India-China Geopolitical Contest
The term ‘strategic stability’ is many a time used totally out of context due to which its misplaced use creates confusion and further misperceptions. For instance, a US Department of Defense 2010 report titled as ‘Nuclear Posture Review Report (2010)’used terms like ‘stable’, ‘stability’ and ‘instability’ more than 70 times. But a cautious study of the Report testifies that in large part the term has been used unsuitably. What is this concept and how it needs to be employed in the discourse is being mentioned in the following paragraphs.
Edward Warner, once the US Secretary of Defense who also represented the country in the New START talks, posited that the concept “strategic stability” can be employed in three ways:
- Most narrowly, strategic stability describes the absence of incentives to use nuclear weapons first (crisis stability) and to build up a nuclear force (arms race stability);
- More broadly, it is the absence of armed conflict between nuclear-armed states; and
- Most broadly, it depicts a regional or global security environment wherein states enjoy peaceful and harmonious relations.
Keeping these three aspects in view in the context of China-India competition in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR), a pertinent question arises: are there any chances or incentives of conflict in the IOR for any of the two nations? The answer must be in negative as the stakes are so high that these nuclear-armed countries cannot afford any adventure. Can the IOR be a battlefield for the next India-China war? Dr Walter C. Ladwig III, a senior maritime analyst and expert on War Studies responded in detail to one of my questions. I asked, “If there were to be a collision between India and China in the future, is the Indian Ocean the most likely location? Dr Ladwig responded,
“I’m not saying that this outcome is likely, but rather that it’s hard to envision another region in which it would be more likely. Despite the Act East policy, India does not have significant interests east of Malacca that would impact up on China’s declared ‘core interests’ such as its territorial disputes with Japan and the future of Taiwan. The converse is not true. China has already been willing to involve itself in construction projects in the disputed territory of Jammu and Kashmir as well as increase its economic ties with the small South Asian states on India’s periphery that constitute its natural sphere of influence. Thus, the IOR would appear to be the most likely location for a clash of key interest between India and China rather than some other region of the world.”
Dr Ladwig’s prophecy is expressive of the fact that though the stakes India and China in the region are high, being the followers of Offensive-Realist paradigm, they may not be willing to scale down their militarization in the IOR to secure their regions of influence. As the region is already a nuclear flashpoint due to hostilities and wars, the competition between the major powers may further push it toward strategic instability. Fast procurements and development of strategic assets, widening trust gaps due to suspicion about the other’s actions and security dilemma leading to arms race indicate that regional stability is at higher risk.
Induction of strategic weapons, quest for nuclear triads, introduction of ballistic missile defense (BMD) systems, space programmes and other major steps such as rapid doctrinal improvisation, e.g. Cold Start and the likes, give clear indication that India is hell bent on disrupting the regional balance of power as it finds incentives in the use of force against Pakistan or China. However, as the history suggests that Indian military regularly commits blunders in development and execution of its strategy, any mistake or miscalculation in the nuclear context may prove a extreme madness as in such a case the lives of hundreds of millions of people will be at risk.
However, the massive presence of the US, Indian and Chinese militaries and even their nuclear submarines fails the idea. The IOR may never become a zone of peace or a nuclear weapon-free zone due to the divergent interests and ambitions of the great powers. Being another major stakeholder in the region and having serious security threats from India, Pakistan has made relentless efforts to declare the Indian Ocean a nuclear weapon-free zone. Pakistan is among the countries most concerned on India’s aggressive weaponization of the IOR.
Since last few decades the IOR has been dangerously militarized, especially with nuclear weapons, as the three major regional stakeholders in the IOR are declared nuclear states. This trend is exacerbating the already uncertain strategic environment of the whole region. In this regard, Admiral Dr Jayanath Colombage, an ex-chief of the Sri Lankan Navy, and an expert in the maritime security affairs, explains the current security and strategic environment of IOR and South Asia with three features:
(1) Strategic competition;
(2) Strategic alliances;
(3) Strategic dilemma.
Colombage notes that besides the intense and worrisome competition going on, there are some groupings or strategic alliances as well. These alliances are to intensify the competition rather than to mitigate that. These strategic coalitions, he believes, are a major source of strategic dilemma for the weaker and less powerful nations. As the weaker nations cannot possess these assets, they have to take sides for their security.
To fortify their strategic position and to gain an upper hand, massive militarization of the IOR at an alarming pace is the greatest threat to regional peace. Militarization, especially the deployment of nuclear submarines, has raised concerns about the future security of the IOR. As discussed above, both India and China are modernizing and deploying their militaries in the IOR. In November 2018, INS Arihant, Indian navy’s first indigenous nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine successfully completed its maiden deterrence patrol. This development had clear destabilizing impact for the region. After India completed its ‘nuclear triad’ by integrating Arihant into its arsenal, it literally disrupted the strategic balance of IOR as Prime Minister Modi openly dared those “who indulge in nuclear blackmail” in the Indian Ocean.
On one hand such steps are a part of India’s effort to counter China’s military presence in the region as Chinese warships and submarines has been giving sleepless nights in India for quite some years. Brigadier (R) Gurmeet Kanwal posits that China’s military assertiveness in the East and South Seas has sown the seeds of doubt about China’s long-term intentions and that PLA Navy’s rapid expansion and modernisation must be seen as a grave potential threat.
The damaging impact of the nuclearized IOR could be beyond any stretch of imagination. But the great powers are militarizing the IOR without foreseeing the irreversible consequences. The US already has heavy military presence in the IOR while China and India are following the suit. In the changing geopolitical environment and due to shifting of nations’ focus towards sea, the future interests of smaller countries will be in real jeopardy, if they remain unable to maintain their security. Then major stakeholders of the region, i.e. the US, China and India, are not only limiting their interests to energy or economy but are also going away from these basic considerations. The US wants to maintain its control and sees China as a threat to its existing hegemony. India wants to shoulder America as US authorities want it to assume this regional responsibility. China aspires to secure its Lines of Communication in Indo-Pacific to keep its economic growth intact by meeting its rapidly increasing energy needs. In their respective quests, they are all militarizing the IOR. But they must observe restraint as their scramble for interests and the resultant militarization and nuclearization in this hostile and conflict-ridden region may have horrific repercussions.
Here rises another important question: How possibly this dilemma might be confronted?
On 16 December 1971, complying on the initiative taken by Sri Lanka, as many as 61 countries voted in the UN General Assembly to declare Indian Ocean a ‘Zone of Peace’. Furthermore, again the UNGA with 95-0 majority passed a resolution on December 15, 1972, to consolidate the peace initiative taken earlier. The initiative was further reinforced by formation of a committee to assess its impact and also to make the declaration practical. The objective behind was to avoid confrontation in the Indian Ocean and to promote regional integration for economic interdependence. Another aim was to keep the regional countries united so as to stop any militarization and adventurism from any extra-regional country.
To conclude, though Indian Ocean as a Zone of Peace was indeed a great concept of that time, keeping in view the prevailing realistic outlooks in the global politics and the current geopolitical dynamics of the region, this concept seems highly impractical. But still it is very crucial to consider peace at the highest level of priorities not only because the Indian Ocean is the lifeline for world’s most populous countries, but also because the two regional arch-rivals possess strategic weapons. China’s economic and connectivity initiatives are open for all to witness and they must not be politicized for the sake of some relative gains. The regional players must amass the massive anticipated benefits offered by the China’s economic vision. So, the foremost priority of the great powers should be to maintain strategic stability of the region as any adventurous strategic gambling in the IOR will not, at all, be affordable for any of the stakeholders in the region and beyond.
The writer is an analyst, and teaches International Relations in University of Okara. firstname.lastname@example.org