Concept of Asia-Pacific
It is no longer the Atlantic Ocean but the confluence of the Pacific and Indian Ocean (the Asia-Pacific) that is at the core of global geopolitics now. The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QSD) aka “the QUAD”, was initiated in 2007 by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and got discontinued after the withdrawal of Australia under the then Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd. On November 12, 2017, leaders from the United States, India, Japan and Australia met in Manila to revive the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QSD) and to urge cooperation for a free and open Indo-Pacific. The term Indo-Pacific, and the policy implications that come with it, is an important indicator of how the United States and its allies are working to shape the geopolitics, or at least how it's conceived. The Indo-Pacific idea simply expands the conceptual region of Asia-Pacific to include the Pacific, India and the Indian Ocean. Indo-Pacific refers to the maritime space stretching from the littorals of East Africa and West Asia, across the Indian Ocean and Western Pacific Ocean, to the littorals of East Asia. The QUAD translates this geopolitical understanding into a strategy, envisaging the two oceans as a single security space; which includes India and Japan, bridged by Australia, and undergirded by the U.S.’ maritime dominance.1 The impetus for such a reconceptualization is simple: Japan, Australia and India, isolated as they are in their own oceans, want to create a balance against the Western Pacific's rising power, China, by uniting under a single geopolitical sphere. In October 2020, the U.S. Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, and his three counterparts from Australia, India, and Japan, met in Japan. The focus of the meeting was to underline the fact that a four countries coalition would work together for protecting freedom of navigation and promoting democratic values in the Indo-Pacific region. There was no joint statement, but Pompeo stated that the purpose of the group was to “protect our people and partners from the Chinese Communist Party’s exploitation, corruption, and coercion.”2 Although the other three ministers framed the meeting differently in their opening statements, the fear of China’s so-called growing influence and assertiveness in the region looms large during the discussions. Though all the QUAD members are wary of China’s peaceful rise but differ on how to respond. Policymakers in India are especially concerned about overtly provoking China.
Evolving Maritime Environment in the Indian Ocean in the Wake of the U.S.-China Rivalry
The Indian Ocean is the third-largest of the world's oceanic divisions, covering 70,560,000 km2 (27,240,000 sq mi) or 19.8% of the water on Earth's surface. The Indian Ocean stretches from the Strait of Malacca and Western coast of Australia in the East to the Mozambique Channel in the West. It encompasses the Persian Gulf and Arabian Sea in the North, all the way down to the Southern Indian Ocean. Along the coasts of this huge geographic expanse are countries that are home to some 2.7 billion people. The Indian Ocean’s key subregions are: South Asia, the Middle East, the Eastern coast of Africa, and islands dotting the ocean from Sri Lanka in the East to the Comoros Archipelago in the West.
As many observers see it, the Indian Ocean has been a center for geoeconomic power struggle since the 1970s and now it would be a new center for geostrategic and geopolitical competition among the world powers. It has the most important Sea Lines of Communication (SLOCs) for oil trade among major Asian economic powers. The SLOCs in the Indian Ocean cover quite a few important choke points of global petroleum liquids consumption. In 2018, the daily oil flow averaged 21 million barrels per day (b/d) or the equivalent of about 21% of the internationally traded oil transported through the Strait of Hormuz, nearly one-third of the 61% of the total global petroleum and other liquids production that moved on maritime routes in 2015 transited through the Strait of Malacca and total petroleum flows through the Bab el-Mandeb Strait accounted for about 9% of the total seaborne-traded petroleum (crude oil and refined petroleum products) in 2017.3 Roughly eighty percent of Chinese trade flows through Malacca Strait. Finally, there is the Mozambique Channel between Madagascar and Mozambique, which is a key trading route for goods transiting from the Cape of Good Hope to the Middle East and Asia.
The Indian Ocean region witnesses more than half of the armed conflicts in the world. For one, China’s economic growth is largely dependent on foreign trade and secure energy supply through the Indian Ocean. Topping the world’s energy consumption, China has surpassed the United States in terms of energy demands since 2010. Therefore, China finds it imperative to manage an uninterrupted and secure energy supply, which mainly comes from the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) through maritime routes. For example, 82 percent of China’s crude oil and 30 percent of its natural gas annual imports pass through Malacca Strait, a narrow stretch of water between the Malay Peninsula and Sumatra that acts as a major shipping channel between the Pacific and Indian Oceans.
Chinese Activities in the Indian Ocean
To mitigate the Malacca dilemma, China has taken a number of steps to secure its trade routes and consolidate its regional influence. In particular, China proposed the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in 2013 that includes the “Silk Road Economic Belt” and the “21st-century Maritime Silk Road,” in order to reestablish the ancient Silk Road by connecting Southeast Asia with Africa and Europe through infrastructure/port development in countries along the coastlines. Aiming at increasing investment and collaboration along the BRI, the idea is quite innovative; once realized, “the plan would knit much of Asia, Europe, Africa, and the Middle East closer through latest infrastructure and free trade zones.”4 In 2014, a USD 40 billion Silk Road fund was announced, and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) was established by China with an initial capital of USD 100 billion for infrastructure finance across the continent. To secure its energy supply through the SLOCs in the Indian Ocean, China has been investing in some new ports in Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Myanmar. In Sri Lanka, the government has leased the Hambantota commercial port to a Chinese firm by granting a 99-year lease to operate it.
The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) has had billions of dollars worth of Chinese investment. The 2700 km economic corridor under the aegis of CPEC is the leading project of China’s ambitious vision for a modern reconstruction of the Silk Road. Consisting of road and rail links, oil and gas pipelines from the port of Gwadar running all the way through Gilgit-Baltistan in the North, it will eventually join up with highways. This route provides a much-needed alternative to the easily disrupted choke point in Malacca Strait.
United States’ Presence in the Indian Ocean
The United States has significant military assets in the Indian Ocean Region. It has established Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti, which is the primary base of operations for the U.S. Africa Command in the Horn of Africa, that supports approximately 4000 U.S. and allied military and civilian personnel. Naval Support Activity (NSA) Bahrain is home to U.S. Naval Forces Central Command (CENTCOM) and the U.S. Fifth Fleet. NSA Bahrain provides operational support to the U.S. and coalition forces in CENTCOM’s area of responsibility (AOR). In addition to much of Central Asia and the Middle East; CENTCOM's AOR includes the Persian Gulf, Red Sea, and the Arabian Sea.
A U.S. Navy Support Facility is located on the British Indian Ocean Territory of Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean, South of India. The facility provides logistic support to forces forward deployed to the Indian Ocean and Persian Gulf AOR. The United States Indo-Pacific Command (USINDOPACOM) is a unified combatant command of the United States Armed Forces responsible for the Indo-Pacific region. The United States is also developing a rotational presence of up to 2,500 marines and aircraft near Darwin on Australia's Northern coast as a part of its alliance relationship with Australia.5
Indian Activities in the Indian Ocean
Indian Maritime Security Strategy 2015 (IMSS-2015) spelled out that the Indian Navy must be the ‘net security provider’ in the Indian Ocean. In order to consolidate its role as a net security provider in the Indian Ocean, the Indian Navy has developed its shore intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance and radar chain capabilities in the region. The radar chain system has connected India with Sri Lanka, Mauritius and Seychelles via data link.6 The aim of these endeavors is to have a better maritime domain awareness and to dominate SLOCs in the region. Indian maritime collaboration in this regard is discussed in the ensuing paragraphs.
At present, India has set up six radar and Automatic Identification Systems in Sri Lanka, and has established ten Coastal Surveillance Radar Systems (CSRS) and listening posts on the Maldivian Island.7 In addition, two Indian Dhruv helicopters and one Dornier fixed-wing aircraft along with their crew are permanently stationed in Maldives. In 2011, India commissioned eight CSRS and listening posts on the coast of Mauritius.8 At present, the small remote Mauritian island of North Agalega, located in the South-Western Indian Ocean 700 miles North of Mauritius, is currently a hive of construction activity by India.9 Satellite imagery shows a new 3000 meter runway – capable of hosting the Indian Navy’s new Boeing P-8I maritime patrol aircraft – and a considerable apron overshadows the existing airfield in the middle of the island. Once completed, the project would comprise a new airport, port and logistics and communication facilities, radar and listening post. Similarly, India has deployed one coastal surveillance radar system in Seychelles.
In November 2017, India signed a pact with Singapore that would allow India access to the Changi Naval Base. Similarly, a listening post and radar facility has also been established by India in Northern Madagascar. In 2021, India and Oman have renewed two major defense pacts. The two agreements are: a maritime transport agreement which was signed in December 2019 and another agreement that was agreed upon in 2018 which gave the Indian Navy access to facilities at Oman’s Duqm Port.10 In 2016, India pledged to invest USD 500 million in Chabahar Port's development. If completed, Chabahar would allow India access to what it sees as untapped export markets and energy reserves in Central Asia by building a trade route that runs directly from Iran to Afghanistan (which now has to be seen in the light of the new developments in Kabul). The renewed U.S. sanctions and recent signing of the USD 400 billion Iran-China strategic deal has probably forced India to put the project on hold. It is believed that if the Iran-China strategic deal materializes as envisaged, Chabahar Port would form part of CPEC.
The United States' chief foreign policy priority is to prevent the rise of a power that could challenge American primacy in Eurasia. Since China’s increasing power is likely to challenge the American supremacy not only on land but at sea in the future. Therefore, the U.S. is trying to not only contain China but also wants to roll back its growing influence in Asia and beyond.
Indo-U.S. Maritime Collaboration
In 2006, the U.S. and Indian government signed the Indo-U.S. Framework for Maritime Security Cooperation. The United States, in 2016, designated India a Major Defense Partner (MDP), to make India a de facto major non-North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) ally, without using that term. The new designation now allows India license free access to dual-use technologies usually reserved for the U.S. allies such as the Sea Guardian drones.
In August 2016, India and the United States signed a bilateral deal on military logistics exchange, known as the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA). In 2018, both sides signed the Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA). COMCASA would allow the United States to supply India with its proprietary encrypted communications equipment and systems, allowing secure peacetime and wartime communication between high-level military leaders on both sides. It would also extend Indian access to the Combined Enterprise Regional Information Exchange System (CENTRIXS), a secure communication system network of the U.S. In the future, Indian ships with CENTRIXS systems on board would be able to communicate securely with the U.S. Navy when needed and can benefit from the wider situational picture of the region as they have a large number of ships and aircraft deployed. Additionally, the deal has enabled India to purchase classified state-of-the-art American communication equipment without a hitch.11
On October 27, 2020, India and the U.S. signed the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA) at New Delhi. According to details, BECA would provide India with geospatial information. It will allow India to access the U.S.’ advanced geospatial intelligence networks. This will also allow both countries to exchange topographic data including maps, nautical and aeronautical charts, commercial and other imagery, geophysical, geomagnetic and gravity data. Resultantly, India will have accurate satellite imagery of the whole region.12 This will not only help India to have better battlespace awareness but will also allow New Delhi to hit targets deep into Pakistan and China with precision.
The Naval exercise, Malabar, between the U.S. and Indian Navies, has become a regular feature since 2007 and has occurred annually since then, taking place alternatively in the Western Pacific and off India’s coast. In 2015, Japanese Naval units rejoined the exercise after an eight year gap. In November 2020, all members of the QUAD: America, India, Japan and Australia participated in the latest series of Malabar Exercise. It is after 13 years that Australia joined the exercise.13
As discussed earlier, the United States is the world's pre-eminent maritime power as it controls and dominates the world Sea Lines of Communication. The United States Navy has the world's largest fleet of eleven nuclear powered aircraft carriers. These carriers serve as the centerpieces and flagships for the Navy's Carrier Strike Groups, with their embarked Carrier Air Wings and accompanying ships and submarines which strongly contribute to the U.S.’ ability to project force around the globe. The U.S. Navy with this strong Naval Force has the capability to control the global commercial and energy sea routes. However, with a faltering economy, the U.S. is finding it difficult to maintain such a huge Navy. Meanwhile, China’s rise as an economic powerhouse of Asia and growing naval power is viewed with great suspicion by the U.S. policymakers. China’s rise as a soft power, coupled with its Belt and Road and Maritime Silk Route initiatives, to integrate countries across Asia and Europe runs contrary to the U.S.’ global interests. The United States' chief foreign policy priority is to prevent the rise of a power that could challenge American primacy in Eurasia. Since China’s increasing power is likely to challenge the American supremacy not only on land but at sea in the future. Therefore, the U.S. is trying to not only contain China but also wants to roll back its growing influence in Asia and beyond. However, due to economic constraints, it cannot contain China on its own; doing so would exhaust its resources and leave it vulnerable to challenges from the potential rivals. As a consequence, it is using its military, economic and political influence to exploit regional rivalry between India and China.
Vigorously backed by the United States, the Indian Navy is contemplating to have a 200 ship-fleet by 2027. This includes the construction of an additional six nuclear submarines and three more aircraft carriers; with the balance of power fully tilted in Indian Navy’s favour at sea. In any future war, New Delhi would endeavor to blockade Pakistani ports and interrupt our SLOCs at sea. While in times of peace, India is working on the agenda of derailing CPEC project through sabotage and terrorist acts. The apprehended Indian spy, Commander Kulbhushan Yadav, has already admitted Indian involvement in a number of sabotage activities in Balochistan, Pakistan. In these circumstances where the threat from sea has increased manifold, Pakistan Navy’s (PN) capacity and capabilities are required to be enhanced in order to meet the existing and future threats. Since during peace, PN is required to protect the maritime infrastructure and ports from being sabotaged. During war, PN would be required to keep the SLOCs open, shield ports and coastal infrastructure from Indian aerial and missiles attacks, while providing convoy support to merchant ships bringing in vital Petroleum, Oil, Lubricants (POL) and war materials to Pakistan. All these missions would stretch PN to its limits. Safety and security of CPEC, especially Gwadar Port, both during peace and war, therefore, dictates rapidly building and modernizing the Navy.
On a broader canvas, the U.S. is establishing a strategic relationship with India and providing it with state-of-the-art military hardware. Washington expects India to act as policeman to secure its interests in South Asia as well as in the Indian Ocean. With the aim of encircling China, the United States, India and others have seemingly joined hands under the QUAD umbrella to balance China’s influence. It seems that a “Great Game” is going on in the Indian Ocean and more global players are getting involved. Although China’s BRI is meant to lessen the confrontational edge of the game by economic means like business investment, infrastructure development and economic partnerships, New Delhi and others have remained negatively bent about China’s intention behind BRI and have thus chosen to boycott the initiative despite the fact that it is gaining gradual acceptance from the international community; more than 60 countries attended China’s Summit Forum on BRI held in Beijing in May 2017.
Meanwhile if the QUAD, under the leadership of America, becomes more aggressive in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) and elsewhere, it could force Russia, China and Pakistan or even Iran to form an alliance in the maritime domain to counter QUAD’s hegemonic designs. Meanwhile, the U.S.’ withdrawal from Afghanistan and its inability to provide security to its allies in crisis has badly affected the U.S.’ credibility as a security provider worldwide. It is firmly believed that in a changed geopolitical milieu, more and more countries in Asia would opt for Chinese butter instead of American guns in the future. Therefore, American policy of dominance through military means is going to be vain in the future. Similarly, once more countries across Asia, Europe and Africa are connected through BRI – roads, rail and pipelines mega networks – India and the U.S. would have no option but to join or at least accept it. It is believed that confrontation and coercion by any power at sea would have horrendous consequences, while cooperation and coordination in maritime domain could usher an era of peace, stability and economic wellbeing in the IOR.
The writer is a retired Vice Admiral and was the Ambassador of Pakistan to Maldives.
E-mail: [email protected]
1. Online International Conference on Indo-Pacific Construct: A New Regional Order and Implications (Indo-Pacific- 2021), UGC Centre for Southeast Asian and Pacific Studies Sri Venkateswara University, Tirupati, A.P., India. https://www.cseaps.edu.in/indo-pacific-2021/Call%20for%20Papers.html
2. Mike Pompeo lashes out at China at 'Quad' meeting in Japan, October 6, 2020, BBC News. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-54431615
3. The Bab el-Mandeb Strait is a strategic route for oil and natural gas shipments, August 27, 2019 Independent Statistics and Analysis, U.S. Energy Information Administration. https://www.eia.gov/todayinenergy/detail.php?id=41073
4. Silk Road initiative connects countries on path of prosperity, Catanza, J., R. Qi, C. Jia and B. Shan, The Telegraph, July 3, 2015.
5. A Brief History of the US Navy in the Indian Ocean, Akhilesh Pillalamarri, October 14, 2015, The Diplomat. https://thediplomat.com/2015/10/a-brief-history-of-the-us-navy-in-the-indian-ocean/
6. Work resumes full steam on Maldives coastal radars, Manu Pubby, April 23, 2019, The Economics Times. https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/defence/work-resumes-full-steam-on-maldives-coastal-radars/articleshow/69000819.cms?from=mdr
8. Setting up of CSRS chain in Mauritius (2011), Indian Navy. https://www.indiannavy.nic.in/content/setting-csrs-chain-mauritius-2011
9. West of Diego Garcia, India is Building an Island Base of its Own, Samuel Bashfield, March 3, 2021, The Maritime Executive. https://www.maritime-executive.com/editorials/west-of-diego-garcia-india-is-building-an-island-base-of-its-own
10. India, Oman Renew Key Defence Pacts as New Delhi Seeks to Play Wider Role in Region, Dipanjan Roy Chaudhury, May 24, 2021, The Economic Times. https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/defence/india-oman-renew-key-defence-pacts-as-new-delhi-seeks-to-play-wider-role-in-region/articleshow/82912235.cms?from=mdr
11. The 3 foundational agreements with US and what they mean for India’s military growth, Snehesh Alex Philip, October 27, 2020, The Print. https://theprint.in/defence/the-3-foundational-agreements-with-us-and-what-they-mean-for-indias-military-growth/531795/
12. Explained: BECA, and the importance of 3 foundational pacts of India-US defence cooperation, Shubhajit Roy,
November 3, 2020, The Indian Express. https://indianexpress.com/article/explained/beca-india-us-trade-agreements-rajnath-singh-mike-pompeo-6906637/
13. Expanded Malabar Exercise to Start on November 3, The Diplomat, October 31, 2020. https://thediplomat.com/2020/10/expanded-malabar-exercise-to-start-on-november-3/
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