Picture Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons
Article No. 0095/2017
It has taken a full decade for the quadrilateral initiative to take wings again with tidings indicative of a collective will to overcome the hesitations of history. It appears there is new found enthusiasm with path changing developments in the Indo-Pacific to make the quad work. That the activities and expansionism of China no doubt has catalyzed this initiative that was in limbo for over a decade. This is evident by the parleys and public statements from Manila where the ASEAN forum as held. It was way back in 2007 that the four countries namely USA, India, Japan and Australia along with Singapore got together in the Bay of Bengal to participate in the Malabar exercise. However, China publicly opposed this “ganging up of democracies” against a growing China. The countries involved thereafter backed out both due to differing perceptions on the issue of promoting maritime security and stability in the areas of interest in the Indo Pacific and also a lack of clear understanding about what this alliance would achieve.
Malabar exercise which started as a bilateral between India and USA way back in 1991, itself is now more than a quarter century old (there was a break in the conduct of this exercise post the Pokhran blast in 1998 along with US sanctions against India). On resumption of the Malabar, slowly the scope of the exercise increased to include Japan which was breaking out of the self-imposed shackles and working to come out of the pacifist constitution. Japan and India were already on a different trajectory of positive engagement in the maritime domain; to a certain extent, also, due to the successful apprehension of MV Alandra Rainbow a Japanese vessel that was taken over by pirates in 1999. The Maritime Seaward Defence Force (MSDF) continues to have regular exercises with Indian Coast Guard on a reciprocal basis in the Pacific and in the Indian Ocean. Both the maritime forces have immensely benefited from this interaction that primarily focused on Maritime Operations Other than War (MOOTW). There have also been separate naval exercises with Australia which started in 2015 on the east coast of India. The two navies have worked together to hone their skills and learn from each other.
The most recent edition of Malabar held early this year, expanded the scope of naval exercises to expand the envelope of engagement with a greater focus on Anti-Submarine Warfare. Despite the stated expression of interest by in joining the exercise this edition did not include Australia. Though the request was endorsed by both USA and Japan and it appeared that India was moving cautiously on this proposal. Things have moved on with increased interest of China in the Indian Ocean and also militarization of Indian Ocean with the commissioning of Djibouti as a naval base. In addition to a standoff with India at Doklam, China is increasing the scope of economic investments along the China Pakistan Corridor (CPEC) which is in a disputed territory occupied by Pakistan. The blocking of Jaish- e- Mohammed chief Masood Ashar though supported by all other members has been stalled by China which has not gone well with Indian the Indian leadership. China is also peeved that India did not participate in the BRI summit and is not joining the Maritime Silk Route. India on its part has ample reasons not to support this unilateral initiatives.
China has been aggressively consolidating its illegal gains in the South China Sea (SCS) much to the consternation of the smaller disputants and also the international community. The rejection of the award by the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) which upheld the claims of Philippines in addition to passing strictures against China against unfair practices has vitiated the atmosphere in the SCS.
With the perceived reluctance of Trump to actively confront China on South China Sea issues, the withdrawal from the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) and the Climate change protocols has created a vacuum that is being filled up by China. The smaller neighbours who have maritime boundary disputes with China have lured with economic investments as in the case of many ASEAN members and China has consolidated its position in South China Sea. China also has been vigourously pursuing its investments in destinations countries along the Maritime Silk Road a pet project of Xi Jinping. The MSR itself does not have universal support and with the experience of Sri Lanka which is staring at debt traps and Pakistan which is now increasingly worried about the increasing influence of China in all its spheres, other countries will exercise caution before joining hands with China.
It is in this context that the new thrust on the quadrilateral alliance has great potential to be a game changer in the Indo Pacific provided that all the players clearly orchestrate their vision and mission for this new architecture.
It is also to be borne in mind that this is not all about war mongering against China, but getting the navies with common interest to work together in many missions that are outside the realm of war and referred to as Maritime Operations Other Than War (MOOTW). These include handling asymmetric threats such as piracy, ensuring Sea Lines of Communication safety, Environmental protection, anti-piracy missions, Humanitarian Aid and Disaster relief (HADR) and Search and Rescue (SAR) missions in an area prone to natural catastrophe and man-made disasters.
What is of importance is that the navies of the four countries have been exercising either at a bilateral level or at a tri lateral as in the Malabar. With the joining of Australia, challenges in areas from Africa to Australia identified as ‘an arc of instability ‘ could be taken up by collective action of the quad forces. It is clear that there would be many grey areas of what this alliance would achieve in terms of objectives. That should not deter the four countries to kick start this collective endeavour with the next edition of Malabar. The synergised thinking and coming together of these navies will help facilitate creation of options and opportunities for the participants to ensure that a credible collective maritime security architecture is built based on the deliverables from the exercises. This would help in drawing up contingency plans for the emerging challenges in the century of the seas.
In addition, this joint action will pave the way for building capacity and capability to take on the challenges in the maritime domain will see even more aggressive action by China which is expanding from Asia to Africa to Europe using both economic and military routes.
China will not be happy with the quad and will perceive this to be aimed totally against China. The perception of China notwithstanding, there should be no hesitation on the part of the four democracies to up the ante and get on with building an architecture for providing ‘an arc of maritime security and stability’ stretching from the Indian Ocean to the Pacific.
[Commodore RS Vasan IN (Retd) is Regional Director, Chennai Chapter of National Maritime Foundation (NMF), New Delhi, and Director, C3S. The views expressed here are his own and do not reflect the official policy or position of the NMF, C3S, the Indian Navy or the Government of India. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org]