Category Archives: Indo-Asia-Pacific

Competition and Neutrality of Southeast Asian States in Indo-Pacific Strategy

By Shang-su Wu

Due to their central location between the Indian and Pacific Oceans, maritime Southeast Asian countries have increasingly important roles in the Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) Initiative. Despite some constraints, such as the inability of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to coordinate its membership’s defenses, these regional states and their relatively weak but growing navies, with a home field advantage, matter in terms of the balance of power in the Indo-Pacific region. Based on their non-alliance tradition and economic interests with China, Southeast Asian countries would not join FOIP, but engagement between them would be crucial for the strategy connecting the two oceans.

Geographically, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore are the most relevant to control of the critical straits, whilst other coastal states, such as Brunei, Myanmar, the Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam have a potential influence over adjacent sea lines of communication (SLOCs). These Southeast Asian countries are not militarily or economically equivalent with any member of the Quad (the U.S., Japan, Australia, and India), or China, and it is unlikely that these relatively weak countries could challenge the rights of passage under the United Nation Convention on Laws of the Sea (UNCLOS). However, while their naval and air bases are strategically important for securing nearby SLOCs, the physical capture of such locations appears politically and militarily infeasible nowadays.

Politically, it would be very difficult for the UN Security Council (UNSC) to pass any resolution authorizing any power to conquer one or more Southeast Asian countries, as a veto would be expected from other permanent UNSC members. Although hybrid warfare, such as a Crimea-style invasion, could not be excluded, lack of similar historical and ethnic linkages could make such operations more uncertain, if not unlikely. In addition, unlike some “trouble-maker” countries that challenge existing international norms, Southeast Asian countries generally remain neutral, taking modest positions which keep them from becoming legitimate targets in the international community.

Militarily, force projection in Southeast Asia is already a certain challenge for most aggressors, and to secure control over local populations could be even more difficult. For example, territorial defense with grassroots organizations prepared by the Indonesian Armed Forces (Tentara Nasional Indonesia, TNI) would provide systematic resistance during and after conventional warfare in cases such as Sunda, Lombok, Makassar, and other Straits in the Indonesian Archipelago. Securing control of the Malacca Strait is further complicated since it falls under the control of three countries. Given that conquering the islands at chokepoints in key straits would be difficult, the roles of maritime Southeast Asian countries in the FOIP need to be discussed in various scenarios.

Scenarios, Positions and Policies

The potential maritime conflicts between sea powers in the Indo-Pacific region can be categorized into three scenarios: major conflict, tight confrontation, and peacetime. A major conflict between China and the U.S., and perhaps its allies, would only likely impact Southeast Asia if China is able to maintain sea control over the first island chain. If Beijing loses the first battles or cannot retain sea control over the specific disputed area, its dream of sea power could vanish and make Southeast Asia strategically less important. In contrast, if China is able to gain the upper hand over the U.S. or another Quad member in a first-round exchange, this could force the latter to choose between preparing for the next battle or blockading the key straits in Southeast Asia, aside from negotiating for peace. In a blockade, there is no doubt as to the importance of the maritime Southeast Asian states along the straits. Another scenario is a major Indo-Sino conflict shifting from land borders to the maritim domain, where Southeast Asia is an inevitable chokepoint for both navies. In a scenario of tight confrontation where aircraft and vessels of China and the Quad members follow each other with occasional provocations, the relatively narrow sea passes in Southeast Asia are convenient for such tailing operations. During peacetime, the straits in Southeast Asia still provide critical locations for surveillance and deterrence.

Southeast Asian countries would have three political positions in the face of such scenarios: strict neutrality, loose neutrality, and aligning with one side. Loose neutrality would be the common practice in the region, evidenced in all maritime Southeast Asian countries’ policies and participation in the non-alliance movement. Although the Philippines and Thailand retain their defense treaties with the U.S., their current policies are notably different. During the previous Aquino administration between 2010 and 2016, Manila was probably seen as pro-Washington due to countering Beijing’s territorial claims in the West Philippine Sea, but President Duterte has replaced these policies with Beijing-friendly ones. In contrast to the common practice, strict neutrality and alignment with one side would be less favorable options for Southeast Asian countries during peacetime or even in crises of tight confrontation due to different concerns. Strict neutrality does not fit the complicated inter-state competition overshadowing the era of globalization, but alignment would present risk for being on a loser’s side.

Under these loosely neutral positions, each Southeast Asian country may have certain policies favoring a specific power. Arms procurements and intelligence sharing would represent relatively implicit policies showing their preferences or linkage. Joint exercises, foreign military presence, and deployments are clearer indicators.

The Regional Military Capacity

Thanks to decades of economic growth, maritime Southeast Asian countries have significantly modernized their navies and other related forces, which have strategic values for two main reasons. Firstly, as an overt invasion of Southeast Asian countries is unlikely, their military capacity is unlikely to be fully neutralized. As a result, their specific capabilities, particularly submarines and other sea denial means, can deter potential aggressors. Secondly, despite inferior quantity and perhaps quality, regional militaries have home field advantages, such as theater familiarity and shorter LOCs.

Several characteristics appear when examining Southeast Asian naval modernization. Firstly, the naval modernization among regional states is diverse on both national and asset level. On the national level, some countries, like Singapore, are comprehensively armed, and some others, such as Brunei, are at best partially equipped. On the asset level, vessels and aircraft in the same classes may have differing performances due to different designs and costs. For example, some regional frigates are armed with layered defense against anti-ship missiles, but some have only a single system of short-ranged surface-to-air missiles (SAM) without any additional margin.

Secondly, despite the diverse practices, regional countries take a balanced fleet approach and invest in both sea control and sea denial capabilities. The level of distribution between sea control, such as major surface combatants, and sea denial, such as submarines and fast attack craft (FAC), depends on each country’s strategic circumstances. The balanced fleet approach weakens the capacity of Southeast Asian navies in conventional warfare against a stronger adversary, as most ships remain vulnerable in the face of superior firepower and are unlikely to achieve their sea control mission during wartime. However, the regional navies have to deal with peacetime missions, such as counter piracy and maritime territorial control, where large surface platforms are essential. In other words, the balanced fleet approach reflects the compromise between the needs of peacetime and wartime.

Thirdly, regional submarines provide a vital deterrence by denial capability. Southeast Asian submarines within their home waters, despite their small numbers, relatively little experiences, and less sophisticated technologies, would still pose a credible threat to intruding sea powers. An external sea power may have the capacity to absorb some losses, but these losses would stretch limited expeditionary capabilities, damage its national pride, and possibly affect domestic political decision making. Striking the home bases of these submarines would be an effective measure to lower their operational sustainability, but it would significantly escalate the situation during a crisis and threaten whatever argument for legitimacy the invader was trying to use to justify their actions.

There are some drawbacks in regional naval modernization. Although more and more capable surface combatants are joining the service, a great portion of the fleets have weak air defense and anti-submarine capabilities which makes them vulnerable to modern anti-ship missiles and submarines. Maritime patrol aircraft would provide the main method of surveillance, but are vulnerable and unable to conduct patrols in a hostile air space. Without maritime patrol aircraft, these regional navies would have limited surveillance capacity. Southeast Asian states possess fighters with airborne sea strike capability, and they may be able to respond to challenges from a ski-jump aircraft carrier with limited capacity and support. However, as all these fighters belong to air forces which focus and train for more missions than maritime operations, their jointness with navies would be limited. Due to these drawbacks plus the issue of relatively inferior quantity, maritime Southeast Asian countries have little room for escalation.

Gaining Support

The traditional methods of formal alliance may not successfully work with maritime Southeast Asian countries under the present context. Trade, investment, and other economic ties with China would constrain the willingness and likelihood of direct participation by maritime Southeast Asian countries in the FOIP Initiative. Moreover, Beijing is also endeavoring to develop and deepen security ties in the region, evidenced in arms deals, personnel exchanges, joint exercises, and other forms of interactions. However, it is possible to gain the contribution of regional countries to the FOIP Initiative, under their loose neutrality position. As maritime Southeast Asian countries have relatively less experiences in various military capabilities, the militaries of Quad members with rich operational experiences could provide more interaction based on the existing foundation.

Intertwined interests would be another significant motive for supporting the FOIP. Given their maritime interests and territory, Southeast Asian countries are likely to further expand their maritime capacity and the Quad members can supply proper assets and technologies to fill their existing shortfalls, while arms deals with logistical and training packages provide another channel to strengthen military-to-military relations. Last but not least, the Quad members, with their combined market share dwarfing China’s, should build up economic ties with maritime Southeast Asian countries. It would not be easy for regional countries to formally participate in the FOIP, but their cooperation or other positive responses would be the core of a strategy across the two oceans.

Shang-su Wu is a research fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University in Singapore.

Featured Image: Marina Bay Sands Resort in Singapore (Wikimedia Commons)

False Assumptions May Lead to Counterproductive U.S. Policy in the South China Sea

By Mark J. Valencia

In his piece, Mr. Pham “lays out recommended ways and means that Washington can regain and maintain the strategic initiative in the Indo-Pacific.” However many of his recommendations are based on false assumptions and if implemented are likely to be ineffective and counterproductive.

Mr. Pham fears that “years of American acquiescence and accommodation may have eroded the international rule of law and global norms; diminished the regional trust and confidence in U.S. preeminence, presence, and constancy; weakened some of the U.S. regional alliances and partnerships; undermined Washington’s traditional role as the guarantor of the global economy and provider of regional security, stability, and leadership; and perhaps even emboldened Beijing to expand its global power and influence and accelerate the pace of its deliberate march toward regional preeminence and ultimately global preeminence.” But the rapid decline of U.S. soft power in the region is not due as much to “American acquiescence and accommodation” to China as it is to American political arrogance, cultural chauvinism, and a general lack of respect for its allies and ‘friends’ in the region  and their peoples. Its hypocrisy, interference in domestic politics, and support of brutal dictators did not help. It is now beginning to experience the inevitable blowback from this attitude and behavior and its reign as regional hegemon may be coming to an end. It may well eventually be replaced by China in the region, but for Mr. Pham to assert that China will attain “global preeminence” is premature at best. Indeed, if China does not learn from the American experience, it may well repeat its mistakes and suffer a similar fate.

Mr. Pham asserts that “Washington cannot back down now in the SCS. To do so would further embolden Beijing to expand and accelerate its desperate campaign to control the disputed and contested strategic waterway through which trillions of dollars of global trade flows each year…”  He assumes first that China can ‘control’ the South China Sea and two that such ‘control’ would threaten commercial freedom of navigation. But as Ralph Cossa, President of Pacific Forum CSIS, says, there is little to worry about, at least for the U.S. :“The South China Sea is not and will not be a Chinese lake and the Chinese, even with artificial islands, cannot dominate the sea or keep the U.S. Navy out of it.”  According to retired Admiral and former Director of U.S. National Intelligence Dennis Blair, “The Spratlys are 900 miles away from China for God’s sake. Those things have no ability to defend themselves in any sort of military sense. The Philippines and the Vietnamese could put them out of action, much less us.” More to the point, retired Admiral Michael McDevitt of the center for Naval Analyses asks skeptically, “What vital U.S. interest has been compromised? Shipping continues uninterrupted, the U.S. continues to ignore… their requirement for prior approval, our MDT with Manila remains in force…”

Regarding freedom of navigation, Mr. Pham and I have debated this before. I will only reiterate here that the two countries – one a ratifier of the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea – which elaborates the concept – and one not – differ on what activities are and are not encompassed by the term. China has not threatened commercial freedom of navigation nor is it likely to do so in peacetime. But the U.S. and Mr. Pham cleverly conflate the freedom of commercial navigation with the freedom to conduct provocative intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) probes and then argues that when China challenges these probes it is violating “freedom of navigation.” Mr. Pham ignores the problem that because the Convention was a “package deal,” non-ratifiers like the U.S. cannot credibly or legitimately  pick and choose which provisions they wish to abide by, deem them customary law, and unilaterally interpret and enforce them to their benefit. This is especially so regarding the EEZ regime which UNCLOS introduces as sui generis, and which –contrary to U.S. military advice given to its naval officers – does have some restrictions on “freedom of navigation.” They include the duty to pay “due regard” to the rights of the coastal state including its marine scientific research consent and environmental protection regimes protecting as well as its national security. Moreover, China and the U.S. disagree on the meaning of key terms in UNCLOS relevant to the freedom of navigation and which are not defined in the Convention. Besides “due regard” these terms include  “other internationally lawful uses of the sea”, “abuse of rights”, “peaceful use/purpose”, and “marine scientific research.” The point is that the UNCLOS “rules” regarding freedom of navigation are not “agreed.” 

Another of Mr. Pham’s major assumptions is that “Washington has a moral and global obligation of leadership to further encourage and challenge China to become a more responsible global stakeholder…” The U.S. is no longer the world’s moral leader – if it ever was – certainly not from the perspective of China and much of Asia – if not the world. Moreover Mr. Pham’s statement reflects the cultural arrogance that has drawn the U.S. into endless wars—and should be disregarded on that basis alone.

These false assumptions are accompanied by several misleading statements. For example Mr. Pham alleges that China broke  “a 2002 agreement with the ASEAN not to change any geographic features in the SCS”,  and “…the 2015 agreement between Xi Jinping and Barack Obama to not militarize these Chinese-occupied features.”

First, the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of the Parties in the South China Sea (DOC) does not contain such language and Mr. Pham is apparently interpreting its language for his own purposes. His interpretation is not shared by China, Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Taiwan. All have altered the features they occupy to some degree since the agreement on the DOC. Second, according to China, President Xi Jinping agreed to no such thing. This statement repeats a biased interpretation of China’s President Xi Jinping statement regarding the “militarization” of the features. The original quote in Chinese was translated into English as “Relevant construction activities that China are (sic) undertaking in the island of South (sic)–Nansha (Spratly) Islands do not target or impact any country, and China does not intend [emphasis added] to pursue militarization.” That is considerably more ambiguous than Mr. Pham’s interpretation. Chinese spokespersons have since implied that if the U.S. continues its ISR probes, exercises, and Freedom of Navigation Operations challenging China’s claims there, China will prepare to defend itself. Given that the U.S. has continued these missions, it should come as no surprise that China has responded as it said it would.

Based on false assumptions, Mr. Pham essentially recommends U.S. military confrontation of China in the South China Sea. Such confrontation could lead to war—on behalf of others’ disputed claims to ownership of tiny features and resources there. That would not be in the core national security interest of the U.S.

Mark J. Valencia is an Adjunct Senior Scholar at the National Institute for South China Sea Studies.

Featured Image: Vietnam’s flag flies over the fortified Da Tay Islands in the Spratlys Archipelago. (Reuters)

China’s Rise and Indian Ocean Ambitions

By Aswani Dravid

Though the Indian Ocean was considered exotic for centuries, it was transformed into a mere colonial sea by the 18th century. The European powers divided the South Asian continent among themselves to a degree that these South Asian countries no longer identified with the larger whole. However, the British retreat from the region and subsequent de-colonization spree around the periphery of the Indian Ocean raised a complex situation of an Indian Ocean vacuum. By the end of the 1940s many of the countries in Africa and Asia became independent from their colonial rulers and many of these newly emerged free countries lived in the littoral of the Indian Ocean. The British announcement in 1968 to withdraw from east of the Suez by the end of 1971 marked the end of over 150 years of British supremacy in the Indian Ocean.

Thus, the Second World War ended colonialism and the European countries ceased to be the rulers of this ocean. The United States and the Soviet Union became the new involved parties. However, even though the Cold War divided the world into two blocs, both the U.S. and USSR did not seriously attempt to fill the vacuum left by the British in this area. Now in the Post-Cold War era, according to Ashwani Sharma, “the realm of world politics had transformed beyond all recognition, as was the Indian Ocean in its appearance and role, implicitly and explicitly due to the metamorphoses of the world.” During that period, the geo-strategic undercurrents of the Indian Ocean had changed significantly due to the tireless struggles of new players in the region, especially China and India, to achieve strategic aims in the IOR. Though the United States still holds an impressive locus in the Indo-Pacific, the complex upheavals during the last century only allowed them to restructure their strategy to truly sustain its dominance in the area only recently.

This region, the Indo-Pacific, is at present one of the fastest developing regions of the world, displaying unmatched vigor in socio-political, economic, and geo-security terms. Robert Kaplan has rightly stated that “the 21st-century power dynamics will be revealed in the backdrop of keen interest and influence of three key players, i.e., China, India, and United States and their interests could be some sort of an overlap and intersection.” In short, the Indo-Pacific has rightly emerged as the economic and geopolitical center of gravity of the world in the 21st century. China unlocked its economy in the year 1978 and accomplished approximately a rate of 10 percent growth for three decades. China has lifted millions of people out of poverty through a systematic growth pattern. China has now risen to become the second largest economy in the world, second only to the United States. Japan, which enjoyed the position of the only Asian developed nation for decades, was pushed to the world’s third position. With their vigilant strategic investments, China’s economic growth and global influence are increasing.

After China declared itself the People’s Republic of China in 1949, its naval operations were limited to defending the coasts for nearly three decades until the 1980s. By the end of that decade, the strategy sought to expand its naval capabilities beyond coastal waters. Most of the Sea Lines of Communications of China pass through the Indian Ocean and a few through the Pacific Rim. One of China’s foremost concerns is the protection of these SLOCs. The Indian Ocean is home to major chokepoints that Chinese vessels must traverse and where any threat in this ocean directly distresses the ambitions of China. The rise of China as a superpower in Asia and its revival of the ancient Maritime Silk Route (MSR) and One Belt One Road Initiative (OBOR) have raised concerns in India. Any nation, in order to ensure its sphere of influence would not only accumulate strength to its camp but also take measures that ensure that the enemy’s camp would be weakened without adequate logistics. In addition to port construction and acquisition efforts in the Indian Ocean that add to the value of these SLOCs and strengthen China’s logistical infrastructure, China’s concurrent naval modernization efforts also generate concerns for India. The evolution of Chinese naval modernization has been steady and it has eventually become the largest navy in Asia today, with a plentiful addition of surface ships and submarines. Far seas training and deployments in this region have become the new norm for China’s Navy.

China aims to create a counterbalance through economic and strategic partnerships with the various littoral nations in the IOR in order to reinforce her existence in the region. China’s investment in Hambantota in Sri Lanka, its electronic gathering amenities in isolated islands in the Bay of Bengal, the Chittagong Port of Bangladesh, and others are certain instances to prove China’s increasing interest in the IOR. China has maritime disputes with many of its neighbors and many of the Southeast Asian nations are in conflict with China over the latter’s expansionist tendencies and dominance. However, China has no major disputes or tensions with India’s neighbors in the IOR and is instead cultivating maritime partnerships with these states. For example, China is building maritime relations with Pakistan through its investments in Gwadar Port and a mainland highway connecting Gwadar to Kashgar in the Xinjiang region. All these efforts ensure that China will be somewhat relieved from the threat of chokepoints in the Indian Ocean and will have a smoothly flowing trade and supply chain.

Due to India’s growing dependence on oil and energy resources, any interference in the stability or peace of the Indian Ocean will have a cataclysmic impact on the economic and political stability of the nation. A peaceful and reliant Indian Ocean is the responsibility of the littoral and island states in this region to an extent that the “overall political character of the Indian Ocean had changed from one of European dominance to that of local assertion.”

Aswani Dravid is an Assistant Professor at the Department of Public Policy and Administration in University of Petroleum and Energy Studies, Dehradun, Uttarakhand.

References

Buckley, C. (2013, January 29). China Leader Affirms Policy on Islands. The New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2013/01/30/world/asia/incoming-chinese-leader-will-not-to-bargain-on-disputed-territory.html

Dowdy, W. L., & Trood, R. B. (1983, September 1). The Indian Ocean: An Emerging Geostrategic Region. Canada’s Journal of Global Policy Analysis, 38(3), 432-458.

Jain, B. (2017, April 4). India’s Security Concerns in the Indian Ocean Region: A Critical Analysis. Future Directions International. Retrieved from http://www.futuredirections.org.au/publication/indias-security-concerns-indian-ocean-region-critical-analysis/

Kaplan, R. (2010). Monsoon: The Indian Ocean and the Future of American Power. New York City: Random House.

Kumar, K. (2000). Indian Ocean as a Zone of Peace: Problems and Prospects. New Delhi: APH Publishing.

Majumdar, D. (2016, June 27). Why the US Navy Should Fear China’s New 093B Nuclear Attack Submarine. The National Interest. Retrieved from http://nationalinterest.org/blog/the-buzz/why-the-us-navy-should-fear-chinas-new-093b-nuclear-attack-16741

O’Rourke, R. (2017, January 5). China Naval Modernization: Implications for U.S. Navy Capabilities—Background and Issues for Congress. Congressional Research Service Report.

Pant, H. (2009). India in the Indian Ocean: Growing Mismatch between Ambitions and Capabilities. Pacific Affairs, 82(2), 279-297. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/25608866

Sharma, A. (2018). The Indian Ocean: Cold War – Post-Cold War Scenario. International Journal of South Asian Studies , 23.

Wearden, G. (2010, August 16). Chinese economic boom has been 30 years in the making. The Guardian. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/business/2010/aug/16/chinese-economic-boom

Featured Image: CSCL Pacific Ocean Elbe (Wikimedia Commons)

The Great Game in the Indian Ocean: Strategic Partnership Opportunities for the U.S.

By Chad Pillai

There is a growing strategic competition underway in the Indian Ocean and Arabian Sea between India and China focused on acquiring commercial ports and military facilities. It is a race for strategic access, leverage, and influence for energy resources, markets, and national security. This competition between two relative new naval powers in the region will directly influence the U.S. and its regional partners in the U.S. Central Command (USCENTCOM) and U.S. Africa Command (USAFRICOM) Area of Responsibilities (AORs), beyond the usual purview of Pacific Command (USPACOM) whose AOR India lies within. For the U.S., this represents a strategic opportunity to compete against China’s growing influence by expanding its relationship with India in the CENTCOM and AFRICOM AORs.

Nyshka Chandran reported on CNBC in February 2018 that “China and India are competing for regional supremacy in the Indian Ocean as they look establish a stronger military and economic presence in bordering countries.” China’s move into the Indian Ocean, as part of its “String of Pearls” approach to expand its strategic reach, is well documented. The formal establishment of China’s first overseas military base in Djibouti serves as its first military marker on the global map. Recently, China has been in negotiations with Pakistan to expand its access to the port of Gwadar and open its second overseas naval base in Jiwani, Pakistan which is about 80 km from Gwadar. These two locations would provide China the means and proximity to militarily influence two of the world’s eight strategic chokepoints, the Bab el-Mandeb straits along at the mouth of the Red Sea and the Strait of Hormuz. Additionally, China has been expanding its economic presence in the Seychelles, Maldives, and in Oman.

While China expands its presence, India has not remained idle. It has invested in the commercial port of Chabahar, Iran to give it greater access to Afghanistan, circumventing Pakistan. However, questions arise on whether India can use the port to effectively compete against China and its One Belt and One Road (OBOR) strategy. In addition to the port in Iran, India is competing for access to the Seychelles, Maldives, and Oman. The recent tensions between China and India, after China deployed 11 warships to the Maldives in February illustrates this growing rivalry. In the Seychelles, India is spending $46 million dollars in foreign aid to improve costal defense and airstrips; however, that has run into recent issues with the president of the Seychelles. While India doesn’t lack in its ambition to compete with China, it lacks a cohesive political and economic decisionmaking body like China to invest and outcompete, and lacks in its naval capabilities to effectively challenge the Chinese. According to the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), China’s naval surface combatants dwarfs India (83 Chinese combatants vs. 27 Indian Combatants; 57 Chinese attack submarines vs. 15 Indian attack submarines; and 4 Chinese ballistic submarines vs. 1 Indian in development). Of course, the naval disparity between the two nations is spread out across the Indian and Pacific Oceans, and China must overcome its “Malacca Straits Dilemma” to surge forces into the Indian Ocean.

This growing competition between China and India present a strategic opportunity for the U.S. to offset China’s growing presence in the region. While the U.S. has generally viewed India as a strategic partner in the U.S. Pacific Command (USPACOM) AOR to offset China, it represents an opportunity to counter-balance China in the USCENTCOM and AFRICOM AOR as well. In concerted effort by USCENTCOM, in partnership with PACOM, can find ways to enhance the Indian Navy’s force projection capabilities in the Indian Ocean and Arabian Sea to challenge China’s small, but growing, military presence in the region. U.S. Navy Central Command (USNAVCENT) can spearhead this effort on behalf of CENTCOM by encouraging India to more fully participate in the Combined Maritime Forces (CMF) that focuses on Counter-Piracy operations.  NAVCENT could consider future joint naval exercises focusing on combined naval operations, Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW), and carrier-based operations. Such combined exercises can assist India in expanding its capabilities and capacity to exert greater influence, in concert with U.S. interests, in the region as a means to counter-balance China’s presence. Additionally, as Harry Halem recently noted, the U.S. can encourage greater cooperation between its allies and partners in the region, to include Israel, to cooperate with India. This also includes expanding ongoing Indian-French naval cooperation in the Indian Ocean as seen by France’s deployment of its Charles De Gaulle strike group to exercise with the Indian Navy. For the U.S., these efforts will have to be delicately balanced with the U.S. relationship with Pakistan and it may raise concerns on the Pakistani Navy’s ability to counter-balance India as well.

Increased ties between the U.S. and India will also support increased foreign military sales of U.S. capabilities. Recently, the U.S. has become one of India’s primary weapons exporters with sales of “Boeing P-8I Neptune — a version of the U.S. Navy’s P-8 Poseidon anti-submarine warfare (ASW) aircraft.” Additionally, the U.S. offered to sell its Harpoon missile to India. The recent cancellation of the Indian-Russian Stealth Fighter presents an opportunity for the U.S. to offer its platforms to include the F/A-18 Super Hornet. An area of future opportunity may lie in a combined shipbuilding program to assist the Indian Navy in its modernization efforts. These sales will contribute towards developing increased interoperability between the U.S. and Indian Navies, along with allied and partner navies in the region.

While China is attempting to build upon the legacy of Zheng He (Ming Dynasty), India must learn to use its geographic positional advantage in the Indian Ocean that dominates east to west maritime traffic. The key to leveraging its geographic positional advantage in the Great Game of the Indian Ocean will be based on a mutual desire by India to expand its military, primarily naval, capabilities to compete with China and, a mutual desire by the U.S. and India to expand their military cooperation. For the U.S., India can no longer be viewed simply as a PACOM partner. Instead, it must be viewed as a trans-regional partner who has the ability to influence both the CENTCOM and AFRICOM AORs as a counter-balance to China’s growing global ambition. As Robert Kaplan, author of Monsoon, has noted, the Indian Ocean represents the fulcrum between American Power in the Middle East and the Asia-Pacific, and its growing relationship with India will shape its desire to remain atop the global order against a rising China.

Chad M. Pillai is an experienced Army strategist and is a member of the Military Writers’ Guild, Army Strategy Association, and contributes to the U.S. Naval Institute. He has operational experience in the CENTCOM AOR and has traveled to India, to include 1998 during the Indian and Pakistani nuclear tests of 1998. He received a Masters in International Public Policy from the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS). The article reflects the opinion of the author and do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Government and the U.S. Department of Defense.

Featured Image: SASEBO, Japan (June 10, 2016) – Rear Adm. Brian Hurley, center, deputy commander, U.S. 7th Fleet, tours the Indian navy Kora-class corvette INS Kirch (P62) during Malabar 2016. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Ryan J. Batchelder/Released)