Indo-Pacific: Unravelling Strategic Rivalries and Regional Challenges

Sub Title : As the US-China rivalry increases, all the global players are turning their attention to this vast and strategically important region

Issues Details : Vol 17 Issue 3 Jul – Aug 2023

Author : Amb Gurjit Singh

Page No. : 27

Category : Geostrategy

: August 2, 2023

The Indo-Pacific has become a focal point of global strategic thinking, shaped by strategic rivalries and regional challenges. Tensions in the South China Sea, the East China Sea, Taiwan, and the internal crisis in Myanmar demand careful management and resolution. The rise of partnerships like the Quad and European engagement underscores the importance of collective efforts in safeguarding regional stability and open trade routes.

The Indo-Pacific is the current flavour of strategic thinking and focus globally. Besides the countries of the region, there is interest from the USA, Europe and China. Many countries announced Indo-Pacific policies, even those far from the region like Canada or Lithuania. If these were functionally cooperative efforts, the region would certainly benefit. However, since the Indo-Pacific is a strategic concept, evolving from the more economically-inclined Asia-Pacific concept, the strategic heft into regional thinking is greater. The Asia-Pacific concept brought together post-Vietnam War cohesion in the region. The Indo-Pacific concept is born from Chinese assertiveness in the region, facilitated by American absence for some years. Thus, contention and confrontation mark the evolution of the Indo-Pacific. Its emergence and of the Quad thereafter manifested several conflict zones which instigated a strategic rethinking and the Indo-Pacific concept for wider partnerships to confront new rivalries.

While some of these are perhaps the focus of Indo-Pacific strategic intent, some others are persistent problems of the region which go on despite changes in strategic concepts. Between 1995 and 1999, communist countries that opposed the US in the Vietnam War, (Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam (CLV), were integrated into ASEAN. This led to their inclusion in ASEAN- centric bodies like the ASEAN Regional Forum and the East Asia Summit, the ADMM plus and the extended ASEAN maritime forum (EAMF). Some of these institutions are directly linked to managing conflict, preventive diplomacy and confidence building measures to which the CLV now contributed. Chinese aggression in the South China Sea (SCS) upset some of these efforts. ASEAN was always apprehensive of Chinese actions. Since 2002, it pursued a Code of Conduct (COC) but has to survive on the declaration regarding the COC of 2002. In 2022, when China and ASEAN marked the 30th anniversary, it was also the 20th anniversary of the start of discussions around the COC. To date, the COC has not been concluded.

Contention in the South China Sea

While the ASEAN original five were traditionally pro-American, the CLV outlook remained pro-Chinese to date. ASEAN conviviality crashed in 2012 when Chinese aggressive intentions became institutionalized in the SCS. They used the traditional nine-dash line to take over waters, shoals and islets in the SCS, which were within the jurisdiction of Vietnam, Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei.  Since 2017, the only concession that ASEAN wrested from China was that till then China said SCS issues were bilateral with the concerned countries, but now agreed to discuss them collectively with ASEAN. This was more due to China having consolidated its control over the SCS than any concern for ASEAN. The COC remains inconclusive but China has had a walkover in the SCS and is using its Coast Guard laws to control fishing, resource harnessing and whatever they want from the blue waters around these areas. China has expanded uninhabited shoals and rocks into islands and strategically developed them to the extent that they don’t really need to deploy aircraft carriers in the SCS and can use the air bases and anti-aircraft capacities of these islands to guard their acquired interests.

Rise of the Quad and European Engagement

Chinese aggression in the SCS tilted the balance of power in the region. All the efforts through the ARF, EAS and other ASEAN-centric bodies could not hold China back. Thus, ASEAN’s other EAS partners, India, Japan, USA and Australia started meeting more frequently through the Quad and harnessing their individual capacities not so much to challenge China, but to keep the trade routes open, through the SCS. China could now effectively badger Vietnam, Philippines, Brunei and Malaysian rights. These were rarely contested but Chinese control over the SCS is contested by the Quad countries. Now European countries have joined this effort. The UK is the most serious having sent its flotilla led by aircraft carrier Queen Elizabeth II to the region. Germany has sent individual ships and intends to continue this practice given the small size of its navy, France is playing a bigger role because it has Island territories in the Indian and Pacific Oceans. The USA has revived its partnership with Australia, the Philippines and other countries in the region.

Tensions in the East China Sea and Taiwan

Another area of similar concern is the East China Sea where China is contesting traditional Japanese control over the Senkaku Islands which are like an extension of the Okinawa chain. These too were undermanned because Japan never expected a challenge. Since 2008, China’s expanding navy tested Japanese resolve and preparedness repeatedly. Traditional Japanese fishing rights are challenged, and landings are made on remote islands. Intrusions into Japanese waters are common. Combined Russian and Chinese exercises and have their ships and Air Force pass through Japanese waters unannounced, particularly through Hokkaido and Honshu have acquired regularity which causes anxiety in Japan.  Northern/Interaction-2023 a Russo-Chinese exercise saw Chinese bombers use Russian bases for operations for the first time in July 2023.

Japan’s effort to entrap China and Russia in economic embrace is now seen as a failure. Both are strategic challenges. To counter this Japan has a new national security strategy 2023. Its defence white papers consistently provide for a robust Japanese defence response, with flexibility on past constraints. Like Germany, Japan enhanced its defence budget and breached the 1%. self-restraint and pitched for a much larger development of naval, air, electronic and space mechanisms.

Chinese defence expenditure of $51bn will see the acquisition of ships and submarines. Advanced submarines like Sui-class (Type 095) Nuclear-Powered Attack Submarines (SSN) and Tang-class (Type 096) Nuclear-Powered Ballistic Missile Submarine (SSBN) are on order. $25 billion is allocated to submarine procurement between 2023-2033.

The South and East China Seas remain a live situation. Accidents can happen leading to local flare-ups. Nobody wants an actual war but the rising militarisation of the region does not rule out incidents where casualties may occur.

China with its robust Navy, now the largest in the world, is threatening Taiwan with invasion and takeover. Chinese military exercises, intrusions into Taiwanese waters and airspace have become common. Both Chinese aircraft carriers are in the vicinity of Taiwan raising anxiety there. The USA believes in the one-China policy but is nevertheless committed to Taiwanese defence. It does not want to go it alone and is roping in regional partners. The first among these is Japan. For years, Japan sought clarity that the Japan-US treaty would include the defence of the Senkaku Islands. When the US explicitly clarified that it will defend the Senkakus, it also sought Japanese concurrence that the treaty would also cover the defence of Taiwan. This is now accepted Japanese logic.

Similarly, the expanded American presence in Darwin and other places in northern Australia, indicates a staging post in case the Taiwan crisis becomes live. The emergence of AUKUS is an effort to build nuclear submarines for Australia and ready it as a more accomplished strategic partner to challenge China. This shows the intent behind US policy. They do not want the Chinese to threaten the US in the Pacific. Therefore, the Pacific Islands have become an area of contention. Australia’s traditional zone of influence is being challenged by China. Now the US is joining hands there as well.

The Philippines has stepped out of its ASEAN comfort and is associating more clearly with Japan and the US in military matters. US bases in the Philippines are revived and rejuvenated. They are essentially to bolster the Philippine’s defence against Chinese intrusions, but there is no doubt that the bases in the northern Philippines are not so far from Taiwan, and therefore could be part of a Taiwan crisis.

Myanmar: An Internal Crisis with Wider Ramifications

While the South China Sea, the East China Sea and Taiwan are the main possible zones of conflict in the Indo-Pacific, there is the problem of Myanmar which is internal to the country and to ASEAN but has wider ramifications. The dismantling of democracy seems to happen with glaring consistency in Myanmar. ASEAN’s influence on it has become limited and the regime in Myanmar is not really abiding by the five PC adopted in 2021, by ASEAN. A cleavage within ASEAN with Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam adopting a more engaging posture with the military regime in Myanmar is a matter of concern to ASEAN. Neighbours of Myanmar like India, China and Bangladesh are inclined to go with this engagement preference rather than an exclusion process of the five PC. The Myanmar conflict is severe with civilian casualties and arrests having occurred. Democracy has been throttled, and the junta consolidated, but the geo-political location of Myanmar does not change.

Thus, for India, China and Thailand, Myanmar is a neighbour first and an ASEAN problem later. With India, the tinderbox effect of Myanmar refugees into India upsets the Northeast of India. It has ramifications which are destabilizing and disturbing. Therefore, the Myanmar situation needs to be not only contained but resolved, if more conflict with Bangladesh and India is not to emerge.