This piece is a follow-up to a previous article by the same author on the geo-strategic competition for the Indian Ocean.
By having bypassed almost all conflict resolution mechanisms in the South China Sea and essentially refusing to participate in any multilateral negotiations, China has managed to attain a status quo in its favor. Conflict resolution in the East and South China Seas appear to be heading toward a deadlock, with China refusing all kinds of international mediation and countries like Vietnam and the Philippines opposing bilateral mechanisms. The Code of Conduct initiated in 2002 remains in limbo, with apparent divisions within the ASEAN grouping. Unless an armed conflict breaks out between the key actors in the region, the situation in the SCS is likely to remain the same — that is, increasing tension without any direct military threat.
Coalition of major powers in the region in the security sphere seems like the only viable option to deter an aggressive China. Collective security and shared responsibility has to be the basis of the emerging security architecture in the region. The balance balance of power is critical in such a model: to balance a rising and increasingly powerful China, there must be a group of equally strong actors to check its actions. While one may argue that ASEAN as a grouping already exists in the region, it is important to note that this group is limited to Southeast Asia – and China is still much more powerful than the members of ASEAN.
However, a coalition primarily between India, Australia, Japan, and the U.S. to maintain peace and stability in the region will be a much more effective mechanism to diffuse maritime tensions in the region. As U.S. Chief of Navy Operations Admiral Jonathan Greenert put it, “Multilateral works best… It’s an amazing deterrent. If somebody figures they are going to take on one of you, there is some likelihood they may be taking on all four of you. That tends to hold folks back.”
While critics may point out that India will maintain its distance from such an engagement, recent developments under the Narendra Modi government may prove otherwise. India has finally gathered the political will to play a greater security role in the region and is willing to collaborate with other key stakeholders in the region to secure the maritime domain in the region. A glance at the “U.S.-India Strategic Vision for the Asia-Pacific and the Indian Ocean Region” leads to the realization that New Delhi has understood the need for multilateral collaboration in the face of changing dynamics in the region. New Delhi is now seemingly less hesitant in voicing its concerns in the East and South China Seas. There is a renewed enthusiasm for military engagement with friends from Northeast and Southeast Asia. India is also reaching out to nations beyond its geographical proximity, such as the South Pacific Islands, taking on more of a leadership role as a resident power of the IOR.
India’s willingness to play its role in the region has won monumental support from the U.S., the primary security provider in the Indian Ocean. The 2015 U.S. National Security Strategy underlines India’s role in the rebalance to Asia-Pacific, converging its interests with New Delhi’s Act East Policy. The strategy notes, “We support India’s role as a regional provider of security and its expanded participation in critical regional institutions. We see a strategic convergence with India’s Act East policy and our continued implementation of the rebalance to Asia and the Pacific.” As one example, the U.S. and India are eager to expand the inclusion of other nations in the MALABAR exercises, as collective security is quickly emerging as the best option to maintain peace and security in the Indian Ocean.
China is quickly strengthening its weak points in the Indian Ocean by courting the small (and in need of development) island nations. Beijing has already established itself as a regional power in Southeast Asia and is now looking to strengthen its position in the Indian Ocean. While no country opposes the rise of China, what is alarming is the assertive behavior that accompanies this rise. If China does manage to strengthen its foothold in the Indian Ocean, it truly will emerge as a maritime player with immense power. Unlike in the Western Pacific, increasing competition for strategic space in the Indian Ocean will prove much more dangerous, with the presence of other middle power countries creating larger stakes.
Maintaining peace and security in the Indo-Pacific is critical at this juncture and a necessary option is the conglomeration of key players in the region. It is viable for two reasons. One, it will provide the balance of power required to stabilize the region and two, it will work as an incentive for China to join this regional great power partnership — opening avenues for discussions on a maritime Code of Conduct in the entire Indo-Pacific. Even if it fails to materialize into a conflict resolution mechanism, the new security architecture will stand as an effective instrument to check unilateral and assertive actions by countries in the region.
Darshana M. Baruah is a Junior Fellow at the New Delhi based think tank the Observer Research Foundation.