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Should India Be a Member of the Sheriff's Posse?

War games in the China seas have ominous implications.

On 18 May, four Indian warships set out on a two-and-a-half month deployment in the South China and East China Seas, more generally, the north-west Pacific, ostensibly to ensure “freedom of navigation” over there. Of course, the Indian Navy is not alone—it is there to, among other things, carry out joint military exercises (“war games”) with the navies of the United States and Japan. Washington and New Delhi are supposedly furthering the “US–India Joint Strategic Vision for the Asia-Pacific and the Indian Ocean Region,” signed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and US President Barack Obama in January 2015, which aims at “safeguarding maritime security and ensuring freedom of navigation and over-flight throughout the region, especially in the South China Sea.” The “war games” are an extension of “Exercise Malabar” involving the US and Indian navies with the Japan Maritime Self-Defence Force as a regular partner since 2014.

“Exercise Malabar” has gone a long way since it was first launched in 1992 when New Delhi initiated its foreign-policy somersault in the aftermath of the end of the Cold War. The ninth Malabar exercise, held in 2007, was perhaps the first one that went beyond the Indian Ocean, in this case, off the Japanese island of Okinawa, and the Japanese navy subsequently came on board first in 2009, again in 2011, and then regularly since 2014. In 2007, Australia and Singapore participated in military exercises in the Bay of Bengal. So what is new about these geopolitical manoeuvres?

To answer this question we need to get to Obama’s address to the Australian parliament in November 2011 wherein he announced that Washington was now going to turn its attention to the Asia-Pacific. This focus was subsequently dubbed by his the then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, in an article in Foreign Policy, as a “pivot,” and it then came to be known as America’s “Pivot to Asia” strategy. Washington’s strategy has since encompassed a greater concentration of US military assets in the region, an extension of defence ties, a step-up of military-hardware exports and training programmes for its military partners, more frequent visits by US warships, and, of course, more war games. At the heart of the justification for the “Pivot to Asia”—something that remains mostly officially unacknowledged—is the rise of China, which the US views as its principal adversary in the region. As long as China succeeds economically and geopolitically the “Pivot to Asia” will only deepen and grow. And, with the convergence of New Delhi’s “Act East”—earlier a mere “Look East”—policy, one is bound to witness more war games and, of course, port calls by Indian warships, like the ones in Cam Ranh Bay in Vietnam, Subic Bay in the Philippines, Sasebo in Japan, Busan in South Korea, and Port Klang in Malaysia.

Incidentally, India has concurred, “in principle,” with the US on a Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement which will give the latter access to Indian ports and military bases. And, in the joint statement “The United States and India—Enduring Global Partners in the 21st Century” issued on 7 June after the third bilateral Modi–Obama summit, India has been recognised as a “major defence partner” so that it can purchase the US military–industrial complex’s most advanced military hardware. Indeed, Modi in his address to the Joint Session of the US Congress on 8 June, in a reference to “international rules and norms,” pledged that it was India’s responsibility of  “securing the Indian Ocean region.” Indeed, he got a standing ovation when he said that a “strong India–US partnership can anchor peace, prosperity and stability from Asia to Africa and from the Indian Ocean to the Pacific ... It can also help ensure security of the sea lanes of commerce and freedom of navigation on the seas.”

Frankly, no one, not even the claimant states in the multiple disputes in the East China and South China Seas—Japan, Taiwan, Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines and Brunei, none of which are innocent parties in the disputes—really expect China to place restrictions on commercial shipping or interrupt the shipping lanes that cross the South China Sea. What is at stake is military, not commercial, freedom, and here, it is the US that wants the right to engage, unhindered, in military surveillance as close as possible to China’s shores. And, as far as the dispute between Japan and China over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands (presently controlled by Japan) goes, without getting into the merits of the case, one should point out that in the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS)—which apportions the “high seas” in the form of “exclusive economic zones”—the former European and American colonial powers as well as Japan have been unduly privileged in their claims on the world’s oceans. China’s maritime reach under UNCLOS is not even one-fifth that of Japan’s. These are some of the observations made by Vince Scappatura in the Asia-Pacific Journal (9 September 2014).

But why should India parrot the US line on all these disputes in the East China and South China Seas? Will such manoeuvring further New Delhi’s ambitions of becoming a “great power,” as the hawks in South Block seem to think? Richard Haass, a member of the National Security Council in the administration of US President George W Bush, used to refer to the US as “the sheriff” and its “coalition of the willing” (that is, its client states) as “his posse,” both of which, he advised, need not be too worried about the law. Should New Delhi be a part of this “posse,” this “coalition of the willing” that is above international law?

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