Darshana Baruah and Milan discuss the strategic importance of the Indian Ocean, India’s evolving views toward the “Quad,” and how the United States and India might cooperate in this critical region. Plus, the two discuss China’s strategic motivations and the existential issue of climate change for the region’s small island nations.
Few regions of the world have gotten more attention in the first few months of the Biden administration than Asia. And, within Asia, top leaders from Secretary of State Antony Blinken to Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin to President Joe Biden himself have singled out the importance of the Indo-Pacific region in particular.
To discuss why this region has gotten such significant air-time and to help us understand what shape greater power competition might take there, Darshana Baruah joins Milan on the podcast this week. Darshana is an associate fellow with the South Asia program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace where she leads Carnegie’s new Indian Ocean Initiative.
Darshana and Milan discuss the strategic importance of the Indian Ocean, India’s evolving views toward the “Quad,” and how the United States and India might cooperate in this critical region. Plus, the two discuss China’s strategic motivations and the existential issue of climate change for the region’s small island nations.
Welcome to Grand Tamasha, a co-production of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and the Hindustan Times. I'm your host, Milan Vaishnav.
Few regions of the world have gotten more attention in the first few months of the Biden administration than Asia. And within Asia, top leaders – from Secretary of State Blinken to Secretary of Defense Austin to President Biden himself – have singled out the importance of the Indo-Pacific region in particular. To discuss why this region has gotten such significant airtime and to help us understand what shape great power competition might take there, I'm pleased to welcome Darshana Baruah to the podcast. Darshana is an associate fellow with the South Asia program at Carnegie, and she leads our brand-new Indian Ocean initiative. Darshana, welcome to the show.
Thank you so much, Milan.
So, it is nice to be colleagues again. We were colleagues once before when you were with Carnegie India in Delhi, and we look forward to having you shortly in Washington.
We're very excited about this new Indian Ocean initiative, but I wanted to ask you about the choice of name. Because if you look around Washington, all things Indo-Pacific are all the rage these days. Everywhere you go, there's “Indo-Pacific something.” But the initiative that you're leading is not called that – it's called the Indian Ocean initiative. What's the thinking here?
Thanks, Milan. First, let me start by saying that it's a highlight in itself, as an Indian working in this space, to make it to Grand Tamasha –
You need to expand your ambitions.
– so thank you so much for that. But yeah, absolutely. There's so much work on the Indo-Pacific. So, I guess, to briefly answer the question, why an Indian Ocean initiative amidst the Indo-Pacific craze? It's to fill a gap. There's a lot of work on the Indo-Pacific, and there's a lot of work on the Pacific, but there is very little attention on the Indian Ocean as such [or] on the Indian Ocean region as one theater or as a whole. So, the idea is to have this initiative study the different actors and different dynamics of the Indian Ocean region, and how those dynamics and how those actors and players affect the larger Indo-Pacific framework. One [area] is to see what is happening in the Indian Ocean region, [the interactions] between the smaller players and the bigger players, but also what consequences or what implications that could carry for the larger security debate and the Indo-Pacific framework. So, essentially, to become that “one-stop shop” for all things Indian Ocean and fill in the gap in [asking], “What role does the Indian Ocean play within the Indo-Pacific framework?”
One question that I think comes to some people's minds when we're talking about this region is, why launch an initiative on the Indian Ocean right now? As you think about the kind of global landscape, there's certainly no shortage of threats and opportunities on the horizon. We have issues with Iran, Afghanistan, and, of course, North Korea. What is it about this region beyond the kind of sheer size and expanse that makes it worthy of such special attention, particularly at this juncture in time?
No, absolutely, you're right – there is no shortage of global threats and challenges, especially within the Indo-Pacific framework itself, which is quite vast. But I think many of the issues that you find yourself [facing] right now converge in the Indian Ocean region, whether it's nontraditional security threats like illegal fishing, energy security, climate change, or greater traditional security issues, such as naval competition or geopolitical great power competition. The Indian Ocean region is vast, but it is also home to three critical sub-regions: South Asia, the Middle East, and the eastern coast of Africa, all of which carry implications and value or impact larger global security or even the Indo-Pacific framework. So, they all converge in the Indian Ocean region. [We should also consider] the smaller island nations dotting the southern part of the Indian Ocean. It is an area that requires attention to understand how it has evolved, how it has changed in the post-Cold War era, and especially in the new security dynamic where you're seeing much more competition between – whether it's India-China, whether it's U.S-China, or the different dynamics within and amongst themselves. So, that is one reason why we're looking at the Indian Ocean region as one space and not as kind of a sub-region or a sub-territory of the Indo-Pacific region, and how that impacts the larger framework.
You mentioned great powers, and of all of the key powers who have a role to play in the Indian Ocean, you've noted in other work that China is really the only one with a diplomatic mission and a serious presence in all six key island nations. So, these are Sri Lanka, Maldives, Mauritius, Seychelles, Madagascar, and Comoros. Some of these countries you hear about, and some of them aren't on most of our radar screens. One gets the sense that China is filling very methodically a kind of huge vacuum that's been created since the end of the Cold War, and I'm wondering – is this stepped-up Chinese presence the result of a United States that's been distracted, that hasn't been able to engage on a sustained basis over successive presidential administrations? Or is there something more complicated at work?
I think it's a little bit of both. In terms of creating the foundation, I think China has created that engagement or the diplomatic presence regardless of what anybody else was doing, and I think that's attached more to their larger goals or ambitions. China has been clearly articulating that they want to be a maritime power, they want to be a great power. In fact, China's diplomatic mission in Comoros was in 1975, the heart of the Cold War period, so they have been engaging with the region for a long time, quietly establishing the diplomatic presence, the political presence. The step-up is new in terms of, really, the intensified collaborations – whether it's military, whether it is economic, whether it's vaccine diplomacy or aid assistance or disaster relief. And China has been able to take on a lot of these missions in the last decade or so. The anti-piracy mission was its most concrete deployment into the Indian Ocean region, but they've also used that to interact more with the region around it.
After the Cold War, especially in the nineties and the early part of the century, the United States was more involved in issues of the Middle East and the Pacific. And you had India, which wasn't really looking to the Indian Ocean as much because there was not much of a competition [there]. There's France, which is really limited to the Western Indian Ocean, but has a really deep and complicated colonial history with many of the island nations. So, yes, one [factor] was filling the vacuum, and the other was to offer an alternative to two dominant security providers in the Indian Ocean: France in the western Indian Ocean and India in the eastern Indian Ocean, and their dominant behavior towards the island nations.
So, I think it was [a case of both] factors [reinforcing] each other – China's own creating the foundation to the region with diplomatic and political engagement and now seeking or utilizing this moment when they see a vacuum to actually do something concrete and build on it.
This week in the Hindustan Times, you had a piece called “It's Time to Reimagine the Indian Ocean.” And in it, you note that one of the great difficulties that Washington faces – and I think India probably does to a certain extent as well – is we have a tendency to engage with the Indian Ocean in silos – coming back to something you said earlier – as opposed to looking at it holistically. And, on the other hand, we have a Biden administration that's come in, and it's embodied much of the rhetoric about thinking more holistically. We now have an Indo-Pacific coordinator in the White House; we are told, at least, that regional bureaus, whether it's Africa, East Asia, South Asia, are working more closely together at the State Department because they understand the negative ramifications of these silos. So, do you think that the U.S. has kind of resolved some of its bureaucratic hurdles or impediments, or do you think there's a lot more to be done on that front?
I think I think this is just a first step towards really addressing the many silos that exist. The bureaucracy – whether it's Washington or Delhi or even Tokyo or Canberra – has worked in silos for so long that it's going to take time to actually smooth over the seams that have been there as the imaginary lines and divisions. So, yes, the Indo-Pacific coordinator will look at it, but within that, there has to be also understanding at the working level, the bureaucratic level, of the importance of the region and what's happening in the region. And that, I think, has been missing for some decades now. Because unlike in the seventies and eighties, today, smaller nations carry a lot more agency, especially at the UN, and if the United States, UK, India, and Japan are going to be talking about this rules-based international order, then you have to really cater to what the smaller nations are saying and what they are doing.
I can give one example, which is the issue of Diego Garcia, which is the debate between Mauritius and London where the U.S. has a base in Diego Garcia, and the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution which said that UK is illegally occupying the territory – the United Nations officially changed the maps to show Diego Garcia as part of Mauritius. But then London is not really engaging in a conversation, saying that, “Well, it doesn't apply to me.” It's not to take away the importance of the base, but [this is just to say that] the divisions of bureaucracy haven’t been able to understand how this is actually impacting the conversation amongst smaller nations in the region, where they are saying that “Okay, fine. China doesn't abide by the rules, but neither does the UK or U.S. So, how does it matter? Why should I say that the Western disregard for the rules-based order is acceptable, but for the Eastern countries it's not?” It's changing the whole conversation on the ground, but because of the distance from these smaller nations and being actually present on the region, I don't think the headquarters is getting an idea of what actually is happening on the ground and how it's changing the conversation.
So, absolutely, creating a division that looks at it holistically is the first step forward. But it would require much more, I think – reorientation amongst the bureaucracy and officials to again start understanding the region's new dynamics, where countries that in the sixties and seventies did not carry that much heft today actually carry a lot of agency.
What you're saying really is – it's kind of a change in worldview and mindset, right? I mean, because of the pressures and constraints that government officials operate under, they're often focused on things once a crisis emerges, once something blows up. But then you notice that China has come in to fill the vacuum, you're very reactive, and you're kind of misreading, perhaps, some of the local political and geopolitical dynamics in the region.
We've seen a lot of high-level activity already in the first couple of months at the Biden administration when it comes to this part of the world. I think it was just a week or two ago that U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin took a very early trip to India to meet with his counterpart, Rajnath Singh. We didn't see a lot of big flashy headlines – and frankly, you wouldn't expect a lot of big flashy headlines this early in the administration – but in your Hindustan Times piece, you did note that we got a kind of glimpse or a sneak preview of several areas of potential collaboration that the two countries might look forward to. Tell us a bit more about what you see emerging over the horizon.
Sure. One of the key things for the Indo-Pacific or Indian Ocean in the bilateral relationship between India and the U.S. was to figure out really concrete or issue-based focus areas that the two can work on together. “Now, you agree that the Indo-Pacific is the new theater, and you have the basic values and democracy and all of that set out, you agree on all this – so now what's next?” That kind of question. So, the problem in the Indian Ocean between India and the U.S. was the division of combatant commands – the way Washington looks at the Indian Ocean region and the way India looks at it. The way Washington was looking at it was that it ended with India, whereas India's [conception] went all the way to Africa. So, the [decision] that India and the U.S. will now work across the Indo-Pacific Command, Africa Command, and Central Command was a big step forward, which was to recognize that there's a difference in how we define the geography, and there needs to be work toward it. Austin also specifically mentioned the western Indian Ocean, which is where there is a gap and there's a recognition that more needs to be done in terms of issues. They again re-emphasized the foundational agreements – LEMOA, BECA, COMCASA – which was really important.
Specifically, these are – just for those who are uninitiated – foundational agreements that help the U.S. and Indian militaries do more together, right? These are enabling agreements that allow them to cooperate, to do exercises, [encourage] interoperability, [coordinate] budgeting, essentially kind of having the different pieces of the puzzle fit together.
Yeah, it helps kind of smooth over the paperwork. It's easier access, you have nodal points of contact, whether it's communications, whether it's access to each other's facilities. So, these are foundational agreements that help you do more going forward.
And in terms of specific issues as well, they mentioned information-sharing. So, for the Indian Navy right now, the priority is kind of anti-submarine warfare (ASW) and maritime domain awareness (MDA), and this is somewhere where the U.S. and India are really interested in information- and intelligence-sharing. I think we saw some of it even during the Ladakh crisis, where there was some utilization of the foundational agreements to share information on what is happening on the border.
They talked about the LEMOA [as well]. So, for the longest time, there was a huge resistance toward, say, anybody coming into the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, which are closer to the Straits of Malacca, and India would just kind of keep it closed, but last November, you had the USPH landing there for the first time. And that's something that Washington had been pushing for a long time, because it's really strategically placed to carry out anti-submarine warfare, to exercise interoperability and do a lot of MDA-related missions. So, I think the terminologies were broad, but then it gave the umbrella for the very specific initiatives that India and the U.S. are going to look at, which I think is ASW, intelligence-sharing, and information sharing.
The other part of it was a lot of nontraditional security issues they mentioned, like responding to oil spills. Last year, there was a huge issue off the coast of Mauritius where there was an oil tanker that ran aground, and it took a lot of time to actually offer assistance, to remove that and clear and enhance the ecosystem. It polluted the ocean. So, there are real issues – disasters, illegal fishing – and these are all areas that India and the U.S. are looking to work together on. And there is overlap between nontraditional security issues and security issues.
So, I think this was more a trip which was meant to emphasize that what has been agreed on so far stays in place, which is foundational agreements, the broader picture, [but] now using these foundational agreements, where do we go? Defense sector or AI? ASW or MDA? Illegal fishing or oil spills? So, I think these are the specific issues that have been outlined going forward.
One of the issues on the nontraditional side that came up during the Quad meeting, of course, was climate change, and I want to ask you about that. But before we get there, let me ask you about India's strategy. One of the points that you've made in this Hindustan Times piece, but that you've also made in another work, is that when you look at the budgetary allocations, the Indian Navy perhaps does not get the sort of attention that it would like. It's allotted less than 15% of the country's defense budget. Many analysts look at that and say, “Well, wait a second, this shows a lack of commitment to the maritime domain.” Is this a fair criticism? Can you read off the budget and say, “Okay, that means that this is kind of under-emphasized?” And beyond the issue of money alone, what are other steps that you would like to see the Indian government take to really step up its game on this front?
This is definitely the tough question. It's a yes and a no. Compared to the maritime domain, India's threat from hostility on the northern border is much more imminent. So, the justification that issues on the continental border get more budget, I wouldn't say that is unfair or unjustified. To a certain extent, it definitely is.
And, of course, as we're recording this, India and China still remain in this standoff along the Line of Actual Control. We've seen some positive signs of disengagement, but of course the situation still remains very tense.
Absolutely. So, those threats are very real and very imminent. It's something that India faces much more often and much more in real time. The question of resource constraint is real. I mean, at the end of the day, India still has so much of its population under poverty, it's very hard to justify a bigger defense budget, and its ambitions are bigger than what can be matched. But I think the issue is also the lack of understanding of the maritime domain and maritime geography and how it impacts India's largest strategic interests.
For a country that wishes to do so much with a very limited budget, a lot of the issues can be addressed through partnerships. It is happening now, but a lot of the developments that we've seen in the last five to six years are also reactionary. You have India initially launching initiatives like the Asia-Africa Growth Corridor with Japan, which came up in 2016, 2017 – we have seen vision statements, but not a single project has come out of it because it was kind of a reaction to the Belt and Road Initiative without really understanding what's happening on the region.
Which goes back to the question of, does the bureaucracy really understand the region, and have they interacted with it? So, I think it's also a change in our mindsets [that is needed], and that's why I use the word “mental maps” of the Indian Ocean and the HDPs, because I think that's a real problem. Just to give an example, [for] Indian diplomats [to be] posted to smaller island nations is considered unimportant or kind of a punishment. It's like, “Oh, you are so far away, it's not an important posting.” But that comes because you don't look at the maritime domain as something that is strategically important. Beyond the budgetary, the capital, and the money part of it, I think one thing that I would like to see is more introductions, more education, more conversations around the importance of maritime geography in foreign service training for our officials, both military and foreign service officials. There has been so many conversations – even when I was in 2016 I was in Australia for a few months working on India-Australia collaboration, I just repeatedly got this question: “Why? Why do you care? It's so far away, nothing's going to happen.” Then, recently, we had the biggest India-Australia maritime exercise. It's become one of our biggest partners.
So, I think it's the lack of understanding that also stops or is a challenge in realizing how to utilize India's partnerships in the maritime domain with the limited budget. In some areas, absolutely, more resources are required. But then in others, I think it's really a restructuring, in a way, to get the most out of its partnerships. But to be able to do that, you have to first understand the geography. The average Indian, whether it is an aspiring civil servant or foreign service official, understands the border issue with Pakistan and China. [Meanwhile,] the Indian Ocean, most people wouldn't even know what lies where, right? You don't know where it starts, where it ends. There's very little conversation on it. And I think that impacts the bureaucracy itself.
I mean, I have to admit, Darshana, when I get emails from you saying that you're in some far-flung island, I have to look it up on the map because I myself am not confident I know where that is.
The Quad has come up a couple of times in this conversation, and of course, a few weeks ago, the heads of state of the Quad nations – that is, India, the United States, Australia, and Japan – they met virtually to discuss how this grouping might work together in the future. I want to ask you a question that I actually posed to the Indian ambassador to the United States who was on the program last week. There has been a general sense among many of our colleagues who've looked at this region that India has been somewhat skeptical, cautious, reluctant when it comes to embracing this concept of the Quad. Do you think that this reluctance is a thing of the past? And if so, what do you think has changed?
I definitely think India is doing more within the Quad framework, and it is already signaling that it wants to do more, especially with the summit-level conversation that has happened. But I think it will depend on the issues. India is still quite concerned, or would be cautious, about what kind of issues they work with. So far, the Quad has actually emphasized nontraditional security issues, whether it was the Indian Ocean tsunami years ago or vaccine diplomacy today. And even the Quad summit, the statement that came out of the four countries, it really emphasizes nontraditional security issues, whether it's climate change, whether it's renewable energy, illegal fishing, or, of course, more traditional –
And they announced the creation of a new working group on emerging technologies and cyber and so on.
Yeah, and using all of that to address the issues of the region. So, the one thing I think that was repeatedly used as a phrase was that the Quad is a force for good, right? So, you have to kind of create that image or create that narrative. The Quad is not there for containment or military expansion of any country, but [instead] it's that force for good that is going to answer your regional problems by bringing together the resources of the four countries.
And why the change has come – I think it has been a couple of reasons. One is that, amongst the Quad, India was the last country to officially adopt the [framing of the] Indo-Pacific. It was only in 2018 at the Shangri-La Dialogue where they formally said “Okay, yes, this is what happens.” And the second [reason] is, of course, the China question. Even between 2018 and 2019, after you adopted the Indo-Pacific, there was this [question] of, “Okay, how much should you compete with China? You have to be careful so that you don't overdo it and you don't invite trouble.” But I think the entire conversation changed last summer. After the Ladakh issue, the China conversation changed to the extent that it is basically now given that it is a competition. Whether India chooses to engage with the West or not, China is very clear on the border issue and what it wants to do. So, it's up to India how it engages or how it responds to it. And I have always looked at India's acceptance of the Indo-Pacific or the Quad as an area of opportunity because it allows India to address a bigger security concern with limited resources by pooling those resources from its partners who might have the expertise or the capital or the assets – the idea of addressing a particular issue through collaborations.
Finally, India's own mission, Modi's own kind of thing that India is a global power – you have the biggest countries, the “cool boys” supporting India [and] its place in the world. So, you have the biggest regional support from the Western countries – some of these Southeast Asian countries as well – so it plays to a lot of the things India wants to do itself that it has envisioned for itself with the limited resources that it has, and the China factor, which is a real security threat.
So, I think these are the factors that have shaped the road that India has taken. But, of course, there will be some caution, even at this level, because it's a generational shift in terms of working with the West or working with a coalition or collaboration. We still have people who remember the Cold War, who remember '71, who remember the way India and the US have [interacted in the past], so there will be that level of cautiousness. But I think the relationship has really come a long, long way, and it has required some real work from both sides, so I'm hopeful. Let's see.
Sadanand Dhume, who is a regular on the show – when we spoke a couple of weeks ago on the program, I asked him if the idea of non-alignment was dead, and he said, “It's like that zombie from a horror film that, every time you drive the stake into its heart, it won't die.” It stays around. What you said about China, I found really interesting, because I think there's been a series of events – whether it was Doklam, whether it was the border incursions that happened during Xi Jinping's first visit when Modi became prime minister, and of course the most recent incident – [that has contributed to a] changing conception of the Chinese threat. But what you're saying is that, within the idea of China-India competition, the entrance of the relevance of this in the maritime domain, as opposed to just the land border, has also become more ingrained in people's minds. Is that fair to say?
Yeah. Of course, the land issue is much more dominant amongst the average Indian or in the public discourse. But at the government level, at the services level, the maritime domain definitely has played a part in it. Because so far, India [had been under the impression] that at least we have an advantageous position in the Indian Ocean region. But the idea that China can challenge that [and erode that position]… So, you have now a stronger China both on the northern and southern border. That is a real concern.
And I think it is also the realization that China is real about where it sees itself in the global order. And in that, if it has to compete with India, it will compete with India. I mean, India is still a much smaller factor compared to China's competition with the United States, so whether India chooses to engage with other countries or not is not going to affect how China engages with India. China is going to engage with India [in accordance with] its larger global ambitions. And this is something that I think is also true for Washington: whether Washington wants to engage in the Indian Ocean or not is not going to affect China's engagement in the region. China is going to do that regardless.
So, I think whether it's in Delhi or Washington, [the task is] to figure out where strategic interests lie and what the vision is itself. Otherwise, we're just going to get wrapped up in the reactionary policies that we saw in the initial period.
I guess that's where the impetus behind framing this as a force for good also comes from, right? Because then there are reasons to be doing this not just to counter China's Belt and Road and so on, but actually because it's in our collective national interest.
Just sticking with Washington for a second – we've heard a lot for the past four or five years about America's Indo-Pacific strategy. It seems like a think tank is hosting an event on this almost every week. And one of the things that you hear, particularly from U.S. government officials, is that finally, as a country, we have a more coherent vision for the region that can guide our engagement. And critics have suggested that, while there might be a clear diplomatic strategy, a clear military strategy, that there's not necessarily a coherent economic strategy, particularly after the United States withdrew from the Trans-Pacific Partnership and so on. So, as somebody who has spent a lot of time in the region, and including in many of these smaller island nations, how would you assess America's Indo-Pacific strategy from a kind of macro level? And do you think that the economic dimension is very clearly lagging behind? Is that a fair assessment?
Yeah, I think the Indo-Pacific strategy, not just for Washington but for most, is a work in progress, and right now, within that framework, the strategic part plays a bigger role than the economic part of it. I think the aim is to [determine,] where does it fit in in the larger geopolitical context?
Because there are so many developments happening, and I think the developments led by China [are taking place] at a much faster pace than any of the governments have been able to respond. And it's cropping up in different places. You have China in a stand-off with India on the border, you have China deploying for longer periods of time around the Senkaku for Japan, you have China in a diplomatic standoff with Australia, you have Chinese fishing vessels in Philippines. So, it's happening in major areas where it's affecting not just Washington but Washington's partners and allies as well. So, I think the priority is perhaps to place where the Indo-Pacific exists within the larger geopolitical context, within the larger strategic context.
The economic – of course, I think it'll need much more work, because the economic piece is much harder, even when it was just the Asia-Pacific. India was really outside of it, it wasn't really considered as part of it, at least from the geopolitical point of view. But I have had conversations where this is something that governments are looking at, and how to integrate more the economic piece into it. But I'm not entirely sure how this will work out because I think the Indo-Pacific is too broad for the economic piece of it. It might require more work in smaller groupings, perhaps. And then again, there are countries like India, there are many other countries who take a different approach than most of the players.
So, I think you're right in saying the economic part of it is not [all in] one piece. But at the same time, I think, there have been attempts to address the economic question, whether it is through infrastructure development, whether it's through aid, whether it's through development assistance, in terms of what countries need. But that has also been, to a certain extent, reactionary. So, once you have the Indo-Pacific more solidified in terms of what it means for each nation's larger geopolitical interests or strategic interests, maybe it might become slightly easier to figure out the economics piece.
I want to end by asking you about this issue of climate change, which we kind of circled around earlier. It's one of the three areas, as you pointed out, that the Quad explicitly mentioned in their joint statement as a priority for them to work on. There's a new working group on the issue that will look at how they can work together to kind of mitigate some of the impacts of climate change. What impact will climate change have on this region, and what is the link between climate change and great power competition in the Indian Ocean more broadly?
To answer the first question, in terms of how does climate change affect the region – it's that climate change is much more of an existential threat to smaller island nations, from Sri Lanka all the way to the Comoros. When I was in Comoros, six months before, there was a small cyclone, and they had still not fully recovered from the effects of it. These are smaller countries, and they feel the effects of climate change, whether it's from cyclones, whether it's from typhoons – tsunamis are a big concern in the Indian Ocean region. And you need a lot of capacity, you need a lot of capital, to recover. These populations are not that big, so even the loss of human capital from natural disasters is a big deal. The navies or the coast guards are not as big as your bigger nations, whether it's India or Japan, so the ability to offer that assistance is not that high. So, climate change is definitely a key issue for most of these countries.
And, in fact, when you look at the debates of the UN and you look at what the smaller countries are talking about, climate change is right at the top of the agenda. They define climate change as a top five national security issue. And for the bigger powers, climate change is probably not a top five security issue, but it's an important issue. So, you've seen it come up more in joint statements out of the realization that, if countries are jostling over having influence or having better ties with smaller nations, then you are going to have to work with them on issues that matter to them, and climate change is number one.
So, take, for example, India. India and Japan want to do something in the Indian Ocean region, and you don't want to do something from a military point of view, because Japan has constitutional limitations, and you want to work within the “it's a force for good” construct, so you work together in building tsunami warning centers, or you work together in offering capacity to respond to disasters, or you work in a way where you institutionalize your presence in the region. So, you are the first there to offer assistance, whether it's a cyclone, whether it's a tsunami, whether it's a typhoon, whether it's a food shortage or water crisis – we've seen something like this in Maldives in 2016. So, this is how it will impact great power competition in the sense that – who is able to be there to offer assistance? Who gets there first? And to be able to do that, because the region is so vast, you have to interact more with these countries, you have to be present around those waters. For that, you have to have that capacity to sustain yourself for longer periods of deployments.
I think that is the biggest change in the security environment today that I see, which is the overlap of nontraditional security issues and its impact on traditional security issues. Earlier, we were able to draw a very clear line to say, “Okay, these are softer issues, these are harder issues, and let's keep the two different. You don't need the Navy for softer issues or areas.” And now it's the opposite – you have fishing vessels doing information-gathering or surveillance missions. So, you have this overlap of nontraditional security issues and security issues, and I think that's where climate change is going to matter a lot more, because of the geographies of the islands, because of the maritime domain and how it impacts the smaller nations who all hold a vote each in the United Nations, which is very important for the rules-based international order framework.
My guest on the show today has been Darshana Baruah. She is an associate fellow with the South Asia program at the Carnegie Endowment, where she leads our brand-new Indian Ocean initiative. Darshana, courtesy of the wonders of the Internet, has joined us virtually from Tokyo. Darshana, thank you for coming onto the show and sharing some of your insights with us, and we look forward to seeing you in Washington very soon.
Thank you. This was great. Thank you so much for having me.
So, one note to our listeners. This is a bit of a bittersweet note – our beloved executive producer Maya Krishna-Rogers is leaving us for greener pastures. This is her last episode, but she has been with us for season four and season five of the show. And on behalf of myself and Tim and our entire crew, we just want to thank her. We wish her well. She has left big shoes to fill. But thank you, Maya, for everything you've done. And we should point out for our listeners that Maya's Nani is not only our most loyal but perhaps our first listener – not our only listener, but our first listener. And so, Maya's Nani, wherever you are, you should be very proud of Maya. We're going to miss her. But please still listen to the show.