By Dr Subhash Kapila
Indo Pacific region encompassing the vast expanse from West Coast of the United States to the Eastern Littoral of Africa on the Indian Ocean and Australia in South Pacific has emerged in recent year as fulcrum of global security and stability. Competing security narratives led by United States and a reactive and hardly credible narrative by China challenges Indian foreign policy directions.
The Indo Pacific Security Template narrative authored and led by the United States finds favour with the West, Japan, Australia and India as Major Powers. Japanese Prime Minister Abe aptly described it as an ‘Arc of Democracies’. All of them firmly subscribe to the principle of “Freedom of the High Seas’ and “Freedom of Navigation of Global Commons & Air Space Above It”. Rightly so, as both the Pacific Ocean and Indian Ocean have unparalleled geopolitical and strategic significance related to shifting of global centre of gravity to the Indo Pacific Region.
Needless to highlight as so many academic treatises have already done so is that Indo Pacific Security Template as a strategic narrative emerged so as a narrative in the last decade generated by fears of China’s not so benign intentions manifested from Himalayan Heights of China Occupied Tibet with India to the Western Pacific and pointedly the South China Sea where due to United States strategic omissions China has muscled-in to establish ‘Full spectrum Dominance’.
China has been conscious of the underlying rationales of the formulation of the concept of Indo Pacific Security Template with the United States, Japan, India and Australia as the main actors in giving it some semblance of shape, though still falling short of its emergence as an ‘Eastern NATO’. But that with various moves between these Nations and with different mechanisms put in place it is enough to cause strategic concerns in China.
These four Nations also comprise “The Quad” which was given a boost in President Bush Jr era and now revived again by the Trump Administration. This time there is less hedging by members of the Quad in that levels of consultations stand rose to higher levels.
The Indo Pacific Security Concept is an avid subject of focus and discussions not only amongst the Major Participants but also of ASEAN as a regional grouping and more prominently of China. ASEAN is trying to forge its own independent narrative of Indo Pacific security but with no major military capabilities ASEAN is in no position to do so.
China perceived that the United States-led Indo Pacific Security Template was intended as a ‘Containment of China’ and hat further with the Military Allies relationship of Japan and Australia with the United States and the US-India Strategic Partnership evolving into more substantial contours, this emerging ‘Quad’ was in effect aimed at China. More significantly, the main focus of the Quad is on maritime security and coordination and integration of the Navies of these four Nations by joint naval exercises—a symbolic checkmating of China’s National Maritime Strategy.
China has no credible competing Indo Pacific Security narrative to counter the US-led Indo Pacific Security Template in that China is seriously limited in forging an ‘Eastern Warsaw Pact’ model that Former Soviet Union put in place in Europe to counter NATO. Ironically, as consistently pointed out in my writings for nearly two decades is the fact that China has “No Natural Allies”.
Ironically for China, the China-Russia Strategic Nexus cannot be conceded as a credible counter-narrative to the US-led Narrative as the China-Russia Strategic Nexus is a marriage of convenience whose longevity is ensured as long as the United States does not reset US policy formulations on Russia.
The China-initiated Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) is composed of besides China with Russia as a Major Power and an assortment of Central Asian Republics. India is now a full-member of SCO and participates in its activities more out of balancing its strategic postures rather than any serious binding commitment to SCO Charter. In the South Asian security context there is a glaring contradiction in SCO is as to how India can be a member of SCO when India’s both military adversaries—China and Pakistan—-are members of SCO.
The most glaring strategic infirmity of the China-led SCO is that neither Russia nor India as Major Powers can be assessed as fully committed to China’s perspectives on Indo Pacific Security which suffers from China-centrism. Besides, it can also be asserted that both Russia and India have different perspectives on Indo Pacific Security.
In view of China’s infirmities to forge a credible and matching military counter-narrative to the US-led Indo Pacific Security narrative, China since 2015 has attempted to forge an ‘Economic Counter-Narrative” in the form of the Maritime Silk Road Project aimed at coupling economically weak nations located astride strategic waterways and chokepoints in the Indian Ocean to give China strategic footholds and potential naval bases—by economic compulsions or pressures—arising from the ‘Debt Traps’ in which such nations allowed themselves to be entrapped by China.
India’s strategic choices in terms of preference between the opposing United States and China narratives cannot on analysis be said to be all that complex as made out. India having lost the countervailing weight of Russia over two decades back with Russia under Yeltsin moving into the Chinese orbit and with India yet to be militarily strong to strike credible independent postures in global geopolitics had no option but to balance China’s growing military brinkmanship on India’s borders with China Occupied Tibet, with strategic partnerships with nations which shared similar strategic perspectives on China’s rising aggressive instincts.
The US –India Strategic Partnership and a similar Special Strategic Partnership with Japan and others became the fulcrum of India’s strategic choices. With passage of years both these Strategic Partnerships have evolved into substantive military relationships short of a formal military alliance.
The moot question that arises is that if India has made its strategic choices firmly in favour of the ‘Arc of Democracies’ which enjoy amongst themselves considerable strategic convergences on China’s intentions and which have contentious issue with China then what impels India to continue with its membership of SCO and other China-led or China-dominated organisations?
On the above, a lot of this is determined by the strategic discourse within India’s policy establishment’s and strategic community’s mixture of lingering Non-Alignment hangovers and a mythical attachment to what I would term as strategic abstractness in coinage of terms like ‘Strategic Autonomy’. It also arises from the Nehruvian –era mindset of ‘Strategic Ambiguity.
In the last seven decades India has paid heavily in strategic and military costs to adherence to ‘Strategic Autonomy’ and Strategic Ambiguity’. This has distorted India’s military build-up and war preparedness against the twin threats of the China-Pakistan Axis.
‘Strategic Autonomy’ is a desirable state of strategic preferences but has to wait till India attains ‘Credible Deterrence’ against China both in conventional and nuclear terms.
‘Strategic Autonomy’ will take decades for India to attain where India’s Opposition Parties irresponsibly “Politicise External & Internal Security Issues” for petty political gains. Modernisation of India’s Armed Forces and development of defence infrastructure becomes seriously impaired by such Indian political delinquencies.
Concluding, it needs to be made abundantly clear that in terms of strategic choices India has no other viable option but to adhere to the US-led Indo Pacific Security Template which alone can provide existential deterrence against China and its adversarial impulses against India. India’s firm strategic choices should also manifest itself by India foregoing its membership of SCO and other China-led and China-dominated organisations. In geopolitical and strategic affairs there is no such thing as ‘Platonic Strategic Relationships’.
Some words about China’s relations with the United States, Japan, Australia and India. In 2019, relations between China and the United States are decidedly adversarial and both figure at the top in respective ‘Threat Perceptions’ of each other. Currently, both United States and China are engaged in a serious US-China Trade War which adds another complicating dimension to their adversarial relationship.
Japan has always been viewed with hostility by China both due to historical fixations and currently geopolitically and militarily as Japan is the sheet anchor of United States security architecture in the Pacific. With Japan in process of modernisation and upgradation of its defence capabilities and its moves toward amending the Peace Constitution to enable Japan to acquire its rightful position as a Major Asian Power, the messaging to China should be clear.
Australia has over a century old security ties with United States spanning two World Wars of the 20th Century and of the Vietnam War involvement aiding the United States. There should be no doubt as to on which side Australia will be in case of a showdown between United States and China. Of course periodically some Australian Prime Ministers may have been swayed by China but that can be viewed as an aberration. Also Australia cannot be oblivious to China muscling into Australia’s backyard of South Pacific Islands Nations.
India’s perspectives on Indo Pacific Security Template can be said to be clear and strategically clear. If it had not been so then India under two different political dispensations in New Delhi would not have moved ahead in making its Strategic Partnership more substantive. In fact, the very rationale that impelled the forging of the US-India Strategic Partnership by both Nations was the not so benign military rise of China and its consequent impact on India and the United States.
Nor can be forgotten that China aggressively disputes its China Occupied Tibet borders with India and China launching the 1962 War on India betraying the trust that India had placed on China. In the decades that followed 1962 China has put India under sustained and relentless pressures on the borders with aggressive brinkmanship. If China was seriously interested in improving ties with India its approaches would have been more positive.
So what should India read into China’s demonstrated adversarial actions against India and militarily outflanking India through the China-Pakistan Axis and the China Pakistan Economic Corridor. China has unmistakably taken its gloves off when it comes to India and it would be naïve for India’s policy establishment and decision-makers to read China’s intentions otherwise.
Taking the above as a given then what options are available to India?