In order to resist China’s illegal assertions and outright violation of nations’ sovereignty, it is imperative for India to expand the canvas of the Malabar exercise.
Speaking at the India Ideas Summit, organised by the US-India Business Council, India’s External Affairs Minister, S. Jaishankar said, “I think the US really has to learn to work in a sense with a more multipolar world, with more plurilateral arrangements, go beyond alliances with which really it has grown up over the last two generations. There will be issues on which our convergence will be more, somewhere it could be less. I think the quest in the last 20 years, and I see that continuing into the future, is really to find more common ground.” Underlining areas of maritime security, counter-terrorism, pandemic, climate change and knowledge economy, he said, “We have the ability today by working together to shape the world”.
This statement is a significant pointer to the direction that geopolitics is headed. It will be driven by the direction in which the elephant turns. The slow decline in US hegemony has been accelerated by the CCP generated Wuhan virus. Not only is the CCP reducing the economic gap with the US, but is also challenging the US militarily in the South China Sea. After years of reclamation around the rocks and reefs, displacing the rightful owners from the Spratly and Paracel group of islands and militarising them based on a flawed historical claim, China is a formidable player. This is obvious from China’s assertive behaviour against Japan over Senkaku islands and frequent threats to take over Taiwan, which has often been challenged by the US in the form of Freedom of Naval Operations, sailing into contested zones in which China’s claims have been rejected by the International Court of Justice.
But the truth is that US is stretched policing the world. Its indulgence in West Asia helped China grow unchecked. Today the same very China, which multiplied its economic might due to American manufacturers operating out of China, is threatening to displace the US from its undisputed unipolarity. The turbulence that the world is witnessing is similar to the history of the decline of world powers. One can look at WWI, which led to the decline of France and Britain along with Western Europe and the rise of America as a world power.
WWII saw the decline of Germany, Japan, Italy and rest of Axis powers. This resulted in the emergence of a bipolar construct, one pole being the US-led Europe, Australia and ASEAN, in addition to the vanquished nations of WWII, and the other pole being the Soviet Union-led communist bloc, consisting of Eastern Europe. It was the period of the Cold War wherein the two poles were suspicious of each other, as a result of which competition in matching advancements in weapons technology and threatening postures of using it was frequent. India along with a few nations chose to remain non-aligned, concentrating on the post decolonisation developmental agenda in a virtually closed market system. Being non-aligned meant no transfer of high-end technology either from the East or the West. Closed economy also meant slow development.
After much turmoil the world witnessed the fall of the Soviet Union in 1990-91. This was about the time that India opened up its economy to the world. With the end of the Cold War, the US became the sole superpower in a unipolar world order, left with no ideological or economic competitor. Geopolitical geoeconomical changes in the world have always been preceded by turbulence and chaos since there is a clash of interests or ideology between groups of nations, collectively or individually. We are at the threshold of such a change in which CCP’s “Socialism with Chinese Characteristics” is in conflict with the US-led democratic free world. While the CCP claims 80% of South China Sea and some territories of India and Bhutan, the US-led democracies have laid their faith in the free and open seas, airspace, respect for sovereignty and legal trade. China visualises US’ withdrawal from a number of multilateral fora as its inability to lead the world. Having spread the Wuhan virus to the world, China has seemingly controlled the pandemic ahead of the rest of the world, which is struggling to overcome the deadly impact of the virus, China is demonstrating that its CCP-led authoritarian model of governance has resulted in very fast development in all spheres of human life and it is capable of handling numerous issues simultaneously, e.g., controlling the pandemic, threatening to take over Taiwan, sinking Vietnamese fishing boats while exercising its authority within the 9 dash line, enforcing CCP laws in Hong Kong, challenging Japan over the ownership of the Senkaku Islands and unilaterally altering status quo of the Line of Actual Control with India.
CCP’s earlier commitment to India of respecting each other’s perception of LAC has been violated assertively. Many rounds of talks have not yielded any results, particularly in two sectors, one being Pangong Tso. The Indian Prime Minister had established a good personal rapport with the General Secretary of CCP, Xi Jinping at two summit level talks at Wuhan and Mamallapuram. Peace and tranquility were to be maintained on the land borders but the Galwan incident exposed the unreliability of CCP. It is time that India shed off its niceties and ambivalence. In the recent past, China has positioned its troops in the Lipulekh area, where it has instigated Nepal to lay claim to Indian territory.
Australia’s joining Quad and the Quad+ Foreign Ministers’ meeting have come at the right time. At present, the coming together of countries is for the joint effort to find a vaccine to the Wuhan virus and save the world from the massive loss of lives due to the pandemic. This collaboration needs to be taken to a higher level of political relationship and maritime security cooperation. Presently, a naval cooperation exercise is limited to the participation of three very powerful Navies, that of the US, India and Japan. With Australia formally joining the Quad, it is now left for Australia to be invited to join the Malabar exercise, which has incrementally progressed over the years (1992) to very complex anti submarine exercises, improvements in interoperability due to COMCASA and 2+2 agreements. The deployment of similar weapons platforms and systems has enhanced interoperability amongst the naval ships, submarines and aircraft. The exercises are conducted over large areas of the Indo-Pacific.
Both the US and China have realised that one country alone cannot ensure the security of all the sea lanes in the Indo-Pacific. While China has cooperation only with Pakistan (Autonomous Region) and North Korea, the US has more robust collaborative arrangements including with India.
In order to resist China’s illegal assertions and outright violation of different nations’ sovereignty, it is imperative for India to expand the canvas of the Malabar exercise. Keeping in mind Indian EAM S. Jaishankar’s “strategy of multilateralism”, a number of countries should be invited to join the Quad+ and use the Malabar joint multilateral exercise SOPs as the post Covid security architecture in the Indo-Pacific. These invitations should be based on a convergence of issues. It is much easier for Navies to split into task forces on issue-based convergence. Should there be a need for the presence of Quad+ Navies to support operations in the Pacific, the task force could be led by Australia or the US, in the South China Sea by Japan or US, and in the Indian Ocean by the Indian Navy. Without being part of an alliance, the naval forces of a number of countries can split into task forces led by one of the countries, based on geography. On achieving the aim the forces disperse back to their respective locations.
While addressing the Indo Pacific, one also needs to keep on mind maritime security arrangement for BIMSTEC countries as well, since the Bay of Bengal is likely to see a rapid rise in trade and commercial activities in the near future. The Indian Navy could consider a meeting of the BIMSTEC naval chiefs now and subsequently on a regular basis. This would boost the cooperative arrangement of maritime security and build confidence in the Bay of Bengal region.
Vice Admiral Shekhar Sinha is ex Commander in Chief, Western Naval Command and Chief of Integrated Defence Staff.