Military build-up and regional stability

RAJESWARI PILLAI RAJAGOPALAN and ARKA BISWAS

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THE Indian Ocean Region (IOR) is yet again becoming an area of strategic competition, evident in the increasing jostling for power and influence among major players: the US, China and India. Most of the Asian countries depend on oil imports from the Middle East, and, consequentially, more than 80% of oil vessels from Middle East to Northeast Asia pass through this region. Choke points around the Strait of Hormuz, the Mozambique Channel and the Malacca Straits have, therefore, been particularly significant for these countries. Further, the growing volume of broadband communication linkages connecting Asia and the West via undersea cables across the Indian Ocean highlight the vulnerabilities of these cable routes in the region. This has brought to the fore issues such as the protection of sea lines of communication (SLOCs), maritime terrorism and piracy.

Simultaneously, given the rising stakes in these waters, there is already a sense of rivalry brewing between China and the other powers. The changing balance of power has thus had a more telling effect in the politics and security around the Indian Ocean.

IOR hosts several navies of varying capabilities. So far, neither have they shown any interest nor do they possess a sustained capability to carry out multilateral operations in the region. The US, with its preoccupation in the Middle East for more than a decade, has shown lesser involvement in Asian affairs. Meanwhile, China is not only becoming a more powerful force on the waters in this region, but also exhibiting a worrisome habit of using its military power for unilateral advantage. This essay examines three major powers – the US, China and India, and their military build-up in the region. These powers are increasing their military capabilities, both offensive and defensive, based on their threat perceptions, and are thus creating a new dynamic. For each of these powers, the IOR is a strategic region, closely tied to their own national interests.

 

Even though the US may not be an Indian Ocean power in strict geographical terms, its influence on regional security dynamics has been significant. Maritime stability in the Indian Ocean, therefore, continues to rely to a great extent on the US, even though its ability to act as a security guarrantor has been thinning in recent times. Even in the face of a relative decline of the US, its intentions vis-à-vis the Indo-Pacific have been gaining clarity with the announcement of its rebalance strategy.

The US has identified many of its strategic interests in the IOR for several decades now. Its importance in the context of energy flows has reinforced focus on issues such as anti-piracy, protection of SLOCs and maritime security. The IOR has also played a significant role in the context of the US’ global war on terrorism and in its operations in Afghanistan. But most importantly, countries in the region have looked to the US as the security guarrantor, particularly as it relates to the security of their trade and energy transportation. These have necessitated the US to maintain high levels of military and diplomatic presence in the region. Both the CENTCOM (US’s Central Command) and PACOM (US’s Pacific Command) have been active, in addition to the AFRICOM which too is operational in some of the African Indian Ocean littoral countries. There are diplomatic linkages too, some of which are alliance based partnerships such as with Australia and Thailand.

Since the end of the Vietnam War, the US efforts have focused on consolidating its military presence in the Asia Pacific. This presence, even if in part, has been subject to the willingness of and support from the host countries in the region. This has meant that the US retained its presence primarily in Japan, South Korea and the Philippines, with some logistic support arrangements in Singapore. But now, the relative decline of the US and its ability or willingness to play an active role has also become an important factor affecting its military presence in the region. This has had a mixed impact on the region, with some of the regional powers using their hard power capabilities to establish a stable equation. Even the smaller Southeast Asian countries are spending more on their militaries, and this is reflected in their advancing naval and air capabilities. These developments are also a response to China’s rise and, in particular, its aggressive posturing in the South China Sea. Also the newer trend of finding technological solutions to territorial and political issues is worrisome.

 

The rise of Chinese military power, the consequential rise in the military expenditures of smaller regional powers and the relative US decline has made Washington redefine its approach to the security challenges in the region, emphasizing more on offshore balancing.

Nonetheless, the criticality of the Indian Ocean to the US economy and security has remained, as captured in the Strategic Guidance 2012 and as reiterated in the 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review. The US has, therefore, continued to maintain a significant naval presence in Bahrain, Djibouti and Diego Garcia, coordinated through the three US Department of Defense (DOD) commands. These facilities coordinate bilateral and multilateral exercises among African and Asian countries around the Indian Ocean, as a part of the offshore balancing strategy.

The Kingdom of Bahrain maintains one of the most robust US military presences in the IOR for a range of naval and maritime activities. With a total of 8,500 personnel, it hosts the US Fifth Fleet. In recent years, there have been proposals to significantly expand the facility in the face of American plans of housing more vessels, including new coastal patrol and littoral combat ships.1 This is arguably an attempt by the US to reassure its allies in the Middle East, who had registered concerns following the announcement of the US pivot to Asia policy.

 

Camp Lemonnier, a US Navy-led facility in Djibouti, functions as an important base for the US Africa Command in the Horn of Africa. The base also houses the Combined Joint Task Force in the Horn of Africa that supports Operation Enduring Freedom-Horn of Africa (OEF-HOA) in curbing extremism and stabilizing this region.2 The US has critical interests in Djibouti, given the strategic location of the latter at the mouth of the Gulf of Aden that has remained prone to piracy and maritime terrorism.

Situated in an unstable region, with Somali and Yemen in the immediate neighbourhood, Djibouti has been of critical importance to the US and other African partners in conducting de-mining, humanitarian, maritime and counterterrorism operations. In a statement to the US Congress in 2012, retired Army General Carter Ham explained that Camp Lemonnier was ‘a key location for national security and power projection.’3 The base reportedly has more than 4,000 personnel including US troops, civil bureaucracy and contractors, whose duties include training of foreign militaries, intelligence collection and extending humanitarian assistance across East Africa with an aim of eradicating circumstances which would enable extremism.

 

The US military presence in Djibouti is being strengthened with an increase in the number of US operations. In 2012, it was reported that the camp was an important base for US drone and surveillance activities in Africa.4 This appears to have been in response to an attack on the US embassy in Benghazi and the resultant criticism that the US lacked sufficient ‘crisis-response capacity in Africa.’ Developments in Yemen and Somalia have also been important considerations for this growing set of operations, primarily conducted via unmanned vehicles.5

In addition to conventional forces, the base also houses special operations rapid response team, composed of Green Berets from the US Army’s 10 Special Forces Group, whose primary targets have been al-Qaeda and al-Shabab.

The US has planned on investing $1.2 billion over the next 25 years for major renovation and expansion of the base, including construction of a special operations centre, a three-story barracks and a hanger to station up to two aircrafts.6 For all the willingness of the Djibouti government to house them, one of the shortfalls has been the inadequacy of space for expansion. US F-15 fighters, C-130 transport planes and refuelling aircraft often have to compete for space with other commercial planes as well as the Japanese and French aircraft that conduct anti-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden.

Diego Garcia is yet another base where the US has a significant military presence. In addition to countering Soviet interests in the region during the Cold War, energy security-driven interests such as SLOCs protection became a dominant factor behind the establishment of the US base at Diego Garcia. Having been used for several US military operations, including the Iraq operations in the early 1990s, operations in Afghanistan and Operation Iraqi Freedom, the base continues to retain its strategic value.

While the US base in the Indian Ocean created friction in its relations with India in the past, a growing convergence of interests has facilitated naval cooperation between the two powers. The base maintains a US Air Force operated remote tracking station and offers telemetry, tracking and command of DOD satellites.

 

For China, the Indian Ocean is of strategic importance, primarily because of its growing dependence on the SLOCs in this region. Around 85% of its oil imports and over 60% of its exports pass through the Gulf of Aden.7 Despite diversifying its energy procurement from West Asia to Russia, Central Asia and Africa, China’s dependence on West Asia remains significant. Beijing has repeatedly reiterated its fears of a possible blockade and disruption of the SLOCs that could hurt its economic and energy security interests. Accordingly, it has been steadily increasing its presence in the Indian Ocean, from which it had historically stayed away. While the importance of the Indian Ocean to China has mostly been accredited to factors of economy and energy, the strategic factors have been equally important determinants of its policy in the region. China for the first time publicly revealed its strategy on the Indian Ocean in 2013. The 350-page ‘blue book’ defines its interests as primarily commercial, the document, however, does not rule out the potential for conflict, stating that ‘no single regional power or world power, including the United States, Russia, China, Australia, India, can control the Indian Ocean by itself in the future’, leaving ‘big powers’ to jostle for strategic space in the region. 8

 

Pursuing this strategy, China has developed friendly relations with many countries, using maritime diplomacy among other tools. In addition, the PLA Navy (PLAN) is today a frequent visitor to the ports of Karachi, Colombo and Southeast Asian countries. China could possibly use the civilian ports constructed, for instance at Gwadar and Hambantota, for military purposes. Additionally, the Chinese navy has conducted numerous exercises well beyond its traditional sphere of operation, indicating a clear intent on its part to become a major player in the region. The fact that China received permission from the International Seabed Authority (ISA) for mining in the IOR further captures the growing Chinese presence in the region.

Although China does not have military bases in the region, it has beefed up its influence by becoming proactive in anti-piracy missions and SLOCs protection patrols. Sending three vessels to the Gulf of Aden in 2009 may have been symbolic, but China has sent a clear message that it plans to extend its sphere of influence well beyond its immediate waters. The fact that some of the Indian Ocean littoral countries are seeking greater Chinese assistance only strengthens Beijing’s hold in the area. In 2011, the Seychelles sought Chinese anti-piracy military assistance in terms of having a more regular military presence in the archipelago.9 The Seychelles authorities, however, clarified that the Chinese ships will follow the same routine as they do in ports of Djibouti, Oman and Yemen, wherein they would be ‘seeking supplies or recuperating at appropriate harbours in Seychelles or other countries as needed during escort missions.’

 

The recurring standoff in recent years between China and the United States, Japan as well as Vietnam and the Philippines in Southeast Asia have demonstrated PLAN’s increasing confidence of operating in a proactive manner.10 In addition to PLAN’s growing asymmetric capabilities, such as development of cruise missile and anti-ship ballistic missiles, the strengthening of military installations also provides a purview of PLA’s power projection capabilities. The underground Sanya submarine base in Hainan has, for instance, raised alarm bells in the region. The Chinese Navy has also exercised ‘expeditionary maritime capabilities’ through its nuclear-powered submarines and area denial weapons such as the DF-21D anti-ship ballistic missiles ‘with deployment focus in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR).’11 China’s expanding naval fleet and other naval technologies (induction of the Liaoning Aircraft Carrier for instance) demonstrates that Beijing is aiming to become a major naval power in the region – challenging the existing balance of power.

 

For India, IOR is undoubtedly significant. From an economic point of view, the region opens up a plethora of opportunities for Indian engagement. Meanwhile, from a security point of view, although India is yet to face an imminent military threat from and in the region, the emergence of non-traditional threats to its growing economic interests has made it mandatory for India to increase its military, especially naval, capabilities. Simultaneously, the changing geopolitical balance in the region requires India to make efforts at restoring the balance of power and ensure that hegemonic aspiration of any one nation does not materialize to the detriment of regional stability.

Economically, about 70% of India’s oil imports pass through the IOR. Simultaneously recognizing its strategic importance, India has striven to improve its influence, using its economic power via channels of investments in regional mining, oil, gas and infrastructure projects. Moreover, India’s international trade is growing and a significant part of this is carried by sea. Unfortunately, however, as per figures in 2012, Indian ships undertake only around 10% of this trade.12 However, with growth in the global shipbuilding industry, there has been a corresponding growth in the Indian shipbuilding sector as well. The rate at which India’s economic interests in the region grow will arguably be directly proportional to the threats which it would face from non-traditional actors. The changing geopolitical environment in the region is also bound to have an impact.

 

As mentioned, India currently does not face a military threat in the region as imminently as it does from across its two land borders, vis-à-vis Pakistan and China. Yet, the naval build-up of Pakistan and China in the Indian Ocean demands a careful watch. Pakistan, for instance, is gaining in one vital area over India – submarines. Drawing from the experience of the 1971 war, where only its submarines were proven to be of any effect against the Indian naval might, Pakistan has invested heavily, within the prevalent economic constraints, on acquiring, maintaining and modernizing its submarine fleet. Pakistan currently has eight submarines, which includes five Agosta diesel-electric submarines and three MG110 miniature submarines (SSI).13 In addition, the decision made by China, during President Xi Jinping’s visit to Pakistan, to sell eight submarines will tilt the balance hugely in favour of Pakistan, unless India takes remedial measures.14

Pakistan is also planning to develop a sea-based version of its Babur missile, a subsonic nuclear-capable missile, with the primary aim of twisting the existing naval power equation vis-á-vis India. Induction of nuclear weapons into the Pakistani naval force can create greater uncertainty in India’s war fighting options, as it will block the Indian Navy from concentrating the bulk of its naval assets in a single location.15

 

India also faces challenges to its SLOCs from non-traditional threats, which include piracy, maritime terrorism, organized crime at sea, drug and human trafficking, and smuggling of arms. These emerging challenges will require India to not only increase its capabilities, but also enhance cooperation with other littoral nations as these actors also pose threats to these nations in the region.

The Indian Navy in 2005 released a Maritime Capabilities Perspective Plan that outlined its ambition of dominating the region and revamp the navy by enhancing its capabilities, both in quantity and quality. However, a realistic assessment of the Indian Navy’s current capabilities, along with consideration of the rate of procurement of various battleships and equipment by the Indian Navy, questions India’s ambition of dominating the Indian Ocean. India currently possesses 20 major surface combatants including INS Vikramaditya and INS Viraat aircraft carriers, destroyers and frigates, and its submarine fleet, at present, has 14 boats. India has also developed its first indigenous nuclear submarine, INS Arihant, which is currently undergoing sea trials.

India proposes to have a 160 ship-strong navy and plans on inducting 24 submarines by 2030, which will also replace the ageing submarines. Although the plan may seem over-ambitious, the new Indian government cleared defence deals worth Rs 80,000 crore in October 2014 that includes acquisition of six conventional submarines. Following up on Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ‘Make in India’ campaign, the Indian Navy is required to identify shipyards in India where technologies from foreign manufacturers will be used to build the vessels. This will also result in an increase in investment on infrastructure development of the shipyards and enhance India’s capacity to build more ships in the future. This defence deal also cleared the acquisition of 12 new Dornier aircraft, which will be used for maritime surveillance.

 

Finally, for India, while multilateral diplomacy in the IOR has remained important, emphasis is increasingly being given to building up its own capabilities and secondly, on establishing and strengthening bilateral and trilateral partnerships with other countries in the region.16 Thus, apart from beefing up its own naval capabilities, India recently has used naval diplomacy extensively to build partnerships with littoral countries in the region and conduct joint exercises with extra-regional powers to enhance its own operational efficiency. For instance, India has been holding trilateral talks/exercises with Sri Lanka and Maldives since 2011. In 2014, this trilateral talk was held at the National Security Advisor’s level. It was announced in this meeting that Seychelles and Mauritius had joined in, leading to the formation of a new grouping, also referred to as the IO5.17 Similarly, in 2014, warships from India, Japan and the US participated in joint naval exercises.

India has also been conducting bilateral naval exercises with Japan since 2012. In January 2014, the two countries’ coast guards staged joint manoeuvres in the Arabian Sea. Similarly, the prime ministers of India and Australia, during their recent meetings, announced preparations for the inaugural bilateral maritime exercise, which is proposed to be held in 2015.

 

Regional stability in the IOR remains at the top of the agenda for several powers including the US, China and India. The region is muddled with conflicting claims on maritime territories. These claims, backed by rising nationalism and military (particularly naval) profile in Asia, have the potential of turning into a source of conflict. Such a conflict, even if bilateral in nature, will impact, at the very least, global trade, including that of India and other interested powers. With the relative decline of the US and in the possible absence of a committed extra-regional security guarantor in the future, India needs to step in to ensure that this vacuum is not filled by an actor whose role will be inimical to the interests of India.

However, given a gap in capability mix in each of the major maritime powers, there is significant scope for cooperation. Efforts need to be made to address issues that constitute major hurdles, and identify specific areas for cooperation. Establishing Confidence Building Measures (CBMs) and practical mechanisms in areas such as information sharing and for providing prior intimation of naval manoeuvres will be useful. Even as there is scope for regional and international cooperation, the shifting balance of power and the emerging geo-political dynamics suggest that the IOR is likely to witness more competition and rivalry than cooperation.

 

Footnotes:

1. Hendrick Simoes, ‘Work in Progress to Upgrade Facilities at Navy’, Stars and Stripes, 11 April 2014.

2. Horn of Africa includes some of the most extremist-threatened and failing states in the region such as Kenya, Ethiopia, Sudan, Somalia, Eritrea and Yemen.

3. Shashank Bengali, ‘US Military Investing Heavily in Africa’, LA Times, 20 October 2013.

4. Craig Whitlock, ‘Remote US Base at Core of Secret Operations’, The Washington Post, 26 October 2012.

5. There have been reports of the US F-15s being used for operations in Yemen. See Frank Gardner, ‘US Military Steps Up Operations in the Horn of Africa’, BBC News, 7 February 2014, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-26078149; Craig Whitlock, ‘Remote US Base at Core of Secret Operations’, The Washington Post, 26 October 2012.

6. Op. cit., fn. 3.

7. D.S. Sarao, ‘Tricky Waters: The South China Sea Dispute and India’, Asia Pacific Defense Forum, 1 April 2013, http://apdforum.com/en_GB/article/rmiap/articles/print/departments/voice/2013/04/01/feature-pr-17?format=mobile.

8. Ananth Krishnan, ‘China Details Indian Ocean Strategy and Interests’, The Hindu, 9 June 2013.

9. Ananth Krishnan, ‘No Indian Ocean Military Base: China’, The Hindu, 13 December 2011.

10. Manu Pubby, ‘China Proposed Division of Pacific, Indian Ocean Regions, We Declined: US Admiral’, The Indian Express, 15 May 2009.

11. Rahul Singh, ‘China’s Submarines in Indian Ocean Worry Indian Navy’, Hindustan Times, 7 April 2013.

12. Indian ships carried 9.10% of the country’s overseas cargo during 2012-13 as against 10.87% in 2011-12. See Government of India, Ministry of Shipping, Transport Research Wing, Basic Port Statistics of India 2012-13.

13. ‘Submarine Force’, Pakistan Navy, www.paknavy.gov.pk; ‘Central and South Asia Caribbean and Latin America’, The Military Balance 2009. International Institute of Strategic Studies, Routledge, 2009, Chapter 7.

14. David Tweed, ‘Xi Jinping’s Sale of Submarines to Pakistan Raises Risk of Indian Ocean Nuclear Clash’, The Sydney Morning Herald, 19 April 2015.

15. Iskander Rehman, ‘Nuclear Weapons and Pakistan’s Naval Strategy’, The Interpreter, Lowy Institute, 22 August 2014, http://www.lowyinterpreter.org/post/2014/08/22/Nuclear-weapons-and-Pakistans-naval-strategy.aspx.

16. C. Raja Mohan, ‘The Great Game Folio: Ocean Diplomacy’, The Indian Express, 24 December 2014.

17. David Brewster, ‘India’s Own String of Pearls: Sri Lanka, Mauritius, Seychelles and Maldives’, The Interpreter, Lowy Institute for International Policy, 13 March 2014, http://m.lowyinstitute.org/node/42168.

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