The United States-driven Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QSD) in the Indian Ocean seems to have finally taken off with a slew of activities aimed at containing an increasingly aggressive China. India, which is a key partner in the Quad grouping (the others being US, Japan and Australia), has in the last couple of months initiated dialogue with Sri Lanka and Seychelles besides engaging with the Maldives.
Toward the end of 2020, India invited Australia for the Malabar exercises and the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QSD) soon achieved some seriousness with ministerial meetings taking place. Clearly, the Indian Ocean has achieved criticality with Britain recently saying it would send a Carrier Strike Group led by HMS Queen Elizabeth into the region in 2021.
Germany too has agreed to send a frigate next year to patrol the area. The US is now considering having a new numbered fleet probably the 1st Fleet in the area between the Indian and Pacific Oceans, possibly in Singapore.
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Pentagon officials feel that the Seventh fleet is too far away in Guam to make a difference in the Indian Ocean. Not to be left behind, Russia will soon have a base in Sudan for a period of 25 years, giving it a small but significant toehold on the Red Sea, with at least four ships based there.
Besides bases, the countries in the Indian Ocean region are also seeking ‘mutual logistic supply agreements’ and ‘information and intelligence sharing arrangements’ as a force multiplier to limit China.
India has signed logistic supply agreements with all Quad nations as also with France and Singapore. India’s signing of various agreements with the US will give her access to the latter’s facilities in the area and geo-spatial intelligence among other inputs. The agreement with France will give India the use of the former’s islands of Mayotte, Comoros and Reunion in the Indian Ocean as also Djibouti.
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Recently, the National Security Adviser (NSA) Ajit Doval was in Colombo to attend the 4th Trilateral Maritime Security Conference involving Sri Lanka and Maldives in a bid to keep the island nations close to India.
Simultaneously, External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar was in Seychelles in a reported attempt to rope it in into the larger strategy including talks on the much-delayed strategic project on Assumption Island.
Mauritius too could be included in the maritime conference with a strategic project there on the Agalega Island, held up for various reasons, which could also achieve traction in the months ahead.
India’s Chief of Defence Staff General Bipin Rawat speaking recently at the ‘Global Dialogue Security Forum’ had stated that the world is witnessing a race to establish strategic bases in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) and that about 120 ships of extra- regional forces are deployed in the maritime space.
The Indian Ocean is of considerable strategic importance since it is the focal point of the Sea Lines of Communication (SLOCs) which pass through the choke points in the region and thus connect the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.
These are the economic arteries of the world which keep the world trade and commerce moving. At least 80 per cent of the traffic in the IOR is extra-regional in nature.
Strategic cargo such as oil and natural gas is also largely sourced from the Arabian Gulf and the Red Sea in the area. The IOR is home to various asymmetric threats including maritime terrorism and piracy, to which we can now add China as a threat to good order at sea.
An influx of extra regional ships into the Indian Ocean has been in the making for at least the last two decades. The first influx of ships started with ‘Operation Enduring Freedom’, which was the attack on Afghanistan in 2001 in the aftermath of 9/11.
Then came warships for ‘Operation Iraqi Freedom’ in 2003 as also during the civil war in Syria in 2011. With the advent of piracy off Somalia in 2008, ships of the Combined Maritime Forces, the European Union Naval Forces and NATO countries converged off Somalia to carry out anti –piracy patrols.
Other countries such as India, China, South Korea, Japan and Russia preferred to operate independently and not as part of any coalition. China’s contribution was a three ship anti-piracy task force, which it continues to deploy in rotation, with the 36th task force in station today.
The anti–piracy task force was followed by forays of China’s conventional and nuclear submarines as also oceanographic research ships into India’s neighbourhood starting 2014.
Meanwhile, China continued to reclaim and militarise the disputed islands of the South China Sea (SCS). Earlier it had started infrastructure projects in Pakistan (Gwadar), Sri Lanka (Hambantota), Myanmar (kyaukphu) and Maldives in what has come to be called as the ‘String of Pearls’ strategy.
China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which began in 2013 was a strategic move in an economic garb, which has driven some countries to near-bankruptcy and virtual Chinese control.
China acquired its first overseas base at Djibouti in 2017 which along with amphibious ships and a growing marine corps signals an expeditionary intent.
The world, however, did not do much to curb China’s military ambitions, possibly in deference to its economic and strategic muscle.
However, China’s hostile intentions and behaviour manifested itself in 2020 with her dubious handling of the Wuhan virus and the aggressive military standoff with India along the latter’s northern land borders.
China’s territorial disputes with its ASEAN neighbours, the handling of the Hong Kong protests, the brutality against its Uighur Muslim population and the Taiwan re-unification issue finally appear to have convinced the world that nations needed to band together in a multi –lateral construct if they are to tackle China.
It was Alfred Thayar Mahan, one of the leading maritime exponents who had said “whoever controls the Indian Ocean, dominates Asia…In the 21st century, the destiny of the world will be decided on its waters”. He could not have been more prophetic.
India’s destiny has always been linked to the seas around her and she will have to work together with other nations that subscribe to the idea of a ‘free and open Indo-Pacific’ in an attempt to keep the Dragon away from her doorsteps.
(The author, Cmde Udai Rao(Retd), is a former Principal Director Naval Intelligence and has been a Director in the Cabinet Secretariat)