India’s cooperation in Pacific

As the churning in  South China Sea  gradually develops into a face to face rivalry between the big powers, India will soon have to take a call on the pressures being applied to come out openly whether they want to align with the big powers.

That China has aggravated the tension in the region with unilateral militarization through new artificial air bases and missile squadrons is undeniable and well known along with India’s stand that the  dispute be resolved in accordance with International Law of the Sea and the 2002 Code of Conduct reached between ASEAN and China.

Considering its state of sweet and sour  relations with China and  the need for maintaining peace and tranquility on the over 4,000 kms long undemarcated border, India would not succumb to the US pressures to join over the triangular or quadrilateral alliance proposal  against  China. The response from the Indian side has been till now very cool, dismissing any such possibility of joining the alliances. Reacting to the proposal the Chinese foreign ministry objected, “Relevant countries should not provoke confrontation and create tension in the region.”

The US side has perhaps been making unilateral overtures, which looks as if they are speaking  on behalf of India. The first US announcement was rejected by the Indian defence  minister regarding the Malabar naval exercise near the Philipino waters. The Indian defence minister Manohar Parrikar said clearly that he would not respond to the statement of a US Admiral.”Our viewpoint will come,” said Parrikar, “if at all we consider it [US proposal]. As of now, India has never taken part in any joint patrol; the question of joint patrol does not arise.”

Joint patrol

The Commander of the US Pacific Command Admiral Harry Harris told the international gathering during Raisina Dialogue that this year’s Malabar Exercise between India, US and  Japan would be held near the Philipino waters and also proposed that  the US and Indian naval forces should conduct joint patrolling of the South China Sea. Though India has legitimate claim over right to freedom of passage over the South China Sea from where over 55 percent of Indian maritime trade is conducted, but has no muscle power to protect this and confront directly the Chinese forces.

Emergence of a new group of big powers to challenge Chinese  attempts to establish suzerainty over the South China Sea should be silently encouraged by India, as it has similar vested interests in encouraging other powers to challenge the Chinese aggressiveness in the maritime sea, but going out of way to take initiative to form any trilateral or quadrilateral alliances to challenge the Chinese aggressiveness would prove to be counterproductive.

The US strategy is to take advantage of Sino-Indian rift over territorial issues and push India in the forefront of alliance against the Chinese territorial assertions over South China Sea and adjoining waters. They know very well that the Chinese dragon is nowhere near them to be attacked. When the Chinese had earmarked the Air Defence Identification Zone a few years ago  over the East China Sea, the  American airways were among the first to kowtow to the Chinese  dictate.

Maritime alliances

In fact the proposal for a quadrilateral alliance is not a new one. The original proposal was made by the Australians in 2007 when its defence minister proposed four nation alliance to jointly  safeguard  peace and stability in the maritime area.

The Australian proposal came after the five nation maritime joint exercise in the Bay of Bengal which included India, Australia, USA, Japan and Singapore. But the stern  diplomatic response  from the Chinese forced the Australians and the Americans to develop cold feet and since then none of them talked of this alliance. The revival of this proposal has raised eyebrows among Indian strategic community. The Chinese are already seething with anger over India’s decision to invite Japanese as the permanent member of the Indo-US bilateral naval exercise alternatively held in Indian Ocean and the Pacific Ocean.

The American Admiral’s proposal has evoked strong reaction from China. According to the US Admiral, “By being ambitious, India, Japan, Australia, the United States and so many other like-minded nations can aspire to patrol together anywhere international law allows. No nation should perceive the patrols as a threat.” said Admiral Harris, “We all have a vested interest in ensuring our region remains secure, stable, and prosperous,” Harris referred to the  $5.3 trillion in trade that passes through the Indian Ocean and South China Sea each year. “How Indo-Asia-Pacific nations employ naval forces to support these economic interests matters greatly.” Prior to the US Admiral’s proposal, the US Ambassador to India Richard Verma had also expressed similar views to incorporate India in US game plan. The American  Admiral and ambassador Verma had also  envisioned that  in the not too distant future, “ it will become a common sight  to see American and Indian Navy vessels steaming together.”

China  had officially objected after an announcement in December that Japan would join the US and India as a permanent member of Malabar this year.Interestingly the three trilateral dialogues are  already in existence to discuss and promote their mutual strategic interests, the three dialogues are happening between India, Japan and USA, India USA and Australia and Australia, Japan and USA. In fact the Americans are part of all the three trilateral dialogues and  not content only with  India-US-Japan trilateral dialogue but wants to be invited to the India-Australia-Japan dialogue as fourth partner.

After Narendra Modi took over the reigns of the country a new trend has been observed that  India has increasingly integrated itself into the American strategic offensive against China. Not only with US-India’s deeper engagement with Japan in various formats and also renewed dialogue with the Australia has given an impression that India is expanding the military security dialogues and collaboration with the allies of US. Invitation to Japan to join as permanent member of the annual Malabar naval exercise is a good pointer towards that.