Sea changes

G. Parthasarathy addresses the shifting situation and security challenges facing the Indo-Pacific region

Faced with growing Chinese assertiveness in the South China Sea and Beijing’s moves to expand its naval presence across the Indian Ocean, Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe proposed the establishment of a ‘Quadrilateral Security Dialogue’, informally titled the ‘Quad’, at a 2007 summit meeting in Japan. The members participating in this dialogue were the United States, Japan, Australia and India. India had been participating in joint military exercises with the US, off its coast, since 2002. These exercises were joined by Japan in 2015 and titled ‘Exercise Malabar’. The joint military exercises involved fighter combat operations from aircraft carriers and Maritime Interdiction Operations.

The Quad was re-activated more recently after President Donald Trump, together with Prime Ministers Shinzo Abe of Japan, Narendra Modi of India and Michael Turnbull of Australia, agreed to work together to deal with rising tensions in the Indo-Pacific region when they met at the ASEAN Summit in Manila in 2017.

The members of the Quad have also complemented each other diplomatically on developments pertaining to the security of the Indian Ocean region. Alarm bells started ringing some years ago when Sri Lanka was virtually compelled to mortgage its Southern Port of Hambantota to China because it was unable to repay loans extended by Beijing for construction of the port. Sri Lanka has now made it clear that it will not permit its soil to be used as a military base by extra-regional powers.

The 2018 change of government in the Maldives has ensured that this small island nation will not head into a situation of excessive borrowing from China, which could lead it into a debt trap. India is making an effort to see that countries such as Sri Lanka and Myanmar are backed in receiving economic assistance from countries like Japan and from International Financial Institutions.

Indonesia’s President Joko Widodo dispatched warships to Natuna Island

China recently displayed its military power in the western Indian Ocean. Last year, with its partners Russia and Iran, it held an unprecedented four-day joint naval exercise in the Indian Ocean and the Gulf of Oman. This followed a meeting between the presidents of the three countries, Xi Jinping, Vladimir Putin and Hassan Rouhani, in Beijing on June 14, 2019. The joint naval exercises commenced in the Iranian Port of Chahbahar, which is being expanded by India for access to landlocked Afghanistan and Central Asia.

Given the recent sanctions imposed by the Trump Administration on Iran, India – once one of the largest importers of Iranian oil – has been compelled to end these imports. Russia, however, has continued its economic ties with Iran, while China is also carefully sustaining its economic cooperation with Iran, including limited imports of oil.

Pakistan and China conducted a major joint exercise, titled ‘Sea Gardens 2020’, which began in the new year, with Marines and Special Forces from both countries participating. China claimed the exercise – which also included frigates, destroyers, fast attack crafts, along with what were called ‘air and sub-surface assets’ – was meant to consolidate its ‘all weather strategic partnership’ with Pakistan.

Earlier, China had announced that it was building four of its ‘most advanced naval ships’ for Pakistan, stating that the ships were being equipped with weapons systems for anti-ship, anti-submarine and air-defence weaponry to ‘maintain peace, stability and the balance of power in the Indian Ocean region’.

The situation across India’s eastern maritime borders is somewhat different now. China sparked a major confrontation recently with Indonesia by providing military escorts to its fishing vessels in areas it claims, close to Indonesia’s Natuna Island. After protesting formally to China, Indonesia’s President Joko Widodo dispatched warships to Natuna Island, with F16 fighters providing cover. He thereafter visited the island personally.

While both Indonesia and China will try to prevent the face-off turning into a confrontation, their differences over their maritime borders will remain a source of tensions. Chinese vessels have reportedly pulled back from Indonesia’s maritime boundaries in the wake of President Widodo’s assertive moves. This added a new dimension to the maritime boundary disputes China already has with South Korea, Japan, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei.

President Xi Jinping’s visit to Myanmar in January this year was primarily to finalise agreements on a large number of economic projects, some of which could eventually lead Myanmar into a Chinese debt trap. Faced with western economic sanctions and an international rap on the knuckles because of the Rohingya issue, Myanmar had little choice but to accept Chinese proposals for infrastructure projects. The most important of these involves Chinese investments of $7.3 billion for construction of the Bay of Bengal Port of Kyaukpyu, and $2.7 billion for an industrial park near the port. China has also proposed substantial investments in roads and bridges linking Kyaukpyu Port to its landlocked Yunnan Province. The Myanmar government has been attempting to reduce the size and costs of large Chinese projects, some of which could well end up as white elephants.

In these circumstances, there are concerns that Kyaukpyu, like Hambantota in Sri Lanka, could eventually become a Chinese naval base if Myanmar is unable to repay debts incurred on Chinese projects. Economic sanctions by western countries have only driven the country ever closer into the arms of China. This policy, therefore, should perhaps be replaced by a concerted international diplomatic effort, duly backed by regional powers and international financial institutions, to provide funds for the return and rehabilitation of Rohingya refugees and to spur economic growth in Myanmar.

In any case, the Quad is committed to contributing to regional security and peace in the Indo-Pacific Region. It should ensure that, in doing so, it is not seen to be taking a partisan approach on regional disputes. The group should continue working to promote regional security, progress and prosperity, complementing the efforts of ASEAN which, in India’s view, is and should remain the primary forum for these goals in the Indo-Pacific region.

G. Parthasarathy, a career Foreign Service Officer, is currently Chancellor of the Central University of Jammu and Visiting Professor at the Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi. He previously served as Ambassador of India to Myanmar, High Commissioner of India to Australia, Pakistan and Cyprus, and Spokesman of the Prime Minister’s Office

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