“What goes“What goesaround comes around” they say. Before the great powers, as they are now known, came into being, the world order was identified by itsgreat civilisations, spanning the seas and the vast continental land masses of Eurasia. The new world (America) had not been discovered, nor was Australia and Africa was yet unexplored. Amongst these great civilisations there thrived extensive trade, the routes to do business traversing over land and sea, creating a virtual beehive of activity in the region, which centuries later was to become the Indo-Pacific. There were major power centres, the power of the civilisations projected through their people, their economies, their academic institutions and in those days, highly established infrastructure and business matrices. Thus, if one considers the term “Polarity” in geo-strategic terminology, it existed in this region, a few thousand years ago.
The industrial revolution brought in the development in the West and with it greater international trade, more importantly, the silks and precious gems that were garnered from the ‘Exotic East’. The trade routes of the Indo-Pacific took on great importance. At the same time the strategic significance and, correspondingly, the vulnerability of these trade routes was not lost on those who benefitted from them. Clearly, it was no wonder that major powers had sought, and still seek, dominance over this landscape: a portent for the future?
China’s rise as a major power centre and India’s growing economy have, in recent years, made the world look up and take notice. The 21st century is indeed destined to be the “Asian Century”. While not discounting the strategic footprintsof Japan, South Korea and India, China’s ascendency in the region is certainly due to its huge economic might, engulfing the countries of the Asia-Pacific and establishing an ‘enveloping’ role that would increase the dependency of these states on China. While at one stage there were concerns that China would display hegemonist designs capitalising on its economic clout and growing military capabilities, it appears the dragon has, in its wisdom, decided to maintain a ‘Big Brother’ profile for the moment. But the largest ever fleet review of the Chinese Navy (PLAN) early this year heralded its strategic role and emphasised its blue water capability. The display of the Liaoning, China’s sole aircraft carrier (although two more are in the pipeline) with its on-board J-15 fighter jets (SU-27 Flanker derivative) sends a strong message across the globe.
It is imminently evident that the purpose of China securing its maritime rights to the Nine Dash Line is to extend its influence up to the second island chain, thereby creating adequate buffer and depth for defence of the mainland. The reclamation and development of islands over shoals and reefs, most of them with a military look, has endorsed the fact that China’s forward posture clearly defines its new outlook—that of offensive defence. China’s strategic escalation is supported by its two big economic initiatives—the Belt and Road Initiative and the New Silk Road, with the essential purpose of securing its sustainable source of imported energy through this integrated network.
While a general status quo has prevailed over half a century, the rise of China and it’s rather evident forward posturing, prompted Barack Obama to initiate the US Rebalance in the Asia- Pacific or what is called the Pivot in the region. Needless to say it envisages an increase in its military elements, with greater visibility to provide the necessary assurance to the countries in the Asia- Pacific. It would be foolish to presume that the US can continue to maintain its elements interminably, so far afloat. To ostensibly offset its load, the US has put its finger on India to provide the support. With an economy prospering to very respectable levels, possessing a large and modern military and an adversarial mindset towards China, there could not have been a better ally in the instant circumstances. The declaration of the term ‘Indo-Pacific’ and the re-naming of its Pacific Command (PACOM) to Indo- Pacific Command has given a huge fillip to India’s prestige in global geo-politics. India’s inclusion in the QUAD (Quadrilateral Security Dialogue) practically ‘sealed the deal’. In fact the US Secretary for Defence, Leon Panetta, went so far as to say, “India is the lynchpin of the Rebalance”.
With over 60% of global energy requirements seeking passage through this area, the steady shift of economic power from Europe to Asia is likely to have far reaching effects on the Indo- Pacific geo-strategic space. There is little doubt that in the 21st century the world’s strategic and economic centre of gravity will be the Indo-Pacific. The US Rebalance is indeed appropriate and India’s position in the global order now merits a progressive shift to strategic role-play in the context of the vast arena that extends across two major oceans. The global order is coming full circle.
An alumnus of NDA and DSSC, Air Mshl Sumit Mukerji has served the IAF as a fighter pilot with distinction. He has commanded three units, a MiG-29 Sqn, a MiG-25 SR Sqn and TACDE (considered the ‘Top Gun’ school of the IAF) and also served as the Air Attaché in Washington DC. He retired in 2011 as the AOC-in-C of Southern Air Command.