2016-01-09 By Lt Gen P C Katoch (Retd)
With the increasing world population, diminishing resources, the rise of Asia and global power push by China, the Indo-Pacific will likely become the center of gravity of conflict with Sea Lines of Communication (SLOCs) of many countries crisscrossing these waters.
Maritime competition is essentially for control of trade routes, hence multitude of external powers that maintain naval presence in the Indo-Pacific.
Connecting the Indo-Pacific, the Straits of Hormuz and Malacca are major choke points, others being Sunda and Lombok; 17 million bbl./ day oil (30 per cent of global oil trade), 18.9 per cent of global production and 3.9 tcf of gas (1/3 of global LNG exports) pass through Strait of Hormuz, while 15.2 million bbl./day oil (26.9 per cent of global oil trade) and 4.2 tcf of gas pass through Malacca Strait.
Tensions in Asia-Pacific rose after China arbitrarily extended its Executive Economic Zone (EEZ) and drew her 9-dash claim across the SCS (South China Sea) based on a sketch drawn by the Kuomintang regime China refused to recognize and overthrew in 1948 stepping beyond her traditional continental land oriented security paradigms in 1993 having become a net importer of oil first time.
In 2005, the Deputy Political Commissar of PLAAF said, “When a nation grows strong enough, it practices hegemony. The sole purpose of power is to pursue power…Geography is destiny …….
When a country begins to rise, it shall first set itself in an invincible position.”
So China has gone about expanding her ADIZ, reclaiming land and reefs and building airstrips and military facilities on them, disregarding freedom of transit in open seas by other nations in complete disregard to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), jostling Japanese and Vietnamese vessels, warning India not to assist Vietnam in oil exploration etc.
In March 2015, the U.S. document ‘A Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Sea Power’ stated, “With strategic attention shifting to the Indo-Asia-Pacific, we will increase the number of ships, aircraft and Marine Corps forces postured there. By 2020, approximately 60 per cent of Navy ships and aircraft will be based in the region.”
Two recent developments in Asia-Pacific are noteworthy.
The first when USS Lassen entered Zhubi Reef which China claims part of China’s Nansha islands. Zhubi Reef is an undersea rock in the SCS that China has built into an artificial island in the contested Spratly Islands. Beijing’s claim is illegal since UNCLOS specifies that coastal states may construct artificial islands within “EEZ” extending 200 nm off their coasts. Beyond that limit, the law allows no such projects. Zhubi Reef is 500 nm from nearest Chinese shoreline.
The U.S. has termed the USS Lassen incident a “regular occurrence” but China says if such provocations continue, Chinese warships will have to engage in face-offs.
It remains to be seen how the situation develops; China denying freedom of navigation at sea to other nations and US wanting to ensure freedom of movement in global commons.
The second noteworthy development is the Hague-based Permanent Court of Arbitration ruling it has jurisdiction to hear territorial claims of Philippines filed in 2013 against China over disputed areas in SCS.
Manila seeking a ruling on its right to exploit waters in its 200nm EEZ, as allowed under UNCLOS. Beijing has been deflecting international arbitration in all its illegal claims.
Should Vietnam win her claim even partly, other countries facing similar Chinese obduracy may follow suit.
Chinese aggressive expansion to effectively control SCS is also linked to her nuclear strategy.
According to Vice Admiral Hideaki Kaneda, Director, Okazaki Institute of Japan:
“Submarines on a mission can quickly submerge in deep waters. Topographical conditions exist in the South China Sea that makes it a ‘sanctuary’ [from attacks].” Chinese nuclear submarines have been probing SCS, and China eventually aims to advance SSBNs from SCS to Pacific Ocean in future time frame.
Malabar 2015 recently saw Indian, US and Japanese ships exercising together in the Indian Ocean – annual naval exercise hosted by the Indian Navy, fourth time for Japan after 2006-7, 2009 and 2014.
As per a Sri Lankan media report citing China Daily, China plans to build 18 “Overseas Strategic Support Bases in the IOR under three categories: fueling and material supply bases for peacetime use (Djibouti, Aden, and Salalah); relatively fixed supply bases for warship berthing, fixed-wing reconnaissance aircraft and the naval staff ashore rest (Seychelles); and fully functional centers for replenishment, rest and large warship weapons maintenance (Gwadar in Pakistan) that gives immense strategic advantage due proximity to the Strait of Hormuz.
China has also invested heavily in Colombo and Hambantota besides port development projects in Myanmar and Bangladesh.
Chinese nuclear submarines have been frequenting the IOR and while the first CBG (Carrier Battle Group) would likely be based at Hainan Islands, the subsequent ones would get deployed in the IOR.
However, these would require land based air support. That is why behind the facade of overt economic rationale, China is discretely pushing her military agenda with all these land-based assets invaluable to Chinese submarines and CBGs in the IOR. Chinese missiles are already deployed in Gilgit-Baltistan and Pakistan will have no compunctions if Gwadar eventually becomes a naval base of PLAN.
In the backdrop of increasing Chinese hegemony, Indo-Japanese relations assume great significance.
Beijing terms military ties between India and Japan “dangerous for Asia” which is ridiculous due China’s military including nuclear assistance to Pakistan and more importantly China has joined hands with Pakistan in putting up a joint anti-India front at the asymmetric and sub-conventional level.
The ‘India-Japan Special Strategic and Global Partnership’ signed in 2014 during PM Modi’s visit to Japan was not to Beijing’s liking either as Japan’s importance in India’s foreign policy and economic development and her place at the heart of India’s Look East Policy was acknowledged by Mr. Modi.
Both PM’s acknowledged their critical maritime inter-connection, growing international responsibilities, abiding commitment to peace and stability, international rule of law and open global trade regime, shared interests in security of maritime and cyber domains, shared objectives to preserve the integrity and inviolability of global commons; shared commitment to maritime security, freedom of navigation and over-flights, and peaceful settlement of disputes in accordance with international law.
Signing the ‘Memorandum of Cooperation and Exchanges in the Field of Defence’ was an important step that also institutionalized bilateral maritime exercises, and existing dialogue, mechanism and joint exercises between Indian and Japanese Coast Guards.
Japan’s current policy of transfer of defense equipment and technology has enormous potential for transfer and collaborative projects in defense equipment and technology.
India is to buy 12 ShinMaywa US-2 amphibious aircraft from Japan.
Geopolitical developments and external factors have forced Japan to review its defense cooperation with other countries; realizing that the self-imposed restrictions post World War II will likely make her a sitting duck in face of increasing Chinese aggression. Japan is reportedly selling her latest submarines to Australia.
India and Japan are engaged in multi-sectoral ministerial and cabinet-level dialogues in the spheres of defense, finance, economy, trade and energy.
A large cross section believes the current Chinese mindset is well rooted in her historical “Tian Xia” (Under the Heaven) concept, which traditionally views “All Territories” as belonging to the Chinese and due to which, they attach no sense to territory.
The forthcoming visit of PM Shinzo Abe should see further progress in the India- Japan Special Strategic and Global Partnership including perhaps conclusion of the ‘Agreement for Cooperation in the Peaceful Uses of Nuclear Energy’ between the two countries.
The author is a veteran from Special Forces of Indian Army
Republished with permission from our partner India Strategic.