By Sayantan Haldar*
After US President Joe Biden cancelled his visit to Australia for the QUAD leaders’ summit, the leaders of the four Quad countries—India, Japan, the United States (US), and Australia— met at Hiroshima on the sidelines of the G7 summit in Japan. This was the third in-person summit of the leaders of the Quad countries. Naturally, the Quad Summit has injected a new sense of enthusiasm in the grouping towards ensuring peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific. Importantly, this year’s joint statement after the Quad summit has made a critical reference to the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA), among other regional organisations, in its effort to remain committed to security, peace, and stability in the Indian Ocean Region.
The Quad’s commitment to the IORA is an important development that is likely to shape the evolving geopolitical rubric in the Indian Ocean. Interestingly, two out of the four Quad countries—India and Australia—are members of IORA, and, therefore, are critical in acting as a bridge between the two groupings. It may be noted that the nature and composition of the two groupings are varied. While the Quad is seen as a diplomatic network of four like-minded countries seeking a secure and peaceful Indo-Pacific region, IORA is the premier pan-Indian Ocean regional organisation. Therefore, it may be argued that while the composition of the Quad is driven primarily by common security and strategic interests, the character of IORA’s composition is geographic in nature.
The Quad’s shifting focus towards the Indian Ocean Region and the IORA, in particular, will positively impact India’s strategic and security interests in the region. While the Quad countries have previously engaged in the Indian Ocean via Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief exercises during its genesis, and other naval exercises more recently, more needs to be done in the region. Unsurprisingly, the Quad leaders expressed their concerns over ‘destabilising or unilateral actions’ that seek to disrupt peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific. Needless to point out, this statement alludes to the risks posed by China and its continued efforts to expand its footprint in the region. While most conversations in the Quad about the Chinese threat in the Indo-Pacific remained focused on Beijing’s belligerent attitude in the South China Sea region, the Indian Ocean, too, merits critical attention.
India must draw the Quad’s focus to the Indian Ocean
Historically, the Indian Ocean lies at the core of the genesis of the Quad in 2004, when the Quad countries initiated coordination and cooperation in the aftermath of the 2004 tsunami. However, after its revival in 2017, the focus of the Quad has been oriented towards the Indo-Pacific, a concept that was increasingly gaining steam in the policy outlooks of the member countries of the grouping. Given the strategic location and the security interests of the Quad countries, arguably, the primary focus of the grouping has remained in the Western Pacific Ocean and the Eastern Indian Ocean. Notably, the centrality accorded to ASEAN in the collective outlook of the Quad countries towards the Indo-Pacific has been instrumental in drawing the group’s attention towards the Eastern Indian Ocean.
However, the Quad has been active in conducting naval exercises in the Indian Ocean Region, encompassing both the Eastern and Western domains. In 2020, after Australia joined the Malabar Naval Exercise; the Quad countries conducted three of their five exercises in the Indian Ocean Region, once in the Arabian Sea in the Western Indian Ocean, and twice in the Bay of Bengal in the Eastern Indian Ocean.
Bilateral relations among India and the other Quad member countries have continued to flourish in the Indian Ocean. The India-Australia Maritime Partnership Exercise was hosted by India in the Bay of Bengal in 2022, marking a steady enhancement of naval ties between New Delhi and Canberra. Before this, India and Japan conducted the sixth edition of the Japan-India Maritime Exercise (JIMEX) in the Bay of Bengal, enhancing mutual understanding and interoperability between the two navies. The US and India, too, conducted Exercise Sangam, a joint naval forces exercise in Goa, steadily marking their security cooperation.
Therefore, it may be argued that the Indian Ocean Region is not a novel terrain for the Quad countries to further consolidate their cooperation and coordination towards achieving peaceful and stable order in a free and open Indo-Pacific. Given the strategic location of India at the heart of the Indian Ocean, the impetus to secure the region seems most urgent for New Delhi among the other Quad countries. However, given the Quad’s resolve to handle China’s growing footprint in the Indo-Pacific region, the grouping cannot afford to overlook the Indian Ocean Region. This necessitates the Quad to expand the contours of its cooperation in the Indian Ocean to include the Western Indian Ocean.
IORA as Quad’s pivot into the Indian Ocean
The recent Quad summit on the sidelines of the G7 at Hiroshima has led to a significant push in shifting the Quad’s focus towards the Indian Ocean. The Quad Leaders’ Joint Statement issued after the Quad summit emphasised the importance of IORA’s work as ‘the Indian Ocean region’s premier forum for addressing the region’s challenges’.
The Quad, underscoring IORA’s significance as the only pan-Indian Ocean regional forum, is critical in this context. Since India and Australia are members of IORA and Japan and the US are dialogue partners of the regional forum, the Quad countries are well-placed to further bolster their engagement with IORA on key areas of cooperation.
In 2022, IORA released its vision document for the Indo-Pacific,‘IORA’s Outlook on the Indo-Pacific’, which was adopted at the 22nd IORA Council of Minister’s Meeting in Dhaka. IORA’s outlook towards the Indo-Pacific emphasises the democratic principles of sovereignty, territorial integrity, and peaceful coexistence at sea. These also constitute the normative bedrock of the Quad, therefore, there seems to be ample ground for convergence between the Quad and IORA in stepping up cooperation and coordination.
Several IORA member countries that are strategically placed in the Indian Ocean are yet to express their position on the emergent Indo-Pacific context. Several states in Southeast Asia are already looking for ways to deal with the expanding Chinese footprint in their neighbourhood. Closer cooperation and engagement between the Quad and IORA is likely to boost mechanisms of diplomatically addressing such concerns and boosting calls for freedom of navigation.
However, merely emphasising the Quad’s commitment to IORA is not enough to traverse into the Indian Ocean geopolitics, even though it is a promising start. The Summit at Hiroshima has been a promising development towards shifting the Quad’s focus towards the Indian Ocean Region. For example, it has been agreed upon that the Indo-Pacific Partnership for Maritime Domain Awareness, the flagship maritime initiative launched at last year’s Tokyo summit, is expected to include the Indian Ocean partners after having yielded results in the Southeast region and Pacific Ocean.
Indeed, the Indian Ocean is emerging as an important strategic theatre for the Quad, given the nature of the evolving geopolitics in the region. The Quad engaging with IORA will not only aid India in facilitating the addressal of strategic convergences of the two groupings but will provide critical leverage to New Delhi to diplomatically take on China’s growing footprint in the region.
*About the author: Sayantan Haldar is presently a Doctoral Candidate at the Department of International Relations, South Asian University, New Delhi, India. His doctoral research looks in India’s evolving maritime security strategy in the Indian Ocean, in light of the onset of the Indo-Pacific narrative.
Source: This article was published by Observer Research Foundation