A US Navy soldier guides a helicopter on the Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS John S McCain during the November 2020 Malabar joint exercises in the Indian Ocean. Image: US Defense Department

The guided-missile destroyer USS John Paul Jones sailing past the Lakshadweep Islands off the coast of Kerala last Wednesday has thrown India’s Sinophobes into confusion.

One leading daily noted it as a “rare falling out between the two partners in the Quad grouping.” An anti-China analyst tweeted that it was just a “botched PR exercise” on the part of the Americans. The Indian Ministry of External Affairs took a legalistic perspective as if it were answering a writ petition in the Delhi High Court.

But reflect seriously. Yes, this is a rare fracas within the cozy Quad family. Yet the Quad is a toddler. What can happen when US President Joe Biden grooms it into a boisterous adolescent?

Make no mistake, what happened is the military equivalent of the great American diplomat-scholar George Kennan’s written comment about the oil reserves in the Persian Gulf. They were “our resources,” he wrote, integral to America’s prosperity, and therefore the US should take control of them. (Which it did, of course.) 

The seabeds of the South China Sea and Indian Ocean are sitting on an unimaginable wealth of mineral resources – potentially, the last frontier. The John Paul Jones acted like a dog marking a lamppost. The specter of an acute future big-power scramble – not only with China or Russia but also involving European rivals – haunts Washington. With all their tragic colonial history, Indians tend to forget. 

Thus, after 65 years, Britain is returning to “east of Suez.” The 65,000-ton HMS Queen Elizabeth, Britain’s newest aircraft carrier, is sailing to the Indian Ocean in its inaugural deployment.

The grandiloquent title of the impressive 114-page document released last month by British Prime Minister Boris Johnson says it all: Global Britain in a Competitive Age: The Integrated Review of Security, Defense, Development and Foreign Policy

Starting on page 66 under the subtitle “The Indo-Pacific Tilt” the document says, rather explicitly:

“Indo-Pacific is the world’s growth engine: home to half the world’s people; 40% of global GDP; some of the fastest-growing economies; at the forefront of new global trade arrangements; leading and adopting digital and technological innovation and standards; investing strongly in renewables and green tech; and vital to our goals for investment and resilient supply chains.

“The Indo-Pacific already accounts for 17.5% of UK global trade and 10% of inward FDI and we will work to build this further, including through new trade agreements, dialogues and deeper partnerships in science, technology and data.” 

It concludes that Britain “will also place a greater emphasis than before on the Indo-Pacific, reflecting its importance to many of the most pressing global challenges in the coming decade, such as maritime security and competition linked to laws, rules and norms.” 

The Malabar joint exercises with US, Indian and Japanese vessels in 2018. Image: Handout/Agencies

The month of April will see French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian arriving in India to pursue political dialogue. Also, importantly, the 42,500-ton Charles de Gaulle aircraft carrier is leading a strike force to exercise with INS Vikramaditya in two phases in the Arabian Sea and Indian Ocean. 

Without seeing this big picture, India will keep counting the trees for the forest.

There are four things about the US Navy 7th Fleet statement on Friday that arrest attention. One, it asserts in the very first sentence that this freedom of navigation operation (FONOP) took place “inside India’s exclusive economic zone, without requesting India’s prior consent.” 

Two, the statement rubs it in: “India requires prior consent for military exercises or maneuvers in its exclusive economic zone or continental shelf, a claim inconsistent with international law. This freedom of navigation operation (FONOP) upheld the rights, freedoms, and lawful uses of the sea recognized in international law by challenging India’s excessive maritime claims.” 

Now, don’t the Indians know this? Of course they do. But the US must proclaim to the entire Indian Ocean region (IOR) including Pakistan – and to European capitals alike – that India’s vaulting ambitions will not go unchecked.

Three, the US Navy statement flags that FONOPs “demonstrate that the United States will fly, sail and operate wherever international law allows.” Now, interestingly, this is Mike Pompeo’s standard anti-China language. 

Plainly put, this is not a freak – “rare” – event. Besides, it’s the Arabian Sea now, but it could be the Bay of Bengal tomorrow; it’s a warship sailing by today, but tomorrow it could be the U2 Dragon Lady lurking in the Indian skies at 20,000 meters asserting the US prerogative to operate in India’s exclusive economic zone.

Four, the statement was issued after the Indians failed to take seriously that FONOPs are “routine and regular … as we have done in the past.” Presumably, New Delhi hushed up such previous incidents. But the FONOP missions “are not about one country, nor are they about making political statements.”

Simply put, the US regards India’s EEZ as part of “global commons” where it will exercise its (perceived) prerogative to act in its supreme national interests, as it deems fit. The “defining partnership of the 21st century” with India will not inhibit Washington from pursuit of American interests.  

The bottom line is that in the Indian Ocean region, India should not punch above its weight.

It may not be a coincidence that Washington administered this firm stricture within earshot of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s highly publicized High Level Virtual Event on Thursday with Wavel Ramkalawan, prime minister of Seychelles, for “the joint e-inauguration of several development assistance projects funded by India in Seychelles and the handing over of a fast patrol vessel supplied by India for the use of the Seychelles Coast Guard.” 

An aerial view of America’s leased Diego Garcia military base in the Indian Ocean. Photo: Facebook

Modi dramatically called Ramkalawan a “son of India.” alluding to the ex-pastor’s Bihari family lineage. But Washington regards Ramkalawan as the doggedly nationalistic leader of an Indian Ocean island nation that is a difficult neighbor, separated by a mere 1,894 kilometers of blue waters from Diego Garcia.

The establishment of a top-secret military asset by India in Seychelles’ Assumption Island is bad enough, but the Modi government’s reported plan of setting up a military base in that island nation is an entirely different proposition. (For all one knows, the media leak bears the stamp of US intelligence.)   

Unsurprisingly, New Delhi gave a supine response to the Pentagon warning – straight out of Chanakya’s rulebook. However, now that the US warships have disappeared over the horizon, let us sit upon the ground and reflect sadly where all the heady Quad (“Asian NATO”) misadventure is taking India. 

The heart of the matter is that the ruling elites’ seething sense of rivalry over China’s rise is engendering a warped Indian mindset. Chinese commentators have been warning the Indian establishment repeatedly that its big-power aspirations in the Indian Ocean region are unrealistic.

A Chinese Navy escort fleet conducts a two-ship alongside replenishment in the eastern waters of the Indian Ocean in a file photo. Photo: Twitter

They were speaking from experience. In fact, contrary to the Indian narrative that Quad membership can be leveraged to extract concessions from China, Beijing thinks the Quad is more India’s and Russia’s geopolitical headache, but that it will intrinsically have no future, given internal contradictions

Chinese scholars have consistently held the view that although the mainstream of US-Indian cooperation nowadays has been cooperation instead of competition, “in the specific case of the Indian Ocean, their respective strategic views on the regional power structure are deeply rooted and these will become more and more obvious in the case of the power shift” – to quote from the prominent Chinese scholar Lou Chunhao, deputy director of the Institute of South Asian Studies at the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations headquartered in Beijing. 

In a 2012 essay titled “US-India-China Relations in the Indian Ocean: A Chinese Perspective,” Lou added, “Although the China factor will always be there to promote US-India cooperation, the ‘democratic peace theory’ will give way to realistic politics, and the differing interests of the US and India in the IOR will be difficult to reconcile.”

The chickens are coming home to roost.

This article was produced in partnership by Indian Punchline and Globetrotter, which provided it to Asia Times.

M K Bhadrakumar is a former Indian diplomat.