When US and Indian naval forces conducted joint Indian Ocean naval exercises in late July, the drills undoubtedly aimed to send a pointed message to China.  

The USS Nimitz strike carrier and Indian warships staged the drills around the Andaman and Nicobar Islands near the Malacca Strait, a strategic passage the US Navy could conceivably block in any sea conflict with China.

Washington and Delhi’s drills will set the stage for the larger Malabar exercise, a multilateral naval maneuver set for later this year that will include the US, India, Japan and likely Australia in a coalescing coaltion of supposedly like-minded powers known as the “Quad.”

But these maneuvers and drills are not happening in a strategic vacuum as China makes its own countermoves against what Beijing sees as a gathering hostile alliance that seeks to block its rightful rise as a regional and global leader.

But contradictions, fissures and historical mistrust within the China-focused Quad, a grouping that by one reading seeks to encircle China with an “arc of democracies”, have been and will likely continue to be exploited by China in its traditional divide and rule fashion.

Seven months after rising to power, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi signed a “US-India Joint Strategic Vision for the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean Region.” The January 2015 agreement promotes “freedom of navigation and overflight throughout the region, especially in the South China Sea.”

Although the US and India have conducted bilateral naval exercises since 1992, the agreement meant India was for the first time recognized by the US as a “Major Defense Partner.” Soon after, India sent a flotilla of warships to join a US-Japan task force in the South China Sea.

US President Donald Trump, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi attend a meeting during the G20 Osaka Summit in Osaka on June 28, 2019. Photo: AFP/Carl Court /Pool

The Malabar exercises, sometimes staged in Indian waters, have undoubtedly brought India closer militarily with the US and Japan. Yet it still seems unlikely that this naval muscle-flexing would readily translate into a formidable joint force if the new Cold War pitting the US versus China were to turn hot at sea.

There are several reasons why the alliance is still more form than strategic substance. While US officials may have made statements condemning China’s incursions in Ladakh in mid-June – clashes that killed 20 Indian soldiers and sparked an escalation of border tensions – Washington’s reasons for confronting China do not necessarily mesh with India’s core interests.

By stirring trouble in the Himalayas, China might have thought that India would be paying more attention to land-based operations than naval maneuvers and cooperation with the US in the Indian Ocean.

India’s Chief of Defense Staff General Bipin Rawat told The Times of India on May 9 that the military’s emphasis should be on defending national land borders and was critical of plans to build a third aircraft carrier in addition to two bought from Russia in 2004 that were refurbished in Indian shipyards.

He said the Indian military should “defend and fight only along our borders” and “dominate the Indian Ocean region” while suggesting that submarines would be more useful for that purpose than aircraft carriers.

But if China’s aim is to divert India’s attention from the Indian Ocean to remote Himalayan highlands, it might have miscalculated. The possibility of a destabilizing and lasting armed confrontation in the Himalayas cannot be ruled out, as the Indian army sends reinforcements to areas along the Line of Actual Control that separates India from China.

Analysts have noted that while the US may be interested in selling more weapons to India, it will not necessarily come to its rescue in the event of an armed conflict with China. Such skepticism of America’s intentions and interests runs deep in India’s defense establishment.

Nor is India willing to give up its independence when it comes to strategic allies. At the same time, as New Delhi wants to strengthen its relationship with Washington, its old Cold War-era alliance with Russia is alive and well.

In 2018, New Delhi signed a $5.43 billion deal with Moscow for the acquisition of S-400 missile systems, which prompted the US to warn that it might have to impose sanctions on India as part of a wider policy against Russian arms sales.

The Russian-made S-400 missile system in a file photo. Image: Twitter

On February 5 this year, the state-run RIA Novosti news agency quoted a Russian government official as saying that the state-of-the-art weapons platform with a maximum range of 400 kilometers and considered one of the world’s best defense systems will be delivered by the end of 2021.

Russia remains India’s main weapons supplier. Since 2000, well after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia has sold altogether about $35 billion worth of weapons, or more than two-thirds of India’s total arms procurement during that period of $51 billion.

At the same time, the US is gaining ground. Russia accounted for 58% of India’s arms imports in 2014-2018, a fall from the 76% it shipped from 2009-2013, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI). In the most recent deal in July, after the clash with China, Modi’s government opted to buy 33 new warplanes from Russia at a cost of $2.4 billion. 

As India arms up, there has been no breakthrough in talks between Indian and Chinese officials, with rival soldiers still engaged in an eyeball-to-eyeball high mountain stand-off.

“The Chinese have not shown any signs of de-escalation as they continue to maintain their heavy troop deployment of almost 40,000 troops supported by heavy weaponry kike air defense systems, armored personnel carriers and long-range artillery in front and depth areas,” according to an Indian intelligence report quoted by the Bengaluru-based think-tank Takshashila Institution. “The People’s Liberation Army is not going anywhere soon,” it said.

And certainly not as long as India and the US carry out joint naval exercises in the Indian Ocean.

The Chinese have identified their adversaries and they are in a new strategic position to project power and instill strategic fear. And Beijing also likely knows that its rivals won’t easily or readily mount a united front against it.

The most likely scenario is that China will deploy a strategic mix of military pressure and economic incentives to divide the ranks of its perceived foes. In the Indian Ocean region, that is seen in China’s “string of pearls” strategy where it has built a network of military and commercial facilities and relationships along its sea lines of communication. 

Image: Facebook

That strategy has been especially evident in China’s until now somewhat successful attempts to counter the Quadrilateral Security Dialog, the informal strategic forum gathering the US, Japan, India and Australia.

Initially initiated by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in 2007, it fell apart soon thereafter when Australia withdrew a year later due to Canberra’s concerns at the time the Quad might upset relations with China.

In Japan, Yasuo Fukuda had succeeded Abe in late 2007 and had similar misgivings about pursuing a “hawkish” policy against China. In the end, even India was eager to improve, not worsen, relations with China. 

The Quad thus remained dormant and was not revived until 2017 when four state leaders — all of them considered China hawks— met on the sidelines of the 2017 Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit in Manila: America’s Donald Trump, India’s Modi, Abe who had returned as prime minister of Japan, and Australia’s Malcolm Turnbull.

In March this year, Quad officials teleconferenced to discuss the Covid-19 pandemic and were joined for the first time by officials from New Zealand, South Korea and Vietnam. Given rising regional tensions, it is clear that the teleconference was not just about health issues.

In a July 23 speech, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo lashed out at the “Chinese Communist Party’s designs for hegemony” while also declaring China’s wide-reaching claims in the South China Sea as “illegal.”

But how far the US will go to counter China remains an open question, one that looms ever larger as Trump trails rival candidate Joe Biden in opinion polls ahead of presidential elections in November.

India’s apprehension about America’s trustworthiness as an ally may thus be justified. But even if the “new” configured Quad is as wobbly as the “old”, the new Cold War is a strategic reality that all four of its members must adapt to accordingly.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi sharing a moment in a file photo. Image: Twitter

The Quad’s most striking outcome so far has arguably been the fledgling alliance between India and Japan, which is emerging as more than a broader pact involving countries with disparate interests and constantly changing patterns in domestic power politics.

India and Japan — and Japan’s new ally Taiwan — are also democracies where governments and policies come and go, but their core geopolitical interests are closely aligned.

For instance, Japan’s interest is to keep sea lanes through the Indian Ocean that serve as its vital trade routes open and free. India has likewise sought to maintain a high degree of influence in the maritime area for its overall national defense.

China’s interests in the same ocean are motivated by its desire to protect its own trade routes to and from Africa, Europe and the Middle East. But China’s incursions with warships and submarines into a region where it has never been before explains why it is on a collision course with India and Japan.

So far, China has used anti-piracy deployments to justify expanding its naval presence in the Indian Ocean, one it made more permanent by establishing its first military base abroad in Djibouti in the Horn of Africa in 2017.

But even China’s own 2015 Defense White Paper went further than that: “The traditional mentality that land overweighs sea must be abandoned and great importance has to be attached to managing the seas and oceans and protecting maritime rights and interests…[China will] participate in international maritime cooperation, so as to provide strategic support for building itself into a maritime power.”

India and China’s dispute in the Himalayas is deeply entrenched and could even lead to more bloody confrontations, but it is the Indian Ocean — with or without American participation — that is fast becoming the real front line in the new Cold War.

Under Modi and Abe, defense cooperation between India and Japan has grown as they share a common strategic adversary in China.

Since Modi’s visit to Japan in October 2018, the two sides have discussed a bilateral defense logistics pact. It was supposed to be signed during Abe’s planned visit to India in December 2019, which was postponed due to unrest in India’s northeastern state of Assam.

The Covid-19 crisis has further delayed the visit, but when it does take place, the signed agreement will allow for the Japanese Self Defense Forces and Indian military to share food, ammunition and other items.

Aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN 71) and Japanese Maritime Self-defense Force Akizuki-class destroyer JS Fuyuzuki (DD-118)(L) transit alongside the Indian Deepak-class fleet tanker INS Shakti (A 57)(C) during a replenishment-at-sea exercise as a part of Exercise Malabar 2015. Malabar is a continuing series of complex, high-end war fighting exercises conducted to advance multi-national maritime relationships and mutual security.  AFP PHOTO / HANDOUT  / US NAVY / MCS CHAD M. TRUDEAU           == RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE / MANDATORY CREDIT: "AFP PHOTO / HANDOUT / US NAVY / MCS CHAD M. TRUDEAU  "/ NO MARKETING / NO ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS / DISTRIBUTED AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS == / AFP PHOTO / US NAVY / MCS CHAD M. TRUDEAU
Aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt and Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force Akizuki-class destroyer JS Fuyuzuki transit alongside the Indian Deepak-class fleet tanker INS Shakti (C) during a replenishment-at-sea exercise as a part of Exercise Malabar 2015. Photo: AFP

According to security sources, it will also allow the two sidess access to each other’s bases which, in practical terms, would mean that Japanese naval vessels will be able to use Indian naval bases on the strategically located Andaman and Nicobar Islands in the Bay of Bengal to refuel and for other services. India’s naval vessels will also gain access to Japanese facilities for maintenance.

As early as 2001, India established the Andaman and Nicobar Command, its first and only tri-service command, to safeguard India’s strategic interests in the waters east of its mainland and, more precisely, to keep a watchful eye on China’s activities in the same maritime region.

Headquartered in Port Blair, the capital of the union territory of the Andamans and Nicobars, it coordinates the activities of the navy, army and air force as well as coast guards in the eastern Indian Ocean. That is also where Japanese ships are likely to dock once the agreement has been concluded.

Military analysts contend the Japan pact will be more important to India than the 2015 agreement with the US. Apart from the strategically important facilities on those islands, India’s main naval bases are situated along its east and west coasts. There are also stations on Lakshadweep, a chain of islands north of Maldives.

It’s not only China that has a base in Djibouti. In 2011, the Japanese navy established a base there as well, ostensibly to take part in anti-piracy operations and rescue missions. But that is a cover as thin as China’s.

Despite a decline in piracy off the Somalian coast, Japan plans to expand its original 15-hectare plot near Djibouti’s international airport. News reports said the aim is to give Japan more of a say in international security and peacekeeping operations in the region while also serving as a check on China.  

It’s still unclear what Quad and other allied nations will do next to check China’s designs for the Indian Ocean region. It seems clear Japan and India intend to cooperate more in the Indian Ocean. The US and Australia may serve as secondary allies but will nevertheless be important players if the grand scheme to contain China will have any chance to succeed.

The 16th installment of the China navy escort fleet conducts a two-ship alongside replenishment in the eastern waters of the Indian Ocean in a file photo. Photo: Twitter

So how will China respond to these coalescing forces?

There will likely be more shows of force in the Himalayas to keep India off-balance and increased Chinese naval activities in the Indian Ocean. China is also likely to continue building, upgrading and investing it ports at Gwadar in Pakistan, Hambantota in Sri Lanka and Kyaukphyu in Myanmar.

While those ports are not naval facilities and are designed explicitly for trade, they could in case the Cold War turns hot serve as logistics bases for Chinese ships. Apart from the Djibouti base, China now has two aircraft carriers with a third in early construction and a fourth planned for the mid-2020s.

While the new Cold War is already heating up and being closely watched on remote mountain ridges in the Himalayas and in the South China Sea, the wider and potentially more volatile theater is likely to be in the Indian Ocean. And the maritime battle lines are now fast being drawn.