Post decisions taken during the recent visit to India by US Secretary Ashton Carter, India and the US held had their first maritime security dialogue with discussions centering on strategic maritime security issues and maritime challenges in the Asia-Pacific region. The US delegation included Assistant Secretary of Defence for Asian and Pacific Security Affairs David Shear and Vice Admiral Joseph P. Aucoin, Commander, US Seventh Fleet. Although the media reports state “maritime challenges in the Asia-Pacific region”, the discussions would have been on the Indo-Pacific region because the two countries have already shared a joint strategic vision for the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean regions, calling for the freedom of navigation and unimpeded movement of ships through the global commons or high seas.
Simultaneous to the Indo-US Maritime Dialogue, three Indian Naval Ships (INS Delhi, INS Tarkash and INS Deepak) were on a four day visit each to Dubai (UAE), Kuwat and Bahrain, for interaction with navies of these countries with respect to maritime operations, combating maritime terrorism and piracy, and joint exercises with navies of these countries. Delegations from Dubai (UAE), Kuwait and Bahrain had also participated in the recently concluded International Fleet Review at Visakhapatnam, India. China building artificial islands in the waters of the South China Sea (SCS) has been upsetting, particularly her smaller neighbours. Philippines and Vietnam are already locked in maritime disputes with China.
China’s reclamation work has added more than 3,200 acres (1,300 hectares) on seven features it occupied in the Spratly Islands in the space of two years. China is engaged in adding substantial military infrastructure, including communications and surveillance systems, to artificial islands in the SCS this year. America’s policy of rebalancing towards Asia, announced in 2011, implies assigning higher priority and political, economic and security resources; rebalancing includes strengthening of relationships with allies like Australia and partners like India and Indonesia, a more extensive and structured relationship with ASEAN, optimizing US economic influence with pacts like the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), while maintaining stable relations with China.
As for the Indian Ocean, India’s major concerns are the 18 Chinese military bases (termed “strategic support bases” by China) planned in IOR, two of which are already coming up at Gwadar and Djibouti. Gwadar perched close to the strategic Straits of Hormuz which is of serious concern to the US and allies as well China’s growing geostrategic presence in the Indian Ocean is now more than visible with PLA ships and submarines prowling the region, even as China has not yet publicized a codified IOR strategy by design. What is more disturbing is the ruthlessly arrogant behavior of the Chinese already on display in the SCS, which indicates the shape of her future behaviuor in the IOR. China’s strategic aim is to become a maritime power, which, as it says, is to be achieved by pursuing ‘convergence of interests’ with concerned nations.
However, while talking of ‘convergence of interests’ China has shown scant regards for international laws and norms, UNCLOS, global commons, maritime territory of her smaller neighbours – even their interests. At the same time she has vigorously pursued nurturing rogue nations like North Korea and Pakistan, helping them become nuclear states; drawing them into her perception of ‘convergence of interests’ – that when the dragon feeds, the hyenas also get the discarded smidgen. As part of RMA on sea, China first invested heavily in submarines, aircraft carriers and CBG’s came later. But while Chinese CBGs in IOR are some years away, the Chinese bases to provide fire support and docking support vessels and submarines (on pretext of rest and recoup) are already coming up, particularly at Gwadar. This is in addition to missiles deployed in Gilgit-Baltistan and the capability China has built to deploy missiles on railway systems, which would be accommodated in the CPEC.
Aside from space, cyber and electromagnetic, China is investing heavily in robots. It should be noted that China bought 69% percent of robots from global sales last year. As per one report, China is now investing heavily in ‘undersea warfare’. This is particularly relevant because of the choke points between the Indo-Pacific; the Straits of Malacca, Lombok and Sunda. Last year, China Ocean News talked of China’s poor capacity of tracking undersea targets., pointing out that major maritime powers like the US, Canada, Japan and EU are involved in research in this sphere. The first elements of a Chinese undersea observation system went into action during 2010, second one in 2011, and part of the system went into operation for testing in May 2013. Two more similar systems are reportedly under development, one deployed in August 2013. Clearly, China is going full hog to master conflict at every plane to help achieve the stature of a ‘Great Power’.
The Indo-US Maritime Dialogue, intelligence sharing and LEMOA assume significance in the backdrop of issues discussed above. What is needed is equal if not more emphasis on the IOR concurrent to Asia Pacific, to prepare for the type of octopus actions that China is employing in Asia Pacific – both in the ECS and SCS with increasing probability of air, sea and subsurface actions. That a Chinese spy ship is shadowing the ongoing Malabar 2016, joint India-US-Japan naval exercise, in the Western Pacific indicates China will continue to assert her illegal claims, even stepping beyond her so-called nine-dash line. The four-ship Indian Navy contingent participating in Malabar 2016 had stopped made stops in ports of Philippines and Vietnam before joining the exercise. If Chinese nuclear submarines prowl periodically in the Indian Ocean and even close to the Andaman and Nicobar Group of Islands, there is no reason why India cannot exercise in the Western Pacific. With her extensive satellite program, there is no reason for China to deploy a spy ship to shadow Malabar 2016. But then the mentality of a bully ingrained in recent times is perhaps difficult to shed.