By Andrew Phillips

Secretary of State Clinton’s recognition of the dawning ‘Indo-Pacific’ age and the U.S. Navy’s recalibration of its ‘two ocean’ focus (from a Pacific/Atlantic to an Indo-Pacific focus) together signify Washington’s growing appreciation of the Indian Ocean Region’s (IOR’s) rising strategic importance.  As the region commands greater attention from Washington down to 2030 and beyond, America may be tempted to pursue regional order-building practices comparable to those that earlier enabled it to integrate first its defeated Axis enemies and then later the Asian ‘tiger economies’ and (to a lesser extent) China into a global liberal order.  Nevertheless, the scope for doing so will be radically constrained in the IOR — not merely by America’s declining relative power, but also by the region’s distinct historical legacies, which differ fundamentally from those that have shaped America’s grand strategy elsewhere.

In both Western Europe and East Asia, the liberal international order has for decades been locally anchored through long-term alliance systems centered around U.S. partnerships with key regional powers (Germany and Japan respectively).  Conversely, in the IOR, regional enthusiasm for non-alignment retarded the development of an effective IOR collective security system in the immediate post-war decades. Undeniably, the Cold War and later the ‘war on terror’ spawned fragile alliances of convenience linking America to various regional partners, most notably Pakistan.

But American power within the IOR remains blunted to this day by the absence of a local client of comparable strategic weight to either Germany or Japan. This absence has in turn stymied the emergence of alliance systems comparable to those that have dampened local security rivalries elsewhere. The result has been to deny the IOR – home to 11 of the world’s 20 most fragile states – the geopolitical stability it needs to fully integrate into the global liberal order.

Comprising 36 littoral and 14 adjacent hinterland states (collective population: 2.6 billion) and now rapidly emerging as both an epicenter of both global trade and great power rivalry, the IOR’s successful integration into the liberal order constitutes a vital U.S. interest. The region’s distinctive historical legacies and contemporary material limits on U.S. power nevertheless preclude a simple replication of the practices that have undergirded liberal order-building efforts in Europe and East Asia since 1945. Instead, three imperatives must guide U.S. order-building in the IOR in an increasingly post-unipolar and post-Western world:

Cultivate Partners, Not Clients: As the world’s first and third most populous democracies, India and Indonesia (the latter also the world’s most populous Muslim-majority country) could potentially play a decisive role in consolidating a post-Western but still recognizably liberal global order in the 21st  century. The United States should therefore continue to pro-actively nurture their peaceful rise and seek out opportunities for bilateral and trilateral cooperation. At the same time, Washington must recognize that the legacy of non-alignment remains particularly firmly entrenched in New Delhi and Jakarta, and that aspirations to form a democratic entente to offset growing Chinese influence will almost certainly be disappointed.  A shared commitment to democracy will surely lubricate increased cooperation between the U.S., India and Indonesia. But any partnership between them will increasingly be one of equals, more negotiated, more ad hoc and less reliable as a foundation for regional order than the institutionalised patron-client ties with ‘pivot’ states that long underwrote U.S. grand strategy in Europe and East Asia.

Preserve and Extend Existing Friendships: Washington’s relationships with established allies including Japan and Australia (the last constituting a pivotal connector linking the Pacific and Indian Ocean theaters) must be recognized and more fully utilized as indispensably versatile assets for consolidating regional stability, not merely in the Asia-Pacific but also in the IOR.  On this point, the success of the Tsunami Core Group (comprising Australia, the U.S., Japan and also India) in coordinating humanitarian assistance and disaster relief following the 2004 Boxing Day Tsunami provides especially compelling evidence that existing ‘hub and spokes’ alliances can be leveraged to reach out to major local powers in the IOR for the purpose of strengthening regional order.

Encourage ‘Bottom-Up’ Regional Order-Building: The host of governance challenges now afflicting the IOR, ranging from transnational terrorism and piracy through to state failure, has already stimulated ‘bottom-up’ order-building through the formation of various sub-regional ad hoc ‘coalitions of the willing’ (e.g., the various multinational anti-piracy taskforces now deployed off the Horn of Africa). Given the region’s historical failure to develop coherent institutions for regional cooperation from the ‘top down,’ Washington should prioritize supporting and participating in these more modest initiatives wherever possible. This is not simply because of their intrinsic functional value in addressing regional challenges. Rather, it is also because in the absence of a decades-long history of institutionalized U.S. power and partnership with local ‘pivot states,’ encouraging informal and issue-specific practices of security cooperation may offer one of the few immediately viable means of stabilizing a region that will be increasingly critical for the maintenance of global order in the nascent post-Western century.

Andrew Phillips is a Senior Lecturer in International Relations and Strategy in the School of Political Science at the University of Queensland and the author of War, Religion and Empire – The Transformation of International Orders (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011).