Chinese development in Indian Ocean is instigating militarisation among major players


Japan, India, Australia and the United States are closely monitoring China's infrastructure development on the Indian Ocean rim amid increasing concern about the potential for militarisation in the sea lanes which carry much of the world's oil.

One former American intelligence chief is warning the only way to avoid that is to make confrontation unpalatable for China.

With an eye to China's current island reclamation activity in the South China Sea, Japan, which is almost wholly dependent on imported oil, is particularly nervous.

"Yes, China is a kind of threat to us in the South China Sea. Will this Indian Ocean be the same, or different?" asked Nobuo Tanaka, a former Japanese bureaucrat and head of the International Energy Agency.

More than 80 per cent of the world's seaborne oil trade passes through three Indian Ocean choke points — the Strait of Hormuz, Strait of Malacca and Bab el-Mandab.

"This area, the Indian Ocean, is so important for us now because it connects our energy sources in the Middle East to Asia and to Japan," Mr Tanaka said at an Indian Ocean security conference in New Delhi this week.

The chair of the Sasakawa Peace Foundation think tank said Japan was worried about a Chinese road, rail and pipeline project from China through central Asia and Pakistan, which culminates at a deep-water port close to Karachi, strategically located near the entrance to the Persian gulf.

"China is trying to develop so-called 'one belt, one road' strategy and they're extending their power projecting their power to this area also," he said.


Shared concern ::

"The fear is this could become increasingly militarised," said Dhruva Jaishankar, a foreign policy fellow at the Brookings Institute in India.

"The Indian Ocean is already seeing a level of competition that I think we would not have anticipated 10 years ago, we've seen investments by China, Japan, the United States, Singapore, India all across the Indian ocean littoral from Iran to Djibouti, east Africa to South-East Asia.


What will the United States do?

The biggest uncertainty is US President Donald Trump.

White House spokesman Sean Spicer has already signalled President Trump's intention to "defend international territories from being taken over by one country", in reference to potential confrontation in the South China Sea.

The question among policy wonks is whether he will adopt a similar stance in the Indian Ocean.

"I would also urge those of you who are watching the United States to look a little bit below the surface and not to be captured by social media — from whatever source," retired US Admiral and former Director of America's National Intelligence agencies, Dennis Blair, joked at the New Delhi conference.

"Enjoy the spectacle," Admiral Blair said, in reference to President Trump's penchant for conducting foreign policy via Twitter.


Make it 'very high risk' for China ::

But in support of President Trump's promised military build-up, Admiral Blair also said the only way to deter Chinese aggression was for other countries to ensure that China knew it would lose any confrontation.

"What's really important, I believe, is for India, Japan and the United States to modernise and strengthen our own maritime, air and, where necessary, ground capabilities to improve that military balance in our favour, and therefore make it very high risk for China to undertake military aggression."


Australia's balancing act ::

Australia's foreign policy establishment is similarly awaiting direction from Washington.

Within Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs, there is also continued debate on the merits of reviving formal four-way security cooperation between Australia, Japan, India and the United States.

Supporters argue it would send an important message about the democracies' shared desire to protect the status quo.

Opponents fear it would be seen as provocative by China.

Former Labor Foreign Minister Stephen Smith withdrew Australia from the Japanese-led initiative in 2007, a move widely seen as a win for Chinese diplomacy.

Professor Rory Medcalf, from the Australian National University's National Security College, said since then, much of the work as continued 'by stealth' under three-way arrangements between Australia, Japan and the US, and the US, Japan and India.

"The four countries are of course being careful about Chinese reactions, but at the same time, none of us wants to allow China to veto the dialogues we have with each other," he said.

Professor Medcalf argues Australia's interests are best served by working with regional powers to urge Chinese restraint, and to keep America engaged.

"Countries like Japan, Australia and India will get together with one voice, to say, on the one hand to China, 'be more stabilising' in the way its using its growing power," Professor Medcalf said.

"But also to send a message to the United States, that we want a forthright and engaged and balanced American presence in the region."

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