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Can US & its Allies block China’s strong influence in Asia Pacific?

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John F Kennedy is reported to have said, “Geography has made us neighbours, History has made us friends, Economy has made us partners, and necessity has made us allies—those whom nature hath so joined together, let no man put asunder”.

The United States and its allies are attempting, rather desperately, to restrict China’s growing economic, political and military expansion in the Indo-Pacific region. The US regional allies such as Japan, India, and Australia have been making substantial endeavours for the last couple of decades—forging powerful military alliances to counter Chinese influence. To achieve that the first formal initiative was taken by George Bush Jr. He, towards the end of his second presidential term, assigned Vice President Dick Cheney to rally potential allies in Asia that are critical of China. To muster their support, he approached three prime ministers—Manmohan Singh, Shinzo Abe, and John Howard.

The main objective was to create a robust allied naval force in the Indo-Pacific, aiming to circumvent China’s PLAN (People’s Liberation Army-Navy) in the two oceans of immense maritime and strategic significance. The net result was the formation of QUAD—Quadrilateral Security Alliance. By signing this military accord in 2007, the four signatories—the US, Japan, India, and Australia—vowed to clog the expansion of China not only militarily, but also commercially.

The US leadership didn’t contend with QUAD—they bolstered their naval dominance by creating another military super-club called the AUKUS (Australia, UK, US). With inclusion of Britain in the US-led ‘counter-China’ offensive—the US hegemonic goals were further delineated. The QUAD-AUKUS allies emphatically demonstrated their determination to restrict China’s naval build-up in the region. In a layman’s perception, the QUAD-AUKUS is the equivalent of NATO in the Asia-Pacific. The NATO was aimed at countering the Soviet Union in the post-WW2 period, whereas the QUAD-AUKUS is directed against China.

Intriguingly, the NATO has engaged Vladimir Putin in Ukraine to achieve the eventual exhaustion of Russia’s military might. However, despite decisively beating the Indian Northern Command in a few recent military fracases—China has smartly avoided direct military conflict with the US and its allies. Instead, the Chinese leadership has preferred to pursue Beijing’s political, diplomatic and commercial goals—aggressively. You can not achieve military goals through weapons/troops—alone. Can you?

AUKUS vs. QUAD: Military partnerships

Earlier this week, the Australian Airforce Chief—Air Marshal Melvin Hupfeld spent one full day in the South Block, New Delhi. He had extensive strategic discussions with India’s defence secretary, Ajay Kumar and the three forces’ chiefs—General Manoj Pande, Admiral Radhakrishnan Kumar, and Air Chief Marshal Vivek Chaudhry. They discussed wider deployment of aircraft carriers and nuclear-powered submarines in the Indo-Pacific waters.

Air Marshal Hupfeld reinforced to the Indian military junta what the US Indo-Pacific commander Admiral John Aquilino deliberated with the Australian defence chief, General Angus Campbell, on 26 March.

Read Also: Indo-Pacific strategy adrift in an illusion

In November 2019, the current UK CDS, Admiral Tony Radakin—who was then Royal Navy’s First Sea Lord—had a landmark meeting on the upper deck of the aircraft carrier, HMS Queen Elizabeth. He signed a few key maritime security agreements with the Japanese Maritime Chief, Admiral Yamamura, and US Navy Chief of Operations, Admiral Mike Gildy. Last October, Admiral Gildy also visited India’s top two naval establishments and reassured full naval support to the Indian naval hierarchy against any aggression from the Chinese PLAN.

In terms of military parity—the QUAD-AUKUS combined naval forces, weaponry, and equipment are numerically superior to that of China’s PLAN. The US Indo-Pacific Command HQ in Hawaii has nearly 400,000 troops deployed under the 7th Fleet, US Marine Expeditionary Force, US Pacific Air Forces, and US Pacific Army. It has four aircraft carriers in the Indo-Pacific region—two are deployed in the South China Sea—USN Carl Vinson and USN Abraham Lincoln. Out of its total of 14 nuclear-powered/ballistic missile submarines, nearly half a dozen are available for deployment in the region.

Out of the four Royal Navy operational nuclear-powered submarines, none is available for deployment in the Indo-Pacific waters. Australia and Japan do not have the luxury of such submarines—nor do they have any sizeable aircraft carrier in their naval inventory.

India has got just one-and-a-half aircraft carriers and just two nuclear-powered submarines—one of them isn’t fully reliable due to fuel and propulsion glitches, still not overcome.

Due to limited number of aircraft carriers, nuclear-fuelled submarines, and ageing frigates and destroyers—India, Australia and Japan heavily rely upon the US Indo-Pacific command. Despite lofty claims and tactical boasting—it will take the US partners in QUAD and AUKUS at least a decade to be self-sufficient, but not self-reliant.

On the contrary, China has two big aircraft carriers—another couple will be available by 2024, to match the US aircraft prowess in the Pacific ocean. The Chinese PLAN has around 60 conventional and half a dozen operational nuclear-powered submarines—all are available for deployment in the Indo-Pacific waters. And this is the greatest worry for the QUAD-AUKUS allies of the United States.

If Beijing and Moscow enter into a long-term military partnership then half a dozen Russian aircraft carriers (after a bit of modernization/refit), 60 plus conventional and a dozen of nuclear-powered/ballistic missile submarines will pose a huge challenge to the US Indo-Pacific command and its partnering naval forces of India, Japan and Australia. This amply suggests that despite towering claims, the US and its allies can’t/wouldn’t go to war with China in the foreseeable future.

Countering China

Interestingly, the Australian Air Force Chief, Air Marshal Hupfeld and the UK CDS, Admiral Radakin were my classmates at the Department of War Studies, King’s College London, during late 1990s. Then Sq Leader Hupfeld, Lt Commander Radakin, USAF Lt Col Mark Bucknam, Col Ajay Shukla, and I used to have candid discussions on the future of NATO and other regional military alliances. At that time, China wasn’t yet an economic power to reckon with, and lacklustre Yeltsin-led Russia with the military Commissar General Lebed was struggling—politically, economically and strategically.

My mentors like then UK CDS, Field Marshal Sir Peter Inge (currently octogenarian Lord Inge) and Master of Trinity College, Cambridge, Sir Michael Atiyah—were openly sceptical about the future of NATO and EU. They would always say—China would ultimately emerge as a power to challenge the US dominance, and military alliances would remain merely a theoretical expression.

I was a little amused to learn when on 29 April, the Indian PM Modi and his Raksha Mantri, Rajnath Singh appointed Army Vice Chief, General Manoj Pande as the COAS—succeeding General Manoj Naravane. Another Manoj to lead the Indian Army, but there was something more interesting—India’s first Army Chief from the Corps of Engineers. Where is our Lt General Ziauddin Butt, these days?

It reminds me of General Peter Wall—another Sapper, who was UK Army Chief (2010-14). General Wall, despite being an Engineer Officer, had illustrious military career. He commanded the elite 1st Armoured Division, was Engineer-in-Chief, and Commander of UK Land Forces. But he commanded an Army comprising just 100,000 troops—reminiscent of the 18th and 19th century East India Company’s army for the Subcontinent.

General Pande also has impressive military experience under his belt—he was India’s Vice/COAS, led the Eastern Command (Fort William, Kolkata), commanded IV Corps (Tezpur, Assam), and the PLA-thrashed 8th Infantry Division (Laddakh). He is considered as a specialist of counter-insurgency, fighter of the LoC and the Laddakh subregion.

During his first big exposure as Indian COAS—meeting visiting Australian Air Chief, AM Hupfeld—General Pande tried to impress the audience at the South Block. He offered his full support to the QUAD ally, to counter China—as perhaps the Indian Northern Command did last year, in Laddakh. He also suggested creating more regional military alliances—engaging Philippines, Taiwan, South Korea, Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, and so forth.

Can military camps prevent conflict?

In contemporary diplomacy—“Meaningful alliances aren’t imposed—they’re consented upon. The self-proclaimed allies have no intention to abolish the entitlement that compelled them to impose their relationship on those they claim to ally with”.

For an ardent reader of modern history—forging military partnerships and strategic alliances seems good in a short format of conventional warfare. But in case the war theatre broadens—when more and more allies join the military camps for their own vested interests—armed conflicts and even border skirmishes become protracted and bloodier. And given the nuclear dimension—one can’t just think the ‘unthinkable.

The three decades preceding the outbreak of the World War-1 (1914-18) saw formation of military alliances and counter-alliances. Britain formed Triple Entente with France and Russia—later joined by Russia, Italy, Japan, and the US. Whereas, Germany forged the Triple Alliance of the central powers with Austria-Hungary, the Ottoman Turkey, and Bulgaria. However, these alliances didn’t prevent the military conflict in Europe—on the contrary, they contributed towards expediting the outbreak of WW-1.

The same powers changed partners before start of the WW-2. This time Italy joined Germany—later Japan also entered the war siding with Hitler and Mussolini. Turkey, this time, joined the British-led alliance backed by Russia, and later China. The Allied powers won the war. With the Soviet support—Germany and Italy were defeated in Europe, whereas in Asia-Pacific—China helped the Allied powers defeat Imperial Japan.

Soon after the end of WW-2, the Yalta Peace Conference (February 1945) and Potsdam Conference (July-August 1945) saw visible divisions and differences within the allies camp. The US Presidents FDR/Truman and British Prime Ministers Churchill/Atlee became critical of Joseph Stalin—despite the fact that the defeat of Germany wasn’t possible without the support of the Soviet military.

The US and its allies perceived the wartime support and trust demonstrated by Soviet Russia as the peacetime suspicion and mistrust. Instead of making endeavours to build trust and confidence with Stalin—the allied leadership isolated and sidelined the Soviet Union by forming NATO (April 1949). The Soviet leadership waited for six years before forming the Warsaw Pact (May 1955).

It is more than three decades since the Warsaw Pact was dismantled, but NATO is still up and running as a military alliance—aimed against whom? During this long period—neither Russia nor China have attacked any NATO ally. They have been building their defences through conventional means. They acquired their defensive nuclear arsenal only in response to the offensive WMD stockpiles by the US, Britain and France. Just like Pakistan, that achieved its defensive nuclear capability and the required delivery means—only to counter the persistent nuclear blackmail by India.

Thomas Jefferson once remarked—“Peace, commerce and honest friendship with all nations—entangling alliances with none”. The Pakistani national security mandarins, for decades, are pursuing a cautious and neutral stance vis-a-vis joining the military alliances. They are maintaining cordial relations with friendly nations, cultivating effective ties with trade partners, and seeking benevolent neutrality among traditional rivals. China and United States are inveterate adversaries, but Pakistan is working smartly with both powers.

Likewise, Iran and Saudi Arabia are contenders towards regional primacy—but our policymakers are having good relations with both Muslim states. To conduct such an even-handed and non-aligned diplomacy—both at the regional and global level—Pakistan is paying a high price. Nonetheless, we have to safeguard our national interests—which is only possible if we act as an independent, impartial and circumspect state.

Ejaz Hussain is a London-based analyst on South-Asian and Middle-Eastern security. He is an alumnus of Oxford, Durham, LSE, and King’s College, London.