USA’s Pacific Command, or USPACOM, was rechristened at the end of May in Singapore as U.S. Indo-Pacific Command (USINDOPACOM) or to explain the geographical context better, USA’s Indo-Pacific Command. It sounds big but in substance, there is hardly any change in its earlier domain. The area of responsibility (AOR) of this unified combatant geographical command of the U.S. military remains what it was before: from the west coast of the U.S. to the west coast of India – including the landmass of India. Just as a comparison, Pakistan, India’s next-door neighbor, comes within the geographical domain of America’s Central Command (CENTCOM). All military assets belonging to the U.S. within these respective geographical boundaries are thus placed under the control of the respective geographical commanders. This obviates any confusion in the unity of command as well as clearly differentiates between the AOR for the two to avoid overlapping.
In a more meaningful context, the Arabian Sea with the west coast of India as its eastern boundary and the Persian Gulf in the Indian Ocean along with its littoral and continental nations till Central Asia remains under CENTCOM’s primary AOR. The INDOPACOM, therefore, primarily takes over the responsibility from the southern edge of India, further east, including the Bay of Bengal leading up to Strait of Malacca and onwards to the South China Sea. That's a pretty neat division, as it has always been. All matters arising thereof between India and the U.S. in the military domain, whether coordination, cooperation, or joint operations within ‘this geographical domain’, including the Indian landmass, will be worked between the U.S. INDOPACOM and the Indian military. By this changed nomenclature the Indian military does not become a part of the INDOPACOM just as Pakistan’s defence forces are not a part of U.S.’ CENTCOM. That should establish clearly the nature of relationship between nations lying within a geographical denomination of a Unified Combatant Command of the U.S.
One further explanation merits attention just to clear the context. All Middle Eastern nations surrounding Israel lie in the geographical domain of the CENTCOM given their location, except Israel, which though is in the same geographical region as the other Middle Eastern states, has been entrusted in the care of U.S.’ European Command (EUCOM). This saves the U.S. from treading explosive political minefields. This should also explain why it is convenient for the U.S. to have both Pakistan and India in separate geographical commands. There is one more example of suiting strategic needs to geographical responsibility: Egypt, despite being in Africa, is not placed in the region of the US AFRICOM, rather separated under the CENTCOM because of its attendant strategic context and definition with the rest of the Middle East.
This Indo-Pacific hyphenation is not entirely an American strategic need. It has makings of how India has marketed itself as a South East Asian cohort. Under Rajiv Gandhi, in the late 80s, India began its first step towards a more independent political identity away from its perpetually perceived linkage with Pakistan since the birth of the two nations. He also began opening up towards the west doing away with India’s traditional reclusiveness tied to the Cold War philosophies of non-alliance while being militarily greatly dependent on the Soviet Union. The demise of the Soviet Union in 1991 was ideally timed for India to emerge from its shadow. Bill Clinton as the U.S. President first reached out to India as he and his family spent six long days in India on an official tour while they made six hours for Pakistan on the way back which by now had General Musharraf at the helm. America’s de-hyphenation of Indo-Pak had already begun. It was only delayed in time by America’s War on Terror which began in 2001 and has continued in fits and starts re-enthusing some relevance for Pakistan. As the war comes to a close, so does America’s need for Pakistan in the ongoing phase of their relationship. That has created the space for both India and U.S. to find a strategic rapprochement for the other.
This is how the deal has worked since. One, the Indian economy has done amazingly well in the last decade and a half – free from the socialist bind that India had tied itself into. It has opened itself up to the world and with its far improved human resource and resident entrepreneurship, she has enabled a mutually fruitful international investment, trade and business relationship. Indian foreign exchange reserves are among the few highest while its economy is already over one trillion dollars. This is enough honey for the world of business bees to hover on. A large increase in its middle-class adds to the attraction of a rewarding consumer market. Two, with the improvement in its riches have come the changing perceptions of it as a player of consequence in the region and the world. Such characterization is even new to the Indians who may be proud inheritors of the Chanakyan greatness but must still learn the ropes to exercising such aspirations as a nation. And three, India’s appetite for technology as it seeks to create a home-grown industry around a high-tech capacity means that it must seek new partners with that aim. In forging a renewed relationship with the U.S. it hopes to entice it enough in a barter trade for technology even as it offers an attractive market and its services in support of America’s geopolitical goals.
This modern world search for greatness then imposes even stranger bed-fellows. India, in search of a bigger role and a presumed importance before yet realizing the greatness that it seeks becomes an easy associate to those already of influence. At the Shangri-la Dialogue in Singapore under the auspices of the London-based IISS – International Institute of Strategic Studies, in the first week of July, a geopolitical foreplay was much in evidence. The two countries, used the forum of South Eastern nations to waltz to suggestive intents while pursuing own objectives. What are those?
The INDOPACOM, therefore, primarily takes over the responsibility from the southern edge of India, further east, including the Bay of Bengal leading up to Strait of Malacca and onwards to the South China Sea.
Back to the U.S. Around 1989 was also the time when China had cemented its new direction under Deng Xiaoping and chosen liberal economics as its newer market force, even as it held onto its political ethos which remained fastidiously illiberal. But here was a billion plus people introduced to the world in a format where they could not only business with while the Chinese in return got the exposure and the education of the developed world in return; and galloped to being a threshold superpower. Progressing at an overheated ten percent GDP growth, kept forcibly down to around nine to save from a growth implosion, it has been the miracle of the century in how hundreds of millions have transformed from poverty to relative to full richness in wealth and material possessions. The world just could not keep its eyes off of China, making it a necessary accompaniment in any and every economic landscape which informs the global scene. This has also meant a gradual but an assured strengthening of China’s military prowess too. And this is what has unnerved traditional power wielders like U.S., in particular.
The first expression of it came in incremental neighbourly expansion of China as Britain’s mandate over Hong Kong ran out and in how Macau got integrated into the Chinese fold. These initial baby steps were conducted diplomatically to avoid an overstated international concern. Next was China’s mention of the nine-dash line as its proclaimed boundary of exclusive control. That it enclosed the littoral landmass of nations such as Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Taiwan was sure to raise hackles. To most of the key U.S. allies, South Korea, Japan and Taiwan which housed U.S. military bases, it became an issue of major sensitivity. China began expanding into islands which it claimed had rightfully belonged to it. Spratly and Paracel Islands have long been highly contentious real estate in the South China Sea. China expanding presence throughout the South China Sea contained in the nine-dash line is the crux of China’s dispute with its reactive neighbours. This also gives U.S. the opportunity to monkey around in the area in pursuit of its own interests.
Geographically, the Malacca Strait connects the larger Indian Ocean to the South China Sea and most trade flows through the waterways to the East Asian rim nations. China, Japan and South Korea stand out for the volumes that they internationally trade with the rest of the world – apart from the strategic U.S. interest to keep an eye on an assertive China as it sees a contending challenger. America’s Seventh Fleet and other units constituting the US INDOPACOM thus have a task cut out to keep China’s rise in check. Allies like Taiwan and South Korea do their part of the bidding by contributing to this common objective with the U.S. while Japan because of constitutional restraints remains primarily dependent on the U.S. to ensure its defence. This defines the limits in which the U.S. must find its balance with the growing Chinese military. This is when nations such as India get inducted towards the fulfillment of the U.S. mission. If inter alia it also helps India raise its international profile, which it desperately needs to match with its economic prowess, the concomitant benefit then serves a common purpose. It thus becomes opportune then for India to find affiliation with the PACOM.
An ascending China then is a competitor if not a threat both in the region and globally to those who see it as an adversary. In it India is becoming a deliberate partner to the process of containing China on West’s behalf, more particularly the U.S. For the founding fathers of the Indian Republic that is where they did not seek to go.
Back-pedal to the Indian Ocean. The international shipping trade between the Indian Ocean Rim nations, especially the entire Gulf region – which also means around sixty percent if not more of the world’s oil and gas trade – and all other trade which goes on between the East and the West enters the Indian Ocean through the Suez Canal and remains within its waters till the Malacca Strait. From Suez to the geographical boundary of the seas South of India/Sri Lanka, the seas are the remit of the US CENTCOM, and principally U.S.’ Fifth Fleet out of Bahrain. This is where U.S.’ prime interest lies in managing the control because of the extreme criticality of the international waters to world trade. This is also where two other nations of importance wish to assert their presence. One, China got a virtual presence by dint of an exponential increase of its trading and shipping lines which dot the entire region. Call it a virtual occupation of the shipping lanes. Virtual yet physical – physically numerous, virtually dominating. And that is challenging enough for the U.S.’ control of the sea lanes and the international order where she had arrogated to itself the responsibility to keep the capitalist, market-driven free trade regimes open and functional without hindrance and hence assume a control implicit with such responsibility.
Enter the second protagonist. The spread of Chinese shipping in Indian Ocean meant that sea lanes in India’s backyard are populated by the Chinese and controlled by the Americans. To a freshly emerging land of Kautilya this had to be reversed or at least contended. This desire also accompanied India’s economic persona to establish its footprint in the ocean that carried its name. It began in two manners. An extending reach to two island nations, Maldives and Mauritius, both with history of an influential Indian presence meant that Indian footprint had to be first manifested there. Next came the longer reach of its air force through addition of a tanker fleet which could give its fighter airplanes longer legs and an extended reach for influence. The quest for a Blue-Water Navy for virtual presence then was established as a priority goal. Then came the effort to seal such domination with the inclusion of nuclear submarines which could stay at sea for months and extend the real firepower in contention with those of China and the U.S. in parallel. For the moment the presence is complementary to other major players except with the latent scheme to limit the space to the Chinese if ever such a situation arose. To the Americans the Indian presence is neither so effective for the moment and nor contradictory to its purposes. Hence all coexist as the situation stands.
But come the crunch, this is where the two nations could find themselves at cross-purposes. Would, for example the U.S. accept another contending power in their control of the Indian Ocean? This leaves a lot to guesswork. The Chinese are gradually improving their footprint as well, and that is to the U.S. an even bigger challenge. Two ports of significance, Hambantota in Sri Lanka and Gwadar in Pakistan are two links in China’s String of Pearls strategy. While China secures its own future by these incremental steps to ensure availability of essential infrastructure to sustain its growth and keep its economy going stronger, the world views it as strangulation of India, and an expanding influence in areas and waters where the U.S. alone has held forth. This should also explain India’s unease and desperation at gnawing space for prominence where behemoths like the U.S., China and Russia are already present. If not today, then in the foreseeable future the ravages of such parallel contention will only become more visible.
Not as a deft tactic to divert it away from the more contentious and problematic Indian Ocean, but more to retain the status quo in the Indian Ocean and to supplement America’s own effort in South China Sea and the affiliated waters, the U.S. desires India to take on an increased role towards the east of it. Hence its strict area of support from the Bay of Bengal, eastwards. Some symbolic connotations were thus in order – the speech by James Mattis, U.S.’ Secretary for Defence, and renaming US PACOM were some of those. Add to it the invitation to Narendra Modi as the keynote speaker to the International Security meet at Singapore and it completes the embellishment.
One other factor which has evolved over time in China’s grand strategy is the Belt and Road Initiative. It began with resurrecting the old Silk Route – to which the U.S. proposed the ‘New Silk Route’ – which then took the form of China’s BRI of which CPEC in Pakistan is a critical component. Few observations are in place: to the U.S. ‘America First’ is the mantra, and a wall to close off Mexico and the neighbourhood is a priority, while it sanctions its allies and taxes trade with them – the Western Alliance is up in arms and on the verge of a break-up, replacing the order which has held the international system together. The U.S. has broken off trade agreements, and has walked out of climate change agreements; she has broken nuclear peace deals and is closing itself to the world with stricter immigration control. Compare that to China: China believes in globalization and open trade, and the Climate Control regime, it wishes to connect people of the world and assist in development across regions. Most importantly, it is putting its money where its mouth is.
With CPEC it opens up the region to its influence in the most critical part of South Asia enclosing Iran, Central Asia, Afghanistan and Pakistan, where American interests remain critical. This irks the U.S. to no end. Add to it how China is also progressing on its BRI component linking Tibet, Bangladesh, Myanmar and Thailand and this sense of Indian encirclement almost becomes real. This too irks the U.S. and its newer partner India for obvious reasons. China plans to extend its BRI to the far extremes of Europe extending the available infrastructure to connect to its western regions. Pipelines carrying oil and gas through Gulf and Gwadar, and gas from Russia, are only real or in the works. Trains carrying commodities are already traversing the European mainland. In comparative assessment of the two super-nations, if not powers, China is far ahead in its conception of the world and its own place in it. It also complements global objectives of economic security and a cooperative coexistence. The U.S. on the other hand, under Trump, is an enigma waiting to unfold, hence is an uncertain, unreliable and destabilizing presence in the world today.
An ascending China then is a competitor if not a threat both in the region and globally to those who see it as an adversary. In it India is becoming a deliberate partner to the process of containing China on West’s behalf, more particularly the U.S. For the founding fathers of the Indian Republic that is where they did not seek to go. Yet that is exactly where India is sliding into with an international outlook which is perching itself lot more on adding to the disorder and in perpetuating conflict. Its short-term gains may be worthwhile but its long-term cost will entail its potential rise to be another major global power. Doing others bidding usually costs you your own interests. So, India is formalized into the US INDOPACOM to appease its sense of inclusion at a cost which will only cause it medium to long-term pain. While in reality, nothing would have changed. Is India willing to be short-changed that easily?
The writer is a retired Air Vice Marshal and security analyst who has also served as Pakistan’s Ambassador to Sri Lanka.