“Only air power can defeat air power. The actual elimination or even stalemating of an attacking air force can be achieved only by a superior air force.”
—Alexander P. de Seversky
“Indo-Pacific is a region with 50 per cent of the world’s population, and enormous diversity of religions, culture, languages, history and political and economic systems.”1
—Prime Minister Narendra Modi
Asia-Pacific typically includes much of East Asia, South Asia, Southeast Asia, and Oceania. It may also include parts of Russia (on the North Pacific) and countries in the Americas which are on the coast of the Eastern Pacific Ocean. Overall, there is no clear- cut definition of “Asia Pacific”, and the regions included change depending on the context. The Indo-Pacific, on the other hand is a bio-geographic region of the Earth’s seas, comprising the tropical waters of the Indian Ocean, and the western and central Pacific Ocean, and the seas connecting the two in the general area of Indonesia. It does not include the temperate and polar regions of the Indian and Pacific oceans, nor the Tropical Eastern Pacific. Initially used by Indian and Australian scholars, the term was made prominent by Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, as reflected in his speech to the Indian Parliament in August 20072 that talked of the “Confluence of the Indian and Pacific Oceans” as “the dynamic coupling as seas of freedom and of prosperity” in the “broader Asia”. On the eve of the Shangri La Dialogue at Singapore in June 2018, the U.S. Defence Secretary Jim Mattis declared that the U.S. Pacific Command would henceforth be called the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command. This was not an off-the-cuff remark but the culmination of a series of events that preceded the eventual declaration.3
Indo-Pacific: The Term Evolves
Since 2011, the term ‘Indo-Pacific’ is being used increasingly in the global strategic/geopolitical discourse. The German geo-politician Karl Haushofer first used the term in the 1920s. Since then, many analysts sought to describe the ‘geo-economic’ connect between the Indian and Pacific oceans. However, in the contemporary context, beginning in the 2000s, analysts began to observe the ‘security’ linkage between the two oceans. The term was first used in an article authored by Gurpreet Khurana, which was carried in the January 2007 issue of the Strategic Analysis Journal (Routledge/IDSA) titled “Security of Sea Lines: Prospects for India-Japan Cooperation.”4 In the article, the term ‘Indo-Pacific’ refers to the maritime space stretching from the littorals of East Africa and West Asia, across the Indian Ocean and western Pacific Ocean, to the littorals of East Asia. From 2010 onwards, the term ‘Indo-Pacific’ acquired salience within the Indian government and has since been used often by India’s apex political leadership. From about 2011 onwards, the term has been used frequently by strategic analysts and high-level government/military leadership in Australia, Japan and the USA to denote the said region. However, a formal/ official documented articulation of the term first appeared in Australia’s Defence White Paper, 2013.5 It has been argued that the concept of the Indo-Pacific may lead to a change in popular “mental maps” of how the world is understood in strategic terms. Since 2013, US officials have begun using the term “Indo-Asia Pacific”. This enabled America to maintain its geographic inclusiveness in the new coinage of ‘Indo-Pacific’. With the rising involvement of the USA in the new growth areas of Asia, the idea of the Indo-Pacific Economic Corridor was conceptualized during the USIndia Strategic Dialogue of 2013, where Secretary of State John Kerry referred to the potential of the Indo-Pacific Economic Corridor in transforming the prospects for development and investments as well as for trade and transit between the economies of South and Southeast Asia Indo-Pacific economic corridor.
The term’s profile was raised when it found mention in the joint statement issued by the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the United States President Donald Trump after the former’s state visit to the White House on 26 June 2017.6 “As responsible stewards in the Indo-Pacific region, President Trump and Prime Minister Modi agreed that a close partnership between the USA and India was central to peace and stability in the region. In marking 70 years of diplomatic relations between India and the USA, the leaders resolved to expand and deepen the strategic partnership between the countries and advance common objectives. Above all, these objectives include combating terrorist threats, promoting stability across the Indo-Pacific region, increasing free and fair trade, and strengthening energy linkages”.
Power shifts in the Indo-Pacific
The Australian Government’s Foreign Policy White Paper of 2017 indicates that the economic growth in Asia continues to re-shape the strategic landscape.7 The compounding effect of China’s growth is accelerating shifts in relative economic and strategic weight. In parts of the Indo–Pacific, including in Southeast Asia, China’s power and influence are growing to match, and in some cases exceed, that of the USA. The future balance of power in the Indo-Pacific will largely depend on the actions of the USA, China and major powers such as Japan and India. The responses of major Southeast Asian states, such as Indonesia and Vietnam, will also be important.
China, which became the world’s largest economy in purchasing-power-parity (PPP) terms in 2014, is a global power in scale but not always in global integration. It became the world’s largest trading nation of goods in 2013.8 However, although China has 110 Global Fortune 500 companies, more than 80 per cent of its revenue is still earned at home. China is banking, securities, and bond markets rank in the global top three in size, but international players have a limited presence. The relationship between China and the world is changing. China is the most important trading partner for most of the region’s economies and a major investor, including in infrastructure. China’s military modernization is rapidly improving the capability of its armed forces. It has the largest navy and air force in Asia and the largest coast guard in the world. It is a large aid donor and lender to the region.
Like all great powers, China will seek to influence the region to suit its own interests. As it does, a number of factors suggest we will face an increasingly complex and contested Indo–Pacific.9 Even as China’s power grows and it competes more directly with the USA regionally and globally, the USA will, for the near future, retain its significant global lead in military and soft power. It will continue to be the wealthiest country in the world, measured in net asset terms, the world’s leader in technology and innovation, and home to the world’s deepest financial markets.
The United States’ long-term interests will anchor its economic and security engagement in the Indo-Pacific.10 Its major Pacific alliances with Japan, the Republic of Korea and Australia will remain strong. Japan and India, major economies and military powers in their own right, are also playing stronger roles in Indo-Pacific security and political affairs and are seeking to influence the balance of the regional order. In this dynamic environment, competition is intensifying. Maritime and land border disputes will continue to create friction. The region’s seas and airspace are becoming more contested. Freedom of navigation is under challenge in parts of the region. Economic power is also being used for strategic ends, including the financing of infrastructure projects.
India and the Indo-Pacific Balance of Power
Nitin Pai, Director, The Takshashila Institution, wrote that ultimately, India’s most important role in the Asia-Pacific is to be a more successful form of itself: demonstrating that strong economic growth can be achieved within a diverse, plural, liberal democracy.11 Over the next few decades, as China closes in on the USA as a world power, India finds itself emerging as a swing power. Its economic, military and diplomatic power affords it the ability to influence, albeit not yet decisively, the contest between the world’s two biggest powers. Even as they improved relations with China and the USA, Indian governments since the end of the Cold War have scrupulously resisted allowing their engagement with one be seen as being directed against the other, he writes. As Kissinger observed, being a effective swing power requires India to enjoy better relations with the USA and China; to have the capacity to both benefit and impose costs on the bigger powers; and finally, political and diplomatic dexterity to take positions issue-by-issue. While the Indian government has not officially enunciated such a doctrine, its actions have generally been in this direction. New Delhi has pursued a strategic partnership with the USA since the early 2000s, and despite a longstanding border dispute, participated in Chinese-led initiatives like the SCO and the Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB). Washington has systematically courted New Delhi, particularly in matters concerning the Indo-Pacific region, even while attempting to manage differences over the Middle East, Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan. The signing of the India-US nuclear agreement in 2005 and the subsequent mainstreaming of India in the Nuclear Suppliers Group was a landmark in this regard. Since then, there is an ever- closer mutually bipartisan consensus on widening and deepening the India-US relationship. China’s backing of Pakistan and shielding of Pakistan-based international terrorists from UN sanctions, is actually pushing India into a deeper security relationship with the USA.
India’s Look East Policy
India’s Look East Policy is an effort being made by the Indian government to cultivate and strengthen economic and strategic relations with the nations of Southeast Asia in order to solidify its standing as a regional power.12 It also serves to position India as a counterweight to the strategic influence of China in the region. Initiated in 1991, it marked a strategic shift in India’s perspective of the world. It was developed and enacted during the government of Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao and has continued to enjoy energetic support from the successive administrations of different political parties in India. Only after China started fostering trade and economic relations with other Asian nations did India realise the need to secure its eastern flank by making inroads and to act as a counter balancing force. According to former Indian Ambassador Rajiv Sikri, India missed a crucial opportunity during this period to leverage India’s shared colonial experience, cultural affinities and lack of historical baggage to build strong economic and strategic relations with Southeast Asia.13
Much of India’s Look East Policy involves Myanmar, which is the only Southeast Asian country that shares a border with India and is seen as India’s gateway to Southeast Asia. The South Asia Free Trade Agreement created a free trade area of 1.6 billion people including Bangladesh, Bhutan, Maldives, Pakistan and Sri Lanka in 2006. The ASEAN–India Free Trade Area (AIFTA), with ten members came into effect in 2010. India also has separate free trade agreements with Sri Lanka, Japan, South Korea, Singapore, Thailand and Malaysia, among others.
India has also boosted its cooperation with Asian regional groupings such as ASEAN, the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectorial Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) and the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC). Indian companies have made significant economic and trade agreements in infrastructure and other areas. Some of the major projects taken up by India include the resurfacing and upgrading of the 160-kilometre Tamu-Kalewa-Kalemyo road and the Kaladan project that will connect Kolkata Port with Sittwe Port in Myanmar (still in progress). Once these infrastructure projects are completed, the next step will be connecting the India-Myanmar highway network to the existing portions of the Asian Highway Network, which will connect India to Thailand and the rest of Southeast Asia. Indian policy attempts to connect the Indian economy to its traditional maritime neighbourhood and trading partners, broadly across both sides of the Straits of Malacca. While the shifting of the global balance towards the east, resulting in new multilateral international financial institutions, can be in India’s interests, New Delhi remains concerned that China’s regional dominance should not unfavourably change the norms.
Belt and Road Initiative: Indian Concern
India rightly fears that China’s BRI is essentially a Chinese Belt and Chinese Road. Relatively poor India’s Asian neighbours are looking at low-cost Chinese financing and technical assistance for better connectivity, but in effect getting into a debt-trap that could one day force them to give much land access to China as has happened in Pakistan and Sri Lanka, among others. This presence of China is to the detriment of India’s geostrategic interests in the region. Senior Indian officials have expressed concern over the purpose of Chinese investment in infrastructure in regions where there is no discernible commercial purpose.14 Having not received satisfactory answers from their Chinese interlocutors, New Delhi is apprehensive of the risk of military facilities being surreptitiously built in its proximate and broader maritime neighbourhood. When Indian commentators say China is constructing a “string of pearls” in the Indian Ocean, the unexpressed worry is that of being contained and losing preponderance in its immediate maritime neighbourhood.
India’s Balancing Act
India’s primary objective in the Indo-Pacific is to prevent China from dominating the region. In a major foreign policy speech at the Shangri-La Dialogue in June 2018, Prime Minister Narendra Modi repeatedly invoked the principle of the equality of all nations, ‘large and small’, a not-toosubtle reference to China’s relations with its smaller neighbours. ‘We see the assertion of power over recourse to international norms,’ he said, in another reference to China’s assertive behaviour in its neighbourhood, and called for a ‘common rules-based order for the region … that must apply to all … based on sovereignty and territorial integrity’.15 While these are not unusual principles to invoke, doing so in the context of the IndoPacific cannot but be read as an implicit statement that India does not accept that any special privileges should accrue to China, despite the gross disparity between Chinese power and that of other states in the region.
It is not just India that is attempting to fashion a complicated mix of policies to deal with China’s rise and its consequences for the region, and finding the process fraught with contradiction. Most of China’s other neighbours are also engaged in similar efforts. Paradoxically, although Prime Minister Modi declared that ‘India does not see the Indo-Pacific as a strategy’, the strategic elements of the country’s Indo-Pacific policy make it less likely that Beijing will believe him, and thus even less likely that this reassurance strategy will work.16 Thus, while ‘Look East’ and ‘Act East’ represented, at least formally, an effort to foster closer cooperation with Asian economies to its east, India’s approach to the Indo-Pacific is much more directly designed to counter China’s growing power and expansion into South Asia and the Indian Ocean.
India’s Emerging Role
India has begun as a contributor to the Indo-Pacific balance, through joint military exercises, patrolling, port calls, anti-piracy missions and humanitarian missions.17 The Indian Navy has increased the frequency of its engagements east of the Straits of Malacca. New Delhi’s longstanding reluctance to participate in multilateral military exercises might not endure if Beijing continues on its current, antagonistic trajectory. India and Japan are moving closer with economic partnership, and Japan has offered the US-2 amphibious aircraft to India. Most ASEAN nations have their own axe to grind with China and some may be sceptical to antagonise China and may be doing fine balancing. Ultimately, what will count for India is its own economic and military strength for prestige and influence in the region.
2017 Doklam Standoff
The 2017 China-India Doklam border standoff occurred over Chinese construction of a road in Doklam near a tri-junction border area. On June 16, 2017, Chinese troops with construction vehicles and road-building equipment began extending an existing road southward in Doklam, a territory which is claimed by both China, and India’s ally, Bhutan. On June 18, 2017, as part of Operation Juniper, about 270 Indian troops armed with weapons and two bulldozers crossed the Sikkim border into Doklam to stop the Chinese troops from constructing the road. On August 28, after nearly 75 days, both India and China announced that they had withdrawn all their troops from the face-off site in Doklam. The Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) of India released a press statement stating that India and China had mutually agreed to disengage. In Beijing, the foreign ministry spokesperson said that the Chinese forces on site have verified that the Indian troops pulled out, and implied that Chinese troop numbers would be reduced. She said that the Chinese troops would continue to patrol the area, to garrison it and to exercise “sovereign rights”. However, she made no mention of road-building activities. The statement offered Beijing a face-saving way out of the impasse. This stand-off, closely watched by Asian countries, especially those who have territorial and maritime disputes with China, has shown that China’s expansionist ambition is not unstoppable.18 While Japan openly supported India’s position in Doklam and in the cases of Vietnam and other SE Asian nations, which have been victims of Beijing’s ambitions in the South China Sea region, it monitored the situation from close quarters. India’s strategic restraint not only restored the status quo but also enabled it to enhance Delhi’s profile in the comity of nations as an emerging power. During Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s visit to India in December 2017, he said that despite the Doklam dispute which had complicated relations, China and India have far greater shared strategic interests than differences.19 While gently worded, Wang’s remarks do not eradicate from the collective Indian memory the vitriol about teaching India “a bitter lesson” that stemmed from Chinese state media during the Doklam standoff. India’s resistance to China’s Belt and Road Initiative, a project that is clearly viewed as an influence-building initiative, also brought a level of chill in the relationship. The BRI is viewed by India as exclusionary to Indian economic and strategic interests in the region and beyond.
Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP)20
The Trans-Pacific Partnership was a proposed trade agreement between Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, Vietnam, and the USA signed on 4 February 2016, which was not ratified as required and did not come into effect. After the newlyelected US President Donald Trump withdrew the US signature from TPP in January 2017, the agreement could not enter into force. The remaining countries negotiated a new trade agreement called Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, which incorporates most of the provisions of the TPP and which came into force on 30 December 2018. Many observers have argued that the trade deal would have served a geopolitical purpose, namely, to reduce the signatories’ dependence on Chinese trade and bring the signatories closer to the USA. The TPP agreement was part of President Obama’s pivot. Meanwhile China continues to make its own trade deals with key nations in the region, demonstrating a serious decline in American hard and soft regional power.
Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad)
US Indo-Pacific strategy reflects three processes for the USA. The first is that China’s rise presents a “power transition” challenge for the USA. The second is that the USA is responding to that challenge by pursuing “balancing”, both in terms of building up its own strength (“internal balancing”) and in strengthening its alliances and strategic partnerships (“external balancing”). The third is that in balancing terms, “balance of threat” considerations are in operation not only for the USA but also for Japan, Australia and India vis-à-vis China.21 The USA welcomes India’s rise because it provides an increasingly important balancing counterweight to China’s rise. Japan and India together could be able to balance with China. Perceived offensive intentions and geographic proximity make India and Japan, among a few others, more concerned about Chinese power than about US power.
The Quad is an informal strategic dialogue between the USA, Japan, Australia and India that is maintained by talks between member countries. The dialogue was initiated in 2007 by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan. The dialogue was followed by a joint military exercise called ‘Exercise Malabar’. The diplomatic and military arrangement was widely viewed as a response to increased Chinese economic and military power. The Chinese government responded to the Quadrilateral dialogue by issuing formal diplomatic protests to its members. The significance of Quad increased after the tensions caused by Chinese territorial ambitions in the SCS. As Indian Foreign Minister S. Jai Shankar engaged with his counterparts from BRICS as well as USA-Japan-Australia in Quad format in September 2019, in what was almost back-to-back meets, the U.S. Acting Assistant Secretary for the Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs, Alice Wells, told media in New York22 “a wide-ranging discussion of our collective efforts to advance a free and open Indo-Pacific, but also touching on counterterrorism, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, maritime security cooperation, development finance, and cyber-security. I would say that the U.S. and Indian joint participation in the Quad also demonstrates the strength of the U.S.-India relationship and our shared commitment to, again, advancing a values-based policy towards the region.”
US-Indian Military Cooperation
Active US-Indian military cooperation expanded in 1991 following India’s the economic liberalisation when the USA proposed army-to-army cooperation. A “New Framework for India-US Defence” was signed in 2005, increasing cooperation regarding military relations, the defence industry and technology sharing, and the establishment of a “Framework on maritime security cooperation”. India and the USA have conducted dozens of joint military exercises since then before the development of Quad dialogue. including Cope-India (Air Force), Yudh Abhyas (Army) and Vajra Prahar (Special Forces). The two sides are also increasingly engaged in multi-lateral exercises such as the Malabar, Red Flag, and RIMPAC, covering the broad expanse of the Indo-Pacific.23
The USA has four “foundational” agreements that it signs with its defence partners. With India the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA), was signed in 2002. The agreement enables the sharing of military intelligence between the two countries. The Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA), was signed on 29
August 2016. It permits the military of either country to use the other’s bases for re-supplying or carrying out repairs. The Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA) was signed during the inaugural 2+2 dialogue in September 2018. It is an India-specific variant of Communications and Information Security Memorandum of Agreement (CISMOA) that enables the two countries to share secure communication and exchange information on approved equipment during bilateral and multinational training exercises and operations. The Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA) has not yet been signed. It permits the exchange of unclassified and controlled unclassified geospatial products, topographical, nautical, and aeronautical data, products and services. Both side are working on it.
Harsh V. Pant, professor of International Relations at King’s College, London, highlighted the importance of India to US strategic planning by saying: “India is key to the US’ ability to create a stable balance of power in the larger Indo-Pacific and at a time of resource constraints, it needs partners like India to shore up its sagging credibility in the region in face of Chinese onslaught.”24 The USA, as part of its foreign policy to counter China, wants to make India one of its major defence partners for which it is in talks with Indian representatives to sell highly technologically advanced equipment including predator drones. Since 2008, India has purchased the P 8I maritime patrol aircraft, the C-17 and C-130 aircraft, the Chinook and Apache helicopters, M777 Howitzers, and more recently the National Advanced Surface to Air Missile System (NASAMS), version II, multi-layered air defence shield and24 MH-60 Sikorsky Romeo multirole helicopters.
US Disengagement in Afghanistan
As USA tries to disengage in Afghanistan, after a failed policy in the region, it literally hands over the reins to the Pakistan-controlled Taliban, who have intensified attacks immediately after announcement of the likely withdrawal. This included the March 24, 2020, attack by heavily-armed terrorists on a group of nearly 200 Sikh and Hindu worshippers in the gurdwara at Shor Bazaar in Kabul city in which 19 people died.25 Though this attack was claimed by the ISIS, the July 2018 attack on the Sikh and Hindu delegation in Jalalabad, in which 19 were killed and 21 injured, was claimed by the Taliban. With American withdrawal and Pakistan support, the Taliban and ISIS could try to penetrate India further. China is relying on Pakistan for support to get a foothold in the Middle East. The two are sizable military powers and pose a significant threat to India. As China bullies its way through, India needs to form alliances to strengthen its position, especially in the IOR.
MILITARY ASSETS AND APPROACH INDO-PACIFIC
United States Indo-Pacific Command (INDOPACOM)
INDOPACOM26 is a unified combatant command of the U.S. Armed Forces for the Indo-Pacific region. It is the oldest and largest of the unified combatant commands, covering 260,000,000 sq. km, or roughly 52 per cent of the Earth’s surface, stretching from the U.S. West Coast to the west coast of India, and from the Arctic to the Antarctic. Its components include the U.S. Army Pacific, Marine Forces Pacific, the U.S. Pacific Fleet, Pacific Air Forces (PACAF), U.S. Special Forces Command Pacific, and U.S. Forces in Japan and Korea. The INDOPACOM headquarters is located at Hawaii. Originally, U.S. PACOM, the command was renamed as U.S. Indo-Pacific Command on 30 May 2018, in recognition of the greater emphasis on South Asia and India. Its area of responsibility stretches from San Diego to Diego Garcia, from the Pacific to the Eastern Indian Ocean (68 degrees east), including India. Traditionally the Commander has always been from the U.S. Navy.
PACAF is the air component command. Over the past 65+ years, PACAF had engaged in combat during the Korean and Vietnam wars and Operations Desert Storm, Southern Watch, Northern Watch, Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom. The mission of 4,500 strong PACAF is to provide ready air and space power to promote U.S. interests in the IndoPacific region. PACAF comprises three numbered Air Forces, nine main bases and nearly 375 aircraft. A much larger American air component is with the USN’s U.S. Pacific Fleet which consists of approximately 200 ships (including five aircraft carrier strike groups), nearly 1,100 aircraft, and more than 130,000 sailors.
PACAF Operating Assets
PACAF has the Fifth Air Force at Yokoto airbase in Tokyo, Japan. It has two major airbases at Kadena and Misawa, Japan, with a cross-section of combat air assets including fighters, FRA, AEW&C, EW and Recce. The airbase at Yokota in Japan has Special Ops aircraft. The Seventh Air Force headquarters is at Osan airbase in South Korea. Osan and Kunsan have fighter wings with significant combat air assets. The second airbase in Korea is at Kunsan. The Eleventh Air Force is headquartered at Elemndorf airbase in Alaska. It has air assets in two major airbases in Alaska. They also operate from a joint base at Pearl Harbour-Hickam. PACAF also has an Air Force Reserve Command. There is an Air Base at Guam.
U.S. Pacific Deterrence Initiative27 (PDI)
The US Indo-Pacific Command’s $20 billion wish list (over 6 years) to deter China has been presented to the U.S. Congress. This includes a $ 1.6 billion defensive ring around Guam, millions in new military funding for partner nations, and a billion dollars for increased stockpiles of long-range weapons. The new strategy to “Regain the Advantage is designed to persuade potential adversaries that any pre-emptive military action will be extremely costly and likely to fail by projecting credible combat power at the time of crisis, and will provide the President and Secretary of Defence with several flexible deterrent options to include full operation plan execution, if necessary.” The suggestion is that a Pacific Deterrence Initiative, or PDI, would be focused on dealing with China in the INDOPACOM region. It’s not just a budget exercise, but is “a broader strategic opportunity to message the U.S. commitment to the Asian allies and partners as well as to Beijing who have grown confident of their military capabilities. PDI can ensure U.S. forces have what they need to deter Chinese aggression and maintain a free and open Indo-Pacific.
The PDI is likely to be more focused on Navy and Air Force needs. The proposed funding will be for five broad categories. Joint force lethality; force design and posture; strengthening of allies and partners; exercises, experimentation and innovation; and logistics and security enablers. It would mean fielding an integrated Joint Force with precision-strike networks, particularly land-based anti-ship and anti-air capabilities along the First Island Chain; integrated air missile defence in the Second Island Chain; and an enhanced force posture that provides for dispersal, the ability to preserve regional stability and, if needed, sustain combat operations. There is a proposal for a 360-degree persistent and integrated air defence capability in Guam.
The proposal includes integration of long-range precision fires such as the Navy’s Maritime Strike Tomahawk and the Air Force’s JASSM-ER weapon; a high-frequency radar system based in Palau to detect air and surface targets; a homeland defence radar in Hawaii to detect ballistic, cruise and hypersonic threats; and a space-based persistent radar system for tracking global threats. The combatant command “requires highly survivable, precision-strike networks along the First Island Chain, featuring increased quantities of allied ground-based weapons”, Adm. Phil Davidson, head of INDOPACOM, wrote.
Infrastructure investments are needed to spread the U.S. military around the region, breaking the longstanding network of large, centralized bases now seen as easy targets for China’s long-distance capabilities. America’s longstanding advantage in the Pacific relies on a bedrock of alliances and partnerships in the region. Setting up a Mission Partner Environment, envisages the use of “cloud-based technologies, integrated systems, and secure access controls to provide assured command, control, and communications (C3),” and the creation of three fusion centres to work with allies on specific tasks, including a counterterrorism cell already in the works with Singapore and others. The need is for dispersal locations, airfield battle-damage, repair capabilities, and infrastructure for C4I, munitions generation, mobility processing, and fuel storage.
U.S. Other Regional Assets
The USA will like to continue to be an Indo-Pacific power, retaining territorial possessions across the Pacific as well as bases in the Indian Ocean. Guam sits in the “second island chain” which runs from Japan’s Bonin Island, and is considered the US “tip of the spear”. Its deep water facilities enable it to handle aircraft carriers, and it has a long airstrip at Andersen airbase, able to house heavy strategic B-52 bombers. Guam was the host site for the trilateral Malabar exercises in June 2018 between the USA, India and Japan, with the presence of the USS Ronald Reagan, the lead US nuclearpowered aircraft carrier.28 The USA has a significant presence in Japan, with a Carrier Group at Yokusaka and Ryukyu chain of islands, just off Taiwan. Taiwan and Japan make a great strategic combination immediately next to China. US basing facilities at strategically important Palawan in the Philippines facing the South China Sea were re-established in 2016. The U.S. has berthing facilities at Da Nang in Vietnam, not too far from Chinese Hainan Island. The USS Carl Vinson carrier strike group made a historic visit to Da Nang in March 2018, as a powerful message to Beijing. The Cope West exercises between the Indonesian and US air forces have run annually since 2012, in Indonesia or at Tinian in the Western Pacific north of Guam. Indonesia is described as “a geographic and diplomatic fulcrum for the Indo-Pacific region.”29
The USA has defence links with Singapore30 established under the 2005 Strategic Framework Agreement and further strengthened under the 2015 Enhanced Defence Cooperation Agreement have resulted in an ongoing Logistic Group West Pacific stationed there by the USA. Special aircraft carrier berthing facilities, ongoing deployment of littoral combat warships and regular aircraft deployments at Singapore enable further U.S. projection into the Eastern Indian Ocean and South China Sea.
Similar Indo-Pacific projection is enabled with the Marine Rotational Force agreed with Australia at Darwin in November 2011.31 In turn, the UK atoll of Diego Garcia has been the site of a significant U.S. base since 1977 , embedding US maritime power in the middle of the Indian Ocean, and anchoring America’s future presence in the Indo-Pacific. The USA is a member of various organizations in the Pacific and Indian Oceans; including the East Asia Summit (EAS), the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), and the ASEAN Defence Ministers Meeting (ADMM).
Japan Air Self-Defence Force
The Japan Air Self-Defence Force, also referred to as the Japanese Air Force, carries out combat air patrols around Japan, and maintains a network of ground and air early-warning radars. It is estimated to have around 50,000 personnel and operates around 750 aircraft, approximately 375 of them fighters. The force will be renamed the Japan Aerospace Self-Defence Force in recognition of the increasing importance of the space domain. Their fighter aircraft include the Mitsubishi F-2 (based on F-16), F-15 Eagle, and F-35 Lightning II. The Boeing E-767 and E-2 Hawkeye are AEW&C aircraft. They also have about six FRA and a few transport aircraft. The helicopters include CH-47 Chinook and Sikorsky UH-60.
The Royal Australian Air Force
The Royal Australian Air Force provides support across a spectrum of operations such as air superiority, precision strikes, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, air mobility and space surveillance. It has 259 aircraft, of which 110 are combat ones. Combat aircraft include EA-18, F/A-18A/B Hornet, F/A-18 Super Hornet and F-35A Lightning II. Other aircraft include AP-3C Orion, P8A Poseidon, C 130J Hercules, C-17A Globemaster III and KC-30A MRTT, among others. Many more F-35A and Super Hornets will be inducted.
Vietnam People’s Air Force
The main mission of the Vietnam People’s Air Force is the defence of Vietnamese airspace and the provision of air cover for operations of the People’s Army of Vietnam. It has nearly 300 aircraft, mostly of Russian origin, and has 5,000 personnel. Its aircraft include Sukhoi Su-22, Su-27, and Su-30. The transport fleet includes nearly 30 Ukrainian An-26. They have sizeable numbers of Mi-8/Mi-17 helicopters and also Mi-24 attack helicopters.
Air Balance Indo-Pacific
The air forces of the QUAD group of countries and also Vietnam have sizeable numbers and presence. Most air forces have state-of-the art air assets. Each one is individually capable of acting as a deterrent. China is conscious that the rationale of the group of QUAD nations is encirclement and containment of China and that the grouping has sizeable military strength. China has the advantage of home ground and increasing new generation air assets, but still lags in some core technologies like the aircraft engine. It still has a very small aircraft carrier force to be of any significance in the Indo-Pacific region. Undoubtedly, they will catch up in a decade or so.
RIMPAC (Rim of the Pacific) Exercise, is the world’s largest international maritime warfare exercise held biennially (even-numbered years) from Hawaii. Hosted by the USN’s Indo-Pacific Command. Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the UK and the U.S. participate. Other regular participants are Chile, Colombia, France, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, the Netherlands, Peru, Singapore, South Korea, and Thailand. The New Zealand Navy is also frequently involved. Several observer nations are usually invited, including China, Ecuador, India, Mexico, the Philippines, and Russia.
National Security Strategy of the USA
The policy released in December 2017 contained a specific section on “The Indo-Pacific”.32 It warned that “geopolitical competition between free and repressive visions of world order is taking place in the Indo-Pacific region, which stretches from the west coast of India to the western shores of the USA” in which “China seeks to displace the United States in the Indo-Pacific region”, but for which “the United States must marshal the will and capabilities to compete and prevent unfavourable shifts in the Indo-Pacific”. It was argued that this was to be achieved through forward deployment of US forces complemented by quadrilateral arrangements with Australia, India and Japan, together with other bilateral arrangements with countries like Indonesia, Singapore and Vietnam. Similarly, the 2018 National Defence Strategy33 talked of strengthening alliances and attracting new partners.
Japan, India’s Key Strategic Partner34
Trump has come down harshly on China’s mercantilist trade policies by imposing destabilising tariffs on Chinese exports. Russia’s global partnership with China is just to balance American power, and does not materially affect Russia’s close relations with India. Amidst all this volatility in global power equations, India’s most important partner across its Indian Ocean neighbourhood currently is Japan. Both India and Japan have been challenged by Chinese territorial claims, actions and ambitions, together with China’s quest to become a hegemonic power in Asia. India and Japan also closely cooperate on their relationship with China, including on measures to see that tensions with China do not get out of control. Prime Minister Modi and President Xi Jinping have had “one to one” meetings at Wuhan and Mamallapuram to “issue strategic guidance to their respective militaries to strengthen communication to build trust and understanding, to implement various confidence-building measures, which have already been agreed upon, by the two sides”. Yet Chinese military has shown aggressive posturing and created conflict like situation in Galwan region of Ladakh. This has created trust deficit between the two sides. Japanese Prime Minister Abe and President Xi Jin Ping focused on avoiding actions that could escalate tensions across disputed maritime boundaries in the East China Sea. There has been a measure of congruence in the approach of India and Japan to maintain peace and tranquillity across their respective land and maritime boundaries with China. India is working in close cooperation with Japan, on economic development projects across the Indian Ocean region to ensure that countries in the region do not become overly dependent on China. The Indo-Japanese partnership can also balance the vast resources that China is committing primarily for infrastructure development in India’s South Asian and Indian Ocean neighbourhood.
CPTPP and RCEP
There are also strategic economic alignments in the Indo-Pacific. The two largest regional trade agreements today are the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) and the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP). ASEAN is vital to both. All ten members are part of RCEP, while four, (Singapore, Malaysia, Vietnam and Brunei) are also part of the Canada-led CPTPP. India which is eligible for RCEP membership has opted out currently.
OPTIONS AND CHALLENGES INDIA
Balancing China: Ground Realities35
China’s neighbours “are certain to fear its rise” and “will do whatever they can to prevent it from achieving regional hegemony,” including joining “an American-led balancing coalition to check China’s rise.” Most of China’s neighbours and peers are struggling to remain as diplomatically and economically engaged as possible with the rising Asian power while taking the minimum steps necessary to preserve their security and sovereignty. Many, are averse to treaty alliances, multilateral military exercises, and joint Freedom of Navigation Operations and naval patrols. Even the members of the “Quad” have reservations about a Cold Warstyle containment strategy.
Most of China’s neighbours prefer a balancing approach. Regional defence collaboration has been limited to joint military exercises; securityfocused bilateral, trilateral, and multilateral dialogues; joint vision statements; and military inter-operability agreements. China’s actions have pushed Quad members together because of growing concerns about its challenges to the rules-based order, as in SCS. Yet, for most Indo-Pacific countries, trade and investment ties with China have grown exponentially in recent years. Even among the Quad, diplomatic and economic cooperation with China remains remarkably robust; Beijing is the largest trading partner of all four members. Some of China’s immediate neighbours, like Cambodia, Laos, and Pakistan, have forgone balancing altogether, and are actually closing up. ASEAN states, meanwhile, have steered away from hard balancing measures toward more neutral, nonprovocative endeavours. They’re seeking to defend their sovereignty and autonomy by strengthening international laws, norms, and institutions, which realists have traditionally dismissed as inconsequential to restraining state behaviour and impacting decisions about war and peace. Severing ties with China is “politically, economically, and practically unthinkable” in a globalised world, leaving China free to exploit interdependence to increase power. Most are just vocally insisting on rulebased order and a free and open Indo-Pacific including freedom of navigation, peaceful dispute settlement, and support for international laws that constrain China’s most aggressive impulses and its capacity for misbehaviour.
While Beijing freely disregards laws, norms, and international opinion, it spared no effort trying to prevent ASEAN from forming a consensus in opposition to its South China Sea activities. Most Chinese neighbours, other than Taiwan, don’t fear a kinetic action or Chinese-funded insurgencies; they believe China poses a threat to their interests, autonomy, and indulges in grey-zone coercion designed to induce submission. Most Southeast Asian countries will continue taking modest steps to strengthen their military capabilities and forge new external security partnerships. Some, like Vietnam, may pursue more independent foreign policies and more vigorous balancing initiatives, drawing closer to the Quad. Indonesia has shown some support with the unveiling of an Indo-Pacific cooperation concept. Some ASEAN member-states are concerned that Quad will leave ASEAN out in the cold. The failure to release a joint communiqué on the South China Sea at the ASEAN Ministers’ Meeting in 2012 was a notable example of limitations. Within the Quad, all four countries have been advancing defence collaboration at the bilateral and trilateral levels in much quicker but quieter strides. Growing concerns about China’s expansive Belt and Road Initiative will be an issue in coming years. There is greater scrutiny applied to Chinese investments in sensitive infrastructure. The Trump Administration has opened several new fronts against China on economic protectionism, cyber-security, and human rights violations.
China’s Response to Indo-Pacific Concept
Although the Chinese government has not openly discussed the United States’ Indo-Pacific strategy in China, the Chinese academic community has had a heated debate about the nature of the concept, the possible impact on China and the region, and the future of U.S.-China relations.36 According to some Chinese scholars, the Indo-Pacific strategy is a preliminary idea for the USA to connect the Indian Ocean and the Pacific region, to constrain China’s rise from a geopolitical perspective, and to safeguard its own leadership and interests in the region. Many Chinese scholars believe that the concept has not matured. Wang Xiaowen, a scholar at Beijing Language and Culture University, wrote that the Indo-Pacific strategy is essentially an extension and deepening of the “rebalance,” with the aim of strategically linking the Indian and Pacific oceans. The Chinese foreign minister reportedly has stated that the idea would “dissipate like foam”. Yet China has made significant overtures in the eastern Indian Ocean due to the economic value of the sea lines of communication passing through it. China has not only invested in several ports but has also increased its naval forays in the eastern Indian Ocean.
Challenges and Options for India
Rajesh Rajagopalan, a professor of International Politics at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, looks at India’s strategic choices.37 China is a direct military threat to India, particularly in the light of the border disputes between the two countries. Though India has considerable military power, China’s forces are already stronger and better- funded; Beijing’s outsized wealth will likely allow it to outspend New Delhi in the foreseeable future. Beijing’s influence in both established international organizations like the United Nations and in the new institutions China is setting up, such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, gives Beijing opportunities to hamper Indian interests and goals in multilateral forums, especially when it comes to reforming these institutions and giving India a greater voice in global affairs. China’s alignment with Pakistan and deepening relations with other South Asian countries represents a significant challenge to India’s position in the region, which otherwise New Delhi had dominated for decades. Beijing’s ability to provide financial assistance and balance against New Delhi may tempt India’s smaller neighbours to play one power against the other, undermining India in its own backyard. China’s economic power allows Beijing to spread its influence around the world, which could be used to India’s detriment.
India’s options have to be based on China’s growing military muscle, its power in international institutions, including the UNSC and NSG. China is establishing international institutions like the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and shaping other multilateral organizations to promote Chinese interests, such as the BRICS and the SCO. China’s willingness to play the role of an external balancer against India in South Asia is a serious challenge and can be seen as a military threat in support of Pakistan. Some smaller states use China to counter India’s natural domination of the region. China’s great economic power allows it to spread its influence around the world, sometimes to India’s detriment.
India must decide how to secure its interests in this unbalanced environment by choosing among six potential strategic options: staying unaligned, hedging, building indigenous military power, forming regional partnerships, aligning with China, or aligning with the USA. A strategy of nonalignment, hedging, or alignment with China would in all likelihood not serve India’s interests because China’s power, geographical proximity, and policies already represent a clear danger to India’s security and global interests. A closer alignment with Washington is likely to represent India’s best chance to counter China, while efforts to foster regional partnerships and cultivate domestic military capabilities, although insufficient by themselves, could play a complementary role. The USA is the only power that is stronger than China. Further, New Delhi and Washington share a common interest in balancing Beijing. Among India’s other strategic options, efforts to build indigenous military power and forge regional partnerships are necessary and complementary means of countering China, but are by themselves insufficient, because China is already wealthier and stronger than India or any combination of other Asian powers. India has to make a choice because strategic capabilities have long lead times and cannot be built up quickly. India cannot find a suitable strategic partner after a crisis has already developed. China’s geographic proximity to India coupled with its military strength severely impinges on Indian security and constrains the possibility of New Delhi pursuing nonalignment. Considering that the balance of power is heavily tilted in favour of China, India requires relationships that go beyond being arms suppliers. India needs strong partners who can not only coordinate with India to balance China’s military power but also counter its political and economic clout in multilateral institutions. India’s suspicion of alliances and its desire for strategic autonomy is understandable. Can India afford a wait and watch policy? Unlikely.
In the meantime, India has to build up its military strength for its own security, a form of insurance that cannot be ignored. Building sufficient military capabilities is necessary to act as a sufficient deterrent for Beijing to not open a second front in case of war with Pakistan. India also needs strong partners who can help balance against China and possibly help India enhance its own capabilities. India does not currently have sufficient military capability to counter China on its own. Beijing continues to outspend New Delhi on defence manifold. China clearly has a technological edge over India. It does have multiple threats, especially from the USA and Japan. Considering that India’s military objective against China is defence and deterrence and not offensive in nature, it reduces the military burden. Ultimately, India has little choice but to enhance its military capabilities to the extent that it can.
Regional balancing is a strategy India must pursue to align with other Asian countries such as Australia, Japan, the Philippines, Singapore, and Vietnam. Later, Indonesia and Malaysia could also be incorporated. All these countries are also concerned about China’s rise and aggressiveness. India’s inability to improve transportation infrastructure in its east is a serious problem. A regional balancing approach allows India to balance China without direct alignment with the USA. Unlike in the case of alignment with a major power, India would be the more powerful partner in regional relationships. But China is much too strong already for regional states to balance against it. For India to rely solely or predominantly on regional balancing to ensure its security, then, would be exceedingly difficult and risky.
So, ultimately, while India pursues regional balancing and military strength, aligning more closely with the USA without any formal treaty alliance could be the choice. This exercise will not be easy because of years of suspicion and also India’s tacit alignment with the Soviet Union and Russia. India’s close relationship with the USA is just a decade old. India needed the support of the USA for the NSG waiver, and high technology military equipment. Any alignment with it will be complex and mostly for the need to tackle the challenge of China’s rise. The most important benefit of deepening a partnership with the USA would help India balance China, because no other country can help it to do so. The USA is powerful, and has a self-interest in partnering with India. It has a global network of alliances and partnerships. Russia, India’s traditional strategic partner, does not have such strength or global influence. Yes, there is a fear that China may overtake USA as the leading global power. The USA will have to balance China not only because China seeks hegemony in Asia but also because none of the other Asian powers are likely to be strong enough to balance it. As China becomes stronger, Indian and U.S. interests in balancing China will only grow. As the U.S.-China power differential narrows, the American imperative for balancing China is likely to increase, as is Washington’s need for allies. The U.S. capacity to advance Indian interests in multilateral forums is of interest to India. India will need U.S. support in its pursuit of a permanent seat on the UNSC and possibly on other global governance issues. The USA remains the world’s leader in high-tech research and development, and this is particularly true when it comes to advanced weapons technology. India needs such technology. There seems an evolving political acceptance of such a partnership. Any partnership would have to balance India’s relationships with others, especially Russia. Much to Russia’s dislike, currently the USA has pushed it into Chinese arms. China’s balancing and containment strategy against India would not cease even if India did not partner with the USA. Meanwhile, India and USA have different geo-political positions on many regional disputes which would have to be put aside. The USA has partnered or jettisoned many allies in the past, including Russia, China, Iran and Pakistan, and this also raises some doubts.
Vivek Mishra writes about India’s nuanced Indo-Pacific Strategy.38 “Although India has created a robust strategic arc from the Persian Gulf and the Asia-Pacific, its Indo-Pacific strategy is more nuanced, involving careful balancing between multiple stakeholders. For instance, though India has promised the United States and its ilk that it will help to shape a regional strategy in line with their multilateral Indo-Pacific vision, its multifaceted relationships with China and Russia demand that New Delhi also create latitude for Beijing and Moscow within this vision. Addressing the Shangri La Dialogue in June 2018, Prime Minister Narendra Modi confessed that “no other relationship of India has as many layers as our relations with China.” The acknowledgement is reflected in India’s IndoPacific strategy, which avoids any direct confrontational stance vis-à-vis China while partnering with the USA to create a regional structure that is inconsistent with Chinese expectations. While India has readily attended the Quad’s meetings, it has also restored its maritime dialogue with China. In navigating the competing interests of the USA, China, Russia, and other players in the region, India risks being deemed unreliable by its partners. New Delhi should attempt to manage the expectations of its partners such that they are cognizant of India’s apprehensions and limitations, while the USA and its allies should accommodate India where possible.
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