Rebalancing With India :: The Race For Influence In The Asia-Pacific

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On 18 May, a formidable armada of the Indian Navy’s Eastern Fleet steamed out of its base at Visakhapatnam for a two-and-a-half month deployment to the South China Sea and its littoral. As noted in a government press release, this was “a demonstration of [the navy’s] operational reach and commitment to India’s ‘Act East’ policy.”

The South China Sea has emerged as a flashpoint in the Asia-Pacific, with China’s claims of sovereignty over almost the entire South China and East China seas sparking disputes with its neighbours such as Japan, the Philippines, Vietnam, Taiwan, Malaysia and Brunei.

In addition to showing the national flag in this “region of vital strategic importance to India”, says the release, the Eastern Fleet squadron will participate in the trilateral maritime exercise of Malabar-16 with the US Navy and JMSDF (Japan Maritime Self-Defence Force) during its deployment.

This detail is particularly relevant given that the US is keen to enlist India in its mission to balance the rise of China in the Indo-Pacific region.

Beijing’s military posturing challenges the United States, which has been a Pacific power for more than two centuries. China is intent on asserting its role in the region — the energy-hungry export-driven economy, which is heavily reliant on raw material and fuel imports, seeks to buttress its suzerainty over the regional Sea Lines of Communication (SLOC) that are critical to the survival of the entire Asia-Pacific community. In a series of combative moves, it has been creating islands and militarizing them to further its access to marine resources, and extending its blue-water presence through the establishment of a major surface fleet and nuclear-submarine base on Hainan Island in the South China Sea and through deploying precision cruise and advanced ballistic missiles that can target all current US bases and naval forces in the region.

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However, in a move that Beijing views as an American attempt to curb Chinese influence across the region and embolden countries to brazen out China on maritime disputes, Washington is pursuing its policy of “pivot”. Also termed “rebalance”, the strategy enunciates relocating 60% of the US’s naval assets — up from 50% today — to the Asia-Pacific region by 2020.

It is within this plan that the US is keen on leveraging its strategic partnership with India — a growing Asian economic, military and geo-political power — in balancing the rise of China in the larger Indo-Pacific domain. The first American President to have visited India twice during his tenure, Barack Obama has been committed to forging deeper cooperation with India, which he calls a “21st-century centre of influence”. He believes that with India assuming its rightful place in the world, the two countries have a historic opportunity to make their relationship “a defining partnership” in years to come.

Deepening Indo-US ties further will be Narendra Modi’s visit to Washington, at Obama’s invitation, on 7 and 8 June, his fourth in two years (the PM has not visited any other country so often). He has underscored the strategic significance of bilateral defence ties and also highlighted the growing strategic convergence between the US “rebalance” and India’s “Act East” policy, which seeks to intensify New Delhi’s role in an Asia that is at the epicentre of the historic transformation of the world today.

The return of Asia-Pacific to the centre of world affairs has been the great power shift of the 21st century. This century will doubtlessly be shaped by events transpiring in this vital region that embraces the Pacific, the largest and deepest ocean basin covering over 155 million sq km and straddling 30.5% of the Earth’s surface. Half the world’s yearly maritime trade, worth $5 trillion, traverses this economically integrated region that spans some of the busiest international sea lines and nine of the 10 largest ports. Its 4.2 billion inhabitants speak more than 3000 different languages and constitute 61% of the global population.

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Beijing is also keen on furthering its interests in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) under the framework of its Maritime Silk Route that entails the development of a string of ports, essentially encircling India, such as Kyaukphyu in Myanmar, the Hambantota and Colombo Port City projects in Sri Lanka, and Gwadar in Pakistan, apart from a military logistics base in Djibouti to apparently service its warships engaged in counter-piracy operations near the Gulf of Aden.

India’s vast 7615km coastline abuts the Arabian Sea, the Bay of Bengal and the Indian Ocean; one of its island enclaves, Andaman & Nicobar, is closer to Myanmar and Thailand than to the Indian mainland. With 66% of global oil, 50% of global container traffic and 33% of global cargo trade passing through the IOR, which stretches from the Persian Gulf to the west to the Malacca Straits in the east, the Indian Navy is tasked with securing sea lines for global maritime movement.

New Delhi is mindful of Washington’s keenness to marshal India as the power that can check Beijing’s maritime assertion and tilt the strategic balance. Ultimately, all three countries – China, the US and India — will define the strategic nature of maritime influence in the Asia Pacific.

By: Huffington Post