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C3S Interaction Report: Synergizing Ideas from Chennai to Canberra

C3S Report No: 004/2017

The Chennai Centre for China Studies (C3S) and the National Maritime Foundation (NMF), Chennai Chapter held an interaction with an Australian delegation on February 17, 2017 at C3S. Mr. Alex Fraser, Assistant Director-General, South East Asia & Middle East Branch, Office of National Assessments, Australian Government represented the delegation. He put forth queries on China’s and India’s role in the Indian Ocean Region, South China Sea, Sino-US relations and other significant issues to Cmde. R. S. Vasan, Regional Director, NMF and Director, C3S. The following is a report of the session:

Cmde. Vasan: US President Donald Trump has reiterated the One China Policy after some initial doubts about what his stance would be. While there are serious issues concerning the observance of rule of law in the South China Sea, it is interesting to observe that U.S.A has signed but not ratified the United Nations Convention on Law of the Seas (UNCLOS). India and China have signed as well as ratified UNCLOS. USA has dispatched an aircraft carrier to the South China Sea where there are tensions due to the aggressive stance of China. India is maintaining strategic autonomy on the South China Sea issue and many other contentious issues, by not aligning with either side of the dispute. Meanwhile Delhi is choosing areas where it can work with like-minded countries to create a favourable environment for presenting a united front. India approached Australia for support for its entry into the Nuclear Suppliers Group and is grateful for the support it has received from most countries barring veto empowered China. India is also trying to garner international support to convince China to blacklist Pakistani extremist Masood Azhar as a terrorist. This unfortunately is work in progress due to the intransigence of China. India is working quietly behind the scenes to promote its legitimate interests on all fronts. It is to be noted that Pakistan put Masood Azhar under house arrest soon after President Trump assumed office.

On the topic of Indian Ocean states where China is trying to increase influence, it is likely that these countries are being led into a debt trap in the guise of investments and soft loans. Hambantota and Colombo in Sri Lanka are instances of this concern. The clauses will have a catch, which will bind the ports’/bases’ countries to China for a long time. A recent report also highlighted how China in planning eleven more bases in the Indian Ocean Region in addition to Djibouti. This is the Chinese strategy to  expand its foot prints in Asia, Africa and beyond through the economic route. As China expands it trade and commerce in distant lands across continents a blue water navy becomes crucial to protect these heavy investments across oceans. According to some reports, China is planning eleven more carriers in addition to Liaoning. It will however bide for time and create a peaceful periphery by engaging its neighbours. The case of Philippines illustrates how China aims to manage even a difficult small neighbor which chose international arbitration through the PCA. Despite the PCA verdict, Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte deepened ties with China and distanced from U.S.A. This will be the template in respect of countries who need to be engaged on China’s terms. It will not be a surprise if China declares an Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ) in the South China Sea in a few years to buttress its claims in the SCS. It is fine that China is stressing on the Rule of Law but the query arises on who will enforce it in SCS is a moot question.

Mr. Alex Fraser: It will be interesting to know how India responds to China’s measures in the Indian Ocean via soft power and pulling of strategic weight.

Cmde Vasan: India has the strongest navy in the Indian Ocean and has the geographical advantage due to its positioning in the Indian Ocean. Besides, the passage of vessels through the Straits of Malacca can be monitored from the proximal and strategic vantage point of Andaman and Nicobar Islands of India which is the only Tri Services Command. By all counts, India has all the credentials to be the net security provider. China aims at attaining bases in the IOR, to overcome the disadvantages of distance and capacity to protect its energy routes and seaborne trade. Piracy which peaked in the late 1990s allowed Beijing deploy its navy in the IOR to tweak its SOPs and build its databases to serve its future deployments. Meanwhile, the more China’s navy exposes itself in peacetime, the more information India can get for its own databases. There are no restrictions for any war vessel including a submarine on surface to transit through the waters of another country during peace time.  This of course is the standard practice of any modern Navy which will use all opportunities to store special characteristics of platforms encountered during peace time.  We can try to identify whether a submarine in the Arabian Sea is Chinese or Pakistani depending its electronic signature. Meanwhile one need not be unduly concerned about China in the IOR. India is prepared and also has the advantage of not being involved in any maritime disputes in the region. The only dispute in this context is the one on the land border, namely the McMohan Line with China. Although not a single shot has been fired since 1962, there have been occasional incursions into Indian territory. We are concerned about China’s double standards. Beijing accepted the McMohan Line to resolve the border dispute with Myanmar but disregards the alignment based on the same Mcmohan line with India.  Likewise, when Vietnam invited ONGC Videsh Nigam to assist China in its off shore exploration, China protested, saying the area of exploration overlapped China’s claimed EEZ. It is ironical to note in this context that China has no qualms in promoting the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) which passes through Pakistan occupied Kashmir (PoK).

Mr. Alex Fraser: We in Australia are not convinced about CPEC due to the enormous implications on the security environment. What are your views?

Cmde. Vasan: India now has an edge thanks to Chabahar port in Iran. Afghanistan is also satisfied as it does not have to depend on Pakistan alone or covert lanes via Central Asia. This has the potential of a game changer. Afghanistan and India would not be dependent on Pakistan’s whims and fancies.

Mr. Alex Fraser: What will be the status of India’s non-aligned policy if U.S.A reduces its focus on the IOR?

Cmde. Vasan: India will not join any coalition except when related to global commons such as the environment. India does not follow a policy of military alliances. However India’s involvement with Southeast Asian countries in military training and defence sales is not projected at countering China. If more pressure is put on China indirectly in the South China Sea region, then China will remain focused there and this will give India more time to shape its responses in its neighbourhoood. Nevertheless China is gradually building on its capacity and capability to  move out of South China Sea to pursue its Indian Ocean ambitions.

Mr. Alex Fraser: How is India’s defence manufacturing scene shaping for the next ten years?

Cmde. Vasan: There is a mismatch between intentions of the government and action on the ground. The innovative capability of India is phenomenal as demonstrated in space, IT and nuclear dimensions. There is an urgent need to replicate such innovative efforts in the defence realm, thus to free India from the import burden. Technology barriers should be overcome by investing heavily in both local talent and R&D efforts. However it is understandable that there is a learning curve which cannot be conquered overnight. We must cut short time and not merely import defence technology. The leadership must be clear on its long term plans such as Make in India. Some of the proposals such as shifting the F16 assembly line to India subject to India placing orders for hundreds of these ancient fighters need to be thrown overboard. These are aircraft with technology dating back fifty years and all that is to be known about this aircraft is well known to our adversaries. The question arises as to why such proposals should be entertained at all.

Mr. Alex Fraser: Please elaborate on India’s aircraft carrier fleet.

Cmde. Vasan: The Vikramaditya will serve India’s interests for some time. Work is in progress on a 48,000 tonner which will operate a mix of the Mig 29s and a naval LCA if it is ready by that time. The Indian Navy in various statements has maintained that it requires a carrier for each fleet and one in reserve which would be undergoing maintenance. There need be hardly any doubt that the shape and size of both the platform and the air complement will change substantially in the coming years.

Cmde Vasan: Let me pose a question to you. What are your views on an Indian Ocean Quadrilateral?

 Mr. Alex Fraser: Right now there is a good trilateral, with MALABAR exercises involving U.S.A, Japan and India. We welcome a quadrilateral with Australia. The common interest would be not to isolate China but to have strength in numbers. We could act on a common view we have of our region. The Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) is an imbalanced group.

Cmde. Vasan: My suggestion is that IORA can be functionally divided into areas (blocks) for region specific initiatives. There is a need to have contingency plans for each region and a lead nation which can steer the activities in the global common. The forums such as the IONS, IORA and other associations do not go beyond discussions and deliberations .These forums  do not lead to assertive grouping or action on the ground to cater to contingencies. We should go beyond MALABAR as an annual exercise to include contingency plans handled by grouping of ships from different countries based on the geographic disposition. A rotational command structure also needs to be conceived to ensure effectiveness of this grouping of ships from different but like minded nations.

In addition, we must create a separate fund for maritime interests of landlocked countries. Japan, Australia and India can collaborate on this project. Other countries from IORA who would like to join in this initiative need to be encouraged to join. India could perhaps be the knowledge partner and Australia the technology supplier. Japan could provide the wherewithal for skill development of citizens from IORA and also these land locked countries. This will lead to collective prosperity of the region. There is phenomenal potential in the blue economy arena, in areas including jobs, energy, etc. It can allow developing countries to move away from China’s influence. We in India need to take the mantle of leadership and must help out our neighbours. We could provide satellite coverage of South and South East Asia for free to the region’s nations for city planning, green cover management, environment, monitoring water resources etc. India could train its neighbours in space management and IT. Though,   many Bangladeshis come to India for studying and training, it is China that sells defence equipment to Dhaka. In the maritime boundary dispute with Bangladesh, India accepted The Hague’s PCA verdict which favoured Dhaka. This contrasts with the behaviour of China an aspiring super power which has scant disregard for the Hague verdict. India’s neighbours and the comity of nations would have not failed to notice this stark difference in the response of India in comparison to that of China.

In conclusion, there are many areas in which India, Australia, Japan, South Korea and USA can work together both in South Asia and South East Asia to promote collective prosperity, peace and  stability.

Disclaimer: The views expressed by Cmde. Vasan are his own and do not reflect the views of C3S and NMF.

(Compiled by Asma Masood, Research Officer, C3S.)

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