Small states face two core threats in the Indo-Pacific.
Panellists in the session “Indo-Pacific: Governing the Churn” highlighted three key themes that emerge from ocean governance in the Indo-Pacific region.
The first is the volume of commercial maritime traffic flowing through the region and the management of marine resources: states within and beyond the Indo-Pacific hold significant interests in this regard. The second is military stability in the Asia-Pacific: the naval competition brewing among the states of the Indian and Pacific Oceans presents challenges but also offers opportunities for cooperation. The third relates to competitive linkages between economic and military spheres in the Indian and Pacific oceans, specifically between the US and China.
It must be understood that the significance of movement of merchant shipping through the waters of the Indo-Pacific cannot be underestimated, the panellists pointed out.
Small states face two core threats in the Indo-Pacific. Archipelagos such as the Maldives are particularly vulnerable due to their small population and limited resources. Male has made intensive efforts to protect and economically consolidate its interests; and thus, tourism forms the bedrock of the Maldivian economy. Any maritime instability or conflict stretching from West Asia to the East of the Malacca Straits will prove deleterious to Maldives’ fragile economy. Other smaller states in the Indo-Pacific — particularly in the South China Sea — such as Taiwan, Vietnam, the Philippines and Malaysia will also be affected by a conflict as there is competition for marine resources such as fisheries, oil and natural gas.
Countries beyond the Indian Ocean region, too, have a stake in the Indo-Pacific. French interests in the Indo-Pacific range from permanent ground force deployments to naval basing in the Indian and Pacific oceans. Shared values and interests—need for unhindered freedom of navigation and the challenge of threats stepping from maritime piracy or trafficking—between India and France further provide a vital glue for the two states to partner. Addressed together, these challenges create an opportunity for India and France to cooperate.
Brazil is another critical country that has an enduring interest in ensuring stability and maritime governance in the Indo-Pacific. The largest Latin American country could play a key role in the coming years by contributing to food security in Asia-Pacific. As of now, Brazil exports most of its agricultural produce to Europe, but a considerable amount of its trade transits the Indian Ocean. Further, Asia is home to the largest proportion of the world’s population and, therefore, generates demand for Brazilian food exports. Meanwhile, the US plays a pivotal role in keeping sea lanes open due to its formidable navy, and Brazilian maritime commerce depends on American naval power in the Indo-Pacific.
As a leveraged economy, the American dollar is considered to be the world’s reserve currency. This is not due to the considerable or deep public finances of the US but largely due to its navy. Consequently, the US has an abiding and enduring interest in ensuring maritime order and security in Asia-Pacific. Further, the US has historically been a strong trading power, exhorting other states to keep their economies open to trade and investment while ensuring the same for itself. This creates a very strong motive and incentive for Washington to contest the emergence of threats in the maritime domain of the Indo-Pacific.
In a security milieu, where traditional and irregular threats increasingly intercept, maritime governance has emerged as a key area of focus. — Lisa Curtis, Senior Research Fellow, The Heritage Foundation, USA
Linked to the economic consequences for the American economy, if it were to dilute its naval presence in Asia-Pacific, the nature of the evolving strategic competition between China and the US could potentially undermine maritime stability in two ways. First, the American quest to maintain naval primacy means that it has no option but to maintain a strong military presence in Asia-Pacific to ensure the movement of sea-borne trade and sustain its extended deterrence commitments in continental Asia. Its Asian allies such as Japan, South Korea, member states of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN), and the two antipodean states in Australia and New Zealand, will be affected if the US were to dilute its presence in the region and compelled to forge an intra-Asian balance against Chinese power.
France wants to play its role in this region, enhancing our partnership and cooperation bilaterally with all the major stakeholders for the stability of Indo-Pacific, at the same time supporting regional organisations and multilateralism. — Luc Hallade, Ambassador in charge of cooperation in the Indian Ocean, France
Notwithstanding US President Donald Trump’s protectionist and populist instincts and call for greater military burden sharing on part of America’s allies, Asia remains critical to American national interests and, therefore, Washington’s sustained engagement. Among Asian states, China, however, is the most consequential actor and presents a direct challenge to American naval power. Ironically, China, which has been among the principal beneficiaries, particularly in the commercial and economic realms of American power, is now poised to contest the American defence posture and the states neighbouring China. Beijing has methodically gone about converting its economic power into military power over the last two decades. It is but clear that the gradual transformation of the Chinese navy into a blue water fighting force could neutralise its immediate neighbours with whom it has disputatious maritime claims, such as in the South China Sea, but would significantly spur Sino-American naval competition.
The views expressed above belong to the author(s).