Round Table: The EU and Maritime Security in the Indian Ocean

On 15 April 2013, The Hague Institute for Global Justice co-hosted a round table with the Netherlands Institute of International Relations Clingendael. This invitation-only event focused on maritime security in what China expert Jonathan Holslag describes as the increasingly “crowded, connected, and contested” space of the Indian Ocean.

Considering the significant build-up of the Chinese, U.S., Japanese, and Indian naval presence along the quintessential sea lanes of communication, what role, if any, should the EU play to ensure maritime security there? Should it try to deepen its security cooperation with China beyond the successful antipiracy campaigns of recent years or does China’s increasing rivalry with the United States, India, and Japan require a different approach? What are the current constraints and what may enable a more robust multilateral maritime security governance?

The European Union lacks a coherent strategy on maritime security that includes this important part of the world. Brussels needs to study its options carefully. Doing so requires better knowledge about the current and future ambitions of the key maritime players in the Indian Ocean. Hoping to facilitate future planning on this issue, the Hague Institute welcomed the presentations of four renowned experts on maritime security from China, India, Japan, and the European Union. Each expert provided unique insights to the current strategic calculus in Beijing, New Delhi, Tokyo, and Brussels. From these perspectives, it emerged that the nexus between the pursuit of economic interests and the projection and future development of military capacity are subject to varying interpretations:

  • A high-ranking military expert from India provided a practitioner’s view on India’s evolving maritime military strategy. The fragile security context in India’s immediate neighborhood and Chinese blue water naval ambitions, he argues, require more vigorous strategic partnerships in the Indo-Pacific, not least with the EU. In their absence, the current tensions in the Pacific Ocean may spill over to the Indian Ocean.
  • A renowned Chinese Professor of International Relations provided a detailed account on how China seeks to protect its economic and security interests in the region. As Chinese economic interests expand, so do its “security frontiers.” This, he cautions, must not be conflated with maritime nationalism or a more aggressive foreign policy. Currently, China does not feel particularly threatened and does not seek military bases in the Indian Ocean. Yet it stands ready to protect its economic interests and supports the international community’s efforts in counterterrorism and counter-piracy. This said, he concluded, China has not contributed enough to multilateral efforts on maritime security despite being a major beneficiary of the international system.
  • A Japanese foreign policy expert explained in her rich presentation how the Indian Ocean has recently emerged as a horizon topic in Japan’s foreign policy circles. This, she argues, must be seen in conjunction with its significant opening towards the pursuit of a value-oriented diplomacy. Over the last eight years, Japan has placed far more emphasis on democratic governance, the rule of law, and the protection of human rights as its guiding principles for a sound foreign policy. According to her, the three driving factors that help explain current Japanese planning on its engagements in the Indian Ocean are the pursuit of its strategic alliance with the United States, its willingness to play a significant role in the global security arena, and what is called the China factor.
  • A European China expert argued convincingly how the EU has a rather mixed track-record when it comes to ensuring maritime security beyond the Atlantic Ocean. Due to a lack strategy, he argues, Europe often reacted in a responsive, ad-hoc fashion to various calls for action. By concentrating primarily on what he calls the Middle Corridor, that is, the maritime space that includes the Eastern Mediterranean, the Persian Gulf, the Red Sea, and the Gulf of Aden, Europe can leverage its interests more effectively.

Professor Jan Melissen (Clingendael) chaired this successful session. Discussants were Dr. Thorsten Wetzling (The Hague Institute), Dr. Frans-Paul van der Putten (Clingendael), Dr. Susanne Kamerling (Rijksuniversiteit Groningen) and Dr. Kuniko Ashizawa (American University).

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