieving its goal of deploying a full-scale aircraft carrier battle group. In recent days, China’s first indigenously built aircraft carrier, Shandong, embarked on its second set of sea trials. Meanwhile, the PLAN also started sea trials for the first of its massive new Type 055 guided-missile destroyers , reportedly called Nanchang, on August 24.
With Washington’s Indo-Pacific strategy set to boost India’s role in the region, New Delhi is working hard to avoid being caught in the middle of the growing rivalry between China and the United States, observers said. That might have explained why Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi appeared to avoid mentioning the “quadrilateral strategic dialogue” – a US-led grouping of four regional powers including Australia, Japan and India, also known as “the Quad” – during his speech at the Shangri-La Dialogue, a regional security summit, in Singapore over the weekend.
In the western Indian Ocean, a battle for the soul of the Indo-Pacific is set to play out between China and the liberal order hitherto led by the US, and increasingly represented by India. While New Delhi and Beijing have initiated a tentative rapprochement, their interests do not align.
Given the rapidly shifting geopolitical landscape – or, more accurately, seascape – of the South Pacific, the region poses several strategic challenges to the US and its allies. As Australian National University’s Joanne Wallis has argued, over the past several years the South Pacific has seen the creation of alternative regional institutions, increasing Chinese investment and strategic focus, diminished New Zealand and Australian influence, and US strategic neglect.
China has planted powerful listening devices in two strategic seabeds deep in the waters near Guam, America’s biggest military base in the Western Pacific. The cutting-edge acoustic sensors – some of which have a listening range of more than 1,000km – are being used for scientific research such as studying earthquakes, typhoons and whales, according to the Chinese government.
The shift reflects the Trump administration’s acknowledgement of several key factors: It treats India as a regional power and not just an isolated country on the southern tip of the continent. It emphasises the contiguous maritime nature of this vast space, which spans two of the world’s three largest oceans, four of the of world’s seven largest economies, and the world’s five most populous countries.
The Foreign Policy White Paper paints a picture of an uncertain world and troubling times. With this understanding as its foundation, the White Paper outlines what approaches Australia should take to protect its national interests. While some elements are new, these approaches are still a means to preserving the status quo. What the White Paper does not do is accept that there are some big and important phenomena we cannot control, and that Australia needs to prepare for them.