Indo-Pacific Strategy: Dilemma for Asia

Dr. Prem Singh Basnyat

September 2, 2019

Reading Time: 14 minutes

Indo-Pacific Strategy: Dilemma for Asia
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Tracking down the history of global events, one easily senses that the race and competition of those countries prior to the European Industrial Revolution now have concentrated their eyes and efforts to take control of the seas and the marine world.

The competition after the development of internal combustion engine by German scientist Gottlieb Daimler shifted from marine over to the land. Needless to say, before the fuel engine came to replace the steam engine, marine route was far easier than any other travel and transport.

Understandably, the wars in the first two centuries were fought for water but fought on land. Reversely, the wars in the 20th century were fought for territorial capture from land. And now the competitiveness has shifted from war in the air to war in water.

Initially, the Indo-Pacific US Strategy, designed with Indian and the Pacific Ocean in the center, is no longer new because Indian Marin Strategic Expert and National Marin Foundation Executive Director Gurpreet Singh Khurana in 2008 reportedly for the first time used the term Indo-Pacific Strategy.

Clear enough, the Indo-Pacific US Strategy came into existence with Obama’s interest of raising India in South Asia, Brazil in the American continent, Australia, New Zealand, South Korea, Indonesia, and Japan in the American continent to take their leadership in the regions.

China comes connected in the background interest, again. The US Defense think tank Butz Alain Hamilton in 2005 released a report about Chinese Military Strategy in which it sensed that China mulled over restricting India by expanding its military base and infrastructure towards the open oceanic space, by doubling its investment in the port from Malacca strait, from the Gulf of Hormuz  to Sudan, from Gwadar of Pakistan to Sri Lanka and the Maldives.

In the geopolitical strategy, it is known as ‘string of pearls’ doctrine. And in seeking out of response, the coinage of the term ‘Indo-Pacific’ to happen in India is nothing of a surprise. Obviously, the background establishes India as a natural partner of the Indo-Pacific Strategy.

US Strategy

In competitive pursuit of buttressing its technology prowess and military might, India ended up signing a first phase civil-nuclear treaty with America in 2005. Once in office after the US presidential election, Barrack Obama in 2008 introduced a new form of power balance with Asian countries, popularly known as ‘Asia Pivot’.

This gave out an impression of the US interest of extending its partnership with the East Asian countries across the Atlantic Ocean with the sole aim to curb and counter China’s economic-ballistic progress. The rise of China as a power block brought India and America to team up into a greater strategic field.

Consequently, the Asia Pivot identified the ambition of rising regional powers. Clear enough, the Indo-Pacific US Strategy came into existence with Obama’s interest of raising India in South Asia, Brazil in the American continent, Australia, New Zealand, South Korea, Indonesia, and Japan in the American continent to take their leadership in the regions.

The term ‘Indo’ first refers to the Indian Ocean, and then to all the landmass and water stretch all the way from India to Indonesia; it is the region of their influence. Interestingly, America considers itself as a country in the Pacific Ocean. American strategy consists of intentional expression over the Atlantic Oceanic region where the next global political competition is going to happen.

While the Indo Pacific circle tightens, even more, the fresh Chinese maritime silk route will gradually wear down and the Indo-American military partnership will ultimately gain all the more strength. Indian Oceanic region and the Pacific Oceanic region are two strategic cornerstones, both independent but strong systems as much.

The Indo-Pacific US Strategy report consisting of 54 pages does not focus on the American defense and foreign policy. Understandably, the report made public for policy objectives does not elaborate on the operational contents.

Although the remote control of overall strategic leadership and guidance from the Pacific Oceanic region rested in the American hands, whether it will hold the remote control of the Indian Oceanic region was still unclear. The newly formed government of India gestures and its road map indicates at the increasing possibility of India taking the leadership of the Indo Pacific Oceanic region.

Latent but of the far-reaching ramification of the new strategic center are gradually being vocal and visible. However, the American clandestine campaign against Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi during his election campaign followed by bilateral trade dispute may be a point of distrust for smooth going of Indo-Pacific US strategy.

On the next hand, India’s BJP-led government is hailing its decision to strip the state of Jammu and Kashmir of autonomy after seven decades, characterizing it as the correction of a “historical blunder” on Aug 5, 2019. India hopes strong support from the USA in this regard; this would be a favorable situation for US interest.

The Indo-Pacific US Strategy report consisting of 54 pages does not focus on the American defense and foreign policy. Understandably, the report made public for policy objectives does not elaborate on the operational contents.

However, the way it touches upon the contents clearly hints at how the US current global power balance system concentrates its energy to the right size, restricts China around its region of influence. The Indo Pacific Strategy has come as a US design and conviction that China is a revisionist power of its kind with military might and economic influence set to change the current world system.

As a next-door neighbor sharing its borders with China, Nepal cannot but be naturally influenced by this strategy; therefore it necessitates the latter to minutely study and assess the pressure and the move the neighbor is likely to take in the current US-China chess game like a power struggle.

It is true to note that power as the necessary first condition of power balance for maintenance of international relation and only strongest power can serve as a deterrent force to counterbalance another strong force and therefore needs such a force to be created.

Until recently, Indo-Pacific US strategic move was not read as a location-specific power balance strategy; was vaguely read as associated with China but not dexterously designed US card or rather a multinational and multilateral network seeking to expand its scope.

The report tore up the veil of hitherto benefit of doubts and has awakened one and all about its strategic location, limits, and size. The US identifies its major threats against US National Security are:

a) China is a revisionist power and therefore must necessarily need to be checked

b) Russia is a malign actor all set to corrupt the world system, and therefore needs immediately be checked

c) North Korea is a rogue state and therefore immediately needs to be nipped in the bud.

On the other hand, interestingly enough, the report stays silent about Iran and Cuba, viewed so far as arch enemies of the US. It also similarly remains mysteriously silent about the Middle East issues, the case the US so seriously and with paramount importance held.  Maybe yet the supplementary report is on the pipeline about such matters and others.

US Implementation Intents

In order to implement the Indo-Pacific Strategy, the US has prepared three tactical ways out as:

a) The machinery of its groundwork

b) Partnership and

c) Networking

According to a newly found realization of Realist School, “Peace is nothing of tangible nature; rather something achieved through power balance”. Therefore, the American conviction of ‘Peace Building from Generation of Power’ is well documented as the number one strategy in the report.

Such a strategy of a power center’s self-restraint to garner more power in international political terminology is known as effective deterrence. Patrick Snahan, Acting US Defense Minister says, “For any conflict to turn to victory, effective deterrence of collective force is a must, so because this ensures the devolution of firing potency against the adversaries.”

It is true to note that power as the necessary first condition of power balance for maintenance of international relation and only strongest power can serve as a deterrent force to counterbalance another strong force and therefore needs such a force to be created.

Moreover, just distribution of power assures the building of relative peace. Based on similar strategy the current US strategy hinges upon giving access of identity and lead to the regional power blocks such as Australia, New Zealand, Japan, and South Korea to down-size the power of China and Russia by assisting them to garner power in a way they do not grow stronger but serve the US interest.

The report underscores the alliance and partnership of the group of nations as an alternative tool to give the Indo- Pacific Strategy an implementable form. Clear enough, from day one of Donald Trump’s assumption of office as president, the world sensed the tumult of US relations with its neighbors, dragging its policies and strategies under controversy.

With only one and half years for the fresh US election, the release of the report at this hour gives a clear hint of partnership with its neighbors in top priority to explore fresh ties with them. The swinging change of US leadership’s political focus and priority aside, despite controversy and reservation, the permanent American “deep state” or “State within a state” power seems willing to operate joint military operation with its partners.

Yet another strategic tool of the US Indo Pacific is to transform the partnership into a viable network of co-working among the partners. It all means that the US reads the partnership as bilateral relation with a departure, trying to enter it to partnership network.

In the years to come, under cover of “defending the international system, growing a deterrent power and sustaining it”,  Indo- Pacific in the covert or overt way will surely set its foothold in the Asian countries, and apparently its remote control is sure to rest in American hand.

Inviting Catastrophes in Asia

U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper recently said that he was in favor of placing ground-launched, intermediate-range missiles in Asia relatively soon, a day after the United States withdrew from a landmark arms control treaty.  It would encourage an unhealthy competition of producing and storing lethal weapons in the region.

It would all amount to the US seeking to bully other countries in the excuse of its military might. As such it has already defied the balance of power. And this military might, superiority and ferocity serve as a source to destabilize the whole of Asia. The fall out of the US sending missile in Asia is sure to destabilize the balance of power in this region.

It is likely to give rise to the competition of weapons and geopolitical tension as well. Its impact in Asia will obviously seem much more menacing than Terminal High Altitude Area Defense; so because the medium-range ballistic missile is of lethal and devastating nature and capacity.

Any country siding with American plan of weaponry ultimately seems to be giving an overt or covert counter to Russia or China. It would be akin to sparking a bomb on itself.

The speculation that Washington is very likely to prepare Japan and South Korea to accept US missile cannot be ruled out. On the contrary, during the cold war era, they were more antagonistic to the Soviet Union and WARSA PACT than any of Europe.

Even a simpleton can make sense that Japan and South Korea are risking themselves by enraging Russia and China because the later is a very important trade partner of both the countries. Any attempt to provoking China and Russia in an attempt to please America is bound to bring about an enormous loss on their side of national interest; it will be riskier than anything.

Asia is a region leaping with its progress and development in the recent time. Despite some differences, they have had a network to help and assist one another, and China is in the center of it. America has had a loss of rest and sleep of China’s progress and prosperity and is intent on shattering it no matter how. Clear enough, America is seeking any card or opportunity to set the Asian countries to conflict and war.

At most, the Asian countries must take to making peace and working together to prevent the impending menace of weaponry and economy collapse on their side. It is advisable that they wake to it earlier than regret later. It is again advisable that Japan and Korea exercise their restraint to keep calm. But their prosperity has developed their frenzy and interest as well.

They must wake to it that any siding with America is only prone to their risk. In recent decades, besides recent small trade dispute, Japan and Korea are expanding their relation and partnership in trade and other relations. On the other hand, “Korean foreign policy is changing,” argues Kunihiko Miyake, research director at The Canon Institute for Global Studies in Tokyo.

He says Japan has watched with dismay as Moon has rebalanced South Korea’s foreign policy away from the U.S. and Japan, and closer to North Korea and China.” They know that the Cold War is over,” Miyake says. “They know that China is on the rise. They know that Americans are not dependable anymore.” However, if in any excuse or temptation they take to supporting American interest, they will invite more troubles in the days to come.

On the other hand, America must stay happy that China and the whole of Asia are rising with its progress and stability. But true to nature, it can never see the peace, prosperity, and strength of China and Russia. Similarly, they don’t think that America will pull apart some Asian partners to serve its interest.

Clear enough, America’s partners are willing to strengthen their long-held relation with Russia and China rather than siding with it to enrage their good partners.  Chinese robust economy can sustain more budget allocation on defense. It is in no way good for America to wish war only to bring loses on its side, by pushing the competition of weapons for beyond.

Any such wish and attempt will set China to building its Super Weapons Arsenal which will ultimately go to counter the American interest. China and Russia seem to be set on building a lasting and strong strategic partnership to counter the American plan.

In such a situation, the US will impose to have the US-made several missiles to Japan and South Korea for countering against Russian-Chinese alliance, which would be big threat in the Asian continent. Finally, it boosters hostility among neighboring countries in this region.

In this regard, the US should review its Indo-Pacific Strategy in enhancing trade and opportunities rather making rivalry in weaponry trade, which is the best option for the US economy. If weaponry rivalry takes place as remained in Cold War Era, then we could presume of many more possibilities of manmade disasters against Shanghai or Beijing or other populated cities like happened in Hiroshima and Nagasaki during World War II.

The Asian Geopolitical Ripples

The report hitherto thought of as a concept paper but now made public as an official document has created much stir over the countries. And, what’s more, the report that lists out 22 countries, including Nepal, clearly describes them as likely partners of the network of Indo-Pacific US strategy.

By adroitly regrouping India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Maldives and the islands of the Pacific Oceanic region, the US gives a loud and clear message-the competitive global politics has now come over to water politics. It is also true to note that all the coastal countries of the Indo-Pacific are not necessarily willing to join as partners of the US interest.

Drawing the example of Bangladesh, America or no America makes no difference to Bangladesh as such, still, it wants American presence over the region to keep Beijing and New Delhi in a tightrope like balance. Nepal, Maldives, and Cambodia also side with the same line of thought and psyche.

Tactically or strategically, most South Asian countries stay seeking some kind of American assistance to balance the influence of India and China or diversify their trade activities too. American interest to reap benefits in this excuse sounds out and loud in the report.

However, Indian geography and its support are much more vital for Indo- Asia Pacific. The US hopes Indian big support for containing against Chinese blooming trade and rising global power. This has become a dilemma for India since it gets several intrastate disputes North-East frontier, closer to the Chinese border and interstate territorial disputes with China.

Nepal can still work out its plans to fend itself off while America engages itself to view it from its strategic lens. Nepal needs to think and plan carefully for its survival.

In this regard, India needs to tackle very wisely the US strategic interest against China, never make blonder like Saddam Husain made during Iran-Iraq War by US provocation, followed by the destruction of Iraq and end of Saddam’s life too. In other words, the Indo-Pacific US Strategy would be almost rebirth of the Cold War Era for booing interstate hostility in Asia. It goes without saying that the Indian role shapes the future fate of this region.

Nepal in a frying pan

Nepal’s Minister for Foreign Affairs Pradip Kumar Gyawali during his official visit to the US met and talked to his American counterpart Mike Pompeo in the first week of last January. America to formally invite the Minister of Foreign Affairs reflects its shift of interest to diversify its foreign relations with Nepal.

Nepal unofficially refuted the content of the message outright where although there was no word ‘strategy’ used in the communiqué. The recent American report is instrumental to make sense of its intention made public almost eight months ago and the subsequent refutation made by Nepal which seeks to see its relations with America in the bilateral frame of meaning.

On the other hand, America has already tended to perceive all the bilateral relations from Indo-Strategic lens. American diplomacy as is already competent, it is no wonder that we like it or not, it looks at us from Indo Pacific glasses and behaves accordingly.

The report explicitly describes Nepal and Sri Lanka as its partners of Indo-Pacific Strategy and is already working in the areas of disaster preparedness management, assistance to humanitarian needs and joint military exercises. America’s recent behavior is indicative of its overt intention to turn the traditional relations to a network of defense partnership.

In his recent visit to Nepal, David Ranch, American Foreign Affairs Deputy Minister of South Asian Affairs Desk described the civilian economic assistance America provides to Nepal as of Indo-Pacific Strategy, and the  Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) its tool.

Noticeably, the impact of Indo-Pacific Strategy is very much likely to be both boon and bane to Nepal. Nepal can still work out its plans to fend itself off while America engages itself to view it from its strategic lens. Nepal needs to think and plan carefully for its survival. Some of the viable suggestions are as followings:

a) Nepal should explore ways to secure benefits from the development of China and India, and develop a relationship of trust and friendship. As such trust is abstract beyond accurate measurement. However, it can be felt and realized through behavior and activities, and gradually trust builds up. Nepal has had mixed experiences of bitter and sweet in the past few decades. It has to work to the front of building trust and confidence of permanent nature. That Nepal’s closest partner is India is clear to all, and therefore its smooth relation but not special relation with India is sure to build smooth relation with the Western world.

b) As is evident, Nepal has always embraced a policy to disallow any activity to harm its neighbors from its soil. Understandably, Indo Pacific US Strategy is cooked up to encircle China, and the partners of the strategy will surely make every attempt to use Nepal to secure their objectives. On top of that, the US Army has been pressing up to Nepalese Government to conduct its joint military and US Army and Nepal Armed police exercises in northern Chinese border areas in Mustang and Manang.

Which is very poisonous in Sino-Nepal relation, even those areas were under restriction up to 2006 for any foreigner for Nepalese national interest. In this aspect, the Nepalese Ministry of Home and Defense should not be deaf and blind under external monetary mussels. Under such circumstances, Nepal has no other choice than wisely identify it and if the need arose be vocal to say ‘No’ to any such interests.

c) It can decline to join the joint military alliance meant to implement the Indo Pacific Strategy. For instance, Nepal abstained from the BIMSTEK Military Practice held in India last year. But just in case India comes up as a major operator of Indo Pacific Strategy, Nepal will have to work hard to disassociate from it. However, the pressure and impact of the strategy are sure to mount, to complicate easy handling of it.

d) Indo Pacific Strategy, in essence, expects the expression of the sovereignty of small countries, and is therefore positive to Nepal. Nepal should consistently seek to use its prerogatives of the landlocked geographical location and geopolitical strategy. Unhindered transportation through land route and access to the countries beyond India is its birthright. It should under no circumstances negotiate with its right to access to other countries. Similarly, it should bring home to other countries about its rights to peace and development.

e) Nepal has signed an agreement of BRI (Belt and Road Initiative) with China. Although there is no written agreement in the Indo Pacific Strategy, American interest is hidden at the heart of it. In the course of time, the counter strategies will overtly or covertly surface to block one another to make itself a way ahead. Nepal should on no condition give any chance of itself to be used as a playground for such conflict of interests and strategies. Likewise, its ministry of foreign affairs should consistently be working with diplomatic dexterity, broad vision and optimum use of competent manpower thereof.

f) Strategy does not necessarily refer to military warfare. Because it is a report of the American Defense Ministry, the military view prevailed over the Indo Pacific US Strategy. Although the terms often used in military war and warfare are frequently used and it made the Indo Pacific look like a war zone, America applies a two-pronged policy of rivalry and formal partnership with China at the same time. In this regard, Nepalese Security institutions including Nepalese Army must be very sensitive and confident to prevent any unwanted activities through Nepalese Government.

Conclusion

After manmade disasters in Hiroshima and Nagasaki during World War II, the world finds itself in similar straightened circumstances as the US once again puts into motion steps to curb the rise of another Asian power, the People’s Republic of China.

The meteoric rise of US President Donald Trump, his ‘America First’ ideology and the focus on trade restrictions to curb the exponential growth of the Chinese economy are no different from the embargoes we saw on the Japanese those many years ago.

The ratcheting up of tensions in the Persian Gulf from where the Chinese receive most of their oil is obviously no coincidence and while some may see the US actions directed at Iran, one cannot rule out the fact that the ultimate target may well be the Chinese.

In the end,  in history, there are no times of ease and relax without cut-throat competition among the power centers. Two World Wars ravaged the world for which the background was in the making since 1880. The years from 1990-2015 are examples of war-stricken times.

Earlier the 40 years passed as the prolongation of the cold war between America and Russia. Whatever be Nepalese choice, one thing is very clear, we better initiate trustworthy diplomatic actions to strengthen our Sino –Nepal, Indo-Nepal bilateral relations as well as Nepal–Indo-China Tripartite relations as our first priority. We must not forget our geopolitical reality as “Nepal as a yam between two big boulders” and Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) for the survival of Nepalese sovereignty.

Finally, alliance for Indo Pacific US Strategy in Asia should follow the theme as a principle of NAM; “Peace cannot be achieved with separation, but with the aspiration towards collective security in global terms and expansion of freedom, as well as terminating the domination of one country over another”.

(Prof. Basnyat is Brigadier General (Retd), holds degrees of M.Sc–Global Security from Cranfield University, UK)

Views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the stance of Khabarhub.

 

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