Does the Indo Pacific region need its own version of NATO to secure its strategic geography from big power manoeuvring?
In sheer physical dimensions itself, the Indian Ocean is expansive; covering almost 1/5th of the worlds seas area, stretching in a vast arc from East Africa to the Indian Subcontinent and beyond to Australia. What strategists call the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) is a geographical expanse covering 28 states, three continents and almost 18 percent of the land of earth. It is estimated that the IOR is home to about 35 percent of the global population (2017 estimates).
Geography has blessed the Indian Subcontinent with a unique location and allows India to extend over 2000km into the ocean, thus ensuring that it can exercise control over a 1000 mile arc and even beyond.
BRIDGING THE TWO OCEANS
However, today the IOR cannot be looked upon as a geostrategic entity on its own; its linkages with the Pacific have become equally vital. Nearly five decades of multifaceted globalisation has developed the vast Indo Pacific Region stretching from African coastline to the western Pacific into a strategically important area with almost 77 percent of the global population inhabiting its shores.
The vital sea lines of communications (SLOCs) connecting the Pacific with the Indian Ocean carry more than half of the world's petroleum crude and provides 23 of the world's top container hubs.
While the Pacific has always been a scene of intense big power rivalry from World War II to the Cold War era, the Indian Ocean had remained relatively peaceful and devoid of great power rivalry. China's expansion southwards into the Indian Ocean challenged the status quo, with India perceiving this as a threat to its security. Beijing sees its primacy over the Indo Pacific as a stepping stone towards recognition as a global maritime power.
As Darshana Baruah, one of the foremost experts of India’s Indo-Pacific strategy observes in a recent paper for Carnegie Endowment for International Peace: “The rise of China across the Indian and Pacific Oceans challenges the security umbrella established at the end of Second World War [...] The emergence of the Indo-Pacific as a new geographic space — bringing together the Indian and the Pacific Oceans — represents the new strategic reality of the twenty-first century.”
With a burgeoning GDP of over$ 13 trillion, a defence budget which tips at $ 250 billion officially, China has strategic depth and the wherewithal to solicit military bases. It has followed its old imperial traditions where the sword followed the trade-with BRI and OBOR providing the lynchpin for its expanding influence. Once these huge commercial ventures are firmly on the ground, the raison d’etre for security cover will rise on its own. Chinese maritime power is already well-poised over the Indian Ocean rim with facilities in Pakistan (Gwadar), Sri Lanka, Myanmar, East Africa (Djibouti) and making rapid inroads in Iran and Bangladesh.
While India cannot match the financial heft of China, it has to navigate its down tack. It must leverage its unique position and its naval bases on its Eastern and Western coasts can dominate the IOR. Of special significance is the archipelago of Andaman and Nicobar (A&N) which straddle the choke points between the Pacific and the Indian Ocean at Malacca straits (connecting IOR to the South China Sea) and the Indonesian straits of Sunda, Lombok and Ombei Wetar (the alternate SLOCs between the Pacific and the Indian Ocean. From its western coast, India can strangle the Strait of Hormuz connecting the Persian Gulf to the IOR through the Gulf of Oman and the Bab el Mandep connecting the Red Sea to the IOR through the Gulf of Aden. Through robust domination of these chokepoints India can leverage its geographical position.
THREADING TOGETHER ALLIANCES
While U.S. would be the lynchpin in a larger strategy to keep peace in the IOR, India is fully aware that it remains a distant power separated by over 9000 nautical miles of ocean. If India has to meet the role of net security provider in the IOR, then the answer lies beyond the U.S. in securing overlapping interests with other countries like France, Japan and Australia. Less France, the other three already bonded rather loosely to India through the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue or the Quad.
With a string of military bases along the western Indian Ocean and the east coast of Africa, France remains a key player. Its bases at La Reunion, Djibouti and Abu Dhabi can provide India invaluable access to key chokepoints mentioned earlier in this article.
Japanese foreign policy, historically, has always employed a delicate balancing act between power axes in the region and the world, and this will now determine its behaviour in the current situation too. As per Mr Kanehara Nobukatsu, Former Japanese Assistant Chief Cabinet Secretary, speaking to NHK news, Japan cannot alone be the counter-weight for stability in the Indo Pacific and would need the support of like-minded countries apart from its traditional ally the U.S. "We have to support this liberal order, freedom, human dignity, the rule of law," he said. "These are things we have to defend together."
As a growing maritime power, India would need logistical support from Japan as it extends its reach beyond its current maritime periphery. Tokyo could facilitate its sustained presences in the East and the South China Sea.
Due to its deep economic relations with China, Australia has been at best a reluctant participant in the Quad. It demurred from participating in the joint naval exercise; the Malabar series conducted annually by India. However, the new geological realities in the Indo Pacific may encourage it to review its position.
A logistical agreement with Australia would also help India to extend its maritime reach over the Southern Indian Ocean. The Cocos Keeling Islands are effective outposts to monitor the SLOCs between the Pacific and the IOR.
Within India’s maritime strategic community, there are differing views on India’s efforts to forge security alliances in the IOR.
Rear Admiral Sudarshan Shrikhande, Indian Navy (Retired), a former Defence Attaché in Australia and a Maritime Domain Expert, gives credence to the recently signed Maritime Logistics Support Agreement (MLSA) between India and Australia. “This will greatly enhance interoperability and will have an impact over a wider area of defence cooperation,” he says. As regards the Quad, Admiral Shrikhande is optimistic that finally it is gaining traction and is “poised to graduate from talk to walk.” He advocates the next logical step a "Quad Plus" which would include willing partners from ASEAN- Vietnam, Philippines, Indonesia, to name a few. However, to make Quad appeal to their security interests, the core members must show adequate cohesion across all domains.
Admiral PJ Jacob (Retired) advocates greater caution to avoid friction with an all-weather ally like Russia. Rear Admiral RN Ganesh (Retired) questions the ability of the Quad to robustly defend the interests of its alliance members if the situation so demanded.
India’s game plan must include smaller nations like Mauritius, Seychelles, Madagascar and Comoros not to forget its immediate neighbours Sri Lanka and the Maldives. All these countries are akin to “unsinkable aircraft carriers” sitting astride vital SLOCs. Friendly and mutually benefiting relationship with Indonesia (a shared historical legacy and joint leadership of NAM), with Singapore (existing extensive defence ties) and Myanmar (a growing strategic partnership), can contribute a great deal to make the IOR an "ocean of peace and tranquillity."