Naval Cooperation in the Asia-Pacific

Commentary | December 13, 2012

Writing for India's The Telegraph, former foreign secretary of India and EWI board member Kanwal Sibal discusses prospects for international partnerships in the Asia-Pacific region.

Click here to read this piece at The Telegraph.

The security challenges in the Asia-Pacific region, which American "re-balancing" towards Asia and Barack Obama’s tour of some Asian countries so early into his second presidency seek to address, are many and complex. Territorial disputes remain sharp in the region. China lays claim to Indian territory and so does Pakistan. Afghanistan and Pakistan have border differences. China has maritime territorial disputes with Japan, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Indonesia. Taiwan is also party to these disputes, besides China itself having sovereignty claims over Taiwan. Japan and Russia have an outstanding dispute over the Kuril Islands.

The problem of terrorism is more acute in this region than anywhere else. Pakistan, along with the border areas of Afghanistan, is a breeding ground of terrorism targeting India and Afghanistan, and creating a sense of vulnerability in Central Asia. Sri Lanka and Bangladesh have seen terrorism on their soil. So has China in Xinjiang. Terrorism has afflicted Thailand and Indonesia. Nuclear proliferation is a problem in the two extremities of this region, in Iran and North Korea. At the eastern end, the threat of a military strike against Iran is real despite the position of Russia and China, while it is most unlikely against North Korea at the western end in deference to China’s opposition.

The presence of the United States of America in the region is substantial, with its Seventh Fleet as well as military bases in Japan, Australia, the Philippines, Singapore, South Korea, Thailand, Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, and Diego Garcia. With concerns about China’s rise in mind, the US is reinforcing its military assets in the region further. The US defence secretary has described India, a bit exaggeratedly no doubt, as a “lynchpin” of this new strategy. In any case, this shows the direction of American thinking in terms of partnering with India strategically in this region.

With its Fifth Fleet and bases in the Gulf countries, the US has now a presence in the western end of the Indian Ocean and the Strait of Hormuz. Apart from putting pressure on Iran, the US claims that this presence is intended to maintain stability in the region and ensure uninterrupted supplies of oil and gas to American friends and allies, more so now that the US imports only 10 per cent of its hydrocarbon needs, and even this figure will decline with huge discoveries of shale gas in the US. The US navy has a sizable presence in the Indian Ocean for assuring the security of sea-lanes of communication. For this, it has been engaging the Indian navy in a big way, with the two countries holding frequent naval exercises together. These exercises are now being held also in the trilateral India-US-Japan format.

It is argued that while the security architectures during the Cold War were based primarily on military alliances, the need today is to base these architectures on shared values, interests and challenges. This Euro-Atlantic-centric view is debatable, as China, India and scores of non-aligned countries were outside the Cold War alliance systems. Today, Nato not only exists, its membership has been expanded and its role has been geographically extended. Nato operated in Yugoslavia and Iraq. It is operating in Afghanistan; it acted in Libya. The US has declared its intention to strengthen its military alliances in the Asia-Pacific region. Russia is working to strengthen the Collective Security Treaty Organization in the erstwhile Soviet space. It is wrong to downplay too much the security role of military alliances today.

The idea of basing the new security architectures on “shared values” is also a Euro-Atlantic view. What are these “shared values”: those of democracy, pluralism, human rights and so on? But then, there are serious differences over these issues. Many countries are either not democratic or have their own concept of democracy. There is serious opposition to what is seen as the US crusade for democracy for geopolitical reasons, a tendency to impose it by force at great human cost, and double standards in the application of this principle.

Similarly, the human rights issue has been highly politicized by the West, there is selectivity in its application and the critics believe the issue has been used cynically for regime change, among other things. So, can the new security architectures be built on highly contested notions in their controversial practical application? Can the US, Russia and China be brought on a common platform on them, not to mention many others, including the Islamic countries?

The question arises whether the Indian and Pacific Oceans constitute a single strategic space? The answer would be “yes” from the US navy’s point of view with its responsibilities extending across the two oceans. It could be true for India, which dominates the Indian Ocean geographically, only in the specific context of the expansion of the Chinese blue-water navy and its future ability to break through the first and second chain of islands and establish an increasing presence in the Pacific and eventually in the Indian Ocean, for which China is already creating the basis.

Our navy signals its ability to operate far from Indian shores by, for instance, periodically holding exercises with the Russian navy at Vladivostok. The Pacific is also the venue now of the trilateral India-US-Japan naval exercises. But the Pacific Ocean is too vast for India to have strategic interest in it. As regards the security of sea-lanes of communication, the problem pertains largely to the Indian Ocean area, from the Strait of Hormuz through the Malacca Strait to the Taiwan Strait and the South China Sea, not the Pacific as such.

The energy and trade flows across these waters are huge and vital for the economies of Japan, South Korea and China. In this vast stretch, there are problems of piracy in the southern Indian Ocean area off the coast of Somalia, but no issues of sovereignty that can threaten international navigation rights, except in the South China Sea. All concerned countries would not want these vital lanes to be interfered with in case of tensions or conflict, but how to ensure this?

For the moment, the two navies best placed to provide security in much of this area are the US and Indian navies, but countries like China may want an independent capacity to do so. This is where geo-political concerns come into play and can be a source of mistrust and problems. The challenge is for all to agree to certain rules of the road and norms of conduct. A wider Asia-Pacific security architecture will not be easy to build. Other continents have continental-scale organizations, but not Asia. There are too many players with conflicting interests and ambitions. Several disputes remain unresolved. The world-view as well as political, social and religious values of countries differ.

It would be more realistic to first build bilateral understandings between countries that have differences and then seek to widen the circle of these understandings to solidify them at the multilateral level in an incremental process. As bilateral relations between key countries markedly improve, existing organizations like SCO, SAARC, ECO, CSTO, ARF, IOC-ARC, BIMST-EC, and the East Asia Summit could become the building blocks of a larger Asia-Pacific security architecture. But that seems far away for now.