US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s speech in Washington on Wednesday (18) where he named China as the cause for the US’s intensified interest in the Indian Ocean, and as the reason for its deepening defence ties with India, has brought the big-power contestation in the region to a new level.
While analysts have long referred to the US’s ‘rebalance’ (or ‘pivot’) to Asia as being motivated by its need to counter the economic and military rise of China, US officials have not been quite so blunt about it in their utterances so far. China was an underlying, hidden factor in these discussions. But now the gloves are off, it appears. Speaking at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, Tillerson said:
“China, while rising alongside India, has done so less responsibly, at times undermining the international, rules-based order even as countries like India operate within a framework that protects other nations’ sovereignty. China’s provocative actions in the South China Sea directly challenge the international law and norms that the United States and India both stand for. The United States seeks constructive relations with China, but we will not shrink from China’s challenges to the rules-based order and where China subverts the sovereignty of neighbouring countries and disadvantages the U.S. and our friends.”
In August India and the US signed a Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA) which is one of the four foundational agreements that the US enters into with its defence partners. The US is also set to supply India with 22 Sea Guardian drones plus other military hardware and technology, according to reports. The US would like India to jointly take responsibility to patrol the Asia-Pacific region according to some analysts. “Together with Japan and East Asian nations, Washington would want India to throw its weight behind patrolling the Pacific Ocean where the Chinese navy is becoming more and more aggressive in staking its claims” says Seema Guha, writing in ‘India Legal.’
Tillerson’s explanation of stronger US military collaboration with India was made in terms of a need to “ensure that the Indo-Pacific is increasingly a place of peace, stability, and growing prosperity – so that it does not become a region of disorder, conflict, and predatory economics.” But whether ‘peace, stability and prosperity’ etc will be advanced by the ‘Us against Them’ attitude adopted by the US, ‘ganging up’ with India to counter the other rising Asian giant , remains a question.
The ‘challenges to international law’ that Tillerson mentions would refer to China’s actions in the disputed waters of the South China Sea, where China is building military facilities on some uninhabited islands to which its claims are contested by neighbouring states (Vietnam, Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei etc). Commander of the US Pacific Fleet Admiral Scott Swift made reference to this issue, though obliquely, at the Galle Dialogue 2017 recently hosted by Sri Lanka.
The ‘international laws and norms’ invoked by the US in support of a ‘rules based’ maritime order would refer to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, to which the US is itself not a signatory although it constantly calls upon others to comply. Adm. Swift in his presentation made indirect references to the Law of the Sea Tribunal’s determination in favour of the Philippines in its dispute with China in the South China Sea, which China chose to ignore. He also implicitly compared China’s behaviour with that of India which, in its dispute with Bangladesh, accepted the tribunal’s decision.
The US Secretary of State’s remarks at CSIS show that the US has chosen to disregard these signs that an evolving China is ready to make certain changes. The US has preferred to take the adversarial route
“Just as nations and their maritime forces have the ability to build trust, their actions, like applying national laws in international space, erodes any trust that can be gained by multi-lateral cooperation” he said, in an obvious reference to these developments.
Again the question arises as to whether the US’s confrontational policy of carrying out what it calls Freedom of Navigation ‘Assertions’- by sailing its warships into the disputed areas of the South China Sea for example – will serve the interests of peace and stability it ostensibly seeks to promote. The US adopts this approach in spite of China having demonstrated that it is becoming more open and ready to engage with the global community. Notable in this regard are its contributions to disaster relief (the 2011 earthquake in Japan for example, during which political tensions were buried in an overwhelmingly sympathetic response) and humanitarian relief operations (e.g. evacuating foreign nationals, including Sri Lankans, along with its own citizens from war-torn Yemen in 2015). China also played a significant role in anti-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden.
At the Galle Dialogue 2017 too, China signalled that its outlook was changing. “The Chinese PLA navy will positively implement a new model of maritime security concept and carry out exchanges with other navies in a more open and more responsible attitude to unswervingly safeguard maritime security and enhance marine prosperity” said Deputy Commander of the East Sea Fleet Rear Admiral Cui Yuzhong.
In this entire equation, it would appear that Sri Lanka is strategically situated, both literally and figuratively speaking. But Sri Lanka’s officialdom has not displayed a response one would expect from a neutral player and a supposedly Non- Aligned nation. Instead of adopting a carefully calibrated approach which could have been formulated with the help of independent think tanks, its politicians unthinkingly use US-inspired rhetoric, including terms such as ‘Indo-Asia-Pacific,’ ‘freedom of navigation,’ ‘rules- based order’ etc.
Though it is acknowledged that the Indian Ocean is a relatively peaceful area (compared to oceans to its East and West) they speak of anticipated ‘threats’ that need to be met with enhanced military capabilities. This is all straight out of the US play-book. If Sri Lanka expects to maintain good relations, as it must, with all three – the US, China and India – taking such a partisan route is unlikely to help.