India, Australia and Indonesia in the Indo-Pacific: Time for Trilateral Cooperation

3 mins read

By Niranjan Jose

The growing political importance of the Indian and Pacific Oceans has given new momentum to the ‘Indo-Pacific’ as a geostrategic construct. Indonesia, India, and Australia all share important bilateral strategic relationships and have an alignment of interests and goals in the Indo-Pacific region. The main priorities of their respective foreign policies are upholding the international “rule-based” system, protecting the territorial integrity of nations, and guaranteeing open sea communication lines. India, Indonesia, and Australia form the backbone in this neighborhood with joint responsibility for global maritime commons.  In essence, Indonesia, India, and Australia strategically anchor the Indo-Pacific in the middle, northwest, and southeast. Therefore, the long-term geopolitical stability of the Indo-Pacific region is highly dependent on these three countries and how they engage with each other. This collaboration will also bring together, one of the oldest democracies — Australia, the largest democracy— India, and the largest Muslim majority country— Indonesia.

The threats of China getting more aggressive and the increasing geopolitical rivalry between China and the US are being faced by all three countries. India and Indonesia are in the difficult position of needing to maintain a much more complex relation with China owing to proximity. While both are growing their economic relations with Beijing, they have also been threatened by land and sea confrontations. India has seen rising problems in the Himalayan border area, while Indonesia has faced frequent incidents with Chinese fishing vessels in its Natuna Islands’ exclusive economic zone (EEZ). The role of ‘middle powers’ in the Indo-Pacific has assumed greater importance for the balance of power that will determine the future of democracy in the region. 

Traditionally, relations between the three have been marked by a considerable degree of distrust, a product of historical, cultural, and economic factors. However, greater trilateral collaboration and stronger strategic ties between India, Australia, and Indonesia could strengthen regional security and stability. While these countries are engaged in informal intergovernmental talks, they have so far not been part of a larger trilateral structure. The case of Australia will have to be built primarily upon realpolitik, and Australia should be leading the path across the political spectrum for closer cooperation with these Indo-Pacific powers.

Even after their bitter estrangement during the Cold War, India and Indonesia share a mutual connection centered on gaining independence within years of each other and on the close relationship between their post-colonial leaders, Jawaharlal Nehru and Sukarno. During Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s 2018 visit to Indonesia, the relationship between the countries was elevated to a “Comprehensive Strategic Partnership”, with “Shared Vision of India-Indonesia Maritime Cooperation in the Indo-Pacific” as its component. Indonesia, and to a lesser extent India, have jurisdiction over the major maritime chokepoints of the Malacca Strait, the Six-Degree Channel, and the Sunda Strait, through all of which large volumes of maritime trade pass.

The grouping may appear disparate to the naked eye given the diverse background and general lack of commonality between the three countries but it reflects the changing nature of geopolitics of the region in the post Covid-19 world order. Geopolitical influence is now transitioning from the North Pacific to the Indo-Pacific. The region is facing uncertainty and the existing multilateral institutions and bilateral partnerships are up against a variety of limitations. Together these three multi-ethnic and multi-cultural democracies form the backbone of the Indo-Pacific region, which all three governments see as their defining geography. 

Indonesia through its work in pushing the ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific, India through PM Modi’s vision for the Indo-Pacific, and Australia through the white papers that lay out its determination to ensure a “secure, open and prosperous Indo–Pacific.” If the Indo-Pacific view of the world is to prove meaningful, these three anchor nations must find new ways to deepen their strategic conversation and practical cooperation across a wide range of areas.  All three countries are members of important regional and global organizations and initiatives, including the G20, the East Asia Summit, and IORA. With a better understanding of their overlapping interests, they can get more out of their regional and global engagements.

As several countries in Asia are strengthening and adjusting strategies to match the changing reality, due to disillusionment with the American foreign policy combined with increasing Chinese aggression. Cooperation between countries with converging goals is a sensible strategic approach in this context. Trilateral diplomacy can be a realistic way of developing structures, for identifying shared priorities or achieving consensus that could be more difficult to achieve in bigger multilateral settings.

Cover Photo: Jamie Davies

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