Geopolitics and IR

Indo Pacific: The New Theatre

  •  A sizable percentage of global trade flows pass through the Indo-Pacific area.
  • While the United States has mutual defence treaties with other Asian nations like Japan and South Korea, it does not have such an arrangement with Taiwan.
  • The long-term impact of projects like the QUAD and AUKUS on the regional balance of power is unclear, but their role in resisting China’s dominance in the Indo-Pacific area is likely to remain a prominent topic of dispute in regional geopolitics.
  • The long-term impact of projects like the QUAD and AUKUS on the regional balance of power is unclear, but their role in resisting China’s dominance in the Indo-Pacific area is likely to remain a prominent topic of dispute in regional geopolitics.
  • India has been working on a “Necklace of Diamonds” to counter China’s “String of Pearls”.
  •  To better inform governmental and military decisions, UDA intends to give information on all movements and developments across the Indian Ocean.

The Viceroy of Portuguese possessions in India, Francisco de Almeida was the one who introduced the policy of “Blue water” during the 16th century. Instead of creating fortified trading posts along the coasts of Africa and India, as the Portuguese had done previously, the Blue Water policy emphasized establishing free trade routes. Almeida envisioned building a strong navy that would allow Portugal to dominate commerce and control the sea lanes in the Indian Ocean. This change of policy yielded dividends for the Portuguese as they were successful in consolidating Portuguese control over trade in the Indian Ocean (Albeit not for long). History is full of such examples that reflect that the maritime domain has always played a pivotal role in the emergence of new powers whether it be the Greek empire and their control over the Mediterranean which led to the establishment of colonies in Asia and Africa in the 5th and 6th century or the Spanish Armada which led to colonization of many countries the common thing in both the empires was their advancement in Navy which led. Hence it is safe to say that it is a time-tested prophecy that dominance in the maritime domain has a resounding effect on the regional dynamics and the international security architecture. Even currently, the rivalry among the world’s major powers is as fierce as ever.

Amidst, all the power struggle, the Indo-Pacific has emerged as a hotspot of international activity since the end of the Cold War. There is rising worry about economic, military, and political trends because of rising maritime disputes in the Indo-Pacific. There have been Cold War–style tensions between China and the United States because of China’s efforts to expand its control over neighbouring islands and countries.

Although the large chunk is often the most visible but what often misses the sight is the nuances that lead to the creation of those large chunks. As the famous quote depicts “Rome wasn’t built in a day”, so it’s important to keep a note of recent developments in the Indo-Pacific region as currently it’s shaping the policy of many countries.

Why focus on the Indo-Pacific?

One may wonder why such zeal for the establishment of ports or naval bases in the Indian Ocean region (IOR) has been there. Well, it is important from both an economic and strategic point of view. A sizable percentage of global trade flows pass through the Indo-Pacific area. In 2020, the Asia-Pacific region (which encompasses the Indo-Pacific region) was responsible for 50.2% of global merchandise exports and 45.1% of global merchandise imports, as reported by the World Trade Organization (WTO). It is also through the Strait of Malacca that 80% of China’s oil shipments arrive. For this reason, China can’t afford to create alternatives to the Strait of Malacca. That is why China wants to get along well with Malacca Strait neighbours like Malaysia and Singapore.

The Indo-Pacific area is home to several of the world’s busiest shipping lanes, including the Strait of Malacca, which links the Indian and Pacific oceans. Many of the world’s biggest ports are located here as well, and that includes Shanghai, Singapore, and Hong Kong.

The Indo-Pacific is also a hotspot for diplomatic and military rivalries. The Strait of Malacca and the South China Sea are two of the most important maritime chokepoints for international commerce and energy supply. Several territorial conflicts are still going on in the area, the longest of which are in the South China Sea and the East China Sea.

“The future of the Indo-Pacific will impact all our futures.” – Scott Morrison (Australia’s ex-Prime Minister)

China’s growing assertion in the Indian Ocean region and South China Sea

What has caught the attention of people and countries across the globe has been the schism between China and the USA, many reasons have been attributed to the discourse, but none is clearer than the altercation between China and Taiwan and China and Hong Kong for territorial sovereignty. Amidst all this it may be surprising to know that the USA has for long, dawned the role of protector for Taiwan. While the United States has mutual defence treaties with other Asian nations like Japan and South Korea, it does not have such an arrangement with Taiwan. However, it has maintained its political allegiance to Taiwan by the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979. Despite having cordial ties with one of the most advanced military nations in the world the threat of territorial sovereignty looms over Taiwan. A Similar kind of protection was once enjoyed by Hong Kong as Hong Kong Britain was its protector. Yet the same threat looms over Hong Kong.

The strife does not stop at the Historical perspective (China’s argument for its claim over Hong Kong and Taiwan). In recent years it can be observed that China has a feud with many neighbouring countries including the Philippines, Japan, and Vietnam to name a few. China’s expansive claims of control over the sea have angered rival claimants Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam by threatening their access to the sea’s estimated 11 billion barrels of untapped oil and 190 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. Countries have been staking claims to territory and islets in the South China Sea, including the resource-rich Spratly islets, since at least the 1970s. China claims that its EEZ is off-limits to military reconnaissance flights and other forms of intelligence collection under international law. (EEZ). The United States asserts that under UNCLOS, all countries with maritime claims are entitled to unfettered access to each other’s Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs) and need not provide advance notice of military operations. Almost every aspect of the Philippines’ claim against China under UNCLOS was upheld by the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague when it issued its decision in July 2016. China has signed the pact that created the tribunal, but it does not recognize the legitimacy of the court.

Satellite images from the past few years have revealed China’s intensified efforts to recover land in the South China Sea by expanding existing islands or building brand-new ones. Specifically, in the Paracel and Spratly Islands, where it has twenty-seven outposts, China has built ports, military facilities, and airstrips by piling sand onto existing reefs. China has installed a radar system, cruise missiles, and fighter aircraft on Woody Island.

As stated earlier this assertion of China has not been born out of nowhere but from a diligently executed policy of China, Known as the “String of Pearls” Policy.

The ‘String of Pearls’ Policy

The term, which originated in a secret 2005 Booz-Allen study, is commonly used to refer to the hypothesis that China intends to set up naval bases and intelligence stations all along the littoral regions of South Asia. Some people believe that Beijing has spent the last decade attempting to improve its diplomatic ties with several countries in the Indian Ocean. China has financed commercial ports in Pakistan (Gwadar), Sri Lanka (Hambantota and Colombo), Bangladesh (Chittagong), and Burma (Rangoon), and has inked multimillion-dollar aid, trade, and defence agreements in the region’s capitals. (Sittwe and Kyaukpyu) to name a few of the Chinese establishments in the region. However, China’s larger military ambitions are also seen as a part of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) and its new macro form, One Belt One Road (OBOR), under which China will build various land and maritime trade routes. To further encircle Japan and other American allies, China has built similar military and commercial sites. Reportedly having a strong influence in Sudan, Kenya, and with the establishment of a military base in Djibouti to offset the American presence in the Middle East and the Indian Ocean Region. In addition to these actions, China has also been engaging in diplomatic efforts to strengthen its relationships with countries in the region, such as through the establishment of the China-ASEAN Free Trade Area and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) agreement.

Western Response to Balance Out Power

With Honduras and Solomon Islands being the latest entrant to join the Chinese bandwagon the sirens are blowing at maximum decibels for all the western countries whose interest lies in the Indo-Pacific. Considering the Chinese advancement in the Region, the West and specifically the USA had been trying to negate the influence by creating separate regional power blocs.

QUAD and AUKUS projects are perceived by many as part of a larger attempt by the United States and its allies to resist China’s growing influence in the Indo-Pacific area. The United States, Japan, India, and Australia have formed a strategic collaboration known as the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QUAD) to advance regional security and economic integration through military drills, information sharing, and diplomatic cooperation. The QUAD is considered as a check on China’s growing military assertiveness and political and economic might in the South China Sea.

There were two Malabar naval exercises held in 2007. The US and India exercises expanded to include Japan in April, and the exercises became multilateral with the participation of four navies and Singapore in September. Soon, China began opposing the drills, however, the alliance quickly unravelled. Protests against the maritime exercises spread to Communist parties in India, severely undermining India’s standing in the Quad. India was also apprehensive about QUAD as an altercation with China could seriously dent India’s hope of Joining the Nuclear Suppliers Group. Shinzo Abe’s resignation as prime minister was a major factor, and Australia’s lack of support for India was mostly attributable to Beijing. These factors derailed the development of QUAD in its initial years.

“China's increasing aggression, however, prompted India and other QUAD members to quicken the pace of the development under QUAD. In 2017, on the margins of the ASEAN conference, the leaders of the Quad countries reassembled in the Philippines, rebranding the group as Quad 2.0."

Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States have unveiled a new project called the Australia-UK-US Security Partnership (AUKUS) that will strengthen Australia’s armed forces and increase security cooperation between the three countries. As part of the alliance, nuclear-powered submarines will be transferred to Australia, which will be used to fight China’s maritime ambitions in the region. The United States and its allies saw the Quad and AUKUS projects as part of a larger effort to counter China’s aggression and expand its influence in the area. Both moves have been criticized by China, which has responded by strengthening its military presence in the region, particularly in the South China Sea to assert its dominance there.

“The long-term impact of projects like the QUAD and AUKUS on the regional balance of power is unclear, but their role in resisting China's dominance in the Indo-Pacific area is likely to remain a prominent topic of dispute in regional geopolitics."

However, these actions show that the United States and its allies are serious about countering China’s aggression and safeguarding its strategic interests in the region.

What has been India’s role in the Indo-Pacific?

India, who had hitherto been a passive participant, has recently taken the initiative. For instance, Australia asked India to rejoin the Malabar exercises in 2017, and India agreed to do so in 2020. The Doklam standoff in 2017 and the Galwan Valley clashes in 2020 prompted India to take an active role in the Quad virtual and in-person summit in 2021 when it showcased its competence in pharmaceuticals, supply chain, technology, and production capacity.

Conflicts along the disputed border between India and China have caused a major shift in India’s foreign policy. India has been working on maritime security since 2015, when it unveiled the Security and Growth for All in the Region (SAGAR) initiative, and again in 2018 when it unveiled the Indo-Pacific Oceans Initiative (IPOI). In 2018, India made an effort to harmonize the Quad’s goals with those of SAGAR and IPOI. These measures are an attempt to curb Chinese naval aggression.

India has expanded its ties with the Quad members beyond the group itself. India has inked a mutual logistical support and information-sharing agreement with Australia. Australia and India have had defence policy and marine security talks and participated in bilateral military exercises such as AUSINDEX (Australia India Exercise). Both India and Japan have been active participants in the Japan-India Maritime Exercise (JIMEX) and the Dharma Guardian bilateral military exercises. General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA) and supply and service agreements have been struck between the two countries.

“Agreements like the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA), the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA), and the Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement have strengthened India's defence ties with the United States. (COMCASA)."

Even before the establishment of QUAD, India was taking strides to deepen its ties in the Indo-Pacific region with time there has been a resuscitation of efforts. India’s economic and strategic ties to Southeast and East Asian countries were strengthened with the advent of the “Look East Policy” in the early 1990s. The policy’s main objective was to strengthen ties with these countries through economic cooperation and trade, capitalizing on India’s economic potential. India’s goal under this policy was to strengthen its strategic partnership and military ties with neighbouring countries. Following the success of the “Look East Policy,” the “Act East Policy” was officially unveiled in 2014. The policy’s stated goal is to increase India’s involvement with East and Southeast Asian nations by fostering closer cultural, strategic, and security links in addition to commercial ones. The policy’s stated goal is to advance Indian strategic interests in the region by doing things like balancing China’s rising power and protecting Indian maritime interests.

The "Act East Policy" is a continuation of India's "Look East Policy," but with a stronger focus on strategic cooperation and a more expansive vision for India's engagement with the region. India's policy aims to forge closer ties with neighbouring countries by capitalizing on the country's rising economic and geopolitical power.

Can Diamond negate the pearls?

First used by Foreign Secretary Lalit Mansingh in an August 2011 speech on “India’s Regional Strategic Priorities” to a think group, the phrase “necklace of diamonds” has since come into discourse. To safeguard its interests, “India is doing everything it is supposed to do,” he claimed. The Indian philosophy, the Necklace of Diamonds, is India’s response to the String of Pearls. While the Chinese are building port facilities in the Indian Ocean, we have secured naval cooperation with practically all of the important states in the region. India’s strategic effort to offset China’s expanding effect in the IOR has been described as a “necklace of diamonds” by critics, but this phrase has not yet been utilized in India’s official discourse.

India has been working on a “Necklace of Diamonds” to counter China’s “String of Pearls”. China is expanding its influence and military networks by building a “String of Pearls” of marine outposts in countries like Sri Lanka, the Maldives, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Somalia. The “Necklace of Diamonds” consists of the Assumption Islands in Seychelles, the Changi Naval Base in Singapore, the Chabahar Port in Iran, and the Duqm Port in Oman. To counter China’s “String of Pearls” strategy, India is also forging close connections with Vietnam and Mongolia. China spends more money on its String of Pearls than India does on its Necklace of Diamonds. China’s allies are therefore more likely to be formidable than India’s. India’s largest investment for its Necklace of Diamonds strategy,

Chabahar Port is $8 billion, while China has committed US$60 billion in Africa under its String of Pearls strategy. India’s only major investment that has had an impact on China is in Sabang, Indonesia, which is near the Malacca Strait. China is concerned about India’s influence in the region because 80 percent of its oil imports travel via the strait.

How can UDA help in leveraging the security domain of the Indo-Pacific?

As stated earlier, there needs to be a focus on the nuances of development in the region because their nuances lead to the large-scale changes that invariably affect the whole of established foundations of sovereignty, international law, and order based on democratic values. It is in this light that UDA can provide a vigil that can help in better protection of strategic interests.

“For want of a nail, the shoe was lost. For want of a shoe, the horse was lost. For want of a horse, the rider was lost. For want of a rider, the battle was lost”.

UDA aims to disseminate information across 4 different domains including national security. By keeping track of every action that takes place in the Indian Ocean so that policy and tactical decisions can be better informed. With the right level of insight and preparation, India can take the necessary steps to protect its vital interests.

To better inform governmental and military decisions, UDA intends to give information on all movements and developments across the Indian Ocean. With the right knowledge, India may take the necessary steps to protect its strategic interests.

"The second component of the strategy involves increasing India's naval presence and keeping it up so that it may improve its visibility and reach as well as its operational expertise in the sector. If UDA paints a picture of potential dangers and obstacles, then the Navy can respond and even influence the course of events."

For this, you will need to compile a UDA image of the IOR’s traffic patterns. Tracking activity in the expansive Indian Ocean necessitates a significant investment of time, money, manpower, and knowledge. Given the breadth of these endeavours, teamwork, and partnership is essential.

Deepak Kumar, TERI SAS (The Energy Resource Institute) and MRC Intern

About Author

Deepak, an ardent advocate for environmental sustainability and climate change mitigation, has been interning for MRC (Maritime Research Centre), Pune. Deepak’s academic journey led him to pursue post-graduation in the field of sustainable development from the prestigious TERI (The Energy and Resources Institute) in New Delhi, India. His academic endeavours at TERI equipped him with a profound understanding of the intricate dynamics of sustainable practices, climate resilience, and environmental conservation. At MRC, through his work, he tends to highlight perils that often go unnoticed about the adverse impact of climate change on oceans.

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