The Indo Pacific Region is the centre of gravity of international geopolitics and geoeconomics. Major population centres in the region support eight of the top twenty economies of the world. The major conflict areas and disaster zones lie in the Indo Pacific region. As a corollary, most of the big defence spenders are also in this area. The global pivot of power is steadily shifting back to the Indo Pacific as it was in the precolonial period.
As this power shift is taking place, global challenges have increased manifold. The underpinning factor of the challenges is the rise of China and its ambitions in relation to other powers. China’s ambition to establish a Sino Centric system is presaged on territorial and geopolitical assertion in its vicinity. On this edifice it has spread its tentacles outwardly through the BRI with an aspiration to cement itself as a superpower second to none. In the process one has seen repeated violation of the international rules-based order to supplant it its own rules.
As the international community is recovering from the two-year depredation of the Wuhan Virus, it has been hit by the Ukraine crisis. This is turning out to be a major challenge which will cast its shadow on the Indo Pacific region. The visible fall out of this long drawn and violent conflict is a trans-Atlantic US led consolidation of the NATO structure and the emergence of a contending China-Russia axis. This is being accompanied by increased talk of nuclearization in South Korea and Japan. The widespread fall out is that we are entering into an era of de-globalised uncertainty and economic turmoil. This is occurring as climate change , resource/ energy depletion and environmental degradation threatens to impact the globe adversely .
In this environment, India’s internal political strength, its balanced relations with all major powers, and its stability in the neighbourhood makes it stand apart. Additionally, it is India alone, amongst the big economies which shows promise of high growth rates and is being seen as the only alternative to China in scale. The fact that it has almost fully recovered from the aftershocks of the Wuhan Virus is a huge plus. It is also important to note that India’s military along with that of USA are the only militaries which can impose caution and rein in China. The realisation off late is that India can tip the scales depending upon its stance on various issues. The centrality of India in global affairs is distinctly visible and palpable as a bevy of leaders have made a beeline to it in the recent times.
In this context, it is required to establish the major security issues which plague the Indo Pacific. At the very top of the list is Chinese assertion and aspirations to exert influence in the Indo Pacific. An extension to this are the maritime security and issues connected to the BRI. At the western end of the Indo Pacific are issues connected to terror and energy resources of the middle east. Iran, Afghanistan and the nuclear triangle of Pakistan- India and China also cast their shadow on the Indo-Pacific. At the centre is the crisis ridden Myanmar. Finally increased talk of nuclearization of South Korea and Japan because of the Ukrainian crisis has just started to roll out. It will compound issues. Overall, the Indo Pacific has a handful of security problems.
In this context it is relevant to examine China in greater detail. China has displayed assertive and aggressive tendencies to attain its superpower ambitions. However, it stands on the brink of an economic stagnation which is part structural and partly due to the prolonged pandemic risk of its Zero Covid Policy. Further, its adverse demography of falling birth rates, aging population, and decreasing work force aggravates economic stress in the long term. Views are expressed that it has peaked. Despite this, it is heavily militarising in an attempt to achieve superpower status. It is in a race against a ten-year time window to get rich before it gets old. This race to beat the time bar makes it more aggressive. The markers of its ambitions in this time window will be its attempts to militarily annex Taiwan while keeping USA out of the way. It will also attempt to keep India down using all methods. China also seeks to solve the Malacca dilemma to establish bases in the Indo Pacific region. Very clearly, China will cause a lot of turbulence in the Indo Pacific. As it stands it has a wide footprint in the region which includes, the Solomon Islands, South China Sea, Afghanistan, Iran, Middle East, Pakistan, BRI countries, Island nations in the IOR, and the LAC along India.
Containment of China is the prime focus in the Indo Pacific security environment. It involves not only containment in the South China Sea but also denial of bases and denial of port access in the Indo Pacific. Containment in South China Seas must be done in tandem with the action or the threat of it on the LAC with India. China must be confronted and stretched on two fronts in a revolving door strategy between the LAC and South China Sea. This effective strategy was first experienced in 2020 when China had violated the LAC in Eastern Ladakh. At that time, US Naval activity in the South China Sea limited Chinese assertion. The Indo Pacific construct has a maritime and continental angle to it simultaneously. This is generally not recognised. Further, India and USA are key players in this tandem action since it is only these nations which have the military heft to confront China. In the maritime domain, it is India and USA which must establish two triangles of denial in the Western and Eastern IOR to deny Chinese quest for port access (Gwadar, Kyaukphyu, or Kra Canal) or bases (Hamabantota or Male). In the West Pacific, USA, Japan and Australia need to establish a triangle of denial so that China does not further into expand into the South China Sea or invade Taiwan in a surprise move or develop a significant naval presence in the Solomon Islands. It also needs to be recognised that Myanmar is central to the Indo Pacific architecture. It affords a viable alternative to the Malacca dilemma if the CMEC is progressed and Kyaukphyu is developed as a Chinese naval base. Chinese ability to operationalise its two Ocean Theory must be thwarted at all costs. Simultaneously, its influence in Pakistan and Iran needs monitoring.
The ideal instrument to handle the multifarious security issues of the Indo Pacific is the QUAD. It consists of a superpower and three middle level powers, four vibrant democracies comprising three civilizations – Western, Japanese, and Indian and three of the top five economies. It is a healthy mixture of raw material, manufacturing, and consumer power with tremendous innovation capability. QUAD has the potential to enforce decoupling from China and create alternative markets. South Korea, Vietnam and New Zealand and the EU will come aboard if QUAD can provide leadership. QUAD has tremendous military potential. USA and India have strong and experienced Armed Forces. Combined with forces of Australia and Japan, it will be an overmatch for China. Contrary to popular imagination, these countries need not even come to each other’s direct aid. A coordinated synergised multidirectional threat/ application of force is adequate. The most important aspect is that while AUKUS is in the future , QUAD is the present and overlaps the ten-year time window which will govern China’s rise as mentioned earlier. To that extent, the military role of quad cannot be wished away. QUAD will also have to see as to how to bring Germany, France and UK on its security platform so that a combined front is presented to China.
Ever since AUKUS has been conceptualised , QUAD has been repositioned to handle other non-security issues. It implies that it must have a clearcut economic agenda. That is a huge challenge considering that all QUAD countries are still deeply integrated with the Chinese economy. However, QUAD nations are the best mix of consuming, producing and inventing economies to handle this dilemma. ASEAN will also have a role in economic initiatives and needs to be integrated into the QUAD economic plan. Besides all this, QUAD has an immediate focus to play a part in the post pandemic recovery. In the domains of the old economy, QUAD has to focus on activities related to Supply Chain Resilience Initiative, manufacturing, relocation, trade, health and vaccines. As new horizons open out, QUAD has to focus on space, cyber, 5G, AI, robotics, climate, soft power, rare earths, semi-conductors and energy. The scope is vast and ever expanding.
The European environment is turning to be one of a confrontation between NATO/USA/EU on one side and Russia on the other. Similarly, the Indo Pacific will be a competition between the QUAD nations and China. The challenge will be stiff for all QUAD nations collectively and individually, especially for India due to their inherent diversities. However, in the overall analysis, India has no choice but to go with USA and the QUAD. The challenge will be to balance out Russia. Ukraine will be a major distraction and detractor till the war lasts. Overall, the Indo- US relationship will be the key to the success of the QUAD in order to foster a secure environment in the region.
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