India has unresolved land borders with two nuclear armed countries who share close relationship amongst themselves, often described as ‘higher than mountains and deeper than sea’. This is not only a slogan but the outcomes are gradually unfolding and there will be much to follow. As far as India’s strained relationship is concerned, it is worse with its western neighbour than the northern neighbour. However, the collusion of the two is a reality and that is what India has been handling for many years. What is new then? It is China’s emergence as a maritime power in the Indo-Pacific which makes matters complex for India. China has to be seen more comprehensively on a much wider canvas ie from Himalayas to the Indian Ocean. Also, China’s economic leap frog will displace US from its leadership position. China’s techno-military complex is making rapid progress both in terms of quantity and quality. In this context the world must look at China-Pakistan axis which is not only limited to CPEC and BRI but also extends in larger Indian Ocean. Maritime Silk Route is continuum to BRI on the world map.
China’s desire to upstage the US from economic leadership may get fulfilled sooner or later but our belief is that China will not succeed in replacing the US from techno military leadership any time soon or even in the decades to come. Then why is this turbulence in the Indo Pacific? It is for the first time since the end of Cold War that the unipolarity of the US is being challenged. We have no doubts that China’s ultimate aim is to replace the US from the top slot. Geopolitical turbulence has been caused by China’s irrational assumption that time has come for it to exercise global leadership and the world must choose its ally. Conversation with senior functionaries of the International Division of the CPC reflects their desire that India should maintain neutrality in any likely scenario of Chinese face off with the US. India’s cooperation with the US worries them. Since US has been an important strategic partner which could lead to transfer of technology in the near future, India becomes a formidable hurdle to China’s smooth passage through the Indian Ocean. This thought is not misplaced. In end 2013 early 2014, while preparing to receive aircraft carrier Vikramaditya from Murmansk (Russia), it was reported that China would deploy its nuclear submarine in the Indian Ocean to monitor and possibly profile underwater acoustics of the carrier. They did not succeed but it was evident that Indian Ocean was becoming crowded which could restrain Indian Navy’s strategic manoeuvring space. So far, India had robust mechanisms to handle collusion of China and Pakistan on the land borders but a situation has developed which necessitates expansion of this mechanism to Indian Ocean. Having watched China’s painful rise and shameless assertiveness, in which it threw the ICJ judgement on Scarborough shoals to the winds, India knows that in the future, dispute on land borders will be used by China as a handle to overcome emerging competition in the Indian Ocean.
India’s Cooperation with the US and Japan has moved many notches up, particularly after the Modi government has come to power. Indian Navy has been operating with the US Navy from the nineties well before President Obama’s ‘pivot to Asia Pacific’ policy was announced. Now, it is time and opportunity to deepen maritime cooperation with Japan. Malabar series exercise now includes Japan and sends clear message to China that it will not have smooth passage in its conquest to dominate the Indo Pacific. Japan and India import large quantities of oil from the Gulf and so does China. To secure its energy lanes of communication across the straits of Hormuz, China has established a foothold in Gwadar port. In future, it will have surveillance and interdiction capability against the US and NATO forces operating in and out of the Gulf. 5th Fleet will certainly get bottled at this choke point. We have a common cause there which calls for capacity building of India, both economic and military.
While Japan is deeply engaged in infrastructure development for better connectivity and growth of trade, US has to speed up security related capacity building of India. There are sectors such as cyber, artificial intelligence, space, higher technical education, quantum science, agriculture, water conservation, green energy, pollution control research, manufacturing processes, science and technology etc in which both US and Japan can rapidly assist India. Both, military and non military technical cooperation is a necessity. In return, Indian Navy has a robust mechanism to ensure security in the SLOCS which are used by the entire world. Given India’s geo strategic advantage in the Indian Ocean, it can become a net security provider not only to littorals but also to countries with whom it has strategic partnership.
The momentum of bilateral relationship with the US and Japan intensified after President Trump moved into White House and Prime Minister Abe won another term making him a PM who would serve the longest in Japan’s history. Signing of LEMOA and COMCASA with the US was clearly a reflection of its desire to see India playing a larger role in resisting the rise of China. With Japan, the cooperation is more towards connectivity and economy related projects which offers an alternate transparent financial system to the IOR littorals and SE Asian Countries.
Driven by these realities, US has placed India on the exempt list of CAATSA and secondary sanctions for helping India build capacities, and this needs to be continued. However, there are reports that India will be removed from the Generalised System of Preferences ( GSP) list which could impact her export of approximately USD 5.6 billion. This is worrisome.
In the given circumstances, US needs to develop much closer relations with China’s neighbours in East and Southeast Asia. In that sense, Japan, Vietnam, Indonesia and India are important. Any trade hurdles created by the US against these countries could adversely impact the desire of the US to resist China’s economic rise.
Talking of Indo-Pacific security architecture, the vastness of these oceans call for regional architectures within the larger Indo-Pacific. We see three distinct regions: Pacific, East Sea and parts of Pacific and the Indian Ocean. Each of these could be coordinated by regional powers viz Australia, Japan and India. The one in East Sea & South China Sea (SCS) is most urgent. In this region, Japan could invite Indonesia, Vietnam, Philippines, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand and South Korean navies to come together for responding to non traditional threats and HADR type missions. Non traditional being piracy, theft, human and drug trafficking, illegal mining, sharing white shipping data and maritime intelligence. China has been mulling over joint exercises with reluctant Southeast Asian countries under the framework of CoC (Code of Conduct) monitoring in the SCS. There is also a possibility that China could project such a maritime congregation as security architecture for SCS and use it to its own strategic advantage.
In the Indian Ocean Region (IOR), there are clearly two sections, Bay of Bengal and Arabian Sea. In the western Indian Ocean, US and India team up as strong maritime force. In the Bay of Bengal, the BIMSTEC initiative could be expanded to include maritime security architecture for non traditional threats. Maldives, Seychelles and Mauritius could have observer status in trilateral naval exercise like Malabar or other bilaterals that Indian Navy has with Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Thailand, Singapore and Indonesia. Such arrangement would act as confidence building measures (CBM) amongst IOR littorals and encourage them to join regional maritime security framework. Similarly, Australian Navy could play an important role in building capacities and providing training to the Southern Pacific Nations. Australia has to build its own capability as well, which is probably grossly inadequate given its vast area of interest.
In all these regional architectures US would remain a common factor.This would ensure much needed US presence in the larger Indo-Pacific while it builds capacities of all littorals.
Time is ripe for joint Indo-Pacific MDA (Maritime Domain Awareness) network consisting of US, India, Japan and Australia. White shipping data over entire Indo-Pacific could be fused on real time basis. This will provide necessary ingredients to decision makers for triggering any response by a regional or sub-regional maritime composite force. The Indo-Pacific monitoring centres could be co-located with existing fusion centres in Gulf, India’s West and East Coast, Singapore, Japan and Australia. The scope and framework should have open architecture to accommodate European countries such as France and the UK (which has recently indicated its desire to return to the Indo-Pacific), New Zealand in the Pacific and later Indonesia. Rule based international order needs preservation. Sooner the world unites to ensure free and open seas, better it is to protect the interests of global commons from rising authoritarian system.
In the meantime, much has happened in the littorals of Indian Ocean and South China Sea. Sri Lanka underwent a political turmoil when President Srisena dismissed the Ranil Wikramasinghe government and installed former President Rajpaksa as the Prime Minister. Fortunately, judiciary proved that it would follow the democratic constitution, and declared the dismissal unconstitutional, forcing the President to revert to status quo. Ranil Wikramasinghe was back as the PM. It exposed the underbelly of Sri Lankan political class and its vulnerability to Chinese influence.
Vice Admiral Shekhar Sinha, PVSM, AVSM, NM and Bar is the former Chief of Integrated Defence Staff & former Commander in Chief Western Naval Command. Presently, he is Member, Board of Trustees, India Foundation.