By Divya Kumar Soti*
Last few months have witnessed heightened activity in the Asia-Pacific as maritime geopolitics as well as occurrence of certain incidents which have further heated up the strategic environment from Indian Ocean Region (IOR) to South China Sea.
But before we proceed to examine all this, it will be beneficial to look back at the attempts made by various countries at strategic alliances over the last decade or so, to restore the balance of power and update the geopolitical equations in view of China’s rise and its attempt to break out of the maritime dilemma with a revivalist as well as a revisionist mindset.
In 2007; India, US, Japan and Australia had opened the quadrilateral security dialogue which was supposed to pave way for joint exercises, maritime patrolling and strategic cooperation. Though not much was said to keep the idea low profile and also probably because the architects were themselves not sure whether such clear cut tilts were actually sustainable in view of economic leverages China commanded at that time. Those apprehensions proved to be true when Canberra pulled out of the Quad giving more importance to Beijing’s sensitivities and its economic relations with China and all the while New Delhi remained perplexed as to the level of the engagement with such a strategic formation.
When last year in October, Australians leased strategically located Darwin Port to a Chinese company, with run up to the deal having been largely kept obscured from Americans who claimed to have been caught completely off guard , the very idea of any strategic quad looked dead like dodo. This March, NYT carried a report quoting US officials over concerns in Washington that Chinese will use Darwin to carry out Naval Espionage over adversary military activities aimed at securing freedom of navigation in the South China Sea.
But clearly aware of the furore that was on way over the Darwin deal, Australian Defense Minister Kevin Andrews was suggesting, a month before the decision of lease to China becoming public, that Australia is keen on joining joint naval exercises with India, US and Japan. This year in March, speaking at Raisina Series dialogue in New Delhi, Commander of the US Pacific command, Admiral Harry B Harris Jr, again pushed for the revival of India, US, Japan, Australian strategic quad as part of American rebalance to the Asia Pacific so as to ensure freedom at navigation at Seas and prevention of attempts at the unilateral alteration of world order- a veiled reference to overwhelming Chinese territorial claims in the South China Sea.
While it is still not clearly known whether Australia has given up on its past reluctance to be seen as part of any containment formation with respect to China, Turnbull government is seemingly less averse to such ideas in comparison to the Kevin Rudd government which had aborted the attempts at affecting such a quadrilateral arrangement in the past. Moreover, the increasing Chinese maritime assertions over the last few years and months are likely to trigger a rethink in Canberra as to affecting some kind of rebalance in the region. For instancs, this year in March, Chinese Coast Guards intervened to forcibly foil an attempt by the Indonesian Authorities to capture a Chinese fishing vessel operating inside Indonesia’s Exclusive Economic zone near the Natuna Islands. China claims exclusive rights in the area through its own concept of nine dash line. From February, China has reportedly deployed Surface to Air missile batteries on the disputed Paracel Archipelago.
The mammoth challenge gauged by Chinese maritime ambitions can best be understood by a recent news report in Communist Party controlled Global Times which declared that China plans to build floating nuclear power plants to provide electricity to various construction projects being planned as part of the Chinese reclamation efforts in the South China Sea. Last year similar reports surfaced in international media about Beijing’s plans to build floating islands in the area. Last month a Chinese military aircraft landed on an artificial island built by China in the disputed zone of the South China Sea as part of a rescue mission and this development was cheered up by military analysts in Beijing as a major step towards ensuring sustainable Chinese air dominance in the disputed zone. This May, China scrambled two fighter planes to warn a US Navy warship sailing nearby the Spartly islands claimed by China.
All these events have not only badly spooked the regional players like Philippines and Vietnam which are at further risk of losing territory and maritime rights but also have rung alarm bells in world capitals triggering speculation over the extent to which China is willing to go to break out of its maritime dilemma and whether strategists in Beijing have completely shunned the traditional self-proclaimed benign view of China’s rise. Japan’s Foreign Minister Fukimo Kishida recently articulated these concerns candidly ahead of his visit to Beijing: “(China’s) unilateral attempts to change the status quo in the East and South China Seas under the aim of building a strong maritime state are having not only people in Japan, but countries in the Asia-Pacific region and the international community worried greatly”.
Though all this speculation of the revival of strategic quad remains rife, disagreements and hesitation as to the level of engagement with such an arrangement is not stopping the potential partners from teaming up at the bilateral level. So while US and India agreed in principle to go ahead for Logistics Supply Agreement (LSA) during US Defense Secretary Ash Karter’s recent visit to New Delhi, Japan is going to team up with India in developing strategically located Chabahar port in Iran which is seen as India’s reply to Gwadar Port being developed by China as part of China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC).
It is important to note that in case of LSA, it is the Chinese aggressiveness and entrenchment which supplied the nationalist Modi government with rationale and justification to overcome traditional averseness in India against any military arrangement with America. It may not be long before similar school of thought becomes powerful in Canberra and many other Asian capitals as major players will have to come to terms with inevitable Chinese maritime expansion into the Indian Ocean Region as it seems unexpectedly close to consolidating its position in the South China Sea.
*Divya Kumar Soti is a national security and strategic affairs analyst based in India. He can be reached at: [email protected]