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Mainstream, VOL LIX No 43, New Delhi, October 9, 2021

New Great Game in the Indo-Pacific | Manoj Kumar Mishra

Friday 8 October 2021

by Manoj Kumar Mishra *

A new great game like scenario with multiple players being coerced or cajoled to join either US or China with enhanced militarization of Indo-Pacific seems to be in the offing. As Washington steps up its efforts in the region with building more confidence among allies and swinging the neutral states to its side, China would seek to challenge the changing regional order. There are many nuclear powers which are party to the game with North Korea recently claiming successful test of a hypersonic missile which could be fitted with a nuclear warhead. In this context, the idea of turning Indo-Pacific into a ‘Zone of Peace’ has assumed more relevance.

The Indo-Pacific region encompasses large oceanic and territorial areas between the Pacific and Indian Oceans, bordered by Japan, India and Australia. The global strategic and economic centre of gravity is swiftly shifting towards this region. It is rich in natural resources; especially hydrocarbons which fuel the industrial engines of the world’s economies and encourage competition not only between the established powers but push the emerging powers to scramble for scarce resources as well. Apart from this, this region is also emerging as a centre of international trade and investments by throwing up a large market of nearly half of the world’s population. There are in fact many reports which predict that by 2050, half of the world’s top 20 economies will be from the Indo-Pacific and countries like India, China, Indonesia and Japan will be among the top five economies in the world. Needless to say that economic growth of these states will also fuel their energy demand and hence stiff competition among them. The geopolitical significance of the region has also grown as a result of the major powers’ extensive reliance on sea routes for the transportation of energy resources and commercial goods.

The South China Sea is a crucial sea lane for energy security involving a transaction of almost 1⁄3 of global crude oil and over 1⁄2 of global LNG. Additionally, the South China Sea in itself resource rich by some estimates; it has 2.5 billion barrels of oil and 25 trillion cubic feet of gas underneath. Therefore, freedom of navigation and maritime security assumes significance in view of the presence of many of the world’s vital choke points including the Straits of Malacca of the South China Sea in the Indo-Pacific region for global commerce, ninety per cent of which is sea borne. It is quite palpable that there is a hiatus between Indian and Chinese perspectives on and roles in the Indian Ocean region. While China depends on South China Sea for 80% of crude oil imports and assert its sovereignty in the energy rich region to feed its energy requirements of its fast growing economic economy, over the years,India’s trade and economic linkages in the Pacific are becoming stronger and deeper. ASEAN and the far-eastern Pacific countries are considered a vital facilitator of India’s economic development and energy security and purpose of its “Act East” policy. India is figuring prominently in the trade profile of countries in the region. For instance, Australia, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Singapore, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, the US, and China, are among the top 15 of India’s trade partners whereas Japan and Singapore are leading investors in India after Mauritius.

Major powers like the US, Japan and Australia are not only the traditional players in the region, they are in fact accentuating their role in the geo-strategically vital area and preferred the term “Indo-Pacific’’ to ‘’Asia-Pacific” underlying the importance of India and the Indian Ocean in their geo-strategic calculations. Russia, France and Britain are also key players in the region with their nuclear capabilities. However, concerns are rising with the potential rise of new nuclear powers along with the existing nuclear powers in the region as evidenced from the latest missiles tests conducted by North and South Korea and this fact has turned the Indo-Pacific region into one of the most volatile regions of the world. 

China as US’s Primary Geopolitical Challenge 

The Indo-Pacific region specifically South China Sea has not only emerged as one of the world’s busiest commercial waterways but has become one of the most controversial geopolitical hotspots, pitting Chinese territorial claims against the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue’s emphasis on a rules-based order.

China has replaced terrorism as America’s foremost security concern as well as the primary challenge to its global supremacy. From 9/11 to the American Afghan withdrawal, the country has developed sophisticated intelligence and surveillance mechanisms which substantially reduced the likelihood of terror attacks within its territory. The Al Qaeda bases in Afghanistan have been liquidated and the Taliban are not considered a direct threat to the US so far as their modus operandi is concerned. Washington’s troop withdrawal from Afghanistan implies that the danger from many insurgent groups that targeted its presence in/occupation of the war-torn country would be miniscule.

On the other side, China has turned into a formidable geopolitical challenge to American global supremacy with its ground-based ballistic missiles, aircraft, and ships in the Indo-Pacific region that could damage US air bases and aircraft carriers. Further, its mega interconnectivity project, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), penetrated deeper into the economies of many countries abutting the region in the shape of loans, goods and workforce. The country continued to enhance its strategic influence over small Pacific countries through easy loans and foreign aid which was variously described by leaders and officials in Washington such as ‘payday loan diplomacy’, ‘using of predatory economics’ and ‘debt for sovereignty deals’.

Emboldened by the American inability to forge a well-knit alliance structure in the region to contain Chinese influence during the Trump era, Beijing strengthened its presence in the South China Sea to an extent that could threaten the energy security of US allies and partners through building artificial islands and positioning paramilitary forces. Chinese coercion against Vietnamese oil and gas activities within Hanoi’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) bears testimony to this fact. [1] China has enhanced its anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) capabilities by developing attack aircraft, submarines, mines, missiles, and air and missile defense systems which comprise its operational level strategy. These are designed to prevent an adversary’s access to a territorial region (anti-access) and deny their freedom of movement on the battlefield (area denial).

China not only secured a formal overseas military base in Djibouti near a US military facility to support maritime operations off the Horn of Africa, it conducted live-fire exercises on the base. Beijing’s intention to establish a military base in Vanuatu — a small island nation near Australia’s northeast coast — caused security concerns in Canberra — an American ally and member of the Quad.

The country strengthened its presence in the Indian Ocean by securing Hambantota Port in Sri Lanka and constructing major port facilities at Gwadar in Pakistan causing direct security concerns for India — an American partner in the region. It was also engaged in the Kyaukpyu deepwater terminal project in Myanmar. A report released by the Sydney-based United States Studies Centre asserts that China has strengthened its position in the Indo-Pacific through massive investment in conventionally armed ballistic and cruise missiles, which analysts consider the centerpiece of China’s “counter-intervention” efforts. [2] China has almost 100 vessels capable of deploying well into the Indian Ocean and its call for “open seas protection” includes development of surface combatants and support vessels, nuclear-powered attack submarines, and aircraft carriers. China is reportedly undertaking efforts at turning single-warhead missile launchers into multi-warhead ones, and to integrate land, sea and air-launched missile systems. Some of China’s strategic experts argue that Beijing has enhanced its maritime capabilities vis-à-vis the US by developing many kinds of conventional warhead missiles, from short-range to long-range, which all can be turned into very powerful nuclear weapons and they aver China’s new “hypersonic glide vehicle,” known as the DF-17, could also be equipped with nuclear warheads.

China, in order to maintain its great-power status and defend national security vis-à-vis the US and its allies and partners, is preparing itself to ensure reliable nuclear deterrence through further development of weapons and delivery systems considering the fact that the US is developing new-generation nuclear weapons, including various missiles, the B-21 Raider long-range stealth strategic bomber to deliver conventional or thermonuclear weapons, and a more advance nuclear submarine. Some cold calculations put the military balance in the region in the prevailing scenario in the following manner: While China still cannot defeat the US in a long war, it could use the “advantages of surprise and geography to quickly grab key territory — Taiwan or the Senkaku Islands — and then force Washington to decide whether to pay the high, perhaps prohibitive, price of liberation.” While China test-fired its DF-26 “Guam killer” missiles in August 2020 enabling Peoples Liberation Army (PLA) to target and destroy enemy’s moving aircraft carriers, the PLA is developing its fourth aircraft carrier which is alleged to be nuclear-powered.

Biden Administration’s Indo-Pacific Thrust

The Biden administration by concluding troop withdrawal from Afghanistan has enabled Washington to become capable of diverting more resources towards the Indo-Pacific theatre while imposing an unstable border on Beijing to remain embroiled in the Afghan trap. The administration ended Beijing’s free ride on its military presence and striving towards fostering geopolitical interests in Afghanistan. Afghan withdrawal and the resultant turmoil could have its immediate impact on a neighboring country confronting insurgency in one of its province such as China rather than the US which is miles away from the war-torn country. It is worth-mentioning that operatives of the Eastern Turkistan Islamic Movement, which sought to establish a Uyghur state in Xinjiang (ETIM) had continued to derive support from al Qaeda, Jamaat Ansarullah, and Jamaat al-Tawhid Wal-Jihad continue to have presence in Afghanistan. Following withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan and amid criticisms of the wavering commitment of US towards its allies, President Biden sought to form a new Indo-Pacific security alliance with Britain and Australia - Australia-UK-US (AUKUS) that would pave the way for greater sharing of defense capabilities including helping equip Australia with nuclear-powered submarines. [3] The emergence of the alliance was materialized in the backdrop of competing missile tests conducted by North and South Korea and China’s frequent intrusions into Taiwan’s Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ).

The administration believes that pure security alliances without economic influence cannot be an effective strategy as evidenced from the President’s willingness to revisit Trans-Pacific Partnership that President Trump jettisoned. The administration has sought to reaffirm the American commitment to its Indo-Pacific allies. For instance, the administration made a swift move to reach deals with Japan and South Korea on sharing the cost of hosting US troops. Secretary Antony John Blinken chose Japan as the first country for his foreign visits. Centrality of the Indo-Pacific strategy to the Biden administration has been underlined by that fact that a quad summit was held in virtual/online mode within 50 days of the administration. [4] Within a gap of a few months, the Quad held its first in-person meeting, in Washington DC on 24th September, 2021. The new great game in the Indo-Pacific has been energized with the addition of another potential nuclear threat - North Korea to contain which the US is stepping up its efforts. In order to counter China’s military technological innovation, the Biden administration has expressed its desire to invest in the development of AI-powered autonomous weapons systems.

India has joined the fray

In the Quad’s first in-person meeting, there was no direct reference to the Chinese role in the Indo-Pacific region from Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi just like his past speeches on India’s Indo-Pacific policy which were couched in veiled reference to the Chinese threat. Even as India is the only country of the Quad grouping which shared a disputed border with China, it remained cautious and refrained from declaring that it shared the objectives of the other members of the Quad (America, Japan and Australia) and from strengthening the quadrilateral format of US-Japan-India-Australia primarily as a means to contain Chinese influence. 

India’s multi-alignment policy thrust pushed it to take a broader view of its Indo-Pacific policy that moved beyond coordinating only with other members of the quad and it invited other countries such as Russia, France and the ASEAN member-states to help maintain free and open Ocean for trade and navigation. As the perception of threat from Chinese moves in the region deepened and China continued to enhance its presence and influence in its attempt to contain the Quad’s efforts in the region, India saw military strategies aimed at containing Chinese influence as the only option. India is getting embroiled in the balance of power politics in the Indo-Pacific region rather than being able to choose the historical path of non-alignment.

India’s move to sign defence pacts with the US, verbatim of the joint declarations with other quad members and discussions within various bilateral and trilateral groupings which also included members from the quad point to its participation in the containment of China strategy. Even as India has not openly subscribed to the containment of China strategy, there will be efforts by the Biden administration to force a change in New Delhi’s balancing position based on a multi-alignment policy and the viewpoint that its Indo-Pacific strategy is open to engagement with countries outside the Quad. India has already made strategic moves to enhance its profile in the Indo-Pacific region by entering deep into the strategic ambit of the US and by signing Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA) in 2016 and the Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA) in 2018. This apart, Indian navy is exploring various other options of acquisition of sophisticated technology such as with the French offer of technology of their Barracuda class. France is already assisting India in making the Kalvari class conventional submarines.

While India has its own nuclear-propelled submarine programme with two ballistic missile submarines (SSBN), namely, the Arihant and INS Arighat, and is planning to build six nuclear-propelled attack submarines (SSN), these are not considered enough to guarantee security against China’s nuclear and missile presence in the Indo-Pacific region. President Biden’s new Indo-Pacific security alliance ‘AUKUS’ was viewed by many Indian strategists as Washington’s efforts to dilute the significance of Quad and Indo-US strategic partnership.

However, India needs to be aware of the nuclear nightmare that the new great game is entering into. It was in the Non-Alignment Movement (NAM) summit in Lusaka, Zambia in 1970 that the initiative at turning the Indian Ocean into a “zone of peace” was taken by the members of the movement that called upon all states “to respect the Indian Ocean as a zone of peace from which Great Power rivalries and competition, as well as bases be excluded”. Although the initiative was taken in the context of the Cold War, the idea has become even more relevant in the present context with the involvement of more powers with nuclear abilities in the larger Indo-Pacific region.

*(Author: Dr. Manoj Kumar Mishra *, Lecturer in Political Science, SVM Autonomous College, Jagatsinghpur, Odisha)


[1J. Reed, “US accuses China of ‘coercion’ over Vietnam offshore oil”, Financial Times, August 23, 2019, https://www.ft.com/content/b26ac618-c553-11e9-a8e9-296ca66511c9.

[2M. Yeo, “China now strong enough for a surprise move in the Indo-Pacific”, Defence News, Asia Pacific, August 19, 2019, Available at https://www.defensenews.com/global/asia-pacific/2019/08/19/china-grown-strong-enough-for-a-surprise-move-in-the-indo-pacific-think-tank-warns/.

[3“Biden Announces Indo-Pacific Alliance With UK, Australia”, U.S.News, September 15, 2021, Available at https://www.usnews.com/news/politics/articles/2021-09-15/biden-to-announce-indo-pacific-alliance-with-uk-australia

[4S. Johny,} “With China in focus, Biden seeks to boost Asia alliances”, The Hindu, March 15, 2021, Available at https://www.thehindu.com/news/international/news-analysis-with-china-in-focus-biden-seeks-to-boost-asia-alliances/article34075322.ece

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