With India a reluctant partner, the US South China Sea strategy is more about muddying the waters than concrete action by Quad allies
Prateek Joshi says the unwillingness of Indo-Pacific allies to increase naval deployments in the South China Sea means the US is restricted to creating controversy where it can
After the revival of much hyped Quad alliance between Australia, India, Japan and the US last year, Washington has moved towards institutionalising its vision for the Indo-Pacific with the renaming of the US Navy’s Pacific Command as the Indo-Pacific Command. Lately, hostilities have been on the rise between the United States and China against the backdrop of the latter’s deployment of missiles and advanced military equipment in the Spratly Islands.
The Pentagon’s plans to confront China with longer patrols, involving more ships and close surveillance of Chinese facilities in the South China Sea – and Secretary of Defence Jim Mattis’ speech at the Shangri-La Dialogue warning China of “much larger consequences” in the future – are the latest signs of Washington’s intent to escalate tensions with Beijing.
Apart from the impact on bilateral ties, the intensification of rivalry should be analysed in terms of the existing regional balance, at a time when Washington – with its Indo-Pacific discourse – expects India and other allies to play a greater role in confronting China in the South China Sea. However, the reality is that India and its maritime neighbours may have little to gain from this.
To begin with, the new nomenclature has not changed the command’s area of operations, which follows cold-war-era dimensions – the area between the west coast of the US and the western border of India.
In contrast, India seems to define the Indo-Pacific as the land and sea area between the west coast of the US and Africa, a disagreement that has been the subject of debate between New Delhi and Washington. For India, America’s Indo-Pacific is still shared among three naval commands (the Indo-Pacific, Central and African) which inhibits seamless connectivity between the two navies.
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From a deterrence perspective, the renaming is aimed at building pressure on Beijing’s policies in the South China Sea. However, India’s Indo-Pacific strategy does not display any desire to be dragged into the dispute. India’s approach – reiterated by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s speech at the Shangri-La Dialogue – points towards soft-balancing, rather than threatening, overtures.
Further, the understanding reached between Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping after their meeting in Wuhan was apparently that the two nations desist from diversifying zones of confrontation and was followed by India’s refusal to allow Australia’s participation in this year’s Malabar exercise. The China factor does have a role in the exercise, but the message here is that the exercise doesn’t need more participants.
While America’s plans for its allies to increase their own naval deployments along key trade routes around the South China Sea have not materialised, the other option is to rely on notional changes to reshape the maritime environment. Washington is looking to enhance its presence through naval engagements with allies and regional blocs.
Naval exercises like the Malabar one could operationally become more China-centric. For example, the theme of last year’s exercise was “anti-submarine warfare”, in light of China’s expanding submarine fleet. This year’s exercise is “one of the largest exercises in terms of participation of naval assets from all the three countries”, according to India’s Deputy Chief of Naval Staff, Vice-Admiral G. Ashok Kumar.
Also, China has been excluded from the US-led biennial Rim of the Pacific exercise this year while Vietnam and Sri Lanka have been accepted as new participants, showing America’s intent to draw these nations into its fold by exploiting the traditional Sino-Vietnam rivalry and Sri Lanka’s experience with the Hambantota port project.
It seems that, for now, these instances of “socialisation” will define America’s Indo-Pacific push, where Washington’s engagement with existing and potential allies will follow the principle of “do little but create enough controversy”. Most importantly, such overtures also save Washington from making financial commitments.
Prateek Joshi is a research associate with VIF India, a New Delhi-based public policy think tank