OPINION | To balance the Quad equation, India and Australia must drive an “Indo” focus

A US Marine Corps AH-1Z attack helicopter flies over the US Navy amphibious transport dock ship USS Somerset during La Perouse 2021 in the Bay of Bengal in an exercise designed to enhance cooperation in maritime surveillance and interdiction. (Photo: US Indo-Pacific Command/Brendan Mullin)

For all the attention given to the Quad, the grouping itself has devoted limited time to the Indian Ocean – the “Indo” part of the Indo-Pacific region. As the two countries with Indian ocean coastlines, India and Australia will be crucial to addressing this imbalance.

Issues such as piracy, climate change, irregular migration, and illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing each pose a regional challenge. However, these issues are not limited to the Strait of Malacca, which is the traditional entry and exit point to the Indian Ocean and the shortest route for trade for many suppliers to Asian markets.

What adds to the vulnerability of India and Australia is the emergence of the Bay of Bengal as a source of non-traditional security challenges, particularly in the area around the Bangladeshi city of Cox’s Bazar, inhabited by Rohingya refugees from Myanmar, where asylum seekers are either migrating to neighbouring Indian states or other countries. The Bay of Bengal is also emerging as a key route for drug suppliers due to its proximity to the “Golden Triangle” – a notorious drug trade region where the jungle meets the borders of Thailand, Laos, and Myanmar. Instead of going through the interiors of the countries, sea routes are being used for smuggling.

“The threat of IUU fishing, particularly in the Bay of Bengal region where there is a wide continental shelf, is a concern for all.”

Countries, such as the Maldives, that are economically dependent on the Bay of Bengal for their fishing industries are also at risk. At just 2.4 metres above sea level, the Maldives is the world’s lowest-lying country. Even a slight increase in sea levels will inundate large parts of the islands. At the current rate of global warming, scientists warn that 80 per cent of the islands will disappear by 2050. A retired Indian Navy admiral told me in an interview for a forthcoming book project that sea level rise is forcing the Maldivians to buy property in the Indian state of Kerala, while the well-off are migrating to Australia with their families.

And from an economic standpoint, the threat of IUU fishing, particularly in the Bay of Bengal region where there is a wide continental shelf, is a concern for all. It can drastically affect coastal communities, government revenue, and the security of the region.

In tackling these challenges, New Delhi and Canberra can play a vital role in collective intelligence, surveillance capacity, and data collection and dissemination in the region. India’s island territories of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands and Lakshadweep offer a staging point for surveillance, as do Australia’s Cocos (Keeling) Islands. A collaborative strategy could include combined surveillance activities in the region, which would fit with recommendations from Australia’s recent Defence Strategic Review 2023 to expand cooperation in the Indian Ocean. This could be further enhanced with the involvement of the United States through its Indian Ocean base in Diego Garcia.

“The aim should be to bring the ‘Indo’ and the ‘Pacific’ closer together.”

Support for subsea cable links also offers the chance to work collaboratively. Addressing the various security risks in the Indian Ocean region requires a dense network of subsea cables. Quad partners, apart from India, have already cooperated to provide an undersea fibre optic cable to Palau. Drawing India into wider programs would have considerable benefits. Currently, India produces nearly 100 million kilometres of fibre cable every year, which is double the amount of its domestic consumption. Yet although India has made considerable progress via the Reliance Jio India–Asia Express and India–Europe Express undersea internet cables, the country has limited technical expertise required to lay the cables on the ocean floor and ensure their timely maintenance. Australia’s successful establishment of a cable protection zone offers a model to follow.

Enhancing the Quad’s focus on the Indian Ocean will ensure a balanced representation of all the regions of the partner countries. With India to host the 2024 Quad Leaders’ Summit, the aim should be to bring the “Indo” and the “Pacific” closer together.

This story originally appeared on The Interpreter, published by the Lowy Institute for International Policy.

Radhey Tambi

Radhey Tambi is working as a research associate at Centre for Air Power Studies (CAPS), New Delhi. She has completed her postgraduate in Geopolitics and International Relations from Manipal Academy of Higher Education (MAHE), India.