By Biren Nanda*
China’s economic boom and military modernization have brought it to the forefront of the strategic stakes in the Asia Pacific region. In economic terms China is the number one trading partner of many countries in the Asia Pacific, including India and Australia. On the other hand China’s military aggressiveness in the East and South China Seas and the “US pivot” to Asia have raised the prospects of tensions between China and the United States in the future.
There seems to be a gap between China’s local bullying behavior and her overall strategy and pronouncements, which seem to advocate a more reasoned rise. This begs the question as to whether China’s aggressiveness is based on the premise that US’ power is on the decline and that it can deter the US at least in the region? Does China believe that US pronouncements notwithstanding, the US will not move to contain China? Or is Chinese behavior the result of the gap between the tactical and the strategic – and the result of a well thought out strategy towards the eventual establishment of a dominant power position in the region? There are no precise answers to these questions. There appear therefore, to be grey areas in Chinese and US perceptions regarding each other’s motives and intentions, which could sow the seeds of future conflict in the region.
The National Security Strategy released by the Australian Government in 2013 described the US-China relationship as “the single most influential force in shaping the strategic environment”. For Australia, China is the main trading partner and importer of Australia’s natural resources. The rise of China and the prospect that such a rise will be contested by the United States have led Australian strategic thinkers, like Hugh White, to express the fear that US-China tensions in the future would put Australia in the unhappy position of having to choose between Australia’s alliance partner and her most important trading partner. He has therefore, ventured to suggest that the US must accommodate China’s rise by giving strategic space and perhaps even a sphere of influence in Southeast and East Asia. Hugh White’s critics have pointed to the web of interdependence and growing ties between the US and China, which would preclude the scenario of rising US-China tensions of the sort feared by him.
In India we have witnessed the assertive posture of the Chinese Peoples’ Liberation Army (PLA) on our borders. Concern has been expressed on the port calls by Chinese submarines in our neighborhood and on China’s so called “String of Pearls Strategy” of bases and diplomatic ties in the Indian Ocean Region. How concerned should we be about these developments?
As China emerges as a major global power, it will expand its military footprint across the globe, much like that other great power, the US, whose bases surround China. The rapid expansion of China’s naval capabilities and broader military profile is a classic manifestation of its great power status. China’s growing reliance on ports across the Indian Ocean Region may just be a response to its perceived vulnerability, given the logistical constraints that it faces due to the distance of the Indian Ocean waters from its own territory.
While in light of the recent history of India-China relations we have reason to be concerned about these developments, it is also important to acknowledge the following: First, India’s box seat position in the Indian Ocean Region, straddling major shipping lanes, gives it a unique advantage that the PLA Navy is unlikely to be able to neutralize in the foreseeable future. Second, though China has been involved in constructing port infrastructure in our neighborhood, it may be premature to describe these facilities as bases. Third, while we correctly perceive a potential threat from the Chinese Navy in the Indian Ocean Region, we have to recognize that China also has legitimate security interests in the Indian Ocean Region and needs to protect the security of her sea lanes of communications.
The question then is whether the Chinese have gone beyond their legitimate interests in developing relationships in the Indian Ocean Region. Finally, we must note that to advance our own interests, India too, has developed strong maritime security relationships with Mauritius, Madagascar, Seychelles, Sri Lanka, Maldives, Oman and Qatar. Lastly unlike Australia, India’s policy of strategic autonomy and the diversity of her political, security and economic partners gives her ample strategic space to craft her response to China’s rising ambitions.
China’s assertiveness and the United States’ uncertain response are encouraging countries like India and Australia to strengthen their bilateral security ties. In 2009 the two countries declared their Strategic Partnership, which included the intent to develop stronger security ties. Since then we have exchanged visits of defence ministers and have established a number of dialogue platforms, including the annual Defense Policy Talks, Service-to-Service Staff Talks, and a Track 1.5 Defense Strategic Dialogue. The two countries have signed bilateral MOUs on combating terrorism, defence cooperation and information sharing. During the recent visit of Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Australia in November 2014, the two prime ministers released a Framework for Security Cooperation. The framework consists of an action plan for cooperation in foreign policy; defense policy planning and coordination; counter-terrorism and other transnational crimes; border protection, coast guard and customs; disarmament, non-proliferation, civil nuclear energy and maritime security; disaster management and peacekeeping; and cooperation in regional and multilateral fora. (India and Australia work closely on security issues in regional fora like the East Asia Summit, the ASEAN Regional Forum, the ADMM+, the IORA and the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium).
The navies of the two countries have been at the forefront of security cooperation between the two countries. In recent years there has been a steady stream of goodwill visits by Indian Navy ships at Australian ports. This year, in a landmark event, the two navies are slated to organize their first bilateral naval exercise
*Biren Nanda was formerly high commissioner to Australia, ambassador to Indonesia and Consul General in Shanghai. He can be reached at [email protected]