Towards a Free and Open Indo-Pacific – Challenges and Pitfalls

Taken at face value, the term ‘Asia-Pacific’ is supposed to refer to those Asian countries which are in proximity to the Western Pacific Ocean. Seeing the Soviet Union on the verge of breaking up and visualising the emergence of new alliances, the Australian Prime Minister took the lead in calling for a meeting of some countries in the Asia Pacific region. The Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum that came into being through consultations held its first ministerial meeting in November 1989. The meeting brought together Australia, New Zealand, US, Canada, Japan, South Korea and the six ASEAN countries, all western allies. Other countries like Russia, Mexico, Peru and Chile also subsequently joined APEC. There is thus no consensus as to the precise demarcation of the Asia Pacific region, though Afghanistan is generally taken to be its western-most extremity.

A more recent term, the Indo-Pacific, which can broadly be considered as Asia Pacific’s maritime equivalent, helps define the region better. Australia was again one of the first nations to discuss the idea of Indo-Pacific through its defence white papers. The Trump Administration, since its early days, preferred the use of the term ‘Indo-Pacific’ in its official documents in lieu of ‘Asia-Pacific’ for reasons not hard to discern. It formalised the arrangement on 30 May 2018 by renaming the US Pacific Command as Indo-Pacific Command. At the Change of Command ceremony for the newly-instituted Command, US Defence Secretary clarified that the renaming had been done ‘in recognition of the increasing connectivity of the Indian and Pacific oceans’.

Unlike the conceptual terms ‘Asia Pacific’ and ‘Indo-Pacific’, whose boundaries are subject to a fair amount of variation depending on each state’s individual perceptions, the Indo-Pacific Command is more definitive in its construct. It has to be, being a Combatant Command. It stretches from the west coast of the United States to India towards the west, and from the Arctic in the north due south to the Antarctic, incorporating 52% of the earth’s total surface. It is thus the largest of the US unified combatant commands.

The Indo-Pacific region by contrast has been conjured by the joining together of two of the world’s largest oceans, their main connectivity being through the Malacca Strait, perhaps the busiest of the world’s trading waterways. Nurtured by the phenomenon called globalisation, as well as the interconnectedness it has spawned, the Indo-Pacific has emerged as virtually the centre of the globe in terms of politics, trade and economics. The fact that it contains the world’s most populous nations, the world’s most dynamic economies, the world’s most voracious gas guzzlers, as well as a huge stretch of the global maritime commons, has helped showcase its importance as an entity.

There can be no doubt that all peripheral countries have a stake in the Indo-Pacific region’s collective stability, as their own individual prosperity is also associated with the free flow of trade through it. The Indo-Pacific strategy of the United States, a natural successor to the Asia Pacific rebalance, calls for a free and open Indo-Pacific. China, which is comparatively far more dependent on the region’s vital waterways for its trade needs, is a constant advocate of harmony in the Indian and Pacific oceans. The Indian Prime Minister has named his country’s strategic vision SAGAR, Security and growth for all in the Region. The Japanese Prime Minister Abe’s vision about the ‘confluence of the two seas’, as he puts it, incorporates the promotion of infrastructure, much like China, from the east of Asia all the way to Africa.

Now with such a perfect alignment of views between the principal actors, what possible challenges can the region present? To understand the undercurrents in play, one has to scratch the surface. Delving into the past may perhaps help to best explain the region’s current dynamics.

The Indian Ocean had since millenials acted as a magnet for widespread trade till the Arab lead in trading and marining was whittled down in 1498 by the entry into  Calicut of the Portuguese adventurer, Vasco de Gama, after rounding the Cape of Good Hope. This sparked off the era of colonialism, four centuries of which wreaked havoc on the region’s economics and politics.

With the Portuguese having seized control of the Indian Ocean’s strategic choke points, Jorge Alvares sailed due north from Melaka to reach Guangzhou in China. The Portuguese eventually managed to establish Macau, the first European settlement in the Far East, as a commercial hub, more or less as they had zoomed in on Goa in the Indian peninsula. The Europeans may have discovered the Malacca Strait route in the 16th century, yet littoral states of the South China Sea had, for the past twenty centuries, been part of an extensive trading network encompassing the Bay of Bengal, East Africa and even the Mediterranean. In fact, the six expeditions of  Zheng He, a Muslim admiral of Ming Dynasty China, into the Indian Ocean from 1404 to 1433, in some of the largest ships then known, were intended to exhibit China’s might and resolve to protect its trade.

Like the Indian Ocean littorals, countries and islands in the Pacific too were colonised. By the time the First World War broke out, however, Japan controlled most of the western Pacific, while the US held Guam and Philippines, which it had wrested from Spain in 1898.

Just as the Indian Ocean was considered a British lake at the commencement of the Second World War, the Pacific came to be similarly dominated by the United States by the end of the war. After taking over or creating ports ranging from Aden and Cape Town in the west to Hong Kong and Sydney in the east, Britain had become so powerful in the Indian Ocean that it needed just a nominal force there to assert its control. This can be gauged from the fact that at the height of British imperialism in 1914, the Royal Navy had 39 commissioned ships in the Atlantic and 43 in the Pacific, but needed only 12 in the Indian Ocean.  As its star was waning and Britain was divesting its possessions east of Suez, India started considering itself as the obvious inheritor of its mantle. But Britain had other ideas; with an eye on the Soviet  threat, it surreptitiously expropriated a large portion of the western Indian Ocean, of which the Chagos peninsula, including the Atoll of Diego Garcia, was a part. It then leased it to the United States the following year, with Diego Garcia being turned into the largest military base in the region. Britain also handed over to the US its naval base in Bahrain, which currently serves as the Headquarters of the US 5th Fleet. The US also has a string of bases in the Pacific, from Hawaii to Okinawa. As it draws down in Okinawa, it is strengthening its facilities in Guam. While building new facilities in Palau, it is also planning to revive and refurbish a Second World War era naval base in Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island.

The US remained the predominant naval power in both the Pacific and Indian Oceans throughout the Cold War, and became even more formidable after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The breakup of the USSR, coupled with India’s turn towards capitalism, created a fresh opportunity for the US to cultivate a regional ally capable of serving as a counterfoil to China. India adopted a cautious stance initially as it was not only suspicious of America’s traditionally close relations with its nemesis Pakistan, but was also fearful of jeopardising its own fraternal ties with Russia, on which it had been till then completely dependent for its military hardware.

The Indo-US naval relationship started blossoming from the first multilateral Malabar naval exercise held in 1993. The two countries went on to sign the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA) in 2002 to ensure that the information shared by the Pentagon with India is adequately safeguarded. After a lull of nearly 14 years, the two countries went on to sign the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA), this being the first foundation agreement. It was meant to facilitate the provision of logistical support between their respective militaries on a reimbursable basis to make joint operations more efficient. This was followed up in 2018 with COMCASA or Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement, to enable the US to supply critical and encrypted defence technologies without fear of compromise. This agreement allows India access to US intelligence data, including real time imagery, enabling interoperability on highly secure systems. The fourth agreement, BECA, or Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement for geospatial collaboration was hurriedly signed just a week before the US presidential election of  2020. This allows the two countries to share advanced satellite and topographic data for long range navigation and missile targeting.

From Pakistan’s perspective, this is obviously bad news. Having a large unfriendly neighbour was bad enough;  now having that neighbour team up with the biggest military in the world to obtain highly sensitive targeting data through secure data links is a disaster.

On its part, the US has sought to dampen the Indian fixation on Pakistan and reset its focus towards their principal mutual adversary, China. Through these agreements, plus granting India the status of a major defence partner, the US is attempting to kill three birds with one stone: wean India away from its near total reliance on Russia for its military hardware, replace Russia as India’s principal arms supplier, and bolster India’s credentials as a counterweight to China, both in the Indian Ocean as well in the Western Pacific, through the so-called Quad arrangement. Using the interoperability card, the US has transferred high-end defence equipment like the P8-I Poseidon Maritime Patrol Aircraft, Sea Guardian Armed drones, secure data links and communication equipment, bringing India ever closer in its orbit. Although this bilateral cooperation is meant to advance US interests in the region, Pakistan can’t be blamed for feeling the heat. The US has however tried to keep India and Pakistan apart by placing the two countries under two different combatant commands, Indo-Pacific in one case, CENTCOM in the other.

US patronage has also enabled India to conclude a military agreement with France in March 2018, granting mutual access to naval bases. It then went on to sign a similar agreement with Australia in June 2020, which again permits the use of each other’s military bases. While India’s inclusion in the US-sponsored Quadrilateral dialogue and more recently the Quad-plus anti-China grouping may have helped the latter agreement to come about, India cannot remain unmindful of the pitfalls such a stance carries. China is not only one of India’s biggest trading partners, the two countries also share a huge contested land border.

It thus appears that despite India’s visible discomfort at this uneven relationship, it is not only trying to derive its own security benefits out of it, but also to live up to the United States’ expectations of being a net security provider, by modernising its forces and expanding its reach. Just weeks prior to securing access to France’s regional outposts, India also secured a military agreement with Oman that will allow its military vessels to dock at the newly-built port of Duqm.

Further south off the East African coast, India is trying to enhance its surveillance and monitoring capabilities by developing Assumption Island in the Seychelles and Agalega island in Mauritius. Taken together, the naval arrangements in Middle Eastern and East African countries help advance India’s claims of being a key regional power.

India thus appears to be on a roller coaster ride, with wide access to the latest hardware, the most modern technology, the most secure data links, the most precise targeting information, along with a large number of regional military bases. But as they say, there are no free lunches; India’s freedom of manoeuvre would certainly be constrained. This is not to say that the door to future disagreements stands shut. On the contrary, a regional powerhouse, which is how India visualises itself, cannot be expected not to resist when what it considers its core national interests come under threat. A case in point is the 2018 defence deal with Russia for the procurement of four S-400 Triumf SAMs, which despite the threat of US sanctions, India refused to step back from. Similarly, around two years earlier, India had rejected a US proposal for joint naval patrols with other Quad members in the South China Sea.

As India switches over to western operating systems, its age-old friendship with Russia is bound to be severely tested. Russia used to be India’s main military supplier, with Russian origin munitions and equipment still constituting 67% of India’s military inventory. Replacing its Russian inventory with the vastly more expensive western hardware will leave India extremely vulnerable to US whims. The bulk of India’s Air Force consists of ageing Russian fighters, and replacing all these with western jets is not a sustainable proposition, considering that the controversial 2016 deal with France for the supply of 36 Rafale fighter jets has cost it $9.4 billion. While estranging Russia, whose presence looms large in the neighbourhood, may not seem to be a good idea for short term gains, India would be saddled with a bigger dilemma, when, as is likely, US-Russian relations further deteriorate. Russia is not entirely oblivious of these machinations. In December 2020, Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, while speaking at a meeting of the Russian International Affairs Council, described India as “an object of western countries’ persistent, aggressive and devious policy…….. trying to engage it in anti-China games by promoting Indo-Pacific strategies, the so-called Quad, while at the same time attempting to undermine Russia’s close partnership and privileged relations with India”. It is a matter of time, however, before Russian focus shifts from the manipulating west to the willingly manipulated India.

It is however in the Western Pacific that India will face its real test. It has already learnt the hard way via the Ladakh skirmish of June 2020 and the recent Sikkim face-off that a stridently hostile stance towards China would not come cheap.

Just as it convinced the UK to despatch the Royal Navy’s newly-constructed aircraft carrier to the South China Sea, the US obviously expects the members of the Quad – Australia, Japan, India – to display more resolve.

Taking a leaf from the US policies of Asia Pacific rebalance and pivot to Asia, India devised its own Look East followed by Act East strategies. From a practical angle, these Indian strategies are out of sync with its actions on the ground. The Indian Navy’s largest naval bases are at Mumbai and Karwar, both on its west coast. It’s agreements with France, Oman, Seychelles and Mauritius reinforces its forward posture in the west. It’s most lucrative investment and trading links are with the Persian Gulf countries towards the west. It is the Strait of Hormuz on which it is still most dependent upon for meeting a large part of its energy needs.

It is worth mentioning here that though the Persian Gulf, the Gulf of Oman, the Gulf of Yemen and the Red Sea are not considered to be a part of Indo-Pacific, the fact is that these waterways are very much an intrinsic part of the Indian Ocean, and whatever happens here, impacts the broader Indo-Pacific. The likely flashpoints are clearly visible: the war in Yemen, confusion surrounding the JCPOA, and the standoff between the USs regional allies and an economically weakened Iran. Trouble is in store if better sense doesn’t prevail.

Ever since it was unveiled in May 2013 as One Belt One Road, China’s Belt and Road Initiative, including the Maritime Silk Road, has emerged as another major flashpoint. BRI is breathtakingly ambitious in its scope, seeking to bring under its umbrella the length and breadth of the Asian, African and European continents, not to mention Latin America, which it intends to link via the sea route. Ever since a freight train made its way from Yiwu, a manufacturing hub in Eastern China, to London in early 2017, the amount of freight being carried out through rail across Eurasia has quadrupled. An initiative which seeks to promote connectivities for balanced and sustainable regional development is apparently being viewed with suspicion by some countries, notable amongst them being the US, India and Australia, simply because it enhances China’s profile as a proponent of globalisation, free trade and infrastructural development. Pakistan, as the most prominent face of the BRI in the Indian Ocean is bound to attract greater uninvited attention, which can manifest itself in various devious ways.

As far as flashpoints go, it’s epicentre has, since the past decade or so, shifted to the South China Sea. From an economic and political viewpoint, this is as important a stretch of water as any in the world. Around one-third of global shipping, including 40% of the world’s LNG trade, passes through the South China Sea, its trade value being estimated at $3.4 trillion. These waters are comparatively more vital for China, as not only 64% of its maritime trade passes through it, so does 80% of its oil imports, on which it is overtly reliant. Since such a vast quantity of China’s oil imports have to traverse the narrow Malacca Strait, it gives rise to a vulnerability referred to by President Hu Jintao in 2003 as China’s Malacca Dilemma. China’s bid to develop KyaukPyu port in Myanmar, Gwadar in Pakistan and its proposal to create the Kra isthmus through Thailand can all be seen as endeavours to lessen the channel’s criticality. Despite China’s wariness, the fact is that the Strait is also vitally important to states like Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Taiwan, Japan and South Korea.

The South China Sea contains over 250 small islands, atolls, shoals, reefs and sandbars, most of which have no indigenous people, many of which are naturally underwater at high tide and some of which are permanently submerged. It is beset with competing maritime claims of littoral countries like China, Taiwan, Philippines, Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia, Cambodia, Thailand and Singapore. While Taiwan has been occupying the largest island in the Spratly Group, Itu Aba, since 1956, China has controlled the Paracel Island chain since a brief skirmish with Vietnam in 1974. What makes the issue difficult to resolve is that both China and Taiwan claim almost 90% of the total sea area as their own and refuse to budge from their unilateral stance. Though China has perhaps deliberately kept the specifics of its claim clouded in ambiguity, it appears that what it really wants is to keep outsiders away from what it considers to be its backyard. It has indicated its amenability to the idea of exploiting the area’s vast natural resources through joint ventures with neighbouring states.

Its background goes back to 1948, when, as Chiang Kai-Shek’s Chinese nationalists were being relentlessly pursued by Mao’s revolutionaries, they laid claim to almost the entire South China Sea as demarcated by what has since been known as the nine-dash line. Soon thereafter, when Mao took over control of mainland China and Chiang’s supporters retreated to the island enclave of Taiwan, both sides have staked their claims to this seaward domain. This claim was however formally revived by China to rebut a joint Malaysian- Vietnamese application for extension of their country’s continental shelves under UNCLOS. This dispute was given an extra -regional flavour in 2010, when the US Secretary of State urged for a peaceful diplomatic solution, which predictably didn’t sit well with Beijing.

It was in 2013, when China surpassed the US as the largest trading nation, that it started asserting itself militarily. It has since created numerous facts on the ground in the shape of artificial islands, 27 by last count, which apart from being self-sustaining, are now capable of serving as a fleet of unsinkable aircraft carriers. Coercive tactics against competing claimants are also on the rise, as evidenced by the Chinese blockade of Philippine Marines at Thomas Shoal, its interdiction of Philippine fishermen entering Scarborough Shoal and the 2014 deployment of a Chinese oil platform around 120 miles off the Vietnamese coast.

The US Navy in turn conducts so-called Freedom of Navigation Patrols (FONOPS) to demonstrate the international status of these waters. China’s strong response to such perceived incursions has further heightened tensions. In order to prevent matters from spiralling out of control, the two navies have jointly evolved some rules of engagement for responding to close encounters.

From the perspective of international law, there doesn’t seem to be a legal basis for China’s  claim to such a large sea area as enclosed within the nine-dotted line. The International Arbitral Tribunal approached by the Philippines reached the same conclusion. It found no legal basis for China to assert historic rights on the sea areas falling within the nine-dash line and that what China was referring to as exclusive historical control was simply the exercise of existing high seas freedom under international law. The tribunal was also critical of China’s land reclamation projects and its construction of artificial islands in the Spratlys.

The question thus arises as to why would China deliberately antagonise its neighbouring countries, with which it enjoys strong investment and trading ties, by insisting on such a legally untenable claim. The answer is simple: China sees the surrounding sea area as vital to its national security and economic well-being, providing not only a natural shield against outside disruptions to its coastal economic activities but also a badly-needed sanctuary for its ballistic missile nuclear submarines. The ubiquitous presence of the US military so far from its own shores has raised the threat level to a degree which China cannot afford to ignore. It revives memories of the country’s century of humiliation which led to the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949. It is haunted by its past in which an imperialist Britain forced it to accede to its interpretation of free trade by the waging the opium wars of 1842 and 1856, with other countries like the US, Russia and France aggressively pursuing the same concessions.

Apart from the Quad and Quad Plus arrangements, the Trump Administration had further vitiated the environment by waging a trade war inclusive of sanctions, tariffs, investment restrictions, technology protections and even imposition of visa limits. As a country which has, since the Second World War, been treating the Pacific Ocean as its backyard. the United States is understandably wary of a rising China and a resurgent Russia. The world has to beware of falling into the Thucydides Trap. Professor Rory Metcalf of the Australian National University has aptly described the existing scenario as a ‘kind of a full-spectrum staring contest’. It is also a catastrophe in waiting, one that can only be prevented if good sense and sound judgement prevails all round. The interconnected nature of the two oceans means that no state can remain unaffected by turmoil anywhere in the region. All states, Pakistan included, should thus play their part in lowering the temperature rather than becoming a part of the problem.

To recap, the sort of challenges Pakistan faces in a rapidly evolving environment are multipronged. First is the threat posed by its larger neighbour India, which, by spreading its tentacles all round the Indian Ocean, is seeking to dominate it. Second is its growing relationship with the United States, which has enabled it to gain access to the latest technology in military hardware and even to precise targeting information. Third is the stand-off between the US and China, which President Xi Yinping has recently dubbed as a ‘new Cold War’. Pakistan’s friendly ties with China in military, economic and diplomatic spheres is bound to come in the US crosshairs, sooner rather than later. The animosity towards CPEC that both the US and India share is again something that Pakistan has to contend with.

Indian machinations are something that Pakistan is used to dealing with. With American support behind India acting as a force multiplier, Pakistan has to step up its game. But what Pakistan has to really worry about is an embittered United States, which after having dealt with the tricky Afghan issue and increasingly stalemated by China in the South China Sea, turns on Pakistan and CPEC as a convenient target.

The 5th generation hybrid warfare of today takes many forms, to counter which Pakistan needs to keep its guard up. Pakistan appears to be walking on a tightrope; it would need the most skilful of diplomacy to sustain this balancing act.

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