Defence posturing in IOR
The Indian strategic interest was rattled by the double-whammy in Sri Lanka and the end of their ‘India-first’ approach.
In the chessboard of oft-conflicting geopolitical ambitions, symbolic presence and military posturing's assume great significance as reliable lodestars of strategic ambitions, investments and future-focus. The opening of the first international naval base of the Chinese People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) in the sensitive Horn of Africa region, at Djibouti, has set alarm bells ringing for its sheer audacity and implications on the growing fructification of 'Sinosphere'. Even though the base ostensibly houses only 300 personnel with a mandate to support Chinese maritime logistics in the busy Red Sea waterways, check piracy, assist peacemaking and humanitarian efforts – the near proximity of the Chinese port to the US and Japanese naval facilities and the possibility of connecting the interlinking-dots of the gargantuan Chinese 'One Belt One Road' initiative is loaded with suggestive portents of the Chinese intent and juggernaut. The invariable optics of Chinese power projection via the Djibouti Naval base belie the current reality of its indefensibility in case of a US attack, yet the latest satellite imagery suggesting the building of a 330 m long pier into the sea exemplifies the building-blocks of a more assertive footprint. In the backdrop of the Chinese having taken over the Hambantota port in the southern tip of Sri Lanka and its active manoeuvring in the Maldives – the careful plotting and placement of the Chinese PLAN network in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) is concerning.
The Indian strategic interest was rattled by the double-whammy in Sri Lanka and the end of 'India-first' approach of the Maldivian government, now in favour of the Chinese – now the latest denial to establish an Indian naval base in the Assumption Island of Seychelles is yet another setback for Delhi in its arc of maritime dominance. Amidst this, the recent renaming of the oldest and the largest combat command of the US military i.e. '7th fleet', to now rechristened as the 'US Indo Pacific Command' has symbolic significance as it suggests a counter-assertion of the US Defence forces beyond the traditional Western-Pacific focus, to now also actively include, the Indian Ocean. Understandably the recent belligerence of the Chinese navy in the restive South China Seas with its domineering and expansionist behaviour has forced a coalescing of like-minded countries like Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia, Australia, Japan and India to negate the obvious Chinese hegemonistic instincts.
The shifting sands of sovereign alignments have led to frequent flip-flops with the Chinese gaining and losing leverage in various countries, over time. The Philippines, which had successfully dragged China to the International Tribunal in Hague against its brazen 'nine-dotted line' claim and had won the arbitration plea – was soon courting the Chinese and spewing venom against the US as a regime-change in Manila ushered in the decidedly anti-US, Rodrigo Duterte. However, the change of regime in Myanmar and Bangladesh had undone the earlier Chinese plans of making 'Pearl Ports' at Sittwe and Chittagong. Whereas, domestic politics and some mismanagement on account of New Delhi have led the Chinese to make deep forays into the traditionally pro-India governments in both Male and Kathmandu. In both Maldives and Nepal, no concrete Chinese economic or military footprint has been established as yet, though the symbolic welcoming of the Chinese interest and putative intent embedded in the diplomatic language emanating from both the countries, suggests warming up to China.
Ironically, the much-feted nomenclature in India of the 'U.S. Indo-Pacific Command' was infamous in its previous avatar as the 7th fleet. At the decisive moment of the Indo-Pak war of 1971, a detachment of the 7th fleet known as Task Force-74, led by the nuclear powered US aircraft carrier Enterprise had entered menacingly into the Bay of Bengal with a flotilla of naval ships, in what is believed to be a pro-Pakistani manoeuvre. It was too late, the Pakistanis surrendered at Dhaka, but the daring posturing of the US Navy was not forgotten for a very long time. Today time and tide has moved the Pakistanis into the willing embrace and umbrella of the Chinese, whereas the Indians have reposed their strategic interest along with the US. Pursuant to the same, the Indian Navy traveled to the Pearl Harbor to liaise with the erstwhile 7th fleet leadership for the annual executive steering group forum and more recently detachment from the Indian Armed Forces participated with the US under the aegis of US Marine Corps-led, Pacific Amphibious Leaders Symposium. Concurrently the biennial naval exercise 'Milan' hosted by the Indian Navy at their Andaman & Nicobar Command is expanding with a retinue of friendly nations participating in the same. This year naval components from 16 countries participated including the China-wary Australia, Singapore, Cambodia, Vietnam, Thailand etc.
The jigsaw of posturing, positioning and plotting in the Indian ocean is in full swing and symbolically with the renaming of the 7th fleet, a subtle messaging of countering the Chinese influence in the Indian ocean is embedded. Last year, the US, Australia, Japan and India had initiated the quadrilateral coalition to develop a new strategy to keep the critical Indo-Pacific sea routes free of the Chinese adventurism. Importantly the most sensitive and vulnerable 'chokepoint' of the sea-routes for the Chinese is in the close vicinity of the Malacca Straits, which overlooks the southern tip of the Indian territory of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. A doomsday scenario from the Chinese perspective would be a couple of weeks of 'choking' in the Malacca Straits that could be fatal to the Chinese system and regime. The ongoing deliberations on giving more teeth to the Andaman and Nicobar Command by way of deploying combat platforms, which may also include a fighter base will signal reciprocal muscularity of posturing. Meanwhile, the US has upped the ante of Military posturing with the direction of establishing 'a space force' as the sixth military branch! In the asymmetric calculus of geopolitical wrangling the art and science of credible posturing and green-shoot military investments are auguries of intent and action by countries to protect and advance their respective self-interests.
Lt General Bhopinder Singh (Retd) is a former Lt Governor of Andaman and Nicobar Islands & Puducherry. Views expressed are strictly personal