Military & Aerospace

US Naval Fleet in Indian Ocean: Emerging Priority Theatre of Global Power Matrix
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Issue Net Edition | Date : 26 Nov , 2020

The reported US intention of creating a separate naval command for Indian Ocean apparently sounds to be good news for the India. The positive side is its timings in the current context, and more than that  its long term strategic import of enhancing much needed  military deterrence against China in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR). However, on the flip side, India would further lose out on custodianship of the sea space which she enjoyed all this time. There is a distinct paradigm strategic shift in Indian Ocean as an emerging priority arena of global geo political grand games with discomforting political intrusions.

Indian strategic strength lies in centrality of her location in the Indian Ocean with advantage of domination of anything and everything that passes through its air and sea space. The US objective of containing China would be better served with enhanced military presence in the Indian Ocean, besides what they already have in Pacific fleet. This concept, obviously, must have been in the offing for quite some time looking at the preparatory work that US has been undertaking in the recent past.

The US has been engaging India in fields of logistics, communications, intelligence and other connected facilities to sustain operations in these distant waters. The entire issue has been on the table as a mutually beneficial proposal with an alliance of strategic import for both the nations. India, after initial cautious approach, has come on board in view of filling up much needed capability deficit to deal with the emerging inimical security environment on her periphery.  

China is literally a land locked country with exception of Eastern sea board. Moreover, her land borders happen to lie in negative terrain with limited arteries of low capacities. Therefore, China is dependent on South China Sea (SCS), and IOR for connectivity to her energy sources and to further its Maritime Silk Road initiatives. In addition to above, the over ambitious leadership with global aspirations is seen to be indulging in creating political pressure with signs of discernible hurry to achieve their objective. There is an air of perceptible desperation resulting in an institutional insecurity which seems to have shaped Chinese political conduct.

It has lead to self seeking outlook coupled with cultural hubris which has manifested in a confrontationist attitude instead of competitive cooperative approach. China, in her expansionist pursuits, is known to   create fictitious narratives to lay claims over territories required for its political purposes. Out of two dozen nations on land and maritime periphery, China has territorial disputes with 23 of them. Use of diplomatic and military coercion is part of their political doctrine to achieve their territorial ambitions. As a consequence, China stands out as the odd member of the global fraternity seen to be aggressively inclined to push her agenda through deceit and duplicity, which does not gel well for a big nation.

China claims more than 80% of SCS north of nine dash line, for political domination of the region, besides an eye on controlling vast reservoirs of maritime and mineral wealth. Whereas, there are counter claims by Japan, Vietnam, Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei over islands located close to their shores. China has gone ahead and developed tactically significant islands into military outposts with runways, surveillance bases and other military structures. It is seen as a breach of accepted laws of the sea for freedom of trade and exploration in the international waters. Hence, objections by the regional and global users of this sea space. Such a vitiated environment has further added the insecurity quotient of China.   

China, in order to take care of her security interests in IOR, has forged alliances with littoral countries to establish her bases as part of her concept of “String of Pearls in the Ocean”. Myanmar, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Maldives, Pakistan and Somalia are part of Chinese security framework in the Indian Ocean. There seem to be perceptible increase in Chinese military signatures in the IOR consequent to development of a naval base in Somalia, acquisition of Hambantota port in Sri Lanka and commissioning of Gwadar port in Pakistan.  It is a matter of concern for the powers who want to contain Chinese geo political calculus.    

China seems to be fully firmed in the SCS and other peripheral areas  restricting maneuvering space to opponents to create punitive impact. Accordingly, instead of confronting the Chinese strength in SCS, the US is probably looking at Indian Ocean where China would be comparatively weak due to distances involved coupled with disadvantage of restrictive bottle necks.  Moreover, the CPEC which circumvents the Chinese vulnerabilities through sea routes finally emerges at Gwadar in the Arabian Sea which can be blocked with optimal naval efforts, if so required. Therefore, shifting the centre of gravity to IOR to counter China from position of strength sounds logical. It may warrant induction of dedicated additional forces in the Indo-Pacific region.  

The QUAD with its recently enhanced  military dimensions has potential to augment the existing force deficit  partially. However, this concept since its inception has seen occasional reluctance by its members due to conflicting national priorities, especially due to their close economic linkages with China. Case in point is signing of ASEAN sponsored Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) by Japan and Australia along with China recently. Hence, its informal construct cannot be taken as a fully synergized military mechanism like NATO with statutory obligations.

It is expected to continue to retain primacy of diplomacy with limited common objective of “ensuring free, open and inclusive Indo-Pacific as well as ruled based international order”.  Therefore, the military component happens to be a contingency driven mechanism which can be taken up to a point and not beyond unless China crosses the red line in most inimical way. It is serving the purposes of military diplomacy showcasing solidarity of four sea faring powers to convey signals to China to modify her political conduct in line with international norms as regards to Indo-Pacific.

Whereas, it is going to be one to one between US and China in  their geo political cold war for supremacy at global level as reflected in their  institutional rivalry between them. Accordingly, US  may require  enhanced dedicated force structures of their own to retain  their preeminence as the sole world power which is under threat. The reported statement by the US naval chief may well be indicative of emerging US thought process probably on these lines, besides other larger canvas of their grand game.  It is a welcome US strategic move from Indian perspective as there exists a capability deficit to take care of ongoing Chinese coercive military overtures in Ladakh.

It is a collusive threat by China and Pakistan combine wherein India is seen as a threat to push their agenda of economic expansion. If China is not unhinged from their present deployments now, then the LAC may become a LOC by default impacting on Indian  territorial interests  not only in Aksai Chin, but also in Gilgit-Baltistan. India has stood the ground so far, but she requires additional naval leverages to establish punitive strategic hydraulics in the IOR so as to force china to recoil.

Therefore, the recent US announcement is a shot in the arm for India as it would help in pressurizing China and deal with them from position of strength. Moreover, with such close strategic alliance, India would be able to build up her maritime force structures gradually with the help of US. This emerging opportunity, if handled with deft diplomacy, would add to the much needed political buoyancy backed with credible military deterrence against China as well as Pakistan.

US already has a military base at Diego Garcia centrally located in the IOR near equator and also have agreements   for support with few other nations in the region.  The US and India have signed two agreements namely, Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA) and the Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA) earlier.  Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA) has also been signed recently completing troika of foundational pacts for Indo-US military cooperation. Therefore, a suitable mechanism exists between India and US for joint operations with strategic outreach.

There is a thought process amongst the strategic community that a military alliance with the US, if taken to next level, may impact on the political autonomy which India enjoys as of now. The US is seen to be heavily investing politically in India by way of engagements in multiple fields including defence sector apparently with an eye to cultivate India to contain China as perceived by some lobbies. In return, it may be expected that India toes the US line on certain political issues and shift her dependence for purchase of military hardware from them. Whereas, one cannot ignore the fact that the main stay of Indian arsenal continues to be of Russian origin and India would like to retain freedom of exercising her choices in purchase of military hardware.

Another factor of notable significance is the deeply enmeshed economies of US and China which suggests that US is unlikely to go beyond a point in her military assertions. China on their part knows it, and they seem to be indulging in ‘keeping the water warm but not boiling’. It appears that China does not want war, but surely she is conveying political intents of her arrival as a viable challenge to US supremacy.

The ongoing Chinese military posturing in SCS and Ladakh are linked and part of a common narrative of assertion of her political will to pursue her objective of global leadership. Neutralizing US influence in the SCS and political subservience of India to seek security to her connectivity over land and sea on her periphery seems to be the Chinese design. It has upped the ante for US as she cannot be seen to be pushed around as there is lot at stake in this defining time. Accordingly, US probably is preparing to draw China out of her firm base to Indian Ocean where it is convenient to execute economic strangulation and also decisive military confrontation, if it comes to that.   

Hence, it is a sensitive situation which needs to be handled with a cautiously balanced approach. The parting line of emerging Indo-US relationship should be based on inviolability of political autonomy and respect of non aligned value system. In that, the concept of QUAD happens to be somewhat suitable mechanism with its appropriate diplomatic as well as military alliance with issue based political commitments. The US as a mature country surely understands this Indian perspective as the corner stone of their relationship.

Both the partners in this strategic equation have to follow a balanced approach steering away from attempts to encroach upon political sensitivities. There is a convergence in upholding democratic value systems and objective of free, open and inclusive trade regime which forms the bridge head of their emerging relationship. This motive needs to be taken forward to curtail the monolithic self serving expansionist coercive tendencies of China and facilitate to usher in a ruled based international order.

There are complicated and conflicting emerging issues with the increasing political intrusions and militarization of the Indian periphery both on land as well as sea space. Whatever be the future strategic matrix, India would continue to be a constant and an indispensible player with significant politico-military import in the IOR.  US presence in the IOR is a welcome sign in current Indian context with its transformational impact in achieving our national mission. We need to build up on our strengths in the sea space as leverage to our advantage.  There is a challenge ahead for Indian diplomacy and military to harness these synergies and steer through environmental complexities to unsettle and defeat Chinese expansionist designs.

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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Lt Gen Rameshwar Yadav

Former Director General Infantry, Indian Army.

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