In 2011, Robert Kaplan in his article ‘The South China Sea is the Future of Conflict’ had written, “…..the waters of the South China Sea may constitute the military front line of the coming decades….”. But China believes in multiple frontlines, finding great merit in what Alfred Thayer Mahan had said in 1897, “Whoever controls the India Ocean, will dominate Asia. This ocean will be the key to the seven seas in the 21st century. The destiny of the world will be decided on these waters. Therefore, China having militarized the South China Sea (SCS) is feverishly increasing establishing its presence and clout in Southern Pacific and the Indian Ocean Region (IOR). There were many early indications of China’s forthcoming aggressiveness; actions and statements. Lin Yazhou, then Deputy Political Commissar of PLAAF had stated in January 2005, “When a nation grows strong enough, it practices hegemony. The sole purpose of power is to pursue power ……. Geography is destiny ……. When a country begins to rise, it shall first set itself in an invincible position”. That is what China has been religiously following.
Consequently, the Indo-Pacific region is an emerging geostrategic and geo-economic concept that has been gaining significance in the field of defence and security construct; its geographical connotation covering the east coast of Africa through Indian Ocean and the Western Pacific Ocean.
The global economic power shift from the West to East (Asia) and the increasing geostrategic significance of the Indo-Pacific region has resulted in cooperation and competition among the established and rising powers in the region. Rich in natural resources, especially hydrocarbons, the Indo-Pacific represents the centre of gravity of the world’s economic, political and strategic interests, finding competition among global and emerging powers. It has swiftly emerged as a centre of international trade and investments, defined by nearly half of the world’s population.
In this context, regional peace and stability, freedom of navigation and maritime security have become very important as over 90% of the world’s trade by volume is by sea. The emerging trends and issues in the Indo-Pacific offer unique opportunities to these nations, but also at the same time daunting challenges. Though economic cooperation between them has been growing satisfactorily, the geostrategic and geopolitical frameworks remain very uncertain.
Freedom of navigation and maritime security being major concern to the world, aside from the UN Convention on Laws of the Seas (UNCLOS), many other initiatives were put in place, like: Customs Trade Partnership against Terrorism (C –TPAT); Regional Cooperation Agreement On Combating Piracy & Armed Robbery Against Ships (Re CAAP); International Ship & Port Facility Security Code (ISPS Code), Automatic Identification System (AIS); Container Security Initiative (CSI); Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI) and Regional Maritime Security Initiative (RMSI). In addition, various dialogues and joint maritime exercises and arrangements got going.
US President Donald Trump formally talked of the “Indo-Pacific Strategy”, which has been emphasized by Japan, calling for strengthening cooperation with India, in synch with India’s Act East Policy. A much wider forum to deliberate on strategic and regional issues is the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium (IONS).
The third round of the security dialogue in Quad between India, US, Japan and Australia, was held on 15 November 2018 at Singapore on sidelines of the 13th East Asia Summit. The emphasis as earlier was on promoting a free, open, rule-based and inclusive order in the Indo-Pacific region.
The first meeting of ‘Quad’ was held in the Philippines during November 2017, and the second one was held in June 2018 in Singapore on the sidelines of the ASEAN meet. Quad countries are wary of China’s rapidly expanding military and expeditionary capabilities and aggressive designs on the Indo-Pacific. Quad is one of the elements of the larger Indo-Pacific strategy of the US for free, open and rule-based order on the seas, and wants Quad to evolve into ministerial-level dialogue instilled with military dimensions’. ‘Military dimensions do not necessarily translate into formal military alliance but India remains opposed to it on the plea that ASEAN should remain central to Indo-Pacific issues.
Yet, the US State Department spokesperson had already clarified, saying, “The Indo-Pacific strategy recognizes the centrality of ASEAN …This kind of grouping (Quad) is not in anyway an effort to bypass these critical institutional bullwarks in the Indo-Pacific”. The Indian stance perhaps has less to do with pro-active strategic cooperation, more due concern about annoying the Dragon; because India has consistently neglected its military modernization and development of border infrastructure. It is for such reasons that China’s conceited media (all media is official in China) has the audacity to say that “India wooing of Maldives’ leader ‘risks’ China ties”.
Having militarized the SCS, China is feverishly establishing bases and port development in the Indo-Pacific; Gwadar and Djibouti to Jiwani in Pakistan, Kyaphuku in Myanmar, Hambantoto in Sri Lanka, Maldives, besides Papua New Guinea and more. China has activated Thailand to seriously examine construction of the KRA canal and Chinese companies are investing $2 billion in the erstwhile US base in Philippines.
For the Quad, China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is of special focus since it is the fulcrum of China’s aggressive moves. India has been opposed to the BRI because its flagship project, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) passes through Indian Territory illegally occupied by Pakistan, which China has gone about developing it, along with other development ventures, without any reference to India, in addition to establishing a PLA Brigade in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (POK).
The US, Japan and Australia too have reservations over the BRI since it is viewed as the means to China’s global domination and threat to freedom of navigation and global commons, which Chinese domineering actions in the SCS disregarding international norms and the UNCLOS indicate. It is for such reasons that US is going to join in an Australian base plan in Papua New Guinea.
During the November 15 meeting, Quad participants reaffirmed ASEAN’s centrality as the corner-stone of a free, open and inclusive Indo-Pacific and agreed to partner with other countries and forums in the region to promote a free, open, rules-based and inclusive order in the Indo-Pacific. They also collectively committed to strengthening connectivity and quality infrastructure based on sovereignty, equality and territorial integrity of all nations, as well as transparency, economic viability and financial responsibility.
Post the Quad meet, the MEA spokesperson said the discussions at the meeting focused on cooperation in areas such as connectivity, sustainable development, counter-terrorism, non-proliferation and maritime and cyber-security, with a view to promoting peace, stability and prosperity in an increasingly inter-connected Indo-Pacific region that the four countries share with each other and with other partners.
While the ‘Quad’ was revived in 2017 only, the IONS was established in February 2008 on the initiative of India. IONS is a regional forum of Indian Ocean littoral states, represented by their Navy chiefs; similar to the Western Pacific Naval Symposium, it is a voluntary initiative among the navies and maritime security agencies of the member nations. Besides the symposium, other activities like workshops, essay competitions and lectures are also held under IONS.
IONS has 35 member nations: India, Bangladesh, Maldives, Pakistan, Seychelles, Sri Lanka – South Asian Littorals; Iran, Oman, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Bahrain, Iraq, Kuwait, Qatar, Yemen – West Asian Littorals; France, Kenya, Mauritius, Mozambique, South Africa, Tanzania, Djibouti, Egypt, Eritrea, Comoros, Madagascar, Somalia, Sudan from East African Littorals, and; Australia, Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, Singapore, Thailand, Timor Leste from South East Asian and Australian Littorals. In addition, IONS has nine observer nations; China, Germany, Italy, Japan, Madagascar, Malaysia, Netherlands, Russia and Spain.
The IONS seeks to enhance maritime cooperation amongst the member states by providing an open and inclusive forum for discussion of regionally relevant maritime issues. The Chairmanship of IONS has been held by various countries like the UAE, South Africa, Australia, Bangladesh and Iran, in addition to India chairing it from 2008 to 2010. The 10th Anniversary of IONS was held at Kochi in November 2018 with Defence Minister Nirmala Sitahraman. Pakistan was not invited for obvious reasons; it actually needs to be booted out of IONS as a ‘terrorist’ nation.
The IONS promotes shared understanding of maritime issues facing the region, formulating strategies and cooperative mechanisms to enhance regional maritime security and strengthen capabilities for speedy response to Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief in the IOR. As part of the IONS, the Indian Navy is to soon put into operation the Information Fusion Centre for the Indian Ocean Region (IF-IOR) linking all member nations. The IONS is a valuable platform to synergise member nations in maintaining rule-based regional maritime order for mutual benefit of all.