While U.S. policymakers and military planners have been heavily focused on China’s maritime expansion in the western rim of the Pacific Ocean and the South China Sea, Beijing has been steadily growing its capacity in the Indian Ocean region. The United States and its partners should take realistic and effective steps that address the strategic risks they face in the region and realize their vision of a “free and open Indo-Pacific,” writes APARC’s South Asia Research Scholar Arzan Tarapore in the latest issue of The Washington Quarterly.
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The United States’ strategic competition with China now extends to the Indian Ocean region, albeit it takes a different form compared with the heavily militarized territorial disputes of the western rim of the Pacific Ocean and the South China Sea. The People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) fleet is increasingly designed for oceanic deployments beyond China’s near seas and is rapidly expanding its amphibious capability. The PLAN conducts frequent oceanographic survey and submarine deployments, maintaining a constant presence of at least seven or eight navy ships in the Indian Ocean at any time. Having established its first-ever overseas military base on the western edge of the ocean, in Djibouti in 2017, China continues to develop other ports from Tanzania to Indonesia under the banner of the Belt and Road Initiative. It is also expanding security cooperation with regional states.
“This military expansion poses strategic risks for the United States and its allies and partners,” argues Tarapore. “It gives China rapidly increasing capacity to use military coercion in the Indian Ocean region, both directly, through military intervention, and indirectly, by compelling changes in regional states’ security policies.” It also gives China advantages in case of a potential war in the region.
The United States and its partners have proclaimed their commitment to the “free and open Indo-Pacific” vision. However, the four powers with the greatest interest and capacity to push back on China’s inroads —namely, the United States, India, Japan, and Australia, which banded together as the “Quad” — have failed to mitigate Beijing’s challenge. Their haphazard response “does little to curtail China’s capacity to coerce small states or posture for war,” says Tarapore.
He then offers a strategic assessment and a conceptual framework by which the United States and its partners can more effectively mitigate the risks of Chinese military expansion. Their most urgent task, he claims, is to build “strategic leverage,” that is, develop their political relationships and military capabilities in ways that consolidate their advantages. By doing so, they would ideally convince Beijing that coercive policies are unworkable or prohibitively costly, which would then impede China’s capacity to coerce regional states or posture for wartime. Tarapore is convinced that India has a key role to play within this framework if the latter also accounts for India’s particular resource and policy constraints.