China’s growing power and influence and its mounting military assertiveness are causing concern not only to India, but also to most other countries in the Indo-Pacific region.
Strategic Partnerships to meet the Challenge
China’s brazen violation of international norms in recent years, particularly its construction of military facilities on reclaimed islands in the South China Sea, and its growing military power, including maritime power, pose a growing strategic challenge to India and its strategic partners.
China senses the emergence of a security vacuum in the Indo-Pacific region and is rushing to fill it. It has also dropped the phrase “peaceful rise” while referring to its military and economic growth. It should be obvious to perceptive observers that China’s rise is unlikely to be entirely peaceful.
China’s rapid economic growth has been fairly uneven and non-inclusive. There is a deep sense of resentment against the leadership of the Communist Party for the denial of basic freedoms and rampant corruption. The discontentment simmering below the surface could boil over and lead to an uncontrollable spontaneous implosion. The crash of Chinese stock markets over a year ago may have provided the first glimpse of impending implosion.
Also, given its recent belligerence, China could behave irresponsibly somewhere in the Indo-Pacific region. It could decide to intervene militarily in the South China Sea, or to occupy one or more of the disputed Senkaku/ Diaoyu islands that are at present controlled by Japan. Or, it may opt to resolve territorial and boundary disputes with its neighbours through the use of military force.
Both the contingencies have a low probability of occurrence, but will be high impact events with widespread ramifications if either of them comes to pass. The US, which is the leading provider of security in the Indo-Pacific, and India, will need strong partners to deal with the fallout and to manage the consequences. Hence, the India-US strategic partnership makes eminent sense as a hedging strategy for both countries.
India has a long-standing territorial dispute with China. It has noted China’s growing military assertiveness in the region with consternation, especially China’s periodic deployment of PLA Navy submarines in the northern Indian Ocean. China has signed an agreement with Pakistan to invest US$ 46 billion to develop the CPEC from Xinjiang to Gwadar on the Makran Coast. Despite the fact that part of the CPEC will pass through POK, China has not consulted India.
Cooperative Security Framework
Though it will be a gradual and long-drawn process, a cooperative security framework may eventually emerge for peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific and for the security of the global commons – air space, space, cyber space and the sea-lanes of communication to enable the freedom of navigation and the free flow of trade. Together with the US and its other strategic partners, India must take the lead in establishing such a framework. If China is willing to join this security architecture, it should be welcomed.
The defence cooperation element of the Indo-US strategic partnership must be taken to the next higher trajectory to enable:
- joint threat assessment;
- contingency planning for joint operations;
- sharing of intelligence;
- simulations and table-top exercises – besides training exercises with troops;
- coordination of command, control and communications; and,
- planning for deployment and logistics support.
All of these activities will need to be undertaken in concert with other strategic partners such as Australia, Japan, Singapore, South Korea and Vietnam.
US normally point to India:
- joining international counter-terrorism and counter-proliferation efforts;
- sharing intelligence;
- upholding the rules and norms governing maritime trade;
- providing help to the littoral states to meet their security needs;
- helping to counter piracy and narcotics trafficking; and,
- continuing to taking the lead in humanitarian and disaster relief (HADR) operations in the region.
These expectations are unexceptionable and India has already been contributing extensively to achieving these common goals.
Force Structure Necessary
India is gradually emerging as a dominant power in the Indo-Pacific and is preparing to discharge its regional responsibilities. In keeping with its rapidly growing strategic interests and regional responsibilities, India is likely to be increasingly willing to join its strategic partners to intervene militarily in its regional neighbourhood when the situation so demands. While India would prefer to do so with a clear mandate from the United Nations Security Council and under the UN flag, it may not be averse to joining ‘coalitions of the willing’ when its vital national interests are threatened and consensus in the Security Council proves hard to achieve.
Stemming from the need for contingency planning, particularly in support of its forces deployed for United Nations (UN) peace-keeping and peace-support duties and for limited power projection, India will need to raise and maintain in a permanent state of quick-reaction readiness adequate forces to participate in international coalitions in India’s area of strategic interest.
India’s area of strategic interest now extends from the South China Sea in the east to the Horn of Africa in the west. With the proposed rapid reaction capabilities in place, it will be clear to potential adversaries that India will not hesitate to intervene in conjunction with its strategic partners if its vital national interests are threatened.