It is not only our immediate region but the entire global security construct is undergoing a remake. The decisions which are and will be made in next few years could have lasting impression on the way the world, region and our own security establishments have shaped various structures. This remake has its root in the ‘painful’ rise of China and ‘trumping’ of American world leadership. It is not often that such transformative events occur in the world. Let’s explore some of those.
US is probably the only country in the world, as on date, around which world geopolitics revolves. And these revolving structures have followed reasonably predictable path since the end of Cold War. Till President Obama was head of state in the US, it seemed that international world order would be led by America, both economically and militarily. However, right from the beginning of the Trump presidency, American leadership has demonstrated signs of uncertain Foreign Policy. Very deliberately, the word ‘decline’ has not been used for the US since the outcome of these uncertainties is yet to emerge. President Trump, a Republican, is primarily a businessman with no previous experience of government administration. He has given an impression of being unpredictable, non diplomatic and non traditional. Like most heads of state, he is uncomfortable with resistance offered by entrenched bureaucracy or the domain specialists who have handled issues in the Administration for decades. However, that resistance may have ended with the resignation of Secretary Jim Mattis. So far, the President has been disruptive to his own Administration. What the world is witnessing within America is war of White House Vs the Administration. And this has global ramifications. President Trump has denounced multilateralism on number of counts, eg ,WTO, Climate Change, NATO(he has asked all stakeholders to spend more on security) etc. Yet, it is not all over, though this uncertainty has given opportunity to China and Russia in shaping alternatives.
Is he the first President who is having trouble with his Administration? Not really! Virtually every President has had moments of internal resistance. President Trump’s easing out of NSA and Chief of Staff from White House and exit of the Chief strategist Stephen Bannon, Secretary Tillerson, US Ambassador to the UN Nicky Healy and now Secretary Mattis are all results of President’s maximalist position on number of issues and the resistance on those issues from within. As a result, White House and the Administration may already have run out of domain specialists who could render advice to the President. The uncertainty in the world geopolitical system would begin now that most of President’s Advisors could say yes to all that he wants to do half way through his term. This also gives more opportunity to many regional powers to position themselves and create a multipolar architecture of security and economy. Therefore, to imagine that US would back every region’s security round the world appears unlikely. This is the biggest concern of Asia’s smaller nations who always looked up to the US for their security. If we split the world into regions it would probably look like Indian Ocean Region, South and East China Sea, Oceanic Pacific, Mediterranean, North Atlantic and Southern Atlantic/Indian Ocean. In majority of these regions the security has been backed by the US so far. What changes are underway in the region that we live in and are of concern?
What is of profound challenge to the largest democracy in the world, India, is to manage or resist a China led regional order which would be illiberal and characterised by authoritarian political system and state controlled closed economic system. This would invariably result in friction with India, Japan, Vietnam and possibly Indonesia, calling for increased expenditure on their security. This could lead to increased build up of conventional and possibly nuclear weapons. Japan’s anxiety is already visible leading to their commitment to build two aircraft carriers capable of operating F 35 STOVL fighter aircraft. There is already a debate underway on nuclear weapons. Vietnam’s Defence expenditure has gone up significantly. India’s own second strike and underwater warfare capabilities are on the rise. A clash between US and China in the South China Sea is the biggest worry for Japan, Vietnam and rest of the ASEAN. In recent interactions with Chinese think tanks one gets an impression that China too is keen in leading SCS/Pacific security architecture. This may be far fetched since the confidence of ASEAN and other littorals of SCS with China is probably at an all time low.
An article written by Liu Zhen in South China Morning Post specifies “several key pieces that could significantly improve capabilities of PLA and are expected to be completed or delivered next year”. He goes on to identify “aircraft carriers, strategic bombers and nuclear submarines among the equipment being developed and tested”. Much has been in public domain regarding China’s growing capabilities in artificial intelligence, cyber interference, nuclear tipped ICBMs which have achieved ranges of approximately 9000 km. China has also taken a leap in quantum technology. Though quantum sensors are yet to be stabilised, it reflects the security challenges that we are likely to witness.
Much closer home is the Karakoram Highway. It is likely to influence the equilibrium in our subcontinent by way of expanding Pakistani reach into previously inaccessible mountain ranges. Gwadar port is yet another crucial springboard to China becoming relevant maritime power in the Indian Ocean and Gulfs. Recently Chinese Yuan has become currency of convenience in Baluchistan. Inability of debt repayment by Pakistan for CPEC appears to be following familiar Hambantota path. That is not all, the East Coast of African countries may just be heading in that direction. What does it mean for Indian Security?
The challenges will be multiple. Pakistan’s affinity for terrorism as a tool of foreign policy will move upwards— more so when US is planning reduction of troop from Afghanistan. This will create a situation for return of Saudi Arabia and UAE into Pakistan, primarily to keep Iranian borders with Pakistan unsettled. There were reports that Saudi intelligence was already active on the Pakistani side of Sistan Baluchistan. Pakistan could reduce its troop strength from Afghanistan border and use Taliban for its nefarious activities. That could free its troops to supervise cross border terrorism in J&K. Additionally, induction of China built warships, submarines and aircraft will boost its ability to constrain India’s strategic manoeuvring space in the Arabian Sea/Western Indian Ocean where it has had near autonomy. Activities of Chinese ships and submarines are already on the rise.
Overall, the remaking of world security calculus has impact on our region’s security which would call for moving away from traditional mindset and prepare for out of the box solutions.
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.