While India's stepping up to play the Indo-Pacific game is commendable, there are serious structural and operational handicaps that it will have to overcome
Three unrelated events over the past fortnight have unveiled a new great game being played by key powers in the Indo-Pacific arena—stretching from the Indian Ocean, bound by the east coast of Africa, through the equatorial seas around the Indonesian archipelago, the South China Sea, and all the way to the Pacific Ocean, bound by the west coast of North America—an area larger in size and strategic import than covered by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
The first was the multi-nation tour of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, starting with Indonesia, continuing through Malaysia, and culminating at the annual Shangri-la Dialogue, organized in Singapore by the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies. Modi’s consistent message at all of these venues was threefold: First, India has embraced the “Indo-Pacific" concept, including the extended strategic opportunities and responsibilities this entails. Second, India—along with key partners in the region—is committed to a “free, open, transparent, rules-based, peaceful, prosperous and inclusive Indo-Pacific, where sovereignty, territorial integrity and international law…freedom of navigation and overflight…are respected". Third, to ensure these freedoms, India would contribute to maintaining “maritime safety and security…as enshrined by UNCLOS (United Nations Convention on the Laws of the Sea) and relevant international laws". China’s behaviour in the region is, clearly, the impetus behind this articulation and, in Singapore, Modi hoped the two could “work together in trust and confidence".
The second event was the announcement by US defence secretary James Mattis renaming the Hawaii-based US Pacific Command (PACOM) as the US Indo-Pacific Command (IPACOM). While some experts argued that this change was merely symbolic and reflected the reality of the area that the command was responsible for anyway, there is a likelihood that the mission of IPACOM will probably extend to the east coast of Africa and also evolve in its mission priorities. As the outgoing erudite and flamboyant commander of PACOM Admiral Harry Harris predicted, China will be a “long-term challenge" and “great power conflict is back". This change in command dovetailed neatly with Modi’s emphasis on India’s commitment to peace and security in the Indo-Pacific, and might even see the expansion of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (or the “Quad") between Australia, India, Japan and the US into the “Quint" to include Indonesia.
The third event, which was practically unnoticed, was the devious but ingenious rationalization of China’s overseas military bases in the Indo-Pacific by ideologues in the influential Global Times. Writing on the occasion of the International Peacekeepers Day (29 May), Deng Xiaoci, quoting military expert Song Zhongping, claimed “China’s first foreign support base in Djibouti serves to enhance China’s capability in escorting, peace-keeping and humanitarian aid missions in Africa and West Asia". Similarly, it said “establishing foreign bases should not be seen as a military expansion, as they are designed to support China’s UN Peacekeeping missions" and informed that in addition to the Djibouti base, “China will continue to set up peacekeeping support bases along key mission routes". Bizarrely, Prof. Li Daguang, of the National Defence University of the People’s Liberation Army, also cited in the article, contended: “The Gwadar port of Pakistan will serve as a resupply base for China’s peacekeeping convoys". Unless China is planning “peacekeeping convoys" through the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, it is very difficult to envisage a UN “peacekeeping" role for Gwadar. Clearly then, China is willing to use the thinly veiled cover of UN peacekeeping to justify its extra-littoral bases, which are more likely to be used for supporting the Belt-Road Initiative and to counter IPACOM.
Clearly then, the stage is being set for a great maritime game in the Indo-Pacific. While India’s stepping up to play the game is commendable, there are serious structural and operational handicaps that it will have to overcome.
Consider the following: The Indian Navy has the smallest budget among the three services—a mere 14%. In contrast, the US Navy (and Marines) get the biggest share of the US defence budget. Similarly, although accurate figures are difficult to come by, even China has increased the share of the defence budget to the navy and air force. One indication of this is the successful launch of China’s second aircraft carrier in record time. Simultaneously, China has also been investing in the so-called “carrier killer" DF-26 missile. In contrast, India’s second aircraft carrier is years away from bring operational.
Apart from the relatively meagre share of the budget, India has also not made the Andaman and Nicobar Command—the first and only tri-service command with the best location for the Indo-Pacific region—fit for purposes stated by Modi. The command remains under-equipped and underpowered, especially when compared with the formidable powers of IPACOM or even the other Indian Navy commands. Although India has recently been exploring bases further afield, there is much more it can do to strengthen the Andaman and Nicobar Command.
Unless India can demonstrate its ability to enforce UNCLOS—along with other partners—there will be little incentive for rule breakers, like China, to adhere to the norms or respect freedom of navigation. Indeed, without this capability, Modi’s promise of “Act East" will be merely talk. Whether India is ready or not, the game, in the words of Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous creation, is afoot.
W.P.S. Sidhu is professor at New York University’s Center for Global Affairs and non-resident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.