By Shibdas Bhattacharjee
Global politics is a never ceasing saga and formation of new equations, alignments and axis continues with the passing time that provides and creates both opportunities and challenges afresh before the nations. Evolution of China as a military and strategic power has certainly changed the global equations in the given time and there are continuous efforts going on to restrict China by different nations. China has always been a potential threat not only for India but also for the peace and solidarity of the entire region. India has been trying to convince the international community about this for decades. Today, Beijing’s strategic and military agenda has appeared to be larger threat for the United States at a time when Washington’s dominance is rapidly declining on various fronts. Similarly, rise of China has virtually subdued Japan. So also, Australia and others are becoming more dependent on China in economic affairs. All these increased the probability of formation of multilateral partnerships comprising India, Japan, Australia and the United States that enhanced the process of formation of QUAD; an anti-China block in the large part of Asia-Pacific.
QUAD has been existing for nearly 14 years. However, QUAD is yet to evolve as a strategic block against Beijing. Relationships among the QUAD members remain confined into mainly economic and trade activities so far. But today’s reality is different. In the given time, it seems virtually impossible to maintain economic and trade activities of the QUAD nations because of China’s strategic agenda and economic game plan. This has badly affected economy of United States and Japan. Existing situation in the South China Sea and increasing Chinese influence in the Indo-Pacific region have damaged economic prospect of Japan heavily. Naturally, the QUAD members have gradually realised it is becoming virtually impossible to foster economic agenda without strategic hold. Therefore, during the last few years along with India and the US, Japan has intensified drives for military modernisation and more particularly extending naval power in the Indo-Pacific. Apart from restricting China, there are two important points that unites the QUAD nations; democracy and advocacy for a liberal world. Inclusion of Australia in the block has undoubtedly enhanced the maritime strategic hold of the QUAD.
On March 12 this year, a significant development took place in the form of first virtual summit of the leaders of QUAD nations. For the first time, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, US President Joe Biden, Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison took part in a virtual summit. Four capitals; New Delhi, Washington, Tokyo and Canberra were virtually connected to review the existing situation in the backdrop of Covid-19 pandemic and emerging situation in the Indo-Pacific because of Chinese upsurge. There is lot of euphoria regarding this among the QUAD nations.
The summit took place after US President Joe Biden had unfolded America’s new Strategic Agenda to restrict China. US under Biden administration has ratified India playing larger role in the Indo-Pacific. But why? India has been an important stakeholder in the Indo-Pacific for her maritime strength. So also, India maintains steady relationships with the island nations of the Indian Ocean Region (IOR); be it Sri Lanka, Maldives, Mauritius, Seychelles and others despite extending Chinese shadow in this region. Fact is: strategic and geographical location of India as well as India’s nautical boundary in the Northern Indian Ocean Region provides greater accessibility to New Delhi establishing maritime dominance. The region includes substantial parts of Southern Asia, Western Australia and significantly parts of Western Africa.
In fact, location of the Strait of Malacca, Sunda Strait and some others in the Indian Ocean bear great strategic significance for the nations of East Asia and Far East Asia. Accessibility of this route is very important for international trade of China with West Asia, Europe and others on the one hand and Africa and Latin America on the other. Similarly, geographical location of Andaman and Nicobar Islands gives leverage to India to keep maritime dominance in the large part of the Indian Ocean Region. In fact, the Strait of Malacca is rightly said as global highway. This is the reason behind Malacca strait and the periphery in the Indian Ocean Region evolved as a theatre of maritime conflict after the World War–II.
Before that, the Indian Ocean and large part of the Pacific were virtually British lakes during the era of colonial rule. But in the backdrop of eclipse of British colonial rules and others of the Europe, new stakeholders of global politics evolved strongly in the Indian Ocean and more particularly in the Strait of Malacca. The Cold War era also witnessed hectic naval exercises in the Indian Ocean. But compared to former USSR, US had greater leverage in this region mainly because of geo-strategic location. Hence, the rise of China and gradual expansion of Beijing’s strategic roadmap can never be ignored that began with the fall of Japan in the World War-II. China has been extending its base in the Indian Ocean Region since then.
In the strategic calculus of China, Indian Ocean particularly the Malacca Strait has great strategic significance. Be China’s trade with various nations and oil import from the Arab world, Malacca strait bears great significance. But this is also true that China does not have independent strategic base near Malacca strait or in the periphery. The main reason behind this has been US dominance in the region. This is true that China has invested a lot in the island nations like Sri Lanka and Maldives to access naval bases of these nations. But this is important to state here that Sri Lanka and Maldives are not like Pakistan or Myanmar that will be ready to compromise everything. So also, the democracy in the island nations is deep-rooted which will never allow these countries to accept Chinese hegemony. In fact, not only Sri Lanka and Maldives but the nations like Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and others located at the Malacca strait have been providing port facilities to the ships of almost every nation as a part of their domestic economic policy and this contributes huge to the GDP of these nations.
However, here the point is expansion of strategic reach of the QUAD nations. Primary aim is to restrict China. The given international geo-politics delineates that through proper policy initiations by the QUAD nations, China can be restricted. Focus should be putting restrictions in the Malacca strait as well as in Sunda strait. This is certainly not a cakewalk. Apart from China’s relations with island nations near Malacca strait, existing internal law does not allow this; restricting any nation using free zone of the sea or ocean for trade and economy. But here the point is not to confront China but to keep domestic interests of QUAD nations secured. International law, norms and regulations ratify this right of every nation. This can never happen without empowering and extending strategic base. Emerging geo-political and strategic scenario of the Indian Ocean as well as Malacca strait and Sunda strait prove one thing; strategic empowerment is the need of the hour.
Now comes most important point, who can lead the front out of the four QUAD nations? Well, US has been a strong presence both in the Indian Ocean and the Pacific so far. But things have changed drastically during the last few decades. More precisely, America’s misadventure in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and other nations of the West Asia has proved to be fatal for US strategic interests almost in the entire continent. As far as Japan and Australia are concerned, they have never been big strategic players. So also, both these nations are located far away from the Malacca strait. It is only India, which can extend and ensure the strategic agenda of the QUAD nations. Reason is both India’s geographical location as well as strategic aspirational needs. The map taken from online source spells it better:
A comparative study of nautical distance between India and the island nations of Malacca strait and between China and the island nations of Malacca strait clearly shows why India can play more vital role as far as larger strategic agenda of the QUAD is concerned.
Now it is relevant to mention here the distance between China and the Malacca strait:
I admit this frankly that there may be some other ports in China or some islands under Chinese possession from where nautical distance may be shorter to reach Malacca strait. This is also true in case of India as well. One example is certainly Indira Point located just near the Malacca strait. But fact is: this Southernmost point of India; Indira Point does not have port facility till date. Hence, this is also not clear whether it can be developed into port considering pre-requisites for port construction. However, there is hardly any doubt in the fact that location of Andaman and Nicobar Island makes India’s distance to Malacca strait (island nations located near Malacca like Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and others) much shorter than that of China.
Average distance between India and Malacca strait is below 1,000 nautical miles whereas it is nearly 2,000 nautical miles on average from China. The distance between Shanghai to Malacca strait is longer than from Hong Kong. Similarly, the southernmost tip of India known as Indira point located in the Great Nicobar area is only about 100 nautical miles away from Sumatra and 200 miles from Singapore. But why should India ignore the strategically important Indira Point? After all, on February 19, 1984, Late Prime Minister Indira Gandhi visited this island. As per online media reports former Pygmalion Point or Parsons Point was named as Indira point in commemoration of Late Prime Minister Mrs. Indira Gandhi on October 18, 1985 during the visit of Late Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi to the island. There are reports regarding devastation created by the tsunami in 2004 in Indira Port along with other parts of Andaman and Nicobar Island, Lakshadweep as well as coastal regions of the Indian Ocean, the Bay of Bengal and the Arabian sea.
Now comes the most important point; India’s bilateral, diplomatic and strategic relationships with all the island nations. India conventionally keeps cordial relationships with Sri Lanka, Maldives, Mauritius, Seychelles and others as these nations have traditional bonding with India. This is true that China has established bases in these islands. But the economy of two SAARC nations; Sri Lanka and Maldives depends a lot on India. More so, one cannot ignore the fact how India helped Sri Lanka to dismantle the LTTE terror network and safeguarded Sri Lankan democracy. In fact, India gave supreme sacrifice for peace and solidarity of Sri Lanka in the form of former Prime Minister Late Rajiv Gandhi courting martyrdom for this. In case of Maldives, India took pro-active role to save democracy there and stood with Maladies’ civil administration to defeat several attempts of coup there. Nevertheless, India’s relations with both these nations have not evolved with proper strategic vision.
Similarly, India’s bilateral relations with Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore bear great strategic significance. As far India’s relation with Indonesia is concerned some remarkable developments took place in 2018 as both the nations identified China as the common contender in the Indian Ocean Region and agreed to extend maritime strategic partnership. This got enhanced further when Prime Minister Modi met Indonesian President Joko Widodo during the G-20 summit held in Osaka in 2019. In the year 2020, this was further enhanced. As per reports published in the Centre for Land Warfare Studies (CLAWS), “General Prabowo Subianto, the Defense Minister of Indonesia paid a three-day visit to India from July 26-28, 2020 and agreed to expand the strategic cooperation in the realm of defence and military ties. The possible export of BrahMos cruise missile by India to Indonesia was also discussed along with ways to deepen the maritime security cooperation.”
Malaysia is an important nation of the Malacca strait and maintains a steady relationship with India. India has been a trade destination of Malaysia and several Malaysian companies have invested a lot in India. However, Malaysia’s relations have been closer with China so far. This is true that developments like New Delhi’s New Kashmir Policy, abrogation of Article 370 and 35A as well as New Citizenship Act affected India-Malaysia relations in the recent past. But bilateral relationship between India and Malaysia developed on the economic front in 2020 under the then Malaysian Prime Minister Perdana Menteri Malaysia.
As per media reports, “Malaysia voiced its commitment to further strengthen diplomatic and trade ties with India, after the world’s largest edible oil buyer renewed purchases of Malaysian palm oil, in a sign of improving relations between the two countries. Indian buyers contracted up to 2,00,000 tonnes of Malaysian crude palm oil for June and July, after a four-month gap following a diplomatic row. Malaysia contracted to import a record 1,00,000 tonnes of rice from India for shipment this month and next.” Another media report stated an important development. “On February 4, 2021 YB Dato’ Sri Ismail Sabri, Senior Minister of Defence, Malaysia addressed the Indian Ocean Region Defence Ministers’ Conference via video recording. He expressed that Malaysia views the conclave as a beneficial platform to promote dialogue in an institutional and cooperative environment that can foster peace, stability and prosperity in the Indian Ocean Region. He also commended the strength of Malaysia-India defence relations and noted the potential opportunities that could be pursued between the two countries.” This is no doubt an important breakthrough. After all, this delineates probabilities of extended strategic tie-ups between India and Malaysia in the coming days.
As far as India’s relation with Singapore is concerned, it has been productive one in the fields of trade and economy. However, in the changed global atmosphere Singapore looks India as a mutual strategic partner in the Indian Ocean Region. Fresh development took place in January, 2021 in this context. As per reports, published in the media, “The 5th edition of the Defence Ministers’ Dialogue between India and Singapore was successfully held on January 20, 2021 through a video conference, in an effort to deepen military cooperation. During the meeting, the ‘Implementing Agreement on Submarine Rescue Support and Cooperation’ was signed between the two navies. The agreement was signed between Defence Minister Rajnath Singh and his Singaporean counterpart Dr Ng Eng Hen.”
India’s credibility among nations located in the periphery of the Strait of Malacca is high. Apart from strategic, defence, economy and trade, India always responded during the hour of crisis. The role played by India after the catastrophe of 2004 Tsunami deserves credit. India put into uses her air force and navy to rescue the tsunami victims in 2004. The relief operation was the largest ever in the modern history of India. New Delhi stood steadily with the Tsunami ravaged island nations despite India facing deaths and destructions in the coastal regions, Andaman and Nicobar, Lakshadweep and others.
All these prove one thing that it is none but India that can extend the reach of the QUAD to the Malacca straits for various reasons. Similarly, one thing that provides solidarity between the QUAD nations and all the nations of the Indian Ocean is democracy. Along with democracy, dealing with terrorism is an important issue for both the QUAD nations and the island nations of the Indian Ocean. Hence, there is probability of expansion of QUAD if the island nations of the Indian Ocean become part of the QUAD axis. But there are some complex issues. The most important one is relationship between China and island nations of the Indian Ocean. Will the island nations agree to take stand against China for the sake of democracy, security and of course tranquillity of the Malacca Strait? How do the island nations perceive US presence in the form of QUAD in the Indian Ocean? Will these nations agree to provide greater leverage to US-Japan-Australia than China? These are million dollar questions. But future of QUAD depends a lot answering convincingly all these interrogatives.
But here point is China’s state has declined substantially in some of the island nations of the Indian Ocean. Recent development shows that China is pondering about building new maritime route to bypass Malacca Strait or at least lessen dependence on Malacca Strait for its trade relations. China is trying to build a port at Kyaukpyu island as a strategic base if the Arakan coast region of Myanmar as a part of the framework of the Belt and Road Initiative for Myanmar and China. Myanmar and China signed a memorandum of understanding to carry out the feasibility to study into the construction of a 650 km line between Myanmar’s Indian Ocean port of Kyaukpyu and its second city Mandalay. So also, possibility of road transportation between Northern parts of Myanmar to Southern part of Thailand cannot be overruled. In fact, China is also trying to build the Kra canal cutting across Thailand to connect the Gulf of Thailand and the Andaman Sea. This would provide an alternative route to China.
No doubt, this shows China’s adamant approach to increase strategic hold in the Indian Ocean Region. But along with this, it shows one significant point that China’s relationship with the island nations of Malacca Strait has declined substantially which, has compelled China searching for alternative maritime route. Proposed project has been expectedly objected by Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia and other island nations located near Malacca Strait as this will decline the importance of Malacca Strait. After all, economy of all these nations depends a lot on Malacca Strait as the prominent sea route for international trade. Providing port facilities and other logistics adds a lot to the GDP of all these nations. Similarly, the proposed KRA canal will destroy the habitations, agriculture and industries located in the parts of Thailand through which canal will pass. Apprehension of mass-movement against such plan by the people of Thailand is quite natural. Although, military juntas have mostly ruled Thailand so far, but Thailand administration does not seem enthusiastic regarding the canal. Reason is simple.
Media reports underline this like the one published in the TFI POST “Thailand doesn’t seem to want the Kra Canal any longer. The reason is simple-the Canal project wasn’t economically or politically feasible. The Kra Canal wouldn’t have turned out to be another Suez Canal or Panama Canal that have made countries rich. Success of Canal projects depend on their ability to cut short distances. Suez Canal and Panama Canal, for example, bypass entire continents and thus charge hefty fees from large ships-2,50,000 dollars and 1,25,000 dollars respectively. However, in case the Kra Canal was built, then additional fuel costs for alternate routes through the Malacca, Sunda or Lombok Straits would have been limited to 40,000 dollars to 1,20,000 dollars. This was not enough to justify the construction costs of the Canal project. The China-sponsored Canal project was therefore more geo-strategic than geo-economic.
Once complete, the Kra Canal project would have become another piece of Xi Jinping’s “debt trap diplomacy” and Beijing would have taken full control of the strategically located Canal project. At a political level also, the project would have made no real sense for Thailand. It would have physically separated Thailand’s Malay Peninsula which would, in turn, have encouraged the ongoing insurgency in Southern Thai provinces. China wouldn’t have helped Thailand in such a situation, rather it would aided and abetted insurgents to take full control of the prospective Canal project.” Thus, building the canal is not cakewalk for China. So also, as this will affect the security aspect of South East Asian Nations, larger diplomatic pressure will mount on Thailand. Similarly, this will make the debate larger as other parleys of international politics will raise the question whether international treaties and agreements ratify this.
Considering all these, the point that becomes distinctly clear that it is only India capable to extend QUAD’s strategic agenda. India must take a lead role in this context. India can mediate to resolve issues between US-Japan-Australia and the island nations of the Malacca periphery. This is true that India is a formidable naval power in the large part of the Indian Ocean. Remaining QUAD members must make serious efforts to increase India’s naval capability. Situation demands QUAD nations taking some out-of-box strategy. Structural and naval infrastructure development of Andaman and Nicobar Islands is very important. QUAD nations must think seriously whether Indira Point located near the Malacca strait can be constructed as a naval strategic base. Naval infrastructure developments in Indira Point will minimise dependence of QUAD nations on other island nations like Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and others. This will also serve the prime agenda of QUAD; restricting China in the Asia-Pacific. All these will ultimately help India evolving as a maritime superpower strongly positioned strategically against China be it Indian Ocean, Asia-Pacific or South China Sea. This will send strong message to China and fulfill the needs and aspirations of the QUAD axis evolving strongly against China-dominated nexus in the continent and beyond. Liberal international community is looking hopefully to this. But will the other QUAD members do accordingly? Let’s wait for some new development. Keep watching please.
-The writer is an Assam-based strategic affairs analyst. The views expressed are personal and do not necessarily reflect the views of Raksha Anirveda