The global focus on South Asia and the Indian Ocean has increased. That’s both good and bad news for us in the region.
South Asia is home to India, an emerging world power. China, another world power, has its stakes in the region too. And the US, the dominant world power for the past century, is waging an unfinished war on terror in the Af-Pak region. Along with its continued dominance in the Pacific, the US clearly seeks to be the preeminent South Asian power, argues Robert Kaplan in Monsoon: The Indian Ocean and the Future of American Power. How will that play out in face of power shifts in the region?
Unsurprisingly, US engagement in South Asia has increased and analysts see the Indian Ocean as the new theatre of conflict in the 21st century—this was a topic of discussion in Kathmandu last week at an interaction programme organised by the Centre for South Asian Studies.
Three seasoned American officials-turned-scholars spoke candidly about the rise of India and China, and what that means to America. Robert Boggs, John Wood and Daniel Curfiss of the Near East South Asia (NESA) Center for Strategic Studies offered American perspectives (not necessarily official) on three bilateral relationships of global significance: that between the US and China; US and India; and, not least, India and China.
The interaction last week also dealt, if in passing, with a persistent Nepali concern that the US has increasingly come to view Nepal through the
Indian prism as a result of Washington’s “strategic partnership” with New Delhi—a claim repeatedly dismissed by American officials. Their argument: Indo-US ties have indeed grown to new heights in recent years but the United States, as a world power, need not view Nepal through the eyes of India, a regional power.
As China and India rise to attend world-power status, there are new dynamics at play in their bilateral relationship. Though the trade volume has greatly increased (there is now talk of a US$100 billion trade) in recent years, so has the strategic competition for resources and space. China is keen to establish a “backdoor link” to the Persian Gulf and the Indian Ocean through the Pakistani port of Gwadar and the Iranian port of Chah Bahar, for example.
Some in the Indian defence establishment fear that the Middle Kingdom is trying to encircle India in the Indian Ocean through “the string-of-pearls strategy”. According to this theory, the Pakistani port in Gwadar could
be used to give access to western China and to monitor sea traffic through the Gulf of Hormuz, the gateway to the Persian Gulf and to the world’s busiest oil traffic.
At the Sri Lankan port of Hambantoa, the Chinese are said to be building a station for their ships that travel to and from the Gulf of Hormuz, through the Strait of Malacca to the eastern seaboard of China, where much of China’s wealth is concentrated.
Kaplan believes that China is seeking to expand its influence vertically, reaching southward to the Indian Ocean. India, on the other hand, seeks to expand its influence horizontally, reaching eastward to the borders of British India, parallel to the Indian Ocean. To many, China will do all it can to overcome its energy vulnerability. Currently China faces a “Malacca dilemma,” a heavy dependence on the narrow Strait of Malacca between Malaysia and Indonesia for its oil imports.
Energy is indeed a big concern, as the two giants need to fuel their hectic growth in the next decades. By 2030 half of the world’s energy needs will come from China and India. Add this: the Indian Ocean has the world’s principal oil lanes, as well as the main navigational choke points—the Strait of Hormuz and Malacca.
US and India
The United States wants India to play a “more assertive” role in global affairs. Both are democracies and both are ambivalent about a rising China. “We are betting on India’s future…that the opening of India’s markets to the world will produce a more prosperous India and South Asia,” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said during her visit to India in July. “We are betting that India’s vibrant pluralistic society will inspire others to follow a similar path of tolerance. We are making this bet not out of blind faith but because we have watched your progress with great admiration.”
Both the US and India have high stakes in dealing with international terrorism and stabilising Afghanistan and Pakistan, though their approach is different. India wants the US to take a more aggressive position in dealing with terrorism in Pakistan; Pakistan on the other hand warns that attempts to ‘teach it a lesson’ could even lead to nuclear confrontation. Pakistan has “external issues” with India, which is growing into a world power. While working closely with the US, India still seeks “strategic autonomy” in achieving its foreign-policy goals—something that often puts New Delhi at odds with Washington, as it happend recently when India refused to support the US position on Syria in the Security Council.
China and US
Despite their strategic competition, the US and China will more likely be pushed to work together given their inter-dependence through trade and investments. In a New York Times article (“China’s Rise Isn’t our Demise,” September 7), US Vice President Joe Biden argues that “a successful China will make our country more prosperous, not less.”
He rejects fears that the US policy in the Asia-Pacific is to contain China, though he adds: “We are clear-eyed about concerns like China’s growing military abilities and intentions; that is why we are engaging with the Chinese military to understand and shape their thinking.” This means the United States and its allies will continue to keep a strong presence in the region and to assert their dominance.
The discourse on the emerging power shift is still conveniently labeled as anti-American or pro-American—or anti-Chinese or pro-Chinese, depending on where you’re looking from. A more helpful approach is to accept the fact that China is now an established power in the global theatre and take the discourse from there onwards.
- To counter China, India needs to do naval diplomacy (Headlines India ) (thuytinhvo.wordpress.com)
- Asia’s Great Naval Rivalry (Wall Street Journal) (thuytinhvo.wordpress.com)
- ANALYSIS-India, China navies square off in nearby seas and beyond (Reuters) (thuytinhvo.wordpress.com)