Small powers of South Asia in strategic competition
To draw the perspective of small powers, it needs to understand the meaning of �great power competition� unambiguously � is it economic rivalry/cooperation or decoupling? Even the US officials are careful to coin the term as �rivalry�. The conundrum has led interlocutors to express opinions which have generated lots of discussion among the littorals of the Bay of Bengal. Mostly, Indian media were embellished in lamenting her neighbours for inclining towards China that has lost contact with empirical reality.
Let us try to understand from the gamut of US-China recent activities. The US Army and the Chinese People�s Liberation Army (PLA) have just completed in the third week of November 2020 the 16th �Disaster Management Exchange Program�, an annual bilateral training exercise that started in 2005. Whereas, in October, Chinese President Xi Jinping has called on troops to "put all their minds and energy on preparing for war", although, without mentioning any country. We may speculate what that war means.
Also, on 20 December 2020, one Chinese admiral warned the US of killing 10,000 soldiers by sinking two US aircraft carriers in the South China Sea (SCS). It shows that despite Chinese rhetoric, the US military is fully engaged with PLA, and, of course, not to mention about Sino-US economic engagement. So, the Indian Ocean littorals need to understand the connotation of �competition�, especially when both countries are continuing their military and economic engagement.
Jointly organised by Daniel K Inouye Asia-Pacific Centre for Security Studies (DKI APCSS) and Near East South Asia Centre for Strategic Studies (NESA) concluded a three-days (8-10 Dec 20) webinar-based workshop on �Strategic Competition in the Indian Ocean Region�, where the writer also participated as one of the panellists. At the end of the webinar, it was evident that the US�s present policy with China was to engage in a calculated and well-planned way both in economic and military rather than decoupling. What we observed so far, and also according to many thinkers, the US strategy with China looks like both engagement and cooperation along with creating deterrence and containment policy, to some degree. We also need to understand how China is going to compete with the USA in the Indian Ocean, given the fact that �China is no match with the US�, said former US Defence Secretary, Mark Esper in a speech at RAND. Also, former advisor of Obama Administration, Mich�le Flournoy said, the US military should have the capability to sink all of China�s military vessels, submarines, and merchant ships in the South China Sea within 72 hours; it merits some credibility if not fully wrong. For example, the much-discussed Chinese aircraft carriers � the combined capacity of two Shandong and Liaoning is even half the capacity of one US aircraft carrier out of eleven operating. Chinese third aircraft carrier would look like to take another 3-5 years to operate at sea. It appears a bit hyperbole by the naval strategists on the capability of PLA Navy.
Chinese are great fond of Sun Tsu: he said, �if enemy quite unequal in every way, we can flee from him�. Having said that, why China would put herself in jeopardy by bringing her naval forces all the way from her home port to the Indian Ocean unless they had a well-defended base and logistic facility in the Indian Ocean. �Malacca dilemma� will push China to use either Sunda Strait with minimum depth at 20m making risky navigation, or else Lombok Strait of Indonesia. Otherwise, they will have to travel down to Australia to come to the Indian Ocean, which is also a difficult journey, not a viable option for a sustained naval operation. Moreover, melting of polar ice would facilitate China to use better and secure �Arctic Route� in the foreseeable future instead of the Indian Ocean Sea Route.
So why the US is imparting so much importance on the �great power competition in the Indian Ocean� given the fact that the Indian Ocean remains the lifeline of China�s economy. China�s assertive behaviour in SCS is a lesson for the Indian Ocean littorals. What is believed that China will not replicate the same strategy in the Indian Ocean using her naval power. Instead, China will try to achieve her greater interest without fighting, as Sun Tsu said �winning without fighting� as the �acme of generalship.� So China would likely to achieve her strategy in this region in a different way as follows:
1. Maintain regional competition with India; China is at the upper edge and already upended her position. India�s economic weakness will be capitalising through investment.
2. China�s megaproject under Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) will ensure her security and interest by the countries engaged with BRI.
3. China will keep fuelling the regional issues, such as, Kashmir issues, India-China border issue, Rohingya refugee issue, ethnic clash in Myanmar, malign influence through BRI, etc.
In fact, China has already laid her strategy in this region to secure her economic interest, and her strategy has been going well better than what they thought before. The map shows various strategic options of economic connectivity facilitate China to connect the Indian Ocean. It is a win-win situation for both China and littorals. Littorals also see this as an economic opportunity. However, littorals also careful and suspicious of China�s investment which is replicated by Mark Esper in the same lecture, said, �China is exerting malign influence in this region through its BRI�.
Despite China's denial to militarise SCS, China�s aggressive posture and no respect towards 'the rule of laws' in SCS are some glaring lessons for the littorals of the Indian Ocean. Anyone acting against the will of China�s interest, China started lambasting with economic retaliation. Being a developed country, Australia may be able to sustain Chinese economic retaliation, but for the small powers of South Asia, it would be difficult to sustain such punishment, if China wills. Other than bleating like the Philippine President Duterte, there would be significantly fewer options on the table for the weaker but to endure.
We should also recognise the impediments of not having consensus views in the region. Despite China's aggressive attitude in SCS, ASEAN could not come in consensus against China due to fear of economic retaliation; despite warning, Israel did not agree with Trump Administration not to lease out Haifa Port to China; both China and India are on the same footing on the issue of Rohingya people pushed to Bangladesh by Myanmar; India voted UNGA in favour of UK�s withdrawal of its �colonial administration� from the Chagos Archipelago; these are the few examples are made to make it understand how nexus the scenario in bringing consensus opinion in the region, even among the allies.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in 2008 disagreed with �Quad� concept citing the Sino-India relation was the priority. And then onward, India desperately started economic engagement with China, and it crossed USD 92 Bn last year. From 2013 to 2018, China was India's largest trading partner. Despite India�s economic rise with China, Indian media are complaining to US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, visited India last week of October'20, that China�s influence is growing around India�s neighbours. BJP�s President Amit Shah�s derogatory comment on Bangladeshi people as 'termite' and throw them into the Bay of Bengal will surely hurt the sentiment of the people of Bangladesh.
It is admitted that South Asia is the least integrated region. India is pivotal and a linchpin, in bringing unity amongst South Asian countries but her intransigence relationships with neighbouring countries need careful attention for South Asian unity. Multilateral platforms like SAARC and BIMSTEC are now almost moribund.
India has no severe bilateral issues with her neighbouring countries other than Pakistan and China with whom relation has come to a nadir. India, if willing, may bring greater regional unity at least among these like-minded countries, accepting the fact that �great power competition� in Indian Ocean region is not economic decoupling rather strategic engagement.
Commodore Kazi Emdadul Haq, BSP, ndu, psc, BN (Retd) is a Director General, Bangladesh Institute of Maritime Research and Development (BIMRAD)