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The New Great Game: China And The Intense Maritime Contest In Indo-Pacific Region

Chinese naval ships.
Snapshot
  • China’s growing naval force projection has sparked anintense maritime contest in the Indo-Pacific, where traditional notions of spheres of influence are being challenged.

Over the past five years or so, China has adopted an increasingly assertive foreign policy that stands to upend, if unchecked, the political and security order in maritime Asia. This has included blatant disregard for international law, construction of artificial islands and other features to reclaim contested waters, weaponising capital and trade, and adoption of a military posture that seeks to keep other powers out from parts of the western Pacific. Coupled to growing authoritarianism at home — President Xi Jinping is now effectively president for life — as well as efforts to influence and shape domestic politics of other states, a super-powered China could very well spell the end of the liberal international order that the world has known since the end of the Second World War. China is well into becoming Middle Kingdom 2.0: the apex of a deeply hierarchical Asia, where all powers pay obeisance to the all-powerful Chinese state.

If the rise of China is one part of the emerging geopolitical equation, the creation of the Indo-Pacific as a strategic entity is the other. This vast maritime space is a quintessential “anti-disruption” — it seeks to unify a maritime theatre that had been long fragmented: the Indian and Pacific oceans. The normative Indo-Pacific — a strategic construct that seeks to promote norms around freedom and openness — is also an anti-disruption. It arose explicitly as a reaction to Chinese disruptions in that geographical space, whether that be intransigence in the South and East China Seas, drowning smaller Asian littorals in debt, or building a series of dual-use facilities across the Indian Ocean.

The dynamics that emerge out of this new geopolitical equation, of a revisionist China bent on Asian hegemony and the rise of a normative Indo-Pacific, is that of relentless military, economic and technological competition and contestation. The upholders of liberal norms and ideals in the region — the “quadrilateral” of the United States, Australia, Japan and India, individually and collectively — will push back against Chinese bad behaviour even as smaller Indo-Pacific powers continue to grapple with the implications of a super-powered China. This pushback will eventually test Chinese resoluteness in their quest for Asian predominance, leading to more resistance for the liberal Indo-Pacific powers and the back-and-forth jostling, using all means available is the geopolitical story of our era, for nothing less than the future of the world’s most vibrant continent is at stake.

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Disruption, Chinese-Style

Admiral Harry Harris, commander of the US Pacific Command and soon-to-be US ambassador to Australia, is not known as a taciturn speaker, unafraid to call a spade a spade. So when he, at the Raisina Dialogue in January this year, called China a “long-term challenge” that is “disrupting the potential for prosperity, openness and inclusivity” in the Indo-Pacific, it hardly came as a shock to many in the audience. But, it is important to assess exactly what China is disrupting and how, in order to understand the shape of the response to follow. Chinese disruptions have come in two interrelated varieties: changing the rules of the game when it comes to waters of the western Pacific — and increasingly, the Indian Ocean, and weaponising capital and trade to create a new version of ancient China’s tributary system.

The Chinese challenge to the maritime architecture comes in the form of reclamation of islands and features, and in many cases artificially rebuilding them. This activity has so far been in the South China Sea, though there are emerging reports that suggest that China could build artificial islands near the Maldives as well. Beijing has gone on to instal weapons systems and build runways to land military aircraft in some of them. Recall that these militarised islands are in a sea that sees $3.4 trillion of global trade pass through ever year. Coupled with an “active defence strategy” by which Beijing seeks control over the South China Sea as well as the ability to push foreign navies out of the region if there is a need for that, it is effectively creating an exclusive sphere of influence in that part of the western Pacific. Beijing’s South China Sea strategy is — as American strategist Robert Kaplan is fond of reminding — similar to how the United States sought to control the greater Caribbean through the Monroe Doctrine, first enunciated in 1823.

South China Sea. South China Sea.

Increasingly, China is making its presence known in the Indian Ocean as well. To be fair, some of Chinese anxieties in that maritime space are legitimate. China worries about the security of its sea lines of communication through the Indian Ocean, especially as its reliance on energy supplies from the Middle East, as well as mineral and other resources from Africa, grow. However, Chinese interests in the Indian Ocean region is gradually acquiring geostrategic overtones. Under Xi, China has embarked on a massive connectivity project that spans almost all of the Indo-Pacific. The sea component of this initiative (which former foreign secretary S Jaishankar once described as China’s attempt to “hardwire” the region) involves huge Chinese infrastructure investments in small Indo-Pacific littorals. These countries, such as Sri Lanka, the Maldives, and even Pakistan, are finding themselves literally indebted to the Chinese in the process. China’s economic leverage over these countries is fungible. Indeed, China seeks to circumscribe the foreign policy choices of these countries, and in the process challenge India’s pre-eminent position in the Indian Ocean.

Enter The Indo-Pacific

China’s growing naval force projection ability — as well as its doctrinal shift towards active defence — has sparked an intense maritime contest in the Indo-Pacific, where traditional notions of spheres of influence are being increasingly challenged. China claims that the Indian Ocean is not India’s Ocean, leading many Indian strategists to, in turn, point out that the South China Sea is not China’s Southern Sea. The United States, beginning with it pivot to Asia in 2011, has made it clear that it will not allow the rise of a peer competitor in that continent. Historical differences between Japan and China also continue to exacerbate their fraught relationship. Other countries in the region, such as Australia, have realised that the days of fence-sitting when it comes to the coming great game to be played in Asia’s land and waters is over.

As a strategic construct, the Indo-Pacific is the love child of this contest. It arose as a consensus between — though not only — India, Japan, Australia and the US, not as a matter of rigid ideological principle but as an arrangement brought about by contingency. It was challenges from the rise of China as well as other regional threats that led all four to begin conceiving of (parts of the) Pacific and the Indian Ocean as a unified strategic theatre. While the notion has been informally floated by scholars over the past — notably, by Indian naval strategist Gurpreet Khurana since 2007, it was only with the publication of the US National Security Strategy in December last year that the nomenclature found itself enshrined in American defence and foreign policy. It is not an accident that this document also, for the first time in history, explicitly termed China as a “revisionist power”, and, by implication, a threat to the liberal international order.

This is not to say the construct of the Indo-Pacific is a settled edifice. Many foundational differences among adherents remain, not the least of which is the lack of a commonly-accepted definition. While all parties seem to agree that it should include the western Pacific, what is unclear is whether it should include all of western Indian Ocean or not. This remains for India an important issue. Indian foreign policy analysts have repeatedly noted that while India and the US seem to share many (though not all) strategic objectives to India’s east (the area of responsibility of the Pacific Command of the US military), it is to India’s west (the US Central Command’s responsibility) that serious differences arise. These differences have included questions about the future of Afghanistan, America’s perceived lenience towards Pakistan, as well as different perceptions of Iran. That said, the beauty of a maritime space is that, unlike land borders, the definition can remain fluid, to be expanded as and when there is a strategic need.

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The Rebirth Of The Quad

The Indo-Pacific is explicitly about norms of freedom, openness and prosperity. Nevertheless, talking up norms and values alone has limited utility. Upholding and promoting norms have to have a hard concrete edge, backed by economic and military muscle that rewards states that adhere to them and punish ones that do not. Going forward, the quadrilateral grouping of the US, Japan, Australia and India — reborn after a 10-year hiatus — could be the vehicle that sustains the normative Indo-Pacific in two concrete ways.

One, it could offer alternatives to China’s “debt diplomacy” (to use a phrase of Indian strategist Brahma Chellaney). Two, it could clearly signal to Beijing militarily that the quad states will not tolerate Chinese hegemony over the Indo-Pacific maritime commons. As of now, the first proposal is gaining traction though it is unavoidable — given China’s own muscle flexing in the region — that the second will become part of the agenda at some point in the future.

Through the mega-connectivity Belt and Road Initiative, China has offered to construct ports, roads as well as other infrastructure in countries throughout Asia (and some in Europe). While this in itself is not a problem — the state of extant infrastructure finance remains disturbing across the world, the issue is with the commercial terms of the projects, and the ability of the recipient countries to pay back the Chinese loans. Some of the infrastructure projects, especially ports, financed through the initiative, have dual-use potential, or set a precursor for the establishment of military bases. Gwadar in Pakistan is a case in point. While both China and Pakistan bill that port as a commercial facility, ostensibly designed to mitigate China’s dependence on the Malacca Straits, reports now suggest that it intends setting up a purely military facility in Jiwani, next to Gwadar. The quad countries — individually, bilaterally, trilaterally, or as an entire grouping — will now have to offer credible and sustainable alternatives to the Belt and Road Initiative, sensitive to the commercial as well as geostrategic logic of their investments. The recently-proposed Asia-Africa Growth Corridor (a Japan-India initiative) is a good first step in that direction.

Gwadar Port. Gwadar Port.

The political-military agenda of the quad remains nascent at this stage. However, dissuasion, deterrence and defence (the “3Ds”) in face of Chinese intransigence should be key objectives for the quadrilateral. The four countries should dissuade China from pursuing its active defence strategy. They should deter China from trying to meet its strategic objectives by cleverly avoiding crossing the threshold for a shooting war. Finally, the quad should defend sea lines of communication in the event that dissuasion and deterrence fail.

These objectives can be achieved by the four countries through the development of shared logistics networks, interoperability between the four navies, and shared intelligence-surveillance-reconnaissance and anti-submarine warfare capabilities. The quad in its military avatar should meet the 3D ends by means of joint exercises and defence diplomacy, patrolling and presence operations, and freedom of navigation and overflight maintenance. It goes without saying that many political differences between the four states have to be ironed out before this strategy can be put in place, including India’s obsession with “strategic autonomy” (whatever that means in practice). That said, for the quad to have any real teeth, a robust military component is a necessity.

A Three-Dimensional Battlespace

What is the future of the Indo-Pacific, given China’s revisionism and the attendant pushback from liberal democracies of the region, quad or no quad? To understand this, it is best to conceive of the ongoing tussle in terms of a three-dimensional chessboard (to modify a well-known metaphor of the American scholar-practitioner Joseph Nye). In three-dimensional chess, all the layers are related to one another. In a similar game that is expected to unfold in the Indo-Pacific between China and democratic powers unwilling to cede to Beijing’s hegemony, the geopolitical layer will be linked to the geoeconomic layer. These layers, in turn, would be linked to — using a notion from global strategist Parag Khanna — a third “geotechnological” layer.

I conclude this essay with a few remarks on what that means.

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That technology and statecraft are intimately linked is an old and somewhat obvious idea: countries that possess superior technology often — though not always — tend to have, ceteris paribus, decisive advantage over their peers. But, possession of superior technology is also a good marker of a nation’s comprehensive national strength, the possession of a vibrant and innovative economy included.

For a long time, China’s indigenous technical base was weak as it relied on stolen technology from the West. All that has dramatically changed in recent years, as the Chinese economy has moved away from a manufacturing-for-exports model to one based on services and innovation. China also makes no permanent distinction between civilian and military use of technology, as it has moved to what it calls “civil-military fusion”. Xi, in January 2017, created a new Central Commission for Integrated Military and Civilian Development, which is tasked with synthesising civilian and military research efforts and spin-offs from the former for the latter. Through civil-military fusion efforts, China has made spectacular strides in national security-related applications of artificial intelligence and quantum technology.

While the US does not have a similar state-structured model to interface civilian and military technology, its military-industrial complex has long worked to bridge the gap between the two. Indeed, the US’ “third offset” defence strategy relies heavily of cyber, artificial intelligence and other cutting-edge technologies long considered the monopoly of the Silicon Valley. Australia and Japan too are technology hubs, and Indian technical expertise is well-known. So, the new Asian battlespace will be as much about traditional geopolitical outmanoeuvring and geoeconomic jostling as it will be about technical competition as each side tries to obtain a decisive advantage over the other.

This interrelated dynamics of geopolitics, geoeconomics and geotechnology will ultimately determine the future of Asia. In other words, along with a commercial maritime Indo-Pacific shaped by new connectivity models and a geopolitical Indo-Pacific that would see intense naval competition, there would be an ethereal Indo-Pacific of disruptive technological ideas and a multiverse of norms that shape the use of technology. One suspects that at the end of the day, it is the latter that would determine the trajectory of the former two.

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