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Looking Towards A Wider Indo-Pacific Strategy In The United States

The Indian government has concerns that the U.S. concept of Indo-Pacific security is overwhelmingly tilted towards Pacific security issues and has insufficient focus on Indian Ocean security threats. However, a recent report by the United States Department of Defense on China’s “Military and Security Developments” has a more robust review of China’s current and potential access to the Indian Ocean than we have seen elsewhere. As the United States looks to expand its security partnership with India, these examples of China’s growing military presence in the Indian Ocean must form the basis of practical cooperation to ensure the “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” strategy appeals to both Delhi and Washington, DC.

Former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson stunned the Asian security establishment with his October 18, 2017 speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) with the powerful way he characterised the U.S.-India security partnership:

“The U.S. and India, with our shared goals of peace, security, freedom of navigation, and a free and open architecture, must serve as the Eastern and Western beacons of the Indo-Pacific, as the port and starboard lights between which the region can reach its greatest and best potential.”

Expanding America’s view of Asian security to note India’s emerging leadership is underscored with the term “Indo-Pacific”. The United States has repeatedly stated that, geographically, the Indo-Pacific stretches from India’s western coast through the Pacific Ocean. However, in practice, American security strategists are more focused on the role India can play in East Asia.

India’s security leaders seem to appreciate the term Indo-Pacific and what it symbolises but feel there has been insufficient detail in terms of its practical effect. However, its geographic reach is insufficient to encompass many of India’s critical security challenges in the wider Indian Ocean region—including China’s increasing military and diplomatic presence throughout the region. The United States often finds itself frustrated when India declines some specific areas to expand the security partnership, such as including Australia in the annual Malabar naval exercise. Yet, India feels it must be careful in its military commitments as it faces the China threat in the Indian Ocean alone.

Every year, the U.S. Department of Defense prepares a report for Congress detailing China’s “Military and Security Developments”. The unclassified version of the most recent report was released to the public in late August. The report says the Department of Defense must “address the current and probable future course of military-technological development of the People’s Liberation Army and the tenets and probable development of Chinese security strategy and military strategy, and of the military organizations and operational concepts supporting such development over the next 20 years.”

In past years, the U.S. Department of Defense’s annual report had only passing reference to India and the Indian Ocean. The references focused on the ongoing border disputes, the nuclear weapons race between India and China, China’s counter-piracy efforts in the Indian Ocean, and military exercises between India and China. There were only passing references to China’s growing interest in securing sea lines of communications in the Indian Ocean region.

The 2018 U.S. Department of Defense report on China’s Military and Security Developments explores China’s activities and probable motives in the Indian Ocean with much more detail, and highlights India’s responses. Some of the important references in this year’s report include:

  • Several mentions of last year’s standoff between the Indian and Chinese militaries at the China-Bhutan border.
  • The Peoples Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) South Sea Fleet deployment to the Indian Ocean; the PLAN is moving well beyond submarine deployments for counter-piracy operations off the African coast.
  • Highlights of the PLA’s DF-26 IRBM missile deployment, capable of delivering precision strikes—including nuclear—into the Indian Ocean region.
  • Emphasis on the fact that the PLA’s Spratly Island outposts could host aircraft capable of operating in the Indian Ocean region.
  • China’s potential pre-positioning of supplies to sustain longer-duration naval deployments in the Indian Ocean.

As Ambassador Hemant Krishan Singh and I wrote recently for ‘The Diplomat’, the U.S. needs to develop a stronger strategy for countering China’s moves in the Indian Ocean region. It is not only important for U.S. security interests in the region but is also an important way to allay Indian concerns that the United States seeks a one-sided partnership focused on ways India can support America’s strategic goals in east Asia. Ignoring these initial steps can quickly spiral into dramatic changes in the region’s balance of power, in favour of a power that does not want to be beholden to international law as we saw with China’s 2013 claim of an “Air Defense Identification Zone” that extended 200 nautical miles beyond China’s territorial sea, or the 2016 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) ruling in favour of the Philippines over China, which China disregarded.

Indian security analysts have been raising alarm bells about China’s increased interest in the Indian Ocean region since the “string of pearls” concept was first articulated. India’s concerns were only modestly assimilated by their American counterparts at the time, who instead wanted to find ways to get India more engaged on East Asia security issues. The “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” was simply a flashier attempt at this goal. However, with the 2018 report on China’s Military and Security Developments, the U.S. Department of Defense seems to be building its own conclusions that the Indian Ocean is the next maritime “great game” with China. That should help unlock a further deepening of U.S.-India strategic ties.