Most commentators look at the ‘Indo-Pacific’ region, geographically speaking, in the sense in which the US commentators do, namely, the area of responsibility of the US Pacific Command (PACOM). Whilst the US use of this expression also reflects a desire to involve India in the maintenance of its strategic stability, it also makes it overly China-centric. Given the growing role and influence of India in international affairs, the developments in this area are of considerable importance to India’s national interests. Yet, such understanding of this expression excludes the western Indian Ocean region which lies outside the PACOM’s responsibility but where India’s strategic interests and challenges are no less vital.
To understand the strategic challenges to India, we could look at five sub- regions of the ‘Indo-Pacific’ region. The western Indian Ocean region includes, inter-alia, the vital Straits of Bab El Mendeb and of Hormuz. The eastern Indian Ocean includes the Bay of Bengal. Further to the east, South China Sea is an important sub- region in itself. The East China Sea region is also very much a region of international concern, including India’s. The approaches to the East China Sea and the South China Sea include the Western Pacific region right up to Guam which is a major US naval and Air Force Base.
Each of these sub-regions has its own dynamics and regional governance mechanisms some of which may be overlapping but not inter-locked. These have their own power relationships among the ‘local’ and ‘resident’ powers. There are some enduring challenges, affecting in varying but significant degrees, all of them which also drive the sub- regional geopolitics. These include climate change, oceanic degradation, jihadist terrorism, transnational crime, piracy, human trafficking and instability in the littoral regions and beyond caused by state or sub- regional fragility. These are pressing challenges, with shortening time horizons, if not handled in a timely and a collaborative, multinational basis.
The security scenarios in the sub- regions are overlaid by an intensifying and increasingly volatile regional and global power contestation resulting in accumulation of hard power capabilities. These are evident in accelerated military buildup, especially naval including submarine platforms, missiles and cyber capability. Control over the oceanic choke points is very much a part of many countries’ grand strategy. This volatility is being contributed to by several strategic developments.
China’s assertive behaviour, in recent times, is one such factor. It is manifest in the almost daily confrontations between Japan and China in the East China Sea over the Senkaku dispute as also the rapid dual-use infrastructure construction in the South China Sea which can, potentially, alter the regional balance of power in China’s favour. Its ‘nine-dash-line’ claim enclosing, practically, the entire South China Sea and exaggerated maritime claims around the land features occupied by it are also leading to frequent clashes with other littoral countries and confrontations with the US Navy. Its ambitious ‘One-Belt-One-Road’ (OBOR) and ‘Maritime Silk Route’ (MSR) projects, coupled with its power projection capabilities, can also have a significant strategic impact. These initiatives are the result of a highly nationalistic platform of the current Chinese President, Xi Jinping, who is aiming to consolidate his political authority at the forthcoming 19th Chinese Congress Party Congress.
There is a resurgence of nationalism in Japan under the current Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, who is also facing election this month. As instances of almost daily confrontations with the Chinese Coast Guard occur, Japan is modernising its defence forces as well as modifying its pacifist constitution. In the current Korean peninsular crisis, Japan is taking a harder position since it is already in the range of North Korean missiles; twice in recent weeks, North Korean missiles have flown over its territory causing widespread public alarm. Its plans to deploy latest ballistic missile defence systems could lead to tensions with China and Russia.
Although the South Korean leadership prefers a conciliatory approach towards North Korea, unlike US and Japan, it is strengthening its defence capabilities due to the tense stand-off with North Korea. It has deployed the anti-missile batteries (THAAD) causing its relations with China to deteriorate.
The ASEAN-centric strategic framework for south-east Asia is not very firm because of the organisational weaknesses and the divisions amongst the member countries in their approach towards China. The two sides are still to initiate negotiations, despite agreement to do so, about a Code of Conduct for the South China Sea. The domestic difficulties in the various countries also have a negative impact on the stability and organisational cohesion: the unfinished military operations in the Philippines city of Marawi and the Rohingya crisis in Myanmar exemplify these domestic difficulties.
The current crisis in the Korean peninsula, having ramifications for the entire region and the world at large, is peaking under the new US administration. The North Korean missile and nuclear programme has accelerated with its ‘hydrogen’ bomb test (3 September) and its second intermediate range missile test (15 September) capable of hitting US territory. US threats to use military force have raised tensions in the region but also in relations between US and China and US and Russia. Because of mixed signals from the US administration, uncertainty is growing and some observers are fearing an accidental military flareup, possibly involving nuclear weapons.
In the Indian Ocean region, the tensions are, by large, much lower in comparison to the adjacent waters of the South China Sea and the Mediterranean; the possibility of the tensions from the neighbouring waters spilling over into the Indian Ocean means that the window of opportunity may not last for too long. There is sensitivity of countries about protecting the Sea Lines of Communication (SLOCs). The great power interest is growing as also China’s as evident in various OBOR and MSN projects relating to ports development and SEZs. India aspires to cast itself in the role of the ‘net security provider’ in the Indian Ocean region but it requires considerable capacity building, expanding the area of maritime domain awareness and robust bilateral and multilateral cooperative activities involving its Navy and the Coast Guard; it also needs to create a larger institutional framework for regional economic integration and tapping the potential of ‘blue economy’ to fend off the challenges of climate change, state fragility et cetera. Apart from the possible ‘disruptive entry’ of the Chinese navy in the Indian Ocean, the tensions in the Middle East are growing too with several hotspots as well as the rapidly deteriorating relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran. The tensions are around the Persian Gulf as well as the Bab El Mendeb where several countries have set up naval bases on the East African coastal countries, especially Djibouti where China has recently opened its ‘logistics base’. Pakistan remains a perennial issue and a source of regional instability, including in its sea-based dimension.
India has high stakes in all of these sub- regions. Through careful cultivation of relationships, including naval, it is trying to counter the negative trends; it feels that, whilst engaging China, its proximity to US, Japan, ASEAN and Australia should help in this objective. The opportunity in the Indian Ocean region has been clearly recognised in Prime Minister’s SAGAR (‘Security and Growth for All in the Region’) speech in Mauritius on 12 March, 2015. Similarly, there is an extensive Indian outreach towards the countries of the Middle East, the East African coastline, the Indian Ocean islands and other neighbouring countries to develop strong economic and cultural cooperation, in addition to strengthening political ties, so that the Indian Ocean region can develop in a stable fashion and, conceivably, emanate positive influences for the tense neighbouring waters about various possibilities for raising comfort levels between adversarial countries.Robust ‘habits’ of cooperation to address common threats, such as climate change or piracy or terrorism, are the best antidote to distrust between countries.