The Indo-Pacific Strategy and its Ramification on Weaker Countries


Commodore Kazi Emdadul Haq

While former US Defence Secretary Jim Mattis announced the name change of U.S. Pacific Command be called Indo-Pacific Command, in the latest move to counter China in the region, and, at the same time, as part of growing relationship with India, the important to note is what he said, he directed the name change in recognition that “all nations large and small are essential to the region, in order to sustain stability in ocean areas critical to global peace.” So a small country but with 8th largest population in the world like Bangladesh must emphasize due importance to the above statement.
So, what we have in this region? Why we are not concern to North and South Atlantic Ocean or its strategy despite having lots of drug trafficking originating from Central America. Some maritime security threats which are common to all over the ocean; but some remarkable differences to this region which will not match with other regions and perhaps the whole world is worried about for which USA has embarked upon Indo-Pacific Strategy or IPS and ramped up its engagement with India and other democratic countries of Indo-Pacific.
The predominant threat perception in this region, most importantly and leading to traditional threat, either limited or full scale war, are
The increasing unconventional challenges,
Hungry for regional forcefulness, and
No respect towards rule of law.
If we consider the statement of US Secretary, Jim Mattis, where the apprehension lies is easy to understand. Jawaharlal Nehru, the first prime minister of India, once wrote that India was the pivot around which the security in Asia would be determined.   Historically India was supposed to be at the pivot of Asian security, but today, China has made the USA and other democratic countries to embark on Indo-Pacific Strategy to ensure security and freedom of navigation in the Indo-Pacific Region.

The Indo-Pacific region has been identified by many in different ways. The Department of Defence, Indo-Pacific Strategy Report, June 2019 defines the region as “a vast globe from the west coast of the United States to the western shores of India”. However, it doesn’t say anything about upper and lower limit. Indian Ocean is a major maritime trade route and also the largest source of marine resources. The Indo-Pacific is a concentration of 60% of world population and one third international trade; stability of this region is obviously a great concern to not only the littoral countries of this region but also to other developed nations, eg, the document “France and Security in the Indo-Pacific” says that any “crisis or conflict in this area is likely to affect adversely the interests of France as well as Europe’s”. So all developed countries Europe, America, Australia along with other democratic countries in Asia are increasingly worried about the evolving security threat of this region. The present day’s maritime concern clearly indicates the contemporary hotspots of Indo-pacific are Korean Peninsula, East China sea, The South China Sea and Taiwan Strait; and most significantly, the strategic maritime trade route Malacca Strait is situated at the heart of Indo-Pacific.
The vulnerability of Malacca Strait is supposed to be concerned to all Indo-Pacific countries including China. China very well knows her vulnerability, as such, China is desperate to maintain connectivity with Indian Ocean through Pakistan, Myanmar or Thailand. Why China attaches too much importance on this issue that needs watchful study. Chinese relations with her neighboring countries especially in the Indo-Pacific region gives a very concerning picture of China’s intention.
China has made the South China Sea a zone of tension by claiming most of its Islands making enmity with almost all the ASEAN countries – notably Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunai, Indonesia, etc. Killing almost 130, China occupied Paracel and Spratly Islands from Vietnam. In 2015, despite public pledge by President Xi Jinping that “China does not intend to pursue militarization” of the Spratly Islands, China placed anti-ship cruise missile and long-range surface-to-air missiles on the disputed Spratly Islands in 2018. Natuna/Riau Island has started becoming maritime debacle over its claim by both China and Indonesia. In mid January 2020, the President of Indonesia Joko Widodo said, “There are no more debates. De facto, de jure, Natuna is Indonesia,” Relation with Taiwan is extremely bitter than ever. China’s territorial claim over Senkaku Islands of Japan made the Sino-Japan relation tense. Although relationship with South Korea is improving, in the past it was very much sour. And we all know that China fought war with India and now in regional power competition.
China by drawing nine dash lines in South China Sea developed the dispute in her South and East border but in the western front all remained relatively quiet. The ASEAN countries including Japan remained resolute over their right on the overlapping claimed islands in the South China Sea and East China Sea. All these activities by China in the Indo-Pacific region don’t reflect China’s respect towards rule of law and free and open Indo-Pacific.
To resolve all these disputes, China is interested in bilateral negotiation with each country but the ASEAN countries are reluctant to seat with China singularly, because they fear prescient embrace of defeat. Both Vietnam and The Philippines sought international arbitration. When the verdict delivered, China was not ready to accept the decision of arbitration saying it was “ill founded” and it will not be bound by it. Fear lies here where dominant powers exercising their muscles power instead of respecting rule of law. China’s reason is the historic right over the disputed islands in South China Sea. The historic right puts any nation in strong contemplation that after a century, a strong regional power may have the opportunity to claim any island showing historic right.
So what options left with smaller countries with relatively weak military power. This puts the weaker countries in conundrum in resolving the matters with comparatively greater regional power. The fact remains that despite the maritime dispute, China and ASEAN countries have strong economic relationship, both are complements to each other for their economic growth. Despite irreconcilable differences over the claim of islands in South China Sea, the trade volume between china and ASEAN countries rose to US$ 500 bn. China embarked on multibillion dollar project called Maritime Silk Road under Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), alluring all weaker countries to join BRI initiative. USA is not in a position to mobilize its giant companies like the China can do for its BRI. Finding no other options, weaker countries are compelled to digest the prescription of China. Had there been a better offer, the weaker countries might have thought otherwise. The above argument is supplemented by the statement of newly elected Sri Lanka’s President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, in December 2019, warned India and Western nations that Sri Lanka would be forced to seek more finance from China if they do not invest in the island.
Most of the concerned countries like UK, France, Australia, Japan including ASEAN countries are defining their IPS in their own advantages and that may not exactly the same as contemplated by USA. Most notably ASEAN countries are possibly in favour of inclusive China but the quad countries are in somewhat containing China where China has already been termed as revisionist power. While ASEAN and quad are supportive to Indo-Pacific concept, but all are very careful in adopting the concept of IPS. While ASEAN countries making their own Indo-Pacific policy, the containing china policy in IPS may not be very suitable to ASEAN despite their dichotomy. While quad and some other European nations like France and UK would be making their own indo-pacific strategy in line with USA ie exclusive China, ASEAN and some other Bay of Bengal littorals might be in the position of inclusive China. In late October 2019, the withdrawal of India from China led Regional Comprehensive Economic Cooperation (RCEP) indicates towards exclusiveness of China in US lep. Australia is the biggest supplier of coal and steel to china putting China the largest trading partner of Australia, this puts Australia in an odd situation while making Indo-Pacific Strategy in line with quad concept ie exclusive China.

With her military valor, China has become dominant maritime power in this region and has already achieved her maritime supremacy in and around her region. Even USA is so apprehensive about the military buildup in South China Sea that Commander of the United States Indo-Pacific Command, Admiral Philip S. Davidson, top US military official in the region, made remark about Washington’s loosening grip in the severely contested South China Sea. He said at Senate Confirmation Hearing in May 2018 “China is now capable of controlling the South China Sea in all scenarios, short of war with the United States”.
Securing the assertiveness to her immediate maritime zone, China went for securing regional assertiveness mainly in the Indian Ocean to ensure her economic interests.
In 2015, White Paper of China says:
PLA Navy to become world class navy.
The vital interest is the Protection of Sea Lines of Communication.
Deployment of PLAN wherever Chinese interests exist.
Let’s have a look where China developed her naval power and maritime infrastructure in Indian Ocean.
In Myanmar, China has multibillion investment in constructing deep sea port and industrial park at Kyaukpyu; China Myanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC) a vital link of Xi’s Belt and Road Initiative; The CMEC has included Oil and Gas Pipeline and high-speed railway link, which will support the improved highways of Myanmar’s Northeastern Shan State that connects to China. All these infrastructure will connect China to Bay of Bengal through Kyaukpyu.
China has been long trying to make Kra Canal through Thailand as alternative to Malacca Strait.
Hambantota Port of Sri Lanka is leased to China for 99 years, raising worldwide criticism for putting Sri Lanka in a debt trap.
China is involved in making huge infrastructure in Maldives. Maldives owes 70% of its total external debt to China. China and Maldives have free trade agreement. It is also believed that China is trying to make port facility in Gaadhoo Island of Maldives.
In Djibouti, China has been operating naval base in Port of Doraleh, since 2017, an strategic location in Horn of Africa. Although, Djibouti has allowed to use their land to USA and also to France.
Pakistan is an all-weather tested friend to China, China has built the port at Gwadar with a purported plan to build naval base at Jiwani near Gwadar and China is constructing China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) under Belt and Road Initiative that aims to connect China to Arabian Sea, subsequently to Indian Ocean.
The important point to note that the military development in Indian Ocean by China has come up within a short span of time, less than a decade. So to contain China’s rise, India had been an alley to USA since long which was clearly evident from the address by former US secretary of state Rex Tillerson “Defining our relationship with India for the next century” at Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), 18 Oct 2017. He said, “We need to collaborate with India to ensure that the Indo-Pacific does not become a region of disorder, conflict, and predatory economics.” USA and her allies cooperated in all possible ways with India to grow her naval power in Indian Ocean.
India has built up its naval and air bases in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. India also signed a deal with Singapore allowing to use Changi Naval Base. India also finalized an agreement to build a forward operating base on Assumption Island in the Seychelles which will allow them to monitor the Mozambique Channel too.
USA extended its cooperation towards India by signing a logistic agreement with India to use US facilities in the Indian Ocean including Diego Garcia by Indian Navy and Air Force in 2017.
India also finalized an agreement with France that will allow India to use Bases at Djibouti on one end of Red Sea and also Reunion in the southern Indian Ocean.
India is going to invest in Iranian Chabahar Port, near the entrance of Hormuz Strait, an important oil trade route. And on other side, Duqm Port of Oman, India also secured permission to use the port facility for her Naval combatant.
France is also maintaining sizable military power in Indo-Pacific region – the size of the armed forces is around 7000 in UAE, Djibouti, Reunion, New Caledonia and French Polynesia.

From the above picture it is evident that the Indian Ocean has become a convergence of regional power along with super powers and thus became a contested region. China’s alternative connectivity route to Indian Ocean through Bay of Bengal has made India worried due to China’s proximity all around India. Also, littoral countries of Bay of Bengal are trying to maneuver in between BRI and IPS. However, the lessons of South China Sea dispute and the military buildup in the Indian Ocean are matter of concern and discourse.
The conveniences extended by USA and France towards India are a clear sign of Indo-Pacific alliance is gaining momentum in the region. On the other hand China, along with her multibillion MSR project alluring the Asian nations to join in hands despite the fact remains known to these countries that China remains forceful and intransigence in asserting her influence in the region on her maritime claim that would hamper the freedom of navigation.
We understand the theory that strength will automatically neutralize some of the threat. When the regional power’s rivalry starts gaining momentum, the smaller littorals cannot be escaped from the fallout of war remnant. The smaller countries like Bangladesh or Sri Lanka, we should be also aware of the importance of free and open Indo-Pacific, but the onus has fallen to regional powers, unless they ensure freedom of operations according to UNCLOS, then other super powers will come and intervene to ensure the freedom of navigations operations. The finger has pointed to one country, so it is her responsibility to come out clean, to behave with rational with the neighbours, it is her duty to prove BRI is not a debt trap for weaker countries; it is her moral obligation to see that the weak countries don’t fall into her predatory economy as has been mentioned by US then-secretary of State Rex Tillerson.

Commodore Kazi Emdadul Haq, BSP, ndu, psc, BN (retd) is Director General, Bangladesh Institute of Maritime Research and Development (BIMRAD).

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