Once India invited the Australian Navy to take part in the Malabar 2020 exercise QUAD has become demi official. In addition, India has also indicated increased trade with Taiwan. China reacted, to state that it firmly opposes the move. The 2+2 Indo-US dialogue is shortly on, immediately after the QUAD foreign ministers meet. India is firming in towards China. QUAD now, unambiguously means containing China in through the Indo-Pacific construct. China, despite showing signs of concern remains aggressive.
In the process, China has become the main driver of the QUAD. However some sceptics feel-why is India getting into the Pacific oriented QUAD? The QUAD vs China confrontation is not just Pacific story. Others - in and out of this region have stakes. Recently France and Germany/European Union (EU) have come out with their Indo Pacific strategies. A wider understanding is important to peg the Indian role in the unfolding scenario.
The Indo Pacific Landscape
The Indo-Pacific region stretches from the of East Coast of Africa to the West Coast of America. The Indo-Pacific coastlines also touches Russia and the Gulf. The region has more than half of the global population, a growing share of world trade and increasing international influence. It includes six members of the G20- Australia, China, India, Indonesia, Japan and South Korea. Major Indo-Pacific nations are part of it - USA, Canada, Mexico and South Africa. The region has four nuclear powers – China, India, Pakistan and North Korea.
Twenty of the world’s 33 megacities are located here. France and the UK have territories in the Indo-Pacific. The region has geopolitical tensions with open rivalries, conflicts (both internal and cross-border), boundary disputes refugee movements and piracy issues. Regional crises and tensions have global implications. 2,000 ships cross the Malacca Strait in a day. With 25% of the world’s maritime trade, it is the most consequential passage on earth.
From a political perspective, the Indo-Pacific countries are generally stable but regionally in flux, due to growing differences and past conflicts. The region lacks institutional and normative mechanisms. It has an escalating arms dynamics. Urbanisation and an emerging middle class of fast developing countries drive social issues. The Chinese Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), the US, Japanese, Australian and Indian Indo-Pacific strategies, and Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) multilateralism, are geopolitical and developmental models intersecting in the Indo-Pacific region.
"From a political perspective, the Indo-Pacific countries are generally stable but regionally in flux, due to growing differences and past conflicts."
Interests and Outlooks
Chinese Interests: China’s global and core interests include its perceived maritime rights and overseas assets. These interests and assets are beyond Taiwan, South China Sea (SCS) and its peripheral islands. The Chinese geopolitical, economic and energy interests extend beyond the Indo-Pacific. The sea lines of communication of the Indo-Pacific are critical for Chinese.
The BRI which rings the Indo-Pacific region represents not only Chinese economic interests but it is the main vehicle of its geopolitical expansionism, influence and and assertion. The ‘String of Pearls’ strategy to contain India hinges on Chinese ability to dominate the Indo-Pacific. China has established a base at Djibouti and is in the process of establishing a base at Gwadar. It already has a port at Hambantota. Indications are that it will attempt to acquire an Island in the Maldives Archipelago for development into a military base.
Its presence in the Indian Ocean is an existential fact. It is also active in the Pacific group of Islands to get a pivot to reach out to South America where is has huge interests. China also expands its influence in the Indo-Pacific through its maverick and unpredictable nuclear allies – Pakistan and North Korea. North Korea enables extension of influence in the Pacific and Pakistan in the Indian Ocean. If China has to become a super power it must have unhindered presence and control over the Indo-Pacific region. The rapid expansion of People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) belies Chinese intentions. The QUAD has to respond accordingly.
"The Chinese geopolitical, economic and energy interests extend beyond the Indo-Pacific."
The Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP): A free and open FOIP architecture envisages upholding rules-based international order, underpinned by rule of law (including UNCLOS), transparency, freedom of navigation in international seas, respect for territorial integrity, sovereignty & peaceful resolution of disputes. It also includes connectivity and infrastructure development, security including counter-terrorism; cyber and maritime security; and the stability and prosperity in the region.
This has been very well captured by our Foreign Minister during the QUAD ministerial meet. Tanvi Madan’s tables succinctly capture the essence of the QUAD architecture which emerged unspoken in Tokyo. Increasingly the FOIP architecture is a hardening of democracies with the QUAD at the core to resist an increasingly assertive China and CCP's expansion, exploitation and coercion.
US Presence and Strategy: USA is an extra regional player with military presence/arrangements with Japan, South Korea, Philippines, Indonesia, Taiwan, Vietnam, Australia and India. Military bases at Diego Garcia and Guam enable it to control the entire Indo Pacific region. The USA is also deeply intertwined with China – joined at the hip as many put it. However there is a clear and present challenge from China to displace USA.
The US strategy is to prevent that was outlined by their Secretary of State. The US strategy could be construed as an overall QUAD strategy with an US subtext. USA feels that China has violated all norms of acceptable behaviour and appeasement is no more the answer. It is of the view that Japan, Australia and India are capable nations with capable economies and security apparatuses. USA opines that QUAD has already improved coordination of the group as a whole and between individual partners.
Hence QUAD will come up with practical implementation strategies when needed. USA envisages institutionalisation of the QUAD will lead to a security framework to counter the Chinese challenge. USA also clarifies that security encompasses economic capacity, the rule of law, the ability to protect IPR, trade agreements and diplomatic relationships. It's not just military but much deeper and broader. QUAD represents the power of democracies which an authoritarian China can never have. QUAD is going to support and work with regional countries and ASEAN.
French Perspective: France has large territory in this region. It includes 93% of its exclusive economic zone (EEZ), 1.5 million French citizens and a military presence of 8,000 troops. It has 7,000 subsidiary companies and 150,000 expatriates who are settled and trade in the area. In its view two striking regional phenomena are - increasing military assertion and global ambition of China and violent expression by Radical Islamism.
It sees parts of the Indo-Pacific region in turmoil. France perceives a growing role in this region as a mediating, inclusive and stabilizing power in settlement of regional crises, protection of shipping routes, fight against terrorism, radicalization and organized crime as part of global governance. The Indo-Pacific is a priority region for France. It intends to strengthen partnerships with regional players having same values and interests: Australia, India, Indonesia, Japan, New Zealand, Singapore and South Korea.
It looks at a cooperative and reciprocal relationship with China, within the EU framework. It seeks increasing engagement with regional organizations (particularly ASEAN) and an inclusive Indo-Pacific space in which no country should impose its hegemony.
Germany and EU View: Germany and the EU are closely integrated with China. Germany views the future international order to be Indo-Pacific based dominated by China, Japan, USA and India. It prefers democracies with shared values. It opines that economic development and human rights are not mutually exclusive but complimentary. Its approach is ‘not that the law of the strong that must prevail, but the strength of the law should’. It questions China’s commitment to this concept.
Simultaneously Germany and the EU do not consider containment and decoupling strategies to be conducive. Germany believes disruption in maritime trade routes and supply chains would have serious consequences for Europe. Germany feels that the ASEAN-centric security architecture offers a valuable framework and wants to upgrade EU-ASEAN relations to the level of a strategic partnership.
It wants monitoring of UN sanctions against North Korea and wants to support a substantive and legally binding Code of Conduct between China and the ASEAN for the South China Sea. It also seeks to reform the UN Security Council and strengthen its ability to act along with two India and Japan. Germany, envisages the enlargement of the UN Security Council to safeguard its representative function and thereby ensure its continued authority and legitimacy.
UK Stance: UK had a very great relationship going with China. However Hong Kong, Huawei, and the Covid-19 pandemic have uprooted it. Hong Kong’s freedoms being stripped and the “one country, two systems” being castaway by China, 27 years ahead of schedule, in violation of a treaty has catalysed change in UK. It has dumped Huawei and China. The UK will now press for a FOIP strategy.
It will align with the region’s democracies - India, Japan, USA, Australia, South Korea, and Taiwan. The UK views that BRI has been the only infrastructure game in town and needs to be countered.
ASEAN Outlook: The ASEAN countries have to live next door to an increasingly assertive China despite land and maritime borders and disputes. They will tread a line as per their collective and individual concerns and interests. Being proximal to China gives them an understanding as to how to deal with it. They will maintain a balance while being central to any Indo-Pacific Strategy. The ASEAN has defined an Outlook on the Indo-Pacific. It is based on the principles of strengthening its centrality, complementarity with existing cooperation frameworks, relevant UN treaties and conventions, and various ASEAN treaties and agreements. It will have to tread a fine line.
Other Countries: Besides the major countries/organisations discussed above there are other countries who have stakes in the Indo Pacific. The ‘QUAD plus’ envisages S Korea, New Zealand and Vietnam. Besides this Canada. Sweden, and Russia will pitch in.
FOIP Scope: When the push comes to the shove, democracies and affluent countries will range against Chinese autocracy and in specific the CCP. It is also evident that the Free and Open Indo-Pacific Concept is beyond the South China Sea with each country and area having large commonality of interests with subtle differences. These will ensure that QUAD will be an umbrella arrangement rather than an Asian NATO.
The partners will have a degree of autonomy of action. In the short term and initial stages, the focus might will be on the Western-Pacific. However in the long term it will gravitate to the Indian Ocean. The Chinese bid for global geopolitical domination will be played out through the BRI in South Asia, Africa and the Gulf on the Indian Ocean end and South America on the Pacific end. As PLAN expands its activities and the CPEC and Gwadar start functioning, the tussle will intensify. The story is also about decoupling, relocation and realigning global supply chains away from China. The success of QUAD will be predicated on it looking beyond Asia.
Evolution: The QUAD is a work in progress. Currently it is an alignment hardening into an alliance without any treaty obligations. If China’s increasing threats lead to enhanced aggression against Taiwan or any other state, then the QUAD will be the base on which an international coalition could emerge. Even otherwise, the weight and greed of Chinese intent will drive QUAD into formality.
From statements all around, it will evolve into a multidimensional forum encompassing DIME pathways (Diplomatic, Informational, Military and Economic) which will build upon existing strategic linkages between QUAD partners within and outside. QUAD alone has the heft to take EU, ASEAN, Plus nations, South Asia, IORA, Gulf and African states along. In the current pandemic conditions no single nation can do that.
Prognosis for India
A plural India needs to be accepted with its advantages and faults without being sermonised. India has to find its own solutions to its problems, not quick fixes from others.
What does India Bring to Table? India brings geographic centrality, democracy, military capability, soft power, consumption power, workforce, innovation and dependable partnerships. Very importantly, India brings trust and balance to the table through its diplomatic, cultural and historical relationships with Russia, Brazil, South Africa, Gulf, Rest of Asia and Africa.
It brings the scalar capability to safely decouple which can be subverted in other countries by China. It is one country which can hold China militarily by its tail in the Himalayas as it is doing now and block its entry into the Indian Ocean. India gives the QUAD a rear door entry into the Chinese backyard to make it look inward. India brings the power of vaccination and immunisation programs - experience, production and distribution in the current pandemic conditions.
That will be critical for global economic revival. What does India seek from the table? As with everyone else India seeks containment of China and to make it look inwards. This applies to Pakistan also. If these two countries are held in check, there will be global peace. India seeks reliable military, diplomatic and economic cooperation rather than assistance. It seeks reform of the UN to make it a wider representative body. It needs assistance to curb radical Islam and terror.
It seeks to be a reliable partner in the global supply chain initiatives. India seeks to ensure that international institutions do not end up funding or bailing countries from the BRI debt traps. It seeks mutually benefitting relationships of long standing nature. What India does not want is to be another China. A plural India needs to be accepted with its advantages and faults without being sermonised. India has to find its own solutions to its problems, not quick fixes from others.
Earlier articles in the series:
(Lt Gen PR Shankar retired as Director General of Artillery, Indian Army. The author has vast operational experience and has held many important command, staff, and instructional appointments in the Army. An alumnus of Defence Services Staff College Wellington, Army War College Mhow, Naval Post Graduate School Monterrey and National Defence College Delhi, he gave great impetus to the modernization of Artillery through indigenization.
He has a deep understanding and experience of successful defense planning and acquisition spanning over a decade. Major 155mm Gun projects like the Dhanush, M777 ULH and k9 Vajra, Rocket and Missile projects related to Pinaka, Brahmos and, Grad BM21, surveillance projects like Swati WLR and some ammunition projects came to fructification due to his efforts. You can reach him on Twitter:@palepurshankar, Email ID: email@example.com)
(Views expressed are the authors own, and do not reflect the editorial policy of 'Mission Victory India')
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