Strategic Restraint in the Indian Ocean


Particularly dangerous is the growing US security relationship with India, and that of China with Pakistan. An US-Indian naval challenge to China in the South China Sea would mark a radically new departure in Indian naval strategy.  India is in a position to blockade Chinese maritime trade across the Indian Ocean. China and India both have very good reasons to continue to observe restraint in their relationship with each other.

In the immediate wake of Donald Trump’s election victory, it seemed for a while that the USA and China might be headed towards actual war – hot, not cold. That is what really would have happened if Trump had stuck to his statement during the election campaign about revisiting America’s “One China” policy with regard to Taiwan. Beijing has made it clear again and again that Taiwanese independence would indeed mean war. But as happened before when the Bush administration came to power in 2001 on a very anti-Chinese platform, the US foreign policy establishment has educated the President and his team on just how real the threat of war is, and just how devastating even a limited military clash between the USA and China would be to the world in general and the US economy in particular. Trump has backed off his threat, both sides have been making conciliatory noises, and the danger of crisis has receded again.

Given elementary sanity on both sides, avoiding conflict over Taiwan is easy because the ground rules and “red lines” of both sides are clearly understood. In this sense the Taiwan dispute resembles the US-Soviet stand-off in Europe from the early 1950s on, after Stalin abandoned support for the Greek communists and Eisenhower overruled the idea of “rolling back” Soviet control over eastern Europe. From then until the Gorbachev administration of the 1980s, neither side seriously contemplated taking action likely to lead to war with the other.

Far more dangerous is a situation where the dispute is new (or relatively so), fluid, and the rules and red lines not clear. In the case of the US-China relationship, this applies above all to two interlinked issues: the disputed islands of the South China Sea, and the search of both the USA and China for regional allies. 

The islands issue is so potentially volatile not only because the territorial claims concerned are both relatively new and extremely sweeping in their ambition (on the part of the Vietnamese as well as the Chinese), because all sides (not only the Chinese) are establishing “facts on the ground” by occupying islands, because the claims of the Chinese and Vietnamese in particular are absolutely incompatible; and because the Chinese claim to exercise sovereignty not only over the islands themselves but the surrounding seas threatens the mobility of the US Navy, on which a large part of US global and regional hegemony rests.

If the USA implements an off-the-cuff threat by the new Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, to cut off Chinese access to their new bases on the islands, then there will undoubtedly be clashes. However, although the US aircraft carrier the USS Carl Vinson and its battle group have just begun a patrol in the South China Sea, this appears to be in order to emphasise US commitment to freedom of navigation. There is no suggestion that the force will take any action against Chinese forces in the region unless the Chinese attempt to stop the US battle group. This will happen if the US ships sail too close to the islands in question, but if they keep a reasonable distance the Chinese will let them pass.  

Given luck, caution and skill therefore, there seems a good chance that superpower conflict over the South China Sea can also be avoided. China will go on building up its island bases without US interference, and the US will go on asserting freedom of navigation without Chinese interference. Over time, de facto rules will emerge which both sides will understand and respect.

The problem with this optimistic scenario is that it also requires restraint on the part of US allies, and US and Chinese restraint in their choice of allies. This was not an issue in Europe during the Cold War, where the USSR exerted iron control over its allies, and the USA had no need to do so, given that no west European state was likely to provoke conflict with Moscow. It was quite otherwise elsewhere in the world, where US and Soviet allies repeatedly dragged their superpower patrons into unnecessary conflicts, either through their local ambitions or their internal problems. As the USA seeks allies to contain China, and China seeks allies to outflank the USA, the risks of this happening again are very real.

Particularly dangerous in this regard is the growing US security relationship with India, and that of China with Pakistan; for India and Pakistan have their own conflict with each other dating all the way back to their independence from Britain; a conflict which is both contained and made much more dangerous by their possession of nuclear weapons, and which is made much more volatile by the existence of third parties in the form of Islamist terrorist groups with their own agendas of targeting India and “liberating” Kashmir.

An extremely dangerous development from this point of view was the US Navy’s invitation to India in March of last year (without it is suggested full consultation with the US State Department) to take part in joint naval patrols with the USA in the South China Sea. It is difficult to say which interpretation of this US action is more worrying: that the US officials involved did not understand just how provocative this would be to China; that they understood this and did not care; or that they were actively trying to provoke a clash in South Asia between China and India.

For not only would an US-Indian naval challenge to China in the South China Sea mark a radically new departure in Indian naval strategy, but it would be a challenge from a country that the Chinese regard as inferior to China in every way. In other words, behaviour that the Chinese feel they have no choice but to tolerate on the part of the USA will never be tolerated if it comes from India. Chinese officials have told me that such a move by India would have been viewed in Beijing as a gross provocation to which China would have been bound to respond.

Most fortunately and wisely the Indian government said no to the US invitation – despite some strong Indian statements concerning freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, and increased military contacts with the USA, Japan and Vietnam. Three factors were responsible for this Indian refusal. The first, official one was that as a matter of long-established and settled policy, India does not take part in bilateral military actions with other countries. It engages in multilateral international actions, or acts alone. This reflects the same Indian self-understanding which led India to reject an alliance with the USA during the Cold War. Like all superpowers throughout history, the USA is incapable of understanding any alliance as an alliance between equals; every such relationship is instinctively seen in Washington as one in which the USA gives the orders. But even when it was much poorer and weaker than at present, India – like Russia - has always seen itself as a great power; and great powers do not accept such subordinate relationships.

Thus India has always set its own terms for its relationship with the USA, and has refused to go along whenever Washington’s demands (concerning relations with Iran, or support for US military interventions without UN sanction) have been seen by Delhi to contradict Indian principles or interests.

The second reason for Indian caution appears to have been an acute awareness in the Indian security establishment of how badly China could hurt India in response to such an Indian move, and how little by contrast India would gain from it. For China to send just one company of troops across the disputed frontier in the eastern Himalayas would cause a massive crisis in relations from which the Indian economy would suffer much worse than the Chinese. To send a regiment would mean war – a war which the Chinese won crushingly in 1962, in an area where today they hold most of the strategic cards on the ground. The other likely Chinese response would have been in the form of increased Chinese military assistance to Pakistan. If really infuriated, China could ask for (and would almost certainly receive) a major airbase in Pakistan, something that would upend at a stroke the entire strategic balance in South Asia.

So far China has shown no desire to do this – which is precisely the third reason for Indian restraint when it comes to a closer relationship with the USA. Despite some hysterical commentary in the Indian and US media, China has not significantly militarised its presence in the Indian Ocean region. China’s programme of port construction, the famous “string of pearls”, does not have a military dimension at present. Nor does the Chinese-Pakistan economic corridor. The Pakistani port of Gwadar (which I visited this month and where the corridor is meant to terminate) does not have a Chinese military presence – and only a minimal Pakistani one if it comes to that. At Djibouti, the Chinese have established a refuelling station for anti-piracy operations, alongside those of Western countries – not a base.

Of course, all of this could change radically in future; but to judge by developments so far, my sense is that the Chinese will not adopt a much more aggressive military stance in the Indian Ocean unless they have first experienced what they feel is gross provocation from the Indian side – which India has so far avoided. And China has good reasons for such restraint. Quite apart from mutual interest in an improved economic relationship between China and India, which would be destroyed by a war, Chinese naval forces in the Indian Ocean would be isolated far from their home bases in China, and hopelessly outnumbered by US and Indian forces (rather like Soviet naval forces in the Mediterranean during the Cold War). Simply by existing with minimal forces, India is in a position to blockade Chinese maritime trade across the Indian Ocean. Given the distances involved, the Chinese economic corridor through Pakistan can only be a very partial substitute for the maritime route from the Gulf.

Finally, under all the talk of the Chinese-Pakistani relationship being an “all-weather friendship” and “sweeter than honey”, and despite a promise of $51 billion in infrastructure investment, Beijing has in fact been markedly cautious when it comes to forming a closer military alliance with Pakistan. Beijing needs Pakistan as a useful balancer against India, but it has its own good reasons to be hostile to Islamist extremist groups based in Pakistan, and is deeply unwilling that any action against India by these groups (with or without the backing of the Pakistani intelligence services) should draw first Pakistan and then China into a conflict with India on Pakistan’s terms and in Pakistan’s interests not those of China. Beijing therefore seems more aware than Washington of the danger that alliances will lead to involvement in their conflicts.

China and India therefore both have very good reasons to continue to observe restraint in their relationship with each other, and we must all hope that they continue to do so. It appears that the ground rules and red lines of the relationship are at present quite well understood by both sides. We must also hope that these rules are understood in Washington, and that the invitation to India last March was an isolated episode of US naval exuberance, and not a harbinger of things to come. 

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.

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