India - The Critical Peg in Asia Pacific Pivot

Issues Details: 
Vol 10 Issue-3 Jul - Aug 2016
Page No.: 
Air Marshal Anil Chopra PVSM AVSM VM VSM (Retd)
Saturday, July 23, 2016

In 2012 President Barack Obama initiated a significant move in American foreign policy shifting focus from Middle East and Europe to look east and at South Asia. Major Powers in this region are China, Japan, S Korea, Australia, Indonesia, Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam. India and Pakistan are the two big players in South Asia. USA has significant naval and air presence in Guam and Japan. Singapore has a US supported aircraft carrier construction facility. USA has strengthened bilateral defense cooperation with Philippines. Pentagon deploys 60 percent of US submarines in Asia. Funding for US Pacific Command (PACOM) has been on the increase. The key areas of action in US “Pivot to East Asia” regional strategy have been strengthening and re-balancing bilateral security alliances; deepening working relationships with emerging powers, including with China; engaging with regional multilateral institutions; expanding trade and investment; forging a broad-based military presence; and advancing democracy and human rights. The proponents believe that the United States needs a weak divided China to prevent its hegemony in Asia. United States has thus been establishing military, economic, and diplomatic ties with countries adjacent to China. Chinese sees this as a ‘China containment policy’.
China’s String of Pearls Policy
In 2004, US consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton published ‘Energy Futures in Asia’ a document that covered China’s investments in network of naval bases in Indian Ocean region. This became popularly known as the ‘String of Pearls’. Sea lane protection for crude oil supplies appeared the primary objective. However, India looked at this as encirclement of India by China. China began using geopolitical influence through enhanced diplomatic relations, military supplies, airfield and port construction and economic aid. They invested in Gwadar port on the mouth of Persian Gulf in Pakistan and are funding a US$ 46 billion investment corridor to connect Western China to the sea. Hambantota port in Sri Lanka, Chittagong and Sonadia in Bangladesh, possibly one at Marao Atoll in Maldives, a port in Sudan on Red Sea, and a port in Somalia are part of the plan. China offered to fund a canal at Kra Isthmus in Thailand connecting Gulf of Thailand to Andaman Sea to bypass Malacca Strait.  China is the most important supplier of military to Myanmar and for long been building roads and airfields there. China developed a deep-water port for them in the Bay of Bengal and an electronic intelligence base at Coco Islands, just 18 km from India’s Andaman Islands. China supports Pakistan’s military-industrial-complex in a big way and is trying to enter Sri Lankan aviation sector. In response to America’s recent closeness to India and increased American drone strikes against militants on Pakistani soil China has offered additional fighter jets to Pakistan.
Action in South China Sea
South China Sea is extremely significant geopolitically. It is the second most used sea lane in the world. Over 50% world merchant tonnage  passes through the Strait of Malacca. Both China and Taiwan claim almost the entire sea as their own. China has been rapidly piling sand onto reefs in the South China Sea, creating seven new islets in the region. So far China has constructed port facilities, military buildings and an airstrip on the islands. Two more airstrips are under construction. The installations bolster China’s foothold in the Spratly Islands. China and Vietnam have serious disputes over ownership of Paracel islands which China controls since a brief conflict in 1974. Similarly Spratly islands have seen naval clashes. Both USA and China have been participating in show of force naval and air exercises in the region. In 2011, India’s state-run explorer, Oil and Natural Gas Corporation ONGC Videsh Limited signed a three-year deal with Petro-Vietnam for developing oil blocks in the South China Sea. China protested. Countries are citing freedom of navigation in international waters when engaged by Chinese navy. Philippines took China to a UN tribunal challenging its claims in the South China Sea.The international court is likely to deliver a hotly anticipated ruling in the Philippines’ case against China over the South China Sea on July 12, 2016 (the court has since ruled against China)  drawing an immediate rebuke from Beijing. In May 2014, China established an oil rig near the Paracel Islands, leading to multiple incidents between Vietnamese and Chinese ships.
USA’s China containment policy
The world is talking of a US foreign policy goal termed as ‘China containment policy’ similar to the communist containment policy of the cold war. It presumes that United States needs a weak, divided China to maintain its own dominance in Asia. This may be accomplished through military, economic, and diplomatic ties with countries adjacent to China. The presence of American military in Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan; strengthened ties with South Korea and Japan; efforts to woo India and Vietnam are critical to the Pivot to Asia Strategy. The United States has officially claimed they have no China containment policy and that they “want China to succeed and prosper. Countries with territorial disputes in the region support American involvement in East Asia to counterbalance the Chinese expansionist plans. China has been using economic strength to arm-twist neighbours. A big thorn in Sino-US relations remains the US support to Taiwan. The US stated policy is that the United States and China can benefit from each other’s successes. China publicly supported the coalition campaign in Afghanistan and contributed $150 million of bilateral assistance to Afghan reconstruction. China and the US have work closely against North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. USA is cautiously interfering through public denouncement of the Chinese human rights record, and on economic, security and environmental issues. China has the greatest potential of any nation to militarily compete with the US. It is speculated that USA is using India to contain China. US, Japan and Australia are often labeled as ‘little NATO against China’. In May 2007, US, Japan, Australia and India signed a strategic military partnership agreement called the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue. US, Japan and India held their first trilateral meeting in Dec 2011. Delhi had earlier been supporting Vietnam on training on Kilo Class submarines and Su-30, and has now offered anti-submarine torpedoes and BrahMos cruise missiles.
Yet there are complexities. Australia has a growing dependency on China’s market. Its mining industry is booming owing to Chinese demand. China is India’s largest trading partner. US is trying to expand US influence, by offering India nuclear technology, support for high seats in MTCR, NSG and UNSC. China has already overtaken the US as Japan’s largest trading partner. China too gives imports from Japan preference and priority to support stagnant Japanese economy. China and USA share global interests in prevention of terrorism and proliferation of nuclear weapons. China remains the largest foreign creditor of the United States, holding about 10% (US$1.8 trillion) of the U.S. national debt.
US Interests in Asia
With China and India destined to grow economically, 21st century is known to be Century of Asia. Strategically, maintaining peace and security across the Asia-Pacific is thus increasingly crucial to global progress. Asia also has the potential markets in view of slowing Europe. Defending freedom Navigation in the seas (South China Sea), countering nuclear proliferation (North Korea) and monitoring military activities of the region’s key players are important. China’s creation of man-made islands and claims over Paracel, Spartly and Senkaku islands have serious implications related to enhanced Economic Exploitation Zone (EEZ) and Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ), both of which have serious security and economic implications for others. The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement between the United States and eleven Pacific Rim countries signed on October 5, 2015 may be seen as heralding the ‘New Power Game’ pitting America against China. President Obama visited Myanmar in November 2012, becoming the first sitting US President to do so. In July 2012 Secretary Clinton visited Laos; the last Secretary of State visited 57 years earlier. Philippines are in direct conflict with China in the South China Sea dispute. USA supports them. Since 2010 US and Vietnamese Navies have held annual exercises, and in 2011, the two countries signed a MOU on defense cooperation.
Asia Pacific Pivot Strategy
The ‘pivot’ strategy proceeds along strengthening bilateral security alliances. Australia and Japan are great backers. The strategy was also meant to send a signal to hitherto hardline approach of China on most global strategic issues. The ‘pivot’ is somewhat compounding Beijing’s insecurities and some analysts feel that it will only feed China’s aggressiveness and undermines regional stability, and decrease the possibility of cooperation with USA. Some feel that the ‘Pivot is pre-mature as China is decades behind USA militarily. With USA unable to disengage from burning Middle East and muscle flexing by Putin in Russia, it may undermine US interests to antagonize China.  Current status of the pivot is still symbolic, such as reallocation of existing air and naval assets from other theaters and increased naval exercises. In response China is quickly developing and deploying newer ships, AWACS and fifth generation fighters to cover all the islands from the mainland. USA is prioritizing the Pacific theater with increased military presence and ultimately 60% of the US Navy will be based in the Pacific – a 10 percent increase from current levels. The theater will get one additional US aircraft carrier, seven destroyers, ten littoral combat ships and two submarines, plus EP3 reconnaissance planes. Japanese Maritime Self-defence Forces and Indian Navy take part in Malabar series of exercises.
Confluence of Indo-US Strategic Interest
Unique feature of the relation is that USA is the world’s oldest democracy, while India is the world’s largest democracy. During Cold war years the relationship was cold and thorny. This was due to the closeness of the US towards India’s arch-rival Pakistan and America’s negative perception of non-alignment. In the 21st century India has once again emerged as a potential counterweight against China. Many economic, security, and global initiatives, including civilian nuclear cooperation have been initiated. Currently India and the US share common understanding to manage an increasingly assertive China, have robust cooperation on counter-terrorism, have eased export controls over dual-use goods & technologies, and reversed the long-standing American opposition to India’s strategic program. India continues to criticize US support to Pakistan in its Afghanistan policy. US-Pak relations have taken a little bit of back-seat of late. India is no longer content with peripheral influence in global discussions and seeks radical change in global hierarchy of power. This has been strengthened by India’s fast growing economy and uncertainties over the future of the European Union and slowdown of most world economies.
Indo-US Military Links
Active Indo-US military cooperation began in 2001 after 9/11 WTC attacks. In 2005 began increased cooperation including military relations, defense industry and technology sharing, and maritime security cooperation. India and the United States conducted dozens of joint military exercises in the ensuing years including Yudh Abhyas between the armies.Indo-US bilateral air exercises Cope India series are held in India to promote regional security and stability in the Asia-Pacific region. Beginning 2004 they have been repeated in 2005, 2006, and 2009. IAF now regularly participates in the Red Flag advanced air combat training exercise at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada, and at Eielson Airbase in Alaska. USA sold six C-130J-30s in early 2008 at a cost of over US$1.2 billion for special operations forces under US government’s Foreign Military Sales (FMS) program. Option to buy six more aircraft was exercised later. First six aircraft were delivered by December 2011. The next big deal was the $5.8 Billion, 10 Boeing C-17 Globemaster III, large military transport aircraft. Indian Navy purchased eight Boeing P-8I Neptune maritime surveillance and attack aircraft, and four more are being ordered. IAF is also procuring 22 Boeing’s Apache Longbow AH-64. Indian Army will also place an order for around 33. 15 heavy-lift Boeing CH-47 D/F Chinook helicopters are also on order. Large number of GE F404 and F414 engines are being acquired for LCA program, thus making USA among the top three arms suppliers. Recently US offered to set up F-18 or F-16 aircraft production facilities in India for worldwide supplies. These deals mark a major shift by India towards diversifying its defence purchases and moving away from its decades-long reliance only on Russia. Aerospace is the place for major action. US-India defense agreements are also potentially lucrative for American defense industries.
Options for India
India is crucial to the US ability to create a stable balance of power in the Indo-Pacific region and at a time of stretched resources, it needs India to shore up its sagging credibility in the region in face of Chinese belligerence. India in its desire to play more important role has created a Strategic Forces Command, raised military status of Andaman and Nicobar with a Command HQ, and build strategic petroleum reserves. India has also strengthened strategic partnerships with Russia, Vietnam, Japan, Singapore & Iran - in order to offset shift in strategic balance of power in Asia in favour of China. India has extended influence in countries which are key to China’s ‘One Road One Belt’ with special focus on Oman, Iran, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bangladesh, Myanmar and Vietnam. India has increased security dialogues and military exercises with Japan, Australia and USA while concurrently undertaking confidence building measures with China. Improving inter-Asian trade through evolving mega infrastructure projects, like the Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar Economic corridor. India has signed a “Special Strategic Global Partnership” with Japan. Japan will build a Bullet Train link between Mumbai and Ahmadabad. To neutralise Chinese influence, India has been offering funding for monitoring facilities in Madagascar, construction of an airstrip in Mauritania, a radar station in Maldives, Sittwe port in Myanmar and Chabahar port in Iran. Rising China and common security concerns have brought USA, Japan, Australia, ASEAN and India closer on strategic approach in the region. More recently, India has developed close-links with Bangladesh, Myanmar and Sri Lanka. Emerging democracy in Myanmar will move it closer to India. India is conscious that American effort to shape alliances in Asia is less to support the region and more to promote an ‘American Century in Asia’. India is big enough to understand and play the game to its own ultimate advantage.