- The latest Indo-Pacific army chiefs’ meeting reflected growing US engagement and the region’s shared concerns about China’s military assertiveness
- But China will not back down amid consolidating US influence, particularly given its deep-seated insecurity over the Malacca Strait
Peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific was the theme of a recently concluded conference of 18 army chiefs in New Delhi. Though the US and Indian army chiefs, who were joint hosts, did not directly name China as a challenge, it was clearly on their minds, given the remarks of the participants at the three-day 13th Indo-Pacific Army Chiefs Conference (IPACC), drawn from 30 nations.
It would also seem that the Indo-Pacific, usually perceived as a maritime domain, is acquiring an autonomous strategic identity. As Indian Defence Minister Rajnath Singh declared at the conference, the Indo-Pacific is no longer a maritime construct but a fully fledged geostrategic construct.
He also said the region faced a complex web of security challenges, including border disputes. India and China have been locked in an intractable territorial dispute since October 1962, which flared up most recently in June 2020, when soldiers clashed in the Galwan Valley border.
Indian army chief General Manoj Pande echoed the concern and added that territorial disputes, including those triggered by the creation of artificial islands, whose objective is to claim real estate in the maritime domain, are among the principal threats to peace and stability in the region. India’s allusions to China with respect to their border clash and the South China Sea disputes were evident.00:06
https://imasdk.googleapis.com/js/core/bridge3.593.1_en.html#goog_1074943456The video player is currently playing an ad. You can skip the ad in 5 sec with a mouse or keyboard
At the conference, US army chief General Randy George, on his first visit abroad after assuming office, dwelt on the need to ensure a “free and open Indo-Pacific” and added: “We all know how important trust and friendship are in a challenging global security environment. Having great allies and partners is more important than ever before.” He referred to the US-India army exercise in Alaska as a sign of the growing cooperation between the two militaries.
Two strands emerged at the conference. One is America’s growing military engagement with its allies and partners in the Indo-Pacific. The other is a shared concern among most nations in the region over China’s military assertiveness, even bellicosity.
India’s experience in the Galwan Valley in 2020 and the more recent face-off between China and Philippines in the South China Sea reflect this anxiety about Beijing’s creeping military assertiveness.
But the flip side is China’s own anxiety over what it perceives to be a consolidation of US military presence, even influence, in regions it deems part of its core interests. These range from Taiwan to Southeast Asia and include the consolidation of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue with Australia, India and Japan, and the nascent Aukus nuclear-powered submarine triangle with Australia and Britain.
Beijing has become increasingly vocal about territoriality since 2008-2009, when China successfully hosted the Olympics and weathered the global financial crisis. Since assuming office, President Xi Jinping has accorded the unification of Taiwan and consolidation of Chinese territorial claims the highest national priority.
This explains China’s pursuit of a policy of adopting an inflexible stance with its neighbours over such disputes. As Beijing’s rejection of the 2016 UN arbitration tribunal award in favour of the Philippines in the South China Sea showed, the only option on the table is to accept China’s claim as being cast in stone.
Why the South China Sea dispute remains one of the region’s most pressing issues
China is confident that none of its neighbours, including India, will raise the military ante despite challenges to their territorial sovereignty, especially as the costly war in Ukraine drags on, showcasing the daunting cost-benefit ratio of an impulsive military initiative.
Beijing’s deeper anxiety, however, is the possibility that its neighbours feel pressured into a partnership with the United States to safeguard their core interests – and the IPACC deliberations hinted at such an exigency.
In my opinion, unless Beijing decides to take Taiwan by force, the likelihood of a US-China military confrontation is very low. Sharp rhetoric and denunciation is likely to continue to animate the troubled bilateral relationship – unless the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit next month provides an off-ramp for Presidents Joe Biden and Xi Jinping.
The more probable scenario is one where US-China relations remain tense and Beijing continues its military assertiveness in the Indo-Pacific.
Resistance from individual nations – such as the Philippines’ reportedly removing Chinese barriers in the disputed South China Sea waters – will be seen as tactical situations that can be handled by the People’s Liberation Army. It is the possibility of a US-led cluster (like the Quad) evolving into a military partnership that Beijing hopes to prevent from becoming a reality.
00:02 / 00:29
Philippine coastguard removes Chinese barrier at disputed Scarborough Shoal in South China Sea
There is also China’s deepest maritime insecurity: the so-called Malacca dilemma. First mooted by then-president Hu Jintao, it refers to China’s lack of alternatives and its vulnerability in case of a naval blockade preventing access to the Strait of Malacca, the shortest sea route between China and the Middle East.
While army chiefs at the IPACC reiterated the need to ensure a free and open Indo-Pacific, raising the ante with Beijing in the maritime domain could provide a more viable option for those nations willing to “walk the talk”.
Should the US and its allies or partners decide to stoke China’s fears over its Malacca dilemma – which can be done in a calibrated manner to keep it from erupting into a shooting war – the eastern Indian Ocean would become more operationally animated.
Whether such collective action would lead to Chinese compliance is moot. But these waters will definitely be roiled.