While Pacific and South China Sea are important, the Indian Ocean remains fundamental for India, writes Lt. Gen (Dr) Yash Malhotra (retd) for South Asia Monitor
Now well established and also slammed in the US House of Representatives as well, China has used the distraction of the coronavirus for expansion and aggression in and around disputed territories such as the Line of Actual Control (LAC) along India's northern borders, South China Sea (SCS) and the Senkaku islands in the East China Sea. While efforts are underway to de-escalate and disengage in the Himalayas, Chinese belligerence in the seas needs examination, particularly in the context of the Indo-Pacific and the Quad. The strategic effect of maritime operations, after all, will finally be measured upon land.
Given the dependence of East and South-East Asian economies on the movement of raw material notably oil, across the Indian Ocean on the one hand; and the bulk of Indian trade to Pacific Rim Countries passing through SCS on the other; events in South China and East China Seas, assume importance for India, just as the environment in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR), does for China with its critical sea lines of communication (SLOC) traversing the Indian Ocean.
Indian Ocean Region
Actually almost three-quarters of trade moving through the Indian Ocean belongs to States external to the region. All major powers, as a result, have deployed substantial maritime assets for a stable IOR. As an illustration the US Fifth Fleet is headquartered in Bahrain, using the island of Diego Garcia as a major air-naval base and logistics hub. Additionally, France, with several islands and vast exclusive economic zones has strategic involvement in the Indian Ocean with naval assets in Djibouti, Comoros, Reunion, and Abu Dhabi.
Also of note are China’s continuing efforts to increase influence in the IOR wooing a number of countries (Myanmar, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Maldives, and Djibouti) notably it's "iron brother" Pakistan. China wishes to use Pakistan as the springboard for India's containment and keep it confined to the proverbial 'South Asia Box.'
But given India’s growing trade, energy and diplomatic linkages, the Indo-Pacific is virtually India's new neighbourhood having as much at stake in peace and tranquility in the Western Pacific/SCS as any other regional country of ASEAN (the Association of Southeast Asian Nations), Japan or Australia.
A quick look here at some highlights from the July 2019 white paper on China’s National Defence In The New Era becomes important. The white paper not only marks an inflection point in China's approach to global geopolitics, it is also assertive, muscular and does not attempt to hide its capability or willingness to use force. Talking of national sovereignty and territorial integrity, it says that SCS islands and Diaoyu (Senkaku) islands in the East China Sea are inalienable parts of the Chinese territory and for protecting China's other overseas interests it unhesitatingly underlines that in August 2017, the PLA Djibouti Support Base entered service.
To back it all, General Wei Fenghe, State Councillor and Minister of National Defence China, at the 2019 Shangri-La Dialogue was at pains to emphasise that China seeks negotiated solutions to differences through dialogue and consultation but "It takes two to cooperate and only one to start a fight." China's public refrain today he added is: " Talk? Welcome. Fight? Ready. Bully us? No way."
While the belligerence is palpable, some contradictions are indeed disturbing almost reminiscent of 5th century BCE Greece, when during the Peloponnesian War, mighty Athens demanding the surrender of the tiny island state of Melos delivered this ultimatum: “The strong do what they can, and the weak suffer what they must.”
If China has such dubious intentions then the world has read them totally wrong? What agreements - and there are five - of 1993, 1996, 2003, 2005 and 2013, apart from the 2018 Wuhan and 2019 Mamallapuram meets, can India expect China to honour? Indian negotiators in talks underway for the northern borders need to take note.
Quad – Asian NATO
The Quad (the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue) was revived in 2017 with the US, Japan, Australia, and India due to the turbulence caused by China in the SCS, and was touted as an 'Asian NATO', overtly pitting these countries against China. In the present climate, it cannot continue to be a loose arrangement. It has to be made binding, convincing, and potent to snarl meaningfully at China and deter it from creating and militarising artificial islands while bullying smaller nations particularly in the SCS/ Western Pacific. Symbolic drills and passing exercises in the region by various navies including the US send a wrong signal and do not water down China's writ.
Further Quad seems to have hijacked the very concept of Indo-Pacific (a region from the shores of Africa to those of Americas) taking it East of Malacca. For the present, it represents only an 'Eastern Leg'. While Western Pacific and SCS are important, the Indian Ocean remains fundamental for India. In view of China's expanding footprint coupled with its overseas base at Djibouti, Gwadar on the horizon and naval turnaround facilities at Karachi, maybe there is a case to have a 'Western Leg' of the Quad, with partnerships involving India, France, Indonesia and others.
While India builds its strength, it has to really realize that its current maritime force capability does not permit big-ticket engagements with major powers, notably China. Partnerships by India with countries other than the US should only be seen as an attempt by India to take destiny into her own hands. Both legs of the Quad, therefore, need to be viewed against this backdrop, as do the other partnerships.
It may be too early to say but the India-Russia Special and Privileged Strategic Partnership also needs to be examined closely against the reality of the present aggression by China on the LAC.
All partnerships have to come good and go beyond symbolism. Testing times these!
(The writer is an Indian Army veteran. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)