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The Quad Needs Wind in its Sails

April 23, 2018 10:44 IST

'Chinese dominance reduces India's influence in South and Southeast Asia and erodes its status globally.'
'For a country striving to create a multipolar Asia, it would be a serious setback,' says Brigadier S K Chatterji (retd).

A MiG-29K takes off from the aircraft carrier, the INS Vikramaditya, ahead of Malabar Exercise 2017. Photograph: Indian Navy
IMAGE: A MiG-29K takes off from the aircraft carrier, the INS Vikramaditya, ahead of Malabar Exercise 2017. Photograph: Indian Navy

The Chinese game currently in the South China Sea is one of outright belligerence.

The Chinese strategy in the Indian Ocean region is more attuned to creating assets that could provide a strategic advantage at a later date.

The Chinese are trapping the littorals in partnerships that would lead to an umbelical connect of their economies to China.

In the process, we are already witnessing a gradual gravitation of some littorals of the South China Sea and Indian Ocean States towards China.

Among the major regional powers dependent on sea lanes through the Indo-Pacific region are India, Japan, Australia, and China.

 

Beyond these regional powers, for the Americans, in addition to trade, a growing Chinese pre-eminence in the Indian Ocean is not just nibbling away at their pole position in global leadership, but a watershed that would also be tectonic in terms of their global status of being the sole superpower.

With Chinese designs of domination of the Indo Pacific region becoming more and more apparent, it is essential for the Quadrilateral of India, Australia, Japan and the US to progress, to counterbalance the Chinese voyage.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe had not just envisioned the ascending arc of Chinese military might, but also the rising ambitions of the Chinese over a decade ago -- in 2007 -- when he proposed the Quad dialogue.

It almost met its nemesis when then Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd walked out of it in 2008.

Now that Abe is back as Japan's prime minister, there is reason to believe a more vibrant partnership is on the cards.

With Chinese military might continuing to grow and its belligerence registering a steep increase, the Quad can provide the necessary stabilising influence in the Indo Pacific region.

The Chinese march to global dominance has inevitably to run a race that involves domination in Asia before addressing the larger canvas.

Aggressive Chinese behaviour in the South China Sea lends credence to the apprehension that their next objective would be an intervention capability in the Indian Ocean.

Its bases and growing infrastructure along the Myanmar coastline, in Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, the Maldives, Gwadar in Pakistan and Djibouti are obviously not outposts limited in scope to only oversee smooth trade, but also capable of supporting limited strategic intervention tomorrow.

It isn't that the Chinese can challenge the US fleet. However, it provides capacities for swifter intervention in operations to include humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, evacuation of Chinese nationals and even landing troops in coastal States on invitation from such States; as could be the case in the situation currently playing out in the Maldives.

Whatever be the payoffs of such partnerships like the Quad, most democracies tend to wheel slowly.

Domestic politics, bureaucratic processes and risk aversion are common impediments.

The Chinese are not inhibited by such constraints. As the Quad's potential members plod laboriously, the Chinese move at a pace limited only by the caution required to ensure nations in the region and extra regional stakeholders are not alarmed.

For India, Japan and Australia, the Indian Ocean remaining stable is an absolute necessity.

Their trade would be affected adversely enough to be almost catastrophic.

For China too, the Indian Ocean is the carotid. Disruptions will entail immediate fallouts.

Chinese dominance also reduces India's influence in South and Southeast Asia and erodes its status globally.

For a country striving to create a multipolar Asia, it would be a serious setback.

For the Americans, a surge in the Chinese prowess will erode the confidence of its partners in US capabilities.

For Indo Pacific States, China's increasing power projection in the region will erode their freedom to make strategic choices.

Obviously, the stakes are high for a whole lot of big, medium and smaller players.

China's brazen efforts to extend its arc of influence -- backed by huge cash reserves that it is ready to deploy to entrap smaller nations -- requires to be contested by a consolidated endeavour.

Countries with similar values like India, the US, Australia and Japan need to provide the stability umbrella in the region. These four countries also need to harmonise their vision and objectives for the Quad.

The degree of commitment that each one is ready to undertake when the area is faced with an adverse security situation needs defining.

The extent to which each member can bank on the other partners' assets in the region for logistics requires defining.

Inter-operability of their armed forces is required for synergy. A huge interface of surveillance and reconnaissance assets of their forces, analysis of information garnered and sharing is called for.

When viewed in the context of intelligence sharing in near real time, the degree of inter-operability and mutual trust required is stupendous.

For the Quad to draw the smaller countries of the Indo-Pacific it will require a huge financial heft.

The developing countries in the region require major investments to ensure domestic growth; thereby domestic stability.

France and the UK have major stakes in the Indian Ocean and may find the Quad a meaningful congregation to converge with.

The Chinese will need to be countered with easy funding by the Quad and global financial institutions.

In fact, economic assistance at low interest rates and investments are the greater tools of influence in the region.

The Chinese game of readily available loans and investments that ultimately transform to equity in terms of territorial lease with recipients unable to pay off their debts needs to be countered.

A more fundamental requirement is political will from the leadership of all four countries.

Fortunately, the Quad's members are stable democracies. Domestic opposition will still be a challenge and the leaders will have to wrestle through it.

Once the Quad transforms into an organisation of strength with adequate financial muscle, not just other major powers, but more importantly, the countries of the Indo-Pacific would feel its pull and be drawn to it.

The growth of Chinese military capabilities, concurrent with its developing military infrastructure in the Indian Ocean region, calls for the Quad metamorphosing to a homogeneous partnership with shared commitments.

Strategic relationships cannot be expected to crystalise fast enough to be meaningful in terms of deterrence or coalesced military application once the challenge has transformed into a contest.

They need to be driven by envisioning the challenges that lie ahead and formulated early enough to be useful counterstrategies.

Brigadier S K Chatterji (retd)