At the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) summit in Lusaka, Zambia, in 1970, an initiative to turn the Indian Ocean into a “zone of peace” was launched by its member states. They called upon all countries “to respect the Indian Ocean as a zone of peace from which Great Power rivalries and competition, as well as bases, be excluded.”
Although the initiative was launched in the context of the Cold War and the focus was the Indian Ocean, the idea has become even more relevant as it covers a broader horizon in the evolving circumstances when the members of the Quad (the US, Japan, Australia and India) are poised to limit and roll back the rising Chinese presence and influence pursued under its grand economic designs in the shape of Belt and Road Initiatives (BRI), which allegedly involves greater naval presence, strategies and assertion of sovereignty in the Indo-Pacific region.
Further, Beijing’s dependence on sea routes for trade and commerce is evident from the fact that the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea provide routes for the transportation of more than 75% of China’s crude oil. Therefore, sustaining China’s economic growth requires a greater naval presence for security reasons as well.
The Indo-Pacific region, which comprises the littoral countries of South Asia such as Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Maldives, small island nations of Africa such as Mauritius and Seychelles, and the littoral countries of Southeast Asia, is becoming the focus of China’s growing economic as well as strategic influence and other major powers’ efforts at limiting or rolling back such influence and enhancing their own influence.
At present, the prominent powers of Asia such as China, India and Japan, and significant powers of other continents such as the US and European countries, particularly France, and Australia are involved in strategic competition and alliance formations. Highlighting America’s perception of the threat posed by China’s influence in the Indo-Pacific, Hong Kong-based military expert Song Zhongping observes: “Washington sees a great threat from the PLA Navy, whose anti-aircraft carrier technology has become more powerful today. Only its SSN [nuclear attack submarines] technology still holds an ‘asymmetric advantage’ over the People’s Liberation Army.”
Similarly, India’s strategic pre-eminence in the Indian Ocean region, which was ensured by its geographic proximity and historical and cultural linkages, received blows from China’s relatively more nascent but powerful sway in the region.
The US decision to withdraw from the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, which was aimed at eliminating conventional and nuclear missiles with ranges from 500 to 5,500 kilometers from the US and Soviet (now Russian) arsenals, is likely to fuel Chinese speculation about America’s military designs in the Indo-Pacific. On the one hand, while China would take steps to enhance its deterrence capacities in the region, the US and other major powers now have greater leeway in breaching them. Many experts believe in such a scenario.
China might review its “no first use” nuclear-weapons policy that has been operational since its first nuclear test in 1964. Without a fresh treaty to contain the conventional and nuclear ambitions of these powers, the possibility of military confrontations will rise further. Efforts toward demilitarizing the Indo-Pacific region and promoting it as a “zone of peace” assume further significance in this context.
Beijing’s assertion of sovereignty in the South China Sea and its economic penetration into the Indo-Pacific has spurred New Delhi’s efforts to contain China’s alleged ‘String of Pearls’ strategy
Beijing’s assertion of sovereignty in the South China Sea and its economic penetration into the Indo-Pacific has spurred New Delhi’s efforts to contain China’s alleged “String of Pearls” strategy (containment strategy). The US, Japan and Australia (the other members of the Quad) began to meet frequently to discuss and pass resolutions regarding the reinvigoration of their role in maintaining a free, open and rules-based Indo-Pacific.
Beijing’s acquisition of Hambantota Port in Sri Lanka, its development of port facilities in Gwadar, Pakistan, enhancing its influence within the strategically located islands of Maldives and among the Southeast Asian states are being viewed with suspicion by the Quad members and this, in turn, has raised the possibilities of their enhanced military profile and security strategies as well.
The US Indo-Pacific commander, Admiral Phil Davidson, recently explained to the Senate Armed Services Committee how China has become the “principal threat” to the US and its allies because of the modernization of the People’s Liberation Army in the past two decades, and underlined the need for more funds to enhance Washington’s economic influence to counter China’s growing economic footprint in the region. He said: “Right now, the Indo-Pacific Command gets just a small portion of the foreign military financing, really less than 5% overall. We need to take a look at where we can better put that money in the region to help compete.”
India-China strategic competition
There has been a significant increase in the number of visits Chinese President Xi Jinping and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi have made to the littoral countries in recent years. New Delhi’s launching of the Asia-Africa Growth Corridor (in partnership with Japan) in 2017 was viewed as an alternative to China’s Belt and Road Initiative.
Prime Minister Modi’s visit to Seychelles in 2015 resulted in the signing of a 20-year pact with the nation to build an airstrip and a jetty for its navy on Assumption Island. New Delhi agreed to invest US$550 million in the construction of the base in the southern Indian Ocean. However, Seychelles President Danny Faure later informed Parliament that his government would not follow through with the project. Beijing viewed this as a strategic defeat for New Delhi.
In an effort to enhance its footprint in coastal Southeast Asia, India signed a deal with Singapore to expand its access to Changi naval base in November 2017, stressed the importance of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations’ role in ensuring stability in the Indo-Pacific region, elevated its relationship with Vietnam to that of a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership in 2016, and concluded a summit with Japan that paved the way for a military logistics pact that would provide mutual base access.
New Delhi has undertaken efforts to enhance its influence on the African coast by contributing to the development of Agaléga in Mauritius with dual-use logistical facilities and sought to enhance its role on its own coast with a focus on developing 10 priority projects, including a planned transshipment hub in Campbell Bay in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands.
However, India-China strategic competition in the region has facilitated greater intervention from the external powers in the Indian Ocean, giving rise to varied power configurations and alliances and enhanced possibilities of military confrontations. For instance, India and France were witnessed signing a “reciprocal logistics support” agreement as part of which warships of both the nations would have access to each other’s naval bases in the Indian Ocean.
The Indo-Pacific thrust in US foreign policy and a mutual desire to contain and roll back Chinese influence in the region led India and the US to sign security pacts facilitating access to each other’s designated military facilities for refueling and supplies, sensitive technology transfer and interoperability.
The Indo-Pacific thrust in US foreign policy and a mutual desire to contain and roll back Chinese influence in the region led India and the US to sign security pacts facilitating access to each other’s designated military facilities
While America’s influence in the region has been maintained by a robust naval presence from Bahrain to Singapore with Diego Garcia in the middle, La Réunion, located southwest of Mauritius, has remained the center of French naval military operations in the Indian Ocean. India has sought agreements with Australia, France and the US to gain access to bases such as Cocos Islands (Australia) and La Réunion (France).
The US Navy has 18 Ohio-class nuclear-powered submarines, with 14 capable of carrying up to 24 powerful Trident I missiles, and is developing its next-generation Columbia-class submarines, which will carry 16 of its most advanced Trident II missiles.
According to Zhao Tong, a fellow in the Carnegie Nuclear Policy Program, based at the Carnegie–Tsinghua Center for Global Policy, the US and its allies are stepping up their anti-submarine-warfare (ASW) capabilities in the South China Sea and Indian Ocean. On the other hand, after the Chinese navy’s successful flight test of the JL-3 missile in the Yellow Sea last November, the PLA Navy is reportedly looking at the new generation of strategic submarines known as the Type 096.
Meanwhile, Collin Koh, a research fellow at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, pointing to the increasing militarization of the Indo-Pacific region, notes that the US could also deploy more ASW forces to counter China’s growing fleet besides sending more nuclear attack submarines to the region.
Antony Wong Dong, a Macau-based military observer, notes how plans are afoot in Beijing to build at least four carrier battle groups by 2035 as a way to strengthen its maritime force to operate across the deep waters of open oceans and defend the country’s expanding overseas interests in view of its limited number of sea-based nuclear weapons. Further, he argues that China needs to enhance its offensive strike capacity to make up for its lag in technological advancement compared with the US, which is able to launch a pre-emptive strike.
This implies that China might develop nuclear weapons based on advanced technology in order to be able to enhance its “second strike” capability. In this context, it has been observed by some experts that China must cling to its “no first use” policy given its present inability to launch a pre-emptive strike like the US.
India must take note of the growing militarization of the Indo-Pacific region and invoke the “demilitarization and peace” ethos of the Non-Aligned Movement with an emphasis on the Indo-Pacific region.