Australia-India-Indonesia trilateral relationship and its potential in IORA


Australia’s foreign policy has sought to balance self-reliance, alliance with the United States, and regional engagement. Australia needs to develop a more independent foreign policy around a constructive role in its geographic space that would also help lessen anxiety on the limits of its US alliance. A trilateral arrangement between Australia-India-Indonesia (AII) may contribute to and provide leadership for institutionalizing the Indo-Pacific, through Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA)[1] , to ensure regional engagement that can counter-balance US-China rivalry. The paper will focus on institutionalization of the ‘Indo-Pacific’, strengthening of IORA to play a role in building a ‘Free, Open and Peaceful Indo-Pacific’, and the significance of an Australia-India-Indonesia (AII) trilateral engagement and its efficacy for IORA and Indo-Pacific institutionalization.


Australia is once again facing a dilemma of choosing between history and geography, and between the United States (its traditional ally) and China (its major economic partner). Interestingly, Australia has previously managed this dilemma. It has finely balanced its independent military capability and posture with its alliance structures, the use of its middle power diplomacy for regional security and its economic dependence on China amidst evolving US-China rivalry.

The 21st Century is a tiring continuation of the past. Wars in Ukraine and Palestine, protracted conflicts in Africa and west Asia, the threat of Climate Change, ongoing issues of terrorism, and piracy, and to top it all the Covid-19 pandemic, have shown that the world requires new solutions and cooperation between countries that could create not only pragmatism amidst conflict but normative overhaul that could emphasise collaboration for peaceful co-existence. It is imperative for countries to work for peace when the world is bewitched by war.

Amidst all these changes, arguably the most pressing issue in Australia is the upcoming US elections and the condition of its US alliance thereafter. If Donald Trump wins, his agenda for US allies is clear from his first term in office: ‘do more in financing and implementing security agendas in one’s region.’[2] Australia’s challenge will be in balancing its foreign policy traditions with present political circumstances and challenges; balancing its bilateral, minilateral, and multilateral engagements; maintaining independence and self-reliance; fostering its international standing as a responsible and a reliable country; sharing leadership to increase its international clout. Australia’s long term goal of securing itself seems more challenging than simply defending Australia and is constrained by its perception of the threats it faces and its role in the immediate region.

Post-Cold War unipolarity is facing challenges from the rise of economic, military and cultural powers like India, Japan, South Korea, Mexico, Brazil, South Africa, Indonesia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam, and the Philippines. Whilst it is China and Russia who together constitute the primary immediate threat to unipolarity, the subtle rise of middle power countries can alter both the narrative and the reality of balancing of power in the Indo-Pacific.

Australia in contemplating an enduring middle power role amidst this change must brace itself against China’s aggression and sanctions, understand the limits of US alliance[3] and address the intense regional militarization and military modernization: these three factors demanding different regional security architecture. In the midst of the power game between US and China in the Indo-Pacific region, and as Russia, the EU and the UK re-interpret their roles within that game, Australia faces an opportune moment to develop a constructive role and be recognized as a committed regional player. The possible waning of US power has led Australia towards regional engagement. The stakeholders and the key balancers for Australia are determined by its maritime position in both the Indian and the Pacific Oceans.

India and Indonesia are the most logical partners with whom Australia could build a new security structure in such a geo-strategic position. The three states are already involved in trilateral engagement within IORA and have taken considerable steps to strengthen the organisation during their chairmanship. IORA must be the target of an explicit AII trilateral to lead institutionalization of the Indo-Pacific and the three states must be encouraged to increase interaction to understand the need and urgency for cooperation.

Regional Institutionalization

Ever since policy-makers, academics and the media popularized and normalized the word, indeed concept, of the ‘Indo-Pacific’, the institutionalization of the Indo-Pacific has become an important topic of debate. Two pertinent questions are: why is institutionalization of the Indo-Pacific region so important and can IORA play the primary role in that institutionalization? Though it is understood that no region is concrete and all regions are ever-evolving, can institutionalism make a regional construct more enduring, and can institutions be an effective mechanism for the maintenance of peace, the prevention of war, and conflict management? Robert Kohane believed in a ‘continuous pattern of institutional cooperation to avoid conflicts after the Cold War’[4] and such a pattern did work to a large extent in Europe. Institutions, like regions, are social constructs and are dependent on processes of recognition, identification, and membership.[5] A long process of regionalization can create a sense of identity and belongingness and can act as a force and balancer against an issue and in conflict management. Institutions act as “mediators between social structures and individual behaviours” while integrating conflict and coordination within the very purpose of institutionalization.[6] There is evidence that ‘international behaviour is institutionalised’[7] and when countries follow the theme of interdependence as the core condition for survival, ‘cooperation based on certain rules and norms, mutually agreed, that eventually will shape their behaviour’ evolves.  Institutions are “systems of established and embedded social rules that structure social interaction”[8] in international regimes, defined by Kasner as involving “implicit or explicit principles, norms, rules, and decision-making procedures around which actor’s expectations converge in a given arc of international relations.”[9] Furthermore, institutions help in “information generation, reduce transaction costs, make more credible commitments, establish focal points of coordination, and facilitate the operation of reciprocity.”[10]

Institutionalization of the Indo-Pacific would not involve the formation of a military alliance[11] but would be intended to create ‘regional consciousness’ and to build an economic and security architecture[12] enabling the littoral countries to work in a ‘free, open, inclusive and peaceful’ region. Institutionalisation of the Indo-Pacific would be, of course, a more complex task than, for example, the European Union. The Indo-Pacific is a classic case of heterogeneity in political, economic, historical, and cultural systems. Social construction of a region with such diversity needs rigor and conviction among every country that agrees to be a part of such an institution.  Nevertheless, a strong sense of regional identity and complex interdependence has been evident in the recent years, with the international community highlighting ‘Cooperation, Communication and Collaboration’ as the most significant ingredients for sustenance and resilience of institutionalization. The concept of the Indo-Pacific provides significant opportunity for regional countries to articulate their Indo-Pacific outlook or agenda in that context. Andrew Phillips has pointed out that “it will create an inclusive platform to discuss and debate issues of common concern that could eventually broaden its mandate to include non-traditional security challenges.”[13]

Andrew Phillips had warned against such maximalist approach of a more inclusive regional order and speeding up the Indo-Pacific integration. While questioning its feasibility, he has also marked China’s revisionism and Australia’s dependence on regional partners like Indonesia alone and suggested a ‘triple-track strategy for a regional order building’ for hedging China.[14] The AII trilateral arrangement on the one hand will be openly hedging China, which is seen in their maiden military exercise by the three navies on complex tactical and manoeuvering exercises and information sharing.[15] While on the other hand the trilateral will be deeply engaged in strengthening IORA for formal institutionalization of Indo-Pacific and norms for conflict resolution and conflict prevention.


IORA is a pan-regional organisation, emphasising a normative, multilateral, and consensus-building method for both sustenance and resilience of organizational behaviour. Though IORA does not include all the littoral countries of the Indian Ocean, it has substantial representation to call for regional cooperation and norm-building. Moreover the expanse of the organisation, and the geographic space between members and dialogue partners, seem to give it an international or transnational look rather than just regional. This on the other hand helps in enforcing and influencing the adoption of norms beyond the territories, ensuring the success of cooperation within a defined territory when countries emphasise on shared ideology of maritime ecology, security, trade and development i.e., to support the ‘Blue Economy’.[16] The purpose of institution-building in a region is for each member country to recognise and stand by peace, while at the same time ward off and brace against threats, both traditional and non-traditional. The Indian Ocean is relatively low-level in its number of intra-regional transactions and the amount, for example, of crime in the region, but it is strategic. IORA has the potential to bring in all the littoral countries together and help in building a strong normative base for checking future conflicts, the spread of non-traditional security threats, and also, as David Brewster has pointed out, IORA can provide something like Council for Security Cooperation in the Asia-Pacific.[17] In short, IORA could and should be used as an international mechanism for cooperation within the wider Indo-Pacific[18] .

Of course, it goes without saying that the presence and acknowledgement of the United States will be necessary in such a big endeavor. Just like the US had supported European integration to check Soviet advances,[19] the US pivot to the Indo-Pacific is the starting point of such institutionalization. The present dialogue partners like US, China and Russia, and the membership of Iran, in IORA increases opportunities and likelihood that they would act rationally together in managing regional disputes. Rational approaches to dispute resolution and conflict prevention may be possible in and around the Indian Ocean when IORA has stricter rules and strong confidence-building mechanisms for the countries to abide. This requires IORA to be strengthened, of course, for better deliverables.

To strengthen IORA, policy makers, not least within a AII trilateral within IORA, should consider the following:

  1. Membership of IORA should not depend only on the voluntary agreement of countries to join the group but needs to include the emerging players and persuade them to join either as members or dialogue partners. For example, the study done by Carnegie Endowment For International Peace[20] identified India as the resident power; the traditional powers in the region were considered to be US, UK, Japan, Australia and France; while the emerging powers were identified as China, Russia, UAE, Turkey and Saudi Arabia, the latter not being a dialogue partner of IORA.
  2. IORA should add another organisation as a dialogue partner, the Pacific Island Forum (PIF), where Australia has considerable clout, due to the fact that the Pacific Islands representation is naturally required in any Indo-Pacific construct and where US-China rivalry is currently more vigorous. Moreover, the successful environmental and institutional diplomacy of small or micro states; especially of Fiji, needs to be incorporated, as it would be helpful for different problem solving mechanisms and for institution building.
  3. IORA remains weak and disjointed due to a lack of the habits of interaction and cooperation. Lack of regional institutional frameworks[21] and lack of research on functional modes of interaction have also led to its weakness. Hence deeper research on functional aspects of interaction/ interdependence must be undertaken to strengthen the core structure of IORA and to enhance the interdependence that comes with physical proximity.
  4. Formation of issue-based groups, for example on climate change, disaster management, and small arms smuggling, involving AII with the most effected country/s, will increase participation among IORA countries thus creating habits of cooperation and a sense of belongingness.


There are benefits to each of the countries from a strengthened trilateral relationship, for IORA, and, through IORA, to instituionalisation of the Indo-Pacific.

The effectiveness of the three countries is due to the fact that they are not hegemonic and can easily work on a level playing field. AII would see further diversification of trade, away from over dependence on China. AII over the years has seen the three states build a strong economic partnership with each other; like the Comprehensive Economic and Strategic Engagements, signing of FTA’s and has increased their partnership in varied defence and security arrangements. The three states show high regard for multilateralism and for a liberal global order. Australia’s ability for institution-building is seen in the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC), and its contributions to East Asia Summit (EAS) and ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), which is noteworthy. India had a successful G20 (2022-23) presidency and has brought out new initiatives like IPOI and SAGAR that showcase India’s commitment to be the voice of the global South and to work for an ‘Free and Open Indo-Pacific.’ Indonesia has successfully completed its G20 presidency (2021-22) during the global confusion and recovery from Covid 19 and the starting of Russia-Ukraine War. Indonesia was able to showcase its ability in agenda setting beyond ASEAN and to fare well on a global political platform. Indonesia’s slogan of “Recover Together and Recover Stronger” was an emphasis on global solidarity, Indonesia’s Chairing of ASEAN, and, for example, its increased significance in the critical minerals trade[22] have placed Indonesia as an important and an inevitable partner for institutionalization of the Indo-Pacific.

Understanding the advantages of AII collaboration must be of equal importance to each of the three states for a sustained relationship. Consider specifically the case of Australia. Firstly, Australia has identified itself to be naturally fitting into the Asian region ever since the inception of Indo-Pacific construct and has enthusiastically taken part in every possible effort in the region, bilaterally, plurilaterally and multilaterally, which will in turn “expand Australia’s capacity to proactively shape the regional order.”[23] Australia in the 1980’s and 1990’s was interested in region-building, with a focus on pan-regional and sub-regional groupings, by promoting interactions, regional consciousness and political and security architecture in the Indian Ocean.[24] These efforts did not fully materialise mostly because the regional countries and the United States did not find it necessary at that time.

Australia’s vision cannot be undermined and in the 21st Century its time has come and Australia has enthusiastically grabbed the current Indo-Pacific opportunity. Australia was the first country to officially use the term Indo-Pacific[25] in 2013 Defence White Paper emphasizing its geopolitical space. Secondly, Australia benefits from the close relationship it shares with India and Indonesia. With Indonesia and India it can increase its standing in regional organisations like IORA and the Pacific Island groupings to reap further benefits in conflict prevention and resolution. Thirdly the non-traditional security issues like climate change, illegal fishing, piracy, terrorism, and trafficking require Australia to work closely with India and Indonesia as Asian maritime powers as well as increase interoperability in the field of Maritime Domain Awareness and Undersea Domain Awareness.

In the case of Indonesia, the norm-builder and one of the most productive members of ASEAN, that state could serve meticulously in a bigger organisation, help in shaping the Indo-Pacific region and in turn ensure ASEAN centrality. Secondly, Indonesia’s leadership skills can be tested in a bigger and plural organisation that could enhance its role in world politics. Thirdly, Indonesia’s geopolitical position eases the process of regionalization and helps Indonesia in turn to tackle the non-traditional security issues thoroughly. Indonesia has made concrete developments in ‘reinvigorating regional institutionalism’[26] through IORA by calling for the first Leader’s Summit, IORA concord, and Action Plan 2017-21[27] , which could be regularized.

India’s geopolitical positioning and its dream of playing a pivotal role in the region gets further showcased in a strengthened AII. Moreover, just by bringing India into the security architecture “will institutionally balance China and create a form of “diffuse reassurance” to smaller states within the region”.[28]

The potential ‘absolute gains’ that could be achieved by an enhanced trilateral partnership will need to be weighed by each member: how well is the national interest of each situated in their mutual cooperation? But for all three there is also the question of managing regional leadership and relationships with the US.

For Australia, would it fall short of its promises in the case of US intervention in the region and for India and Indonesia, how well equipped will they be in negotiation or levels of acceptability with US regarding the region? Thirdly, do all three parties have mutual trust and reciprocity with each other so that information generation, transparency, and accountability is assured. Kohane and Martin write that “States that use reciprocity as a strategy for cooperation are engaged in exchange with one another that also requires information about the values of their exchange”[29] .

The US and Australia are traditional partners and Australia is at the hub of global power play in the Asia-Pacific that has increased its geopolitical significance considerably. From ANZUS to AUKUS Australia has been a linchpin to maintain US interest in the region as well as its global dominance. With the heightened Chinese aggression and economic growth, the US-Australia alliance has become even more significant. There may arise a problem in intelligence and logistics sharing by Australia with its other two Asian partners by keeping its intelligence sharing strictly Anglo-centric. As Doyle and Rumley pointed out, Australia is an important member of the “white Democratic Anglosphere” and its national interest and self-identity plays into its foreign policy making,[30] which in a way has, for some time, kept Australia aloof from regional engagement. Nevertheless, the regularity of communication with its AII partners could create “habits and routines of cooperation that eventually will build norms,”[31] creating a culture of interaction and organisation, furthering trust and confidence-building between them that could roll over to the littoral countries of IORA.


Australia-India-Indonesia (AII) engagement is a productive and one of the most advantageous arrangements for the three states involved for the long run. The task of institutionalization of IORA is both significant and challenging, as IORA engulfs the region. Arguably, the three states have started working on their relationship but have not yet prioritized it. The trilateral or minilateral arrangements that already exist in the region are strategic and are primarily targeted on hedging China. IORA, however, can become a platform for discussions and negotiations between all regional states and where major powers are already involved. The emphasis laid on  AII trilateral in this paper is a consequence of its character of transcending narrow interests towards wider vision of inclusivity, serving as a facilitator for socializing IORA and its littoral countries so that regionalization becomes complete and acts to “safeguard the interests and autonomy of the small and middle powers of the region.”[32]


  1. IORA has 23 members (Australia, Bangladesh, Comoros, France, India, Indonesia, Iran, Kenya, Madagascar, Maldives, Malaysia, Mauritius, Mozambique, Oman, Seychelles, Singapore, Somalia, South Africa, Sri Lanka, Tanzania, Thailand, UAE and Yemen), 9 dialogue partners (US, UK, Japan, Germany, Italy, Turkey, South Korea, Egypt and China), and the Indian Ocean Tourism Organisation and Indian Ocean Research Group hold observer status
  2. Tow, William T, “President Trump and Implications for the Australia-US Alliance and Australia’s Role in Southeast Asia” Contemporary Southeast Asia, Vol 39, No 1, (April 2017): 50-57
  3. Haidar, Muhammad Zarrar. “Australia’s Strategic Environment and Significant Challenges,” Defence Journal, (2014): 65-70
  4. Mearsheimer John J, “The False Promise of International Institutions” International Security, Vol 19, No 3, (1994-95): 5-49
  5. Beeson, Mark, “Institutionalizing the Indo-Pacific: The Challenges of Regional Cooperation” East Asia, 35 (1),(June 2018), Accessed 27-07-2019
  6. Nielsen, Klaus. “Institutionalist Approach in the Social Science: Typologies, Dialogue and Future Challenges,” Journal of Economic Issues, Vol 35, No 2,(June 2001): 505-516
  7. Haggard, Stephan and Simmons, Beth A. “Theories of International regimes” International Organisation, Vol 41, No 3, (Summer 1987): 491-517
  8. Beeson. “Institutionalizing the Indo-Pacific”
  9. Haggard and Simmons “Theories of International regimes” 491-517
  10. Keohane, Robert O and Martin, Lisa L. “The Promise of Institutionalist Theory” International Security, Vol 20, No 1, (Summer 1995): 39-51
  11. He, Kai and Feng, Huyiung. “The Institutionalisation of Indo-Pacific: Problems and Prospects”, Vol 96, Issue 1, (January 2020): 149–168,
  12. Brewster, David. “Constructing a Region; Australia’s Second Sea: Facing our Multipolar Future in the Indian Ocean” Australia’s Strategic Policy Institute, (2019): 48-52
  13. Phillips, Andrew. “Indo/Pacific Hedging-A Triple Track Grand Strategy for Australia. From Hollywood to Bollywood. Recasting Australia’s Indo-Pacific Strategic Geography” Australian Strategic Policy Institute, 2016
  14. Phillips, “Indo/Pacific Hedging”, 27-30
  15. First Maritime Exercise Held between India, Australia, Indonesia”, The Indian Express, (September 22, 2023),
  16. Ogutu, Moses Onyango. “The Indian Ocean Rim Association: Lessons from this Regional Cooperation Model” South African Journal of International Affairs, 28:1, (2021), pp 71-92, DOI: 10.1080/10220461.2021.1915863
  17. Brewster, “Constructing a Region” 48-52
  18. Riefqi Muna, “Australia-Indonesia Maritime Security Cooperation as a Contribution to Indo-Pacific Security” in Indo-Pacific maritime Security: Challenges and Cooperation, Edited by Brewster, David, (Published by National Security College, July, 2016):60, Accessed on 27-04-2024,
  19. Beeson, “Insitutionalising Indo-Pacific”
  20. Barua, Darshna; Labh, Nitya and Greely, Jessica. “Mapping the Indian Ocean Region” (June 15, 2023) Accessed on 27-04-2024,
  21. Brewster, David. “Japan’s Key Role in Capacity-Building in the Indian Ocean” in Indo-Pacific maritime Security, Ed by Brewster
  22. EAF Editors. “Australia-Indonesia Relationship is bigger than the bilateral” (3rd July 2023), Accessed on 21-04-2024,
  23. Phillips, Andrew. “Indo/Pacific Hedging”
  24. Brewster “Constructing a Region” 48-52
  25. Rory Medcalf, (2019) “ An Australian Perspective of the Indo-Pacific and what it means for Southeast Asia”, Southeast Asian Affaris, ISEAS, 53-60
  26. Supriyanto, RistianAtriandi. “ASEAN and the Indian Ocean: The Indian Ocean and Indonesia’s Global Maritime Fulcrum; the Key Maritime Links” (S Rajaratnam School of International Studies, 2017): 52-61
  27. Brewster, Constructing a Region, 48-52and Supriyanto, “ASEAN and the Indian Ocean” 52-61
  28. Phillips, “Indo/Pacific Hedging”27-30
  29. Koehane and Martin “The Promise of Institutionalist Theory, 39-51
  30. Doyle, Timothy and Rumley, Dennis. “Rise and Return of Indo-Pacific” (Oxford University Press, 2019): 121
  31. Neilsen, “Institutionalist Approach in the Social Science,” 505-516
  32. EAF Editors. “Australia-Indonesia Relationship is bigger than the bilateral” 3rd July 2023

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