Countering the Dragon’s push

Indo-Pacific

Gwadar port, on the Makran coast of Pakistan, is only 172 km from Chabahar port that is across the border in Iran. The two ports are being developed into maritime hubs by China and India, respectively, triggering what is being called the ‘New Great Game’ in South Asia. Gwadar is also the southern gateway to the $62 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). The CPEC and Gwadar port are being financed and built by China to link Kashgar in Xinjiang with Gwadar in Balochistan, the largest province of Pakistan.

The economic corridor is being projected to bring all-round prosperity to the region and is part of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s “dream of national rejuvenation.” In China’s quest to dominate Asia and rival the United States as a co-equal power, Gwadar is an important foothold that is part of its ‘String of Pearls’ strategy for the Indo-Pacific. Other “pearls” in South Asia include Myanmar’s Kyaukpyu port and Hambantota in Sri Lanka. Maldives has also negotiated an agreement with China for the long-term lease of a port. Further afield, China is engaged in signing agreements with countries on the east coast of Africa to develop naval bases.

China and Pakistan view the development of Gwadar port as a win-win situation. The CPEC is part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) that seeks to extend China’s strategic outreach deep into the Indo-Pacific region to counter US influence. It is also designed to give a fillip to China’s slowing economy by generating large-scale construction activity, building an alternative route for oil and gas supplies and creating new markets for China’s products.

Notably, China is simultaneously engaged in building its first overseas military base in Djibouti. China’s military assertiveness in reclaiming land and building air strips and ancillary support facilities on some of the disputed Spratly and Paracel islands in the South China Sea, in blatant violation of the Law of the Sea Treaty and other international norms, has led to instability and fuelled the possibility of future conflict in Southeast Asia.

Chinese maritime strategy draws heavily from the American naval strategist Alfred Mahan’s theory of sea dominance. The PLA Navy is expanding rapidly and clearly aims to dominate the Indo-Pacific. If Gwadar port is converted into a naval base sometime in the future, it will enable the PLA Navy to maintain a permanent presence in the Arabian Sea and the Gulf of Oman. In the eventuality of India having to fight a two-front war — undoubtedly a low-probability scenario — the Indian Navy would have to contend with a formidable maritime force.

India’s energy supplies from the Gulf and maritime trade will become highly vulnerable to interception. However, the challenge posed by China is unlikely to go uncontested. In November 2017, senior officials of Australia, India, Japan and the United States, meeting on the side-lines of the East Asia Summit in the Philippines, agreed that a “free, open, prosperous and inclusive Indo-Pacific region serves the long-term interests of all countries in the region and of the world at large.”

This development led to speculation that the idea of a Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (also called the Quad) is being revived after a hiatus of 10 years. The Quad’s discussions for cooperative security are likely to be undertaken in concert with other strategic partners in the Indo-Pacific, such as Singapore and South Korea. It is expected that this will eventually lead to strategic realignment for peace and stability in the
Indo-Pacific.

Admiral Arun Prakash, former Indian naval chief, wrote recently, “India’s recent agreement with Oman providing access for ‘military use and logistical support’ in the new Port of Duqm, has raised hopes that India is, belatedly, strengthening its maritime posture in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR). There have been other significant developments, too; like President Ram Nath Kovind’s visit to Djibouti and its impending recognition by India; the conclusion of an Indo-Seychelles agreement for creation of air and naval facilities on Assumption Island; and the agreement with the UAE for joint naval exercises.” India is negotiating with Djibouti for port facilities, including logistics replenishment, and for the Agalega Islands with Mauritius for use by the Indian Navy.

The Joint Strategic Vision of India-France Cooperation in the Indian Ocean Region, endorsed by India and France in March 2018, along with a reciprocal logistics support agreement, will enable the two countries to cooperate for peace and stability in the region. In fact, the India-France strategic partnership has been described in an editorial as “transcending the traditional alliance frameworks and new geopolitical fault-lines.” All of these initiatives will empower India to shoulder greater responsibility as a contributor to security in the western Indo-Pacific.

The PLA Navy will pose a formidable challenge in the years ahead as it acquires blue-water capability and has naval bases and port facilities to fall back on. A concerted effort needs to be made to meet the emerging challenge. Though it will be a gradual and long-drawn process, a cooperative security framework will eventually emerge as a result of the discussions now being initiated by the leaders of the Quad for peace and stability and the security of the global commons.

Cooperative security does not necessarily require a formal military alliance. Cooperative security in the maritime sphere entails the sharing of intelligence; joint counter-terrorism and counter-proliferation efforts; upholding the rules and norms governing maritime transit and overflights; providing help to the littoral states to meet their security needs; helping to counter piracy, arms smuggling and narcotics trafficking; and, undertaking joint humanitarian and disaster relief operations in the region.

Strategic partners across the Indo-Pacific must act in concert to draw up a framework for cooperative security, including joint intelligence sharing, threat assessment and contingency planning. If the Chinese are willing to reduce their present bellicosity and join such an effort in a meaningful manner, they should be welcomed.

(The writer is Distinguished Fellow, Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi)

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