SPEAKING FREELY Trust can break Indian Ocean vicious cycle
By Namrata Goswami and Jenee Sharon
Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows
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The United States' "pivot to Asia" Policy, clearly manifested in the Department of Defense Strategic Guidance doctrine released in March, states that the US will rebalance to the Asia-Pacific region in order to build peace and maintain the freedom of the Sea Lanes of Communication (SLOCs).
In order to accomplish this, the doctrine indicates that the US will expand its strategic partnerships with countries in the Asia-Pacific, especially with India so that the latter becomes a net
provider of security and serve as a regional economic hub in the Indian Ocean region.
As well as the convergence in strategic interests, India now conducts more military exercises with the United States then with any other country, and holds annual defense dialogues as well as personnel exchanges.
This growing US-India strategic partnership is not lost on China. Within China, there is a great deal of speculation and uncertainty surrounding their strategic motives for this. Despite the US and India's efforts to debunk the assertion that the partnership and naval presence is not a strategic effort to counter a rising China, China is reluctant to accept this.
Why must the international community consider what China thinks about
the naval build-up? Because there is already a great deal of mistrust
between China and India related to border disputes. This coupled with
the uncertainty of each other's strategic goals for the recent naval
buildup makes it increasingly more difficult to manage issues to
prevent or resolve the conflicts that are inherent there. Conflict,
however, is not in the interests of China, India, or the United
States, because it threatens regional security and economic trade
links, something which all three countries have a huge stake in
In recent years, we have seen a substantial increase in joint
military-to-military and naval exercises in the Indian Ocean region,
particularly between India, the US, and regional actors. Both China
and India are rapidly expanding and improving their naval capabilities
to avoid what many from both countries view as encirclement by the
China has also became much more active in the Indian Ocean by
strategically placing more attack submarines to assert their presence
to India as well as a strategy to forward their claim to the South
China Sea. This naval modernization has not gone unnoticed - India's
more recent modernization includes purchasing an aircraft carrier from
Russia, submarines from France, and maritime patrol aircraft from the
United States, which is viewed by the Chinese as a move to assert
power in the Indian Ocean in response to China's well known "string of
The assertion of naval power by both parties is only likely to
substantially increase as India is projected to invest around US$47
billion in their navy over the next two decades, while China is
expected to spend roughly $24 billion.
Not only have joint naval exercises between the US and India peaked
China's attention, but India has also started to plan for bilateral
naval exercises with other regional counterparts. Indian Defense
Minister AK Antony's recent visit to Australia for consultations with
his counterpart Defense Minister Stephen Smith - the first time that
any Indian Defense Minister has visited Australia - served to further
interest in a strategic partnership and produced plans for joint
military exercises between India and Australia in the next year.
Additionally, India and Japan conducted joint naval exercises in June
2012; and during Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's recent trip to Japan
in May, he and his Japanese counterpart decided to regularly conduct
joint exercises and established a Joint Working Group to pursue closer
Frankly, the growing bilateral partnership between India and its
neighbors coupled with the increase in joint military and naval
exercises look like containment from the perspective of China. Even if
that is not the goal, and invitations are extended to include China in
multilateral/regional naval or military operations (like the upcoming
2014 RIMPAC, or Rim of the Pacific Exercise), it's a catch-22
If China is not invited, this will be perceived as a regional
containment strategy against China. If is is invited, Beijing will
perceive their inclusion as an American attempt to gain further
intelligence on China's military modernization.
From the perspective of internal Chinese discourse, as India forms
partnerships and deepens regional naval ties - at times with the
inclusion of the US - China looks on to see an India that is "ganging
up" on China by improving its regional bilateral relationships at the
expense of its relations with China.
This discourse is readily available within the Chinese media which
fairly consistently discusses the regional encirclement and the United
States' containment of China. In 2011, the Global Times published an
article on US internal and external containment strategies which
described one dominant Chinese view that the US not only actively
seeks to undermine China's growing power internationally, but is also
carrying out an internal containment strategy aimed at creating
internal strife within China by directly disturbing China's domestic
In regard to external containment strategies, the United States is
forming partnerships with neighboring countries in the region to
pursue a strategy of intensifying disputes in the region, a reference
to the Sino-Indian border dispute. This is particularly interesting as
it demonstrates the perception of a much more scathing and destructive
US strategy towards China. The United States and regional partners
should do more to clarify their objectives and engage more
transparently in regard to this, particularly in the Indian Ocean
Despite the United States and India not wanting China to feel that it
is being encircled, one of the dominant discourses from China remains
the view that both countries are pursuing an encirclement strategy.
China sees the United States as actively engaging in maritime
encirclement aimed at attaining dominance in the Indian Ocean,
meddling in the South China Sea dispute, and preparing for possible
future disruption of sea lane traffic, which is the primary means of
China's booming trade with the international community.
Although there is much mistrust and issues regarding transparency as
to China, India, and the US's motives for the naval build-up, some of
the dominant discourse does not add up. Why would any of these three
nations ultimately want conflict? All three have vital economic
interests and bilateral trade ties that provide strong incentive to
manage any possibility of an outbreak of conflict. Therefore, a
mechanism must be established that brings together these actors to
engage on the subject of military build-up in the Indian Ocean to
manage mistrust and add more transparency.
Without this, a combination of misunderstandings and uncertainty could
lead to conflict that no one can afford and that can be prevented.
Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest
writers to have their say.Please
click hereif you are interested in contributing.
Dr Namrata Goswami is a Senior Fellow at the United States Institute
of Peace (USIP), Washington, D.C. and Research Fellow at the Institute
for Defense Studies and Analyses (IDSA), New Delhi. Jenee Sharon is
Research Assistant at USIP. The views expressed in this article are
solely those of the authors and not that of either the USIP or the