Indo-Pacific powers draw closer in response to China

Indo-Pacific powers draw closer in response to China

The recent trilateral meeting between India, France and Australia signals growing co-operation between Indo-Pacific powers at a time of increasing Chinese belligerence

As China seeks to expand its military and economic presence in the Indian Ocean, countervailing groupings like these acquire relevance. Credit: iStock Photo

On September 9, India, France and Australia held the first trilateral dialogue via videoconferencing. Senior-most officials from these three countries participated in the dialogue and issued a joint statement after the meeting. The trilateral dialogue between these countries was in the making for some time. In 2018, French President Emmanuel Macron had floated the idea of such a dialogue. There were active efforts initiated by leading analysts and think-tanks to further promote this idea. Therefore, the first trilateral dialogue is a welcome step. In the context of evolving geopolitics in the Indo-Pacific region, greater co-operation between these countries assumes particular strategic importance. 

Maintaining stability of Indian Ocean region

India, France and Australia are democracies and hold considerable stakes in the security and stability of the Indian Ocean. Australia and India are located in the Indian Ocean region, whereas France maintains its interests in the Indian Ocean through control over island territories such as Reunion and Mayotte. France considers itself as a legitimate Indian Ocean power and is working along with India to evolve a shared approach towards the Indian Ocean. India and Australia are particularly interested in the eastern reaches of the Indian Ocean and maritime geography allows these states to work together. Overall, these three countries face a similar outlook regarding the regional security issues and are supporters of rules-based international order. As China seeks to expand its military and economic presence in the Indian Ocean, countervailing groupings like these acquire relevance.   

This sort of meeting was possible because, in the last decade, bilateral relations between these three powers have been strengthened considerably. Indo-French security co-operation spans areas such as joint military exercises with all three services, defence sales and providing logistics support. India and Australia are partners in the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue and have recently signed logistics support agreement. There are indications that India is likely to invite the Australian Navy for the Malabar naval exercises held annually with the US and Japanese navies. To that end, there is strong support within both countries to further enhance their security co-operation. 

France and Australia are now close strategic partners. Both countries hold significant stakes in the regional security of the Southern Pacific (France holds territories in the Southern Pacific) and are genuinely worried about the growing Chinese influence in that region. In 2016, Australia signed a major defence deal with France worth $38 billion for the supply of 12 submarines for the Australian Navy. Australia’s choice of France over Japan was significant as such relationships bind states in a long-term security partnership. The growing role of French defence hardware in the military strategies of India and Australia will allow these three countries to build on the objective of greater interoperability. Therefore, the idea of joint military exercises, in future, cannot be ruled out.   

Response to China’s growing assertiveness

This trilateral meeting has to be seen as part of a series of initiatives launched by the Indo-Pacific powers in the last few months as a response to China’s growing assertiveness. India and China are engaged in a tense border standoff since May. China’s ties with Australia are also undergoing significant change and there are serious strains in the relationship. Thus, China’s aggressive posturing and belligerent attitude have pushed regional powers in the Indo-Pacific to find ways to come closer and co-operate further.

Recently, India, and Australia decided to participate in an initiative launched by Japan to build resilient supply chains and reduce the excessive dependence on China. In the context of Covid-19-related disruptions in international trade and logistics, Supply Chains Resilience Initiative is an idea whose time has come. India and Australia are also engaging Indonesia in a trilateral format. This trilateral meeting too has assumed increasing importance. Similarly, the scheduled meeting in October of the Quad (India, US, Japan and Australia) members will be watched keenly for indications regarding their approach to security challenges in the region. 

Underscoring the continued importance of the US in the geopolitics of the Indian Ocean, it has recently signed an agreement for defence co-operation with the Maldives. China’s influence in the Maldives has been a cause of worry for India. US-Maldives defence agreement is a welcome step from an Indian perspective. Moreover, Germany has released a document outlining its approach to the Indo-Pacific. Germany believes that order in the Indo-Pacific region should be shaped by ‘rules and international cooperation’. Growing German interest in Indo-Pacific and the launching of a strategy paper is considered as a departure from its China-friendly foreign policy.   

All of these steps point towards the greater convergence of interests among the important actors towards maintaining peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific as well as to send out a clear message to Beijing. Whether Beijing is in a mood to listen or just wants to push forward on its objectives will be crucial in the evolution of such groupings. Continued aggressive behaviour by China is likely to strengthen such initiatives further.   

(Sankalp Gurjar is a Research Fellow with the Indian Council of World Affairs, New Delhi. Views are personal) 

Disclaimer: The views expressed above are the author's own. They do not necessarily reflect the views of DH.