The Security Dynamic in the Indo-Pacific Region


2014-06-04By Brig (Retd) Gurmeet Kanwal

New Delhi. China’s deployment of a deep-sea oil rig in the disputed waters of the South China Sea in early-May 2014, has further destabilized the precarious security situation in the region. The Vietnamese Prime Minister said China was acting dangerously. The US Secretary of State described the development as ‘provocative’. China warned India and ASEAN to stay out of the dispute.

The security environment in the Indo-Pacific region has been vitiated by territorial disputes on land, in the South China Sea and the East China Sea as well as terrorism, the proliferation of small arms and piracy in the Malacca Strait.

Freedom of navigation on the high seas is of critical importance for the economies of most Asian countries.

Maintaining peace and stability and ensuring the unfettered flow of trade and energy supplies through the sea-lanes of communications will pose major challenges for the Asian powers as well as the United States. Only a cooperative security architecture can provide long-term stability and mutual reassurance.

Through its forward military presence and its abiding military alliances, the US has played a key role in providing stability in the Indo-Pacific region through many decades of turbulence during and after the cold war.

The Indian P-8 during the search. Credit: India Strategic
The Indian P-8 during the search for the Malaysian airliner. Credit: India Strategic

The US is now re-balancing or ‘pivoting’ from the Euro-Atlantic zone to the Indo-Pacific in tune with its changing geo-strategic priorities and the rise of emerging powers. It is also simultaneously downsizing its forces and will need new strategic partners to help it maintain order and stability.According to Rory Medcalf, Senior Fellow, Brookings Institution, Washington, “the choreography of this geopolitical interplay will depend on the quality of leadership and decision-making in Beijing, New Delhi and Washington.”

As analyst C Raja Mohan has averred in his book “Samudra Manthan: Sino-Indian Rivalry in the Indo-Pacific”, the major powers in the region, including Australia, China, India, Indonesia, Japan and the US, need to work creatively to frame acceptable rules for the commons in the Indo-Pacific.

Unless such realization comes about, subterranean tensions will continue to hamper stability. China, which is working on creating energy routes through Pakistan, has so far been ambivalent in seeking to join a cooperative framework and has preferred to stand apart. It has failed to realize that its growing trade and massive dependence on energy imports through the Indian Ocean make it imperative for it to join the efforts being made to establish such a framework.

It would be in India’s interest to readily join cooperative efforts aimed at maintaining stability.

India has acquired robust military intervention capabilities and is formulating a suitable doctrine for intervention. Though India has a pacifist strategic culture rather than a proactive one that nips emerging challenges in the bud through pre-emption, it has not hesitated to intervene militarily when its national interests warranted intervention, both internally and beyond the shores.

The Army was asked to forcibly integrate the states of Goa, Hyderabad and Junagadh into the Indian Union soon after Independence as part of the nation-building process. The Indian armed forces created the new nation of Bangladesh after the Pakistan army conducted genocide in East Pakistan in 1971.

India intervened in the Maldives and Sri Lanka at the behest of the governments of these countries and was ready to do so in Mauritius in 1983 when the threat to the government there passed. India had airlifted 150,000 civilian workers from Iraq through Jordan during Gulf War I in what became known as the largest airlift after the Berlin airlift. Also, almost 5,000 civilian workers were evacuated by ship from Lebanon in 2006. After the 2004 South-East Asian tsunami, 72 naval ships had set sail within three days to join the international rescue and relief operations even though India’s eastern seaboard had itself suffered extensive loss of life and damage.

Notably, India’s limited military presence overseas has been benign.

According to former Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran, “…most South-East Asian countries and Japan welcome a larger presence of Indian naval assets in the region.”

As part of the Indo-US defence cooperation, joint patrolling of the SLOCs in the Indian Ocean is already being undertaken up to the western mouth of the Malacca Strait as part of joint naval exercises.

Other military exercises have led to a broad understanding of each other’s military capabilities and limitations and many interoperability challenges have been ironed out. India also deployd ships and aircraft recently to assist the Malaysian authorities in the search for the missing Malaysian Boeing 777-200 airliner.

Two newly acquired Boeing P8-I maritime patrol aircraft and an Indian Air Force C 130J Super Hercules aircraft were part of this team.

The Indian Army has designated one infantry division as a rapid reaction division, with an amphibious brigade, an air assault brigade and an infantry brigade. The Army also has an independent parachute brigade that can be deployed at short notice.

The Indian Navy now possesses INS Jalashva (formerly USS Trenton) that can carry one infantry battalion with full operational loads and is in the process of acquiring additional landing ships. Besides long-range fighter-bomber aircraft with air-to-air refuelling capability like the SU-30MKI, the Indian Air Force has acquired fairly substantive strategic airlift capabilities, including six C-130 Super Hercules aircraft (one lost in accident) for the Special Forces. A permanent corps-level tri-Service planning HQ with all-weather reconnaissance and surveillance capabilities needs to be set up under the aegis of the HQ Integrated Defence Staff to monitor emerging situations on a regular basis and act as a control HQ for intervention operations.

In future, India may undertake joint military operations in its area of strategic interest if the country’s major national interests are at stake.

Such a campaign may take the form of an intervention under the UN flag – something that India would prefer – or even a “coalition of the willing” in a contingency in which India’s vital national interests are threatened.

There will naturally be several caveats to such cooperation, as India will not join any military alliance.

It will also be necessary to work with other strategic partners and friendly countries in India’s extended neighborhood and with organizations like the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) and, when possible, even the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO).

The aim should be to establish consultative mechanisms through diplomatic channels for the exchange of ideas, and conduct joint training and reconnaissance.

Small-scale joint military exercises with likely coalition partners help eliminate interoperability and command and control challenges and enable strategic partners to operate together during crises.

The writer is a distinguished strategic affairs analyst and a Member of the India Strategic Editorial Board.

Reprinted with permission of India Strategic.