Indo-Pacific Ocean, containment of China or exercise in futile
GLOBAL geopolitics and geo-economics are increasingly characterized by competition between major powers in the pursuit of their strategic interests.
When the history of the 21st Century is written, much of it will be centred in the Indo-Pacific Region. The term Indo-Pacific was used during the US President Donald Trump era instead of Asia Pacific. The US even renamed Asia-Pacific Command as Indo-Pacific Command.
It seems the US strategy has been shifted from the Indian Ocean to Indo-Pacific Region due to these reasons: it includes the world’s most populous state (China), most populous democracy (India), most populous Muslim-majority state (Indonesia), seven of the ten largest standing armies, around one-third of global shipping passes through the South China Sea alone.
In 2019, $1.9 trillion worth of US trade passed through the region; in 2021 about 42 percent of the world’s exports and 38 percent of global imports are expected to pass through. Therefore, as the United States government has claimed, “the Indo-Pacific is the single most consequential region for America’s future.
The main reason for the importance of Indo-Pacific is to contain China. On the other hand, China has initiated the Belt and Road Initiative, China Pakistan Economic Corridor and spent billions of US$ on these projects. Naturally, these countries have already joined, or will join the Chinese camp when the time comes.
In the Indian Ocean, China is building 17 ports and has 96 ports around the world. Due to this reason the USA made certain alliances recently.Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QUAD), which consists of the USA, Japan, India and Australia, works on a far broader agenda, which includes tackling security, economic and health issues.
They conducted a naval exercise in November 2020 in Guam in the Indian Ocean and formed a working group for COVID-19 vaccines. It is not mentioned but the basic purpose of the QUAD was to curtail the growing influence of China in the region. On the other hand, the trade between QUAD countries and China is huge.
China is Australia’s biggest, India and USA’s second largest and Japan’s third major trading partner. This reflects the interdependency of these countries on China which is difficult to break or impede.
Australia US & UK (AUKUS). The world was shocked when Australia made a contract with the US to purchase eight nuclear submarines in September 2021 for more than the US$100 bn. Australia cancelled the deal with France to buy 12 Diesel Electric Submarine worth the US $ 66 Bn.
Although AUKUS did not reveal it, the agreement is largely seen by analysts as a US-led effort to counter the rising influence of China in the region by using Australia. The regional countries showed mixed reactions, like China has been slammed as “highly irresponsible” and said it could trigger a nuclear arms race in the region.
Indonesia, Malaysia, North Korea and Singapore voiced against it. Japan cautiously welcomes it, the Philippines and South Korea appreciated the move, perhaps it will make the case of acquiring nuclear submarines stronger for South Korea in the future.
India is also not happy as they were denied nuclear propulsion by the US previously, but India is happy to be a member of QUAD and it may make the Indian case stronger to acquire the US nuclear submarines in the future, furthermore, containment of China will favour India.
After WW-II, the US needs an enemy to justify the presence of US forces in different parts of the world and flourish her defence industry.
Till 1990, the focus was on the USSR (Union of Socialist Soviet Republic). Afterward, the attention was against Islamic counties, which include attacks on Iraq (pretext of a weapon of mass destruction), Afghanistan, Libya, Syria, Tunisia. These actions left the world in a more complex scenario and these countries suffered massive destruction and economic loss.
There is also fear if China made similar agreements of providing nuclear submarines to other countries, it will bring an arms race of nuclear submarines and any accident of nuclear submarines will be catastrophic for the entire world.
The US will try to contain China by adopting different strategies like boycotting the Winter Olympics in February 2022 in China which is followed by other allies also.
China trade with QUAD and AUKUS countries is enormous, big companies of these countries have invested heavily in China. They can’t afford to lose their investment and none of these countries can afford to have bad relations with China as there is no alternative, perforce they are forced to keep good trading relations with China.
Despite all their efforts, China’s containment is not so easy; the way China is becoming an economic giant, modernizing its defence forces, building ports around the world, Road and Belt initiative and CPEC will keep support for China by these countries. It may be a futile attempt by the US to contain China and result in the proliferation of nuclear submarines in the region.
—The writer is associated with the National Institute of Maritime Affairs, based in Islamabad.