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Piercing the shield: A leaner and meaner Russia beyond nuclear strategies

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Authors: Dr. Matthew Crosston & Troy Baxter

Russia’s history as a nuclear state is extensive and well-documented. It was the second country in the world to acquire nuclear weapons (after the US) and since that point it has been the world leader in stockpiled nuclear weapons. The only other nation to remain in close contention was the US and it was estimated to have some 10,000 fewer nuclear warheads than Russia at each nation’s respective stockpiling peak. Russia has historically placed a significant emphasis on nuclear power and nuclear deterrence as a primary deterrent strategy since it first acquired the capability.

This was best exemplified during the nuclear stock-piling frenzy of the Cold War, where nuclear weapons were acquired at a rate that will likely never be seen again, and more recently with its declaration that it has the capability to punch through the US missile defense system. Yet, despite Russia’s historical comfort and reliance on nuclear power as a deterrence strategy, the end of the 20th and beginning of the 21st century saw Russia moving away from strict nuclear deterrence. Treaties such as START I, II, SORT and the New START, which all worked to reduce nuclear stockpiles in the US and Russia, indicated that a trend towards disarmament, coordination and cooperation was the new norm taking over in place of the old one of confrontation, competition and mutually assured destruction. Happily, to some it seemed that a shift in the Russian defense ideology was taking place: from the old hat concept of nuclear deterrence to the new one of slow but steady disarmament and international cooperation. Such an assessment of Russia’s defense ideology, however, has now been all but dismissed, as it was recently revealed that Russia has already started dispersing missile defense penetrating technology throughout its military and plans on developing new types of such weapons moving forward. This declaration is saying very publicly that Russia does not consider nuclear deterrence to be an old hat concept. In fact, the nation is saying very loudly and deliberately that nuclear deterrence is as relevant as it’s ever been and that it is intent on protecting its geostrategic realm of operations, just perhaps with a leaner and meaner face that is accentuated by nuclear and non-nuclear means.

The US and NATO have been progressively encroaching further into Russia’s geostrategic areas of operation and the discussion of a NATO missile defense system has only narrowed the gap further and caused greater Russian consternation. The fear for Russia is that the installation of this missile defense system, which has largely been spearheaded by the US, would significantly reduce its nuclear deterrent capabilities in its very own backyard. However, the US claims the defense system is being put in place in order to counter the potential Iranian and North Korean nuclear threat and that it is not set up in order to defend against a nuclear arsenal the size of Russia’s. This may very well be true in logistical or strict military terms, but it fails the perceptional conventional wisdom scratch test: you cannot propose to have missiles in Eastern Europe to ‘defend against Iran ONLY’ and expect the Russian side to believe it.

Russia does, as previously mentioned, have a massive stock pile of nuclear weapons. The American limited missile defense system would be incapable of defending against an all-out nuclear warhead blitzkrieg. Moreover, it would be short-sighted of the US to believe that a nation as historically skeptical as Russia with a leader as historically Machiavellian as Vladimir Putin would blindly accept this explanation as fact and move on, particularly as Iran and North Korea continue to cooperate in nuclear arms control talks with the UN (though unevenly). It certainly appears as if the US is positioning itself to undermine Russia for reasons other than what it has stated publicly. In any event, this potential subversion is not a fact lost on Vladimir Putin and this has no doubt contributed to the continued strain in US-Russian relations.

These relations are arguably at their lowest point since the height of the Cold War. The conflict in Syria has only served to exacerbate them. Both nations are still engaged in the conflict (despite a Russian ‘partial’ withdrawal) and appear to be cooperating in the bombing campaign against DAESH. This cooperation, however, has not been free of tension and criticism. Russia appears to be engaged in the conflict largely in order to show its strength on the international stage and loosely-tied claims of stopping DAESH in Syria hurts potential radical Islamist movements in Southern Russia. Russia doesn’t just want but needs to be seen as an equal player to the US, which is why the nation wasted no time dropping bombs in Syria a mere 24 hours after it received political approval from the Russian parliament. Ultimately, Russia wants a say in what happens in the region next. It wants the ability to weaken the US presence in the Middle East. This is a higher priority than many first surmised, which was why it deployed a significant military force to Syria despite a sluggish sanctions-hit economy and subsequent depreciating currency. Russia has shown that it is willing to make significant military and financial commitments to Syria in order to protect its geopolitical interests in the area, regardless of the fact that it may be unsustainable economically over the long-term.

It is clear that Russia has not been swayed by the allure of disarmament and international cooperation to such a degree that it is willing to abandon coincident strategies that still push its national and global interests. The nation is still firmly entrenched in its belief that the US must be ‘managed’ at all times. By all indications the US firmly believes in the same strategy about Russia, as it continues to try and gain the upper hand across several different arenas and strategies. The fact that the proposed missile defense system can also be repurposed as an offensive system, if needed, only adds to the strategic concern for Russia. Russia is fully aware of the US’ geostrategic intentions to continue moving into what Russia considers its regional spheres of exclusivity. This is arguably what compelled Russia to move military forces into Syria – not just strategic objectives but PERCEPTIONAL ones.

What this says is two things. First, that both the US and Russia are still firm believers in the maintenance of old school rivalry, even under situations where they share the same objective (like defeating DAESH). Second, Russia is willing to continue to aggressively protect its geostrategic interests even if it means significant risk to itself. Some might call that the Russian penchant for irrational foreign policy behavior but it is also fueled by a strong Machiavellian logic bent on balancing American power by any, and multiple, means necessary. The apex of concern for Russia is that a world powered by American influence unchallenged is an unhealthy world for Russian visions of the future. That influence, even if it cannot be stopped entirely, has to be rivaled and compromised, whether it is politically, diplomatically, or militarily. Its deployment of a military force in Syria weakened this American influence to the point where it is almost impossible to imagine today how any Syrian conclusion will emerge that is fully endorsed or governed by American ideas alone. And that, in the end, may be the most important ‘victory’ for Russia in this. In the old days of nuclear deterrence, piercing the shield was a purely physical military consideration. Today, that concept has expanded and been enriched by new Russian thinking. And that, moving forward, may be the biggest concern for America.

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On the Universality of the “Logic of Strategy” and Beyond

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Just like several other scholars, military strategist Edward Luttwak argues that “the universal logic of strategy applies in perfect equality to every culture in every age”.[i] This implies that there is indeed one logic inherent to strategic thought, which, according to Luttwak, “cannot be circumvented […] and must be obeyed”.[ii]Mahnken further underpins the idea of the universality of the logic of strategy with the argument that war is a human activity and human nature has not changed throughout time.[iii]When considering Colin Gray stating that “there is an essential unity to all strategic experience in all periods of history because nothing vital to the nature and function of war and strategy changes”, it seems rather natural to accept a certain inevitability of strategic conclusions.[iv]

It is therefore necessary to pose the question which implications the existence of a universal logic of strategy might entail. If such a universally valid logic is assumed to exist, those who understand – or rather master – it best and manage to uncover its underlying cognitive mechanisms will be the most successful actors within the international system as they will be more able to foresee and therefore counter the strategies of possible opponents.

Additionally, to investigate the notion of a logic of strategy is particularly relevant considering the prospect of future wars. If there is a logic of strategy, which is further universally valid, then neither the scenario of a militarized outer space, nor the invention of highly lethal, insuperable biological weapons or the increasing development of and reliance on artificial intelligence will have any substantial, altering effect on it. This thought is congruent with Colin Gray, who claims that it would be a major fallacy to fall prey to the assumption that the invention of ever more modern weapon systems might change the presumed continuity inherent to strategy.[v] In this respect, it must also be emphasized that a certain trust in a universally valid logic of strategy must be handled carefully and must not confine strategic thinking. Hence, the notion of a logic of strategy hints towards the very practice of strategy.[vi]

The term “strategy” itself evolved over time and certainly captured a different meaning before World War One than it does today. This caesura was introduced by Freedman, who argues that this experience led to a widening of the concept “strategy” and to several attempts of redefinition, thus diverging from earlier notions of the concept as provided by von Clausewitz and others.[vii] However, Whetham points out that the notion of strategy and its inherent logic already permeated pre-modern eras, even if it was not yet considered or referred to as such by the respective protagonists.[viii]Approaching the term from a contemporary perspective, Gray very prominently defines strategy as “the bridge that relates military power to political purpose”.[ix]Angstrom and Widen engage with the term similarly when they write that strategy must be viewed as a rationalist process that reconciles “the political aims of war and the military aims in war”.[x] The notion of strategy can therefore be boiled down to the combination of means, ways and aims.

The term “logic” shall in this essay be understood as a rational process of reasoning that is based on various premises and finally leads to the acceptance of a valid conclusion.[xi]Considering that the sub-discipline of strategic studies was traditionally occupied with the question whether and to what extent strategic action is subject to historical, economic, social and technological regularities and patterns – thus whether certain premises indeed necessarily lead to specific strategic conclusions – the assumption of a specific “logic of strategy” does not seem far-fetched. Therefore, this essay argues that indeed a universally valid logic inherent to strategy can be identified, having overcome the constraints of time and space. However, this logic is not the only one. Strategy further operates along the lines of a time- and space-bound, actor-specific logic, which is why strategy must be perceived through a multidimensional lens – and which finally makes strategy so difficult.

On the logic of strategy

When approaching the notion of a logic of strategy, it is necessary to emphasize two preconditions. Firstly, the utility of the use of military force as an important tool of statecraft must be acknowledged.[xii] Secondly, one has to consider the general overarching perception of international politics that widely underlies the field of strategic studies, namely the notion of an anarchic self-help system with independent states at its center, which are all armed to a certain extent and therefore find themselves in security dilemmas.[xiii] Within this framework we will now consider what might constitute the logic of strategy.

When elaborating on the question whether there exist “guidelines” that inform strategic thinking, Gaddis concludes that the fact that strategists do not always have to start from square one increases the likeliness of a certain logic of strategy.[xiv] According to Angstrom and Wilden, the logic of strategy unfolds as its design necessarily bases on three core pillars.[xv]Firstly, military and political ends are perceived as two distinct aspects that need to be put into accordance, the application of military means serving the political ends. Moreover, the actor being concerned with strategy does not have unlimited resources at his/her disposal. Therefore, the aspect of the scarcity of resources is to be viewed as a cornerstone or fixed determinant of the underlying logic of strategy. This is a crucial factor because, as Gray points out, examples like Imperial France, Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union all demonstrate that the pursuit of political ends beyond one’s means is bound to fail.[xvi]Thirdly, Angstrom and Widen emphasize that the logic of strategy builds on the confrontation of opposing wills, which accounts for strategy’s interactive and consequently dynamic nature.[xvii] This component might be captured best by Beaufre, who approaches strategy as “the art of the dialectic of two opposing wills using force to resolve their dispute”.[xviii] It is crucial to highlight that the “opposing will” belongs to an intelligent, capable opponent. These three elements that define the logic of strategy are further interlinked, leading to repercussions among them.

As strategy describes the use of military means for the achievement of political ends, several authors have thus attempted to categorize the possible ways to use force. For instance, Robert Art distinguishes four functions of the use of force: defense, deterrence, compellence and swaggering.[xix] Why is this categorization important when reflecting on the logic of strategy? This is because the possible ways to use force (independently of which form the specific “force” takes) are not time-bound. When for example thinking of deterrence, one might be tempted to assume that this specific way to use force is inextricably linked to the deterrence function of nuclear arms in combination with the principle of mutually assured destruction (MAD). However, as Lonsdale vividly illustrates, Alexander the Great already mastered the interplay of military power and psychological effects and made use of coercion and deterrence in order to expand and sustain the newly shaping borders of his empire.[xx] This demonstrates that the logic of strategy operates on the basis of a certain toolkit of ways to use force, which have persisted over time.

Another aspect which could be interpreted as part of a universal logic of strategy might be its inherent paradoxicality. This feature is above all emphasized by Edward Luttwak, who postulates that the whole strategic sphere is permeated with a paradoxical logic deviating from day-to-day life’s ordinary “linear” logic.[xxi] He underpins this notion by referring to the proverb “Si vis pacem, para bellum”, the idea of nuclear deterrence (thus the interpretation of one’s readiness to attack retaliatory as genuinely peaceful intent) or by providing specific examples.[xxii] In this sense he draws attention to Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 and claims that the Japanese were able to create a momentum of surprise only by neglecting crucial preparations.[xxiii] This means that within the realm of strategy, Luttwak’s paradoxical logic finds thorough application as the straightforward “linear” logic is viewed rather predictable and is therefore more likely to be punished.

In sum, the aspects outlined above could be perceived as being universally valid, throughout time and space. However, as will be argued, there is more to the logic of strategy that must be considered.

Going Beyond Strategy’s Universal Logic

In the following, the attempt should be undertaken to challenge the notion that there is indeed only a logic of strategy. One could firstly argue that strategy, bridging between military means and political objectives, is not only grounded in the specific universal logic as outlined before but that strategy is also always a choice among several available options. Then the question follows, if all options available would theoretically all be equally feasible, require the same resources and are similar in terms of effectiveness, which strategy would be adopted? One could argue that this depends on the involved actors, which, even if acting under the premise of rationality, are rooted in their specific historical, social and political contexts.

Strategy is therefore clearly not designed within a vacuum. The contents of strategy do not only derive from what was described above as composing the universally valid logic of strategy. If we return to the definition of “logic”, the term was understood as a process of thought, which leads from several given premises to a valid conclusion under the condition of rationality. Therefore, also the given time- and space-bound circumstances under which a certain strategy is formulated could be considered as forming their own logic. Angstrom and Widen summarize these circumstances as strategic context, which unfolds along the lines of six dimensions of politics (without claiming to be exhaustive): geography, history, ideology, economy, technology and the political system.[xxiv] Instead of treating them as mere contextual factors, it is important to consider the respective as constituting their own logic, along which strategy is aligned. However, Angstrom and Widen emphasize that these actor-specific factors only bear limited explanatory power and that it is difficult to assess to what extent these factors influence the design of strategies.[xxv] This, nevertheless, does not invalidate the notion that these actor-, time- and space-specific circumstances should be considered as another logic by itself. Acknowledging the existence of more than one logic of strategy penetrating the realm of strategy would further emphasize the importance of the specific embeddedness of strategy – without undermining the significance of the above identified universally valid logic of strategy. One would consequently accept that when it comes to strategy, one encounters several logics in action.

Conclusion

When returning to the initial question, which implications the existence of a logic of strategy would have, specifically regarding the prospect of success, it is worthwhile to consult Richard Betts, who asks “Is Strategy an Illusion?”.[xxvi] He argues that effective strategy is often impossible due to the unpredictability and complexity of the gap between the use of force and the aspired political ends.[xxvii] However, it is indeed because of this overwhelming complexity in which strategy operates that its underlying logics should be reflected upon. Gaddis refers to the universally valid features of the logic of strategy as a “checklist”, which shall be considered to contribute to the design of a successful, effective strategy.[xxviii] As was demonstrated above, it is nevertheless also crucial to consider the additional specific time-and space-bound logic of strategy. To understand the strategy of potential opponents, it makes sense to deconstruct its logical foundation, to consider the universally valid logic of strategy but also the respective underlying actor-specific logic. Strategy thus operates along a multidimensional logic, both universally valid and time- and space-bound. This is what makes strategy difficult but acknowledging this conceptual aspect might notwithstanding contribute to its further mastery.


[i]Luttwak, Edward N., The Rise of China vs. the Logic of Strategy (Cambridge and London: Harvard University Press, 2012), vii.

[ii]Ibid., viii.

[iii]Mahnken, Thomas G., The Evolution of Strategy… But What About Policy? Journal of Strategic Studies 34 no. 4 (2016), 52.

[iv]Gray, Colin S.,Modern Strategy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), 1.

[v]Gray Colin S., Why Strategy Is Difficult. JFQ (1999), 8.

[vi] Cf. Lonsdale, David J. and Colin S. Gray (eds.), The Practice of Strategy: From Alexander the Great to the Present. Oxford: Oxford University Press (2011).

[vii]Freedman, Lawrence. The Meaning of Strategy: Part I: The Origin Story. Texas National Security Review 1 no. 1 (2007), 90-105.

[viii]Whetham, David, The Practice of Strategy: From Alexander the Great to the Present. Edited by John Andreas Olsen and Colin S. Gray. War in History 21 no. 2 (2014), 252.

[ix] Gray, Modern Strategy,17.

[x]Armstrong, Jan and J. J. Widen,Contemporary Military Theory. The Dynamics of War (New York: Routledge, 2015), 33. Original emphasis.

[xi]Hintikka, Jaakko, Logic. Encyclopaedia Britannica, accessible via: https://www.britannica.com/topic/logic [accessed: October 25th 2020].

[xii]Art, Robert J., To What Ends Military Power? International Security 4 no. 4 (1980), 35.

[xiii]Gilpin, Robert G., No one Loves a Political Realist. Security Studies 5 no. 3(1996), 26.

[xiv]Gaddis, John Lewis, Containment and the Logic of Strategy. The National Interest 8 no. 10 (1987), 29.

[xv] Armstrong and Widen, Contemporary Military Theory, 46.

[xvi]Gray, Why Strategy Is Difficult, 10.

[xvii] Cf. Armstrong and Widen, Contemporary Military Theory.

[xviii]Beaufre, André, An Introduction to Strategy (London: Faber and Faber, 1965), 22.

[xix] Cf. Art, To What Ends Military Power?

[xx]Lonsdale, David J., The Campaigns of Alexander the Great. In: John A. Olsen; Colin S. Gray (eds.). The Practice of Strategy: From Alexander the Great to the Present (Oxford: Oxford University Press 2011)33.

[xxi]Luttwak, Edward N., Strategy: The Logic of War and Peace (Cambridge and London: Harvard University Press, 2001), 2.

[xxii] Ibid.

[xxiii] Ibid., 6.

[xxiv] Cf. Armstrong and Widen, Contemporary Military Theory, 36-43.

[xxv] Ibid., 42-43.

[xxvi] Cf. Betts, Richard K., Is Strategy an Illusion? International Security 25 no. 2 (2000), 5-50.

[xxvii]Ibid., 5.

[xxviii] Gaddis, Containment and the Logic of Strategy, 38.

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Biden, Modi and the Malabar Exercise 2020

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So lastly, the reluctant President Donald Trump, keeping the value of the verdict, allows the GSA to begin the transition under the Presidential Transition Act 1963, on November 23, 2020 making the post-election resources and services available to assist in the event of presidential transition. This facilitates the formal transfer of power and helps the new President adjust his vision and the assessment of the world. Joe Biden has his own view of the burning issues around of which the expanding China, Taiwan, South China Sea, Iran, South Asia and Indo-Pacific constitute important fragments. Now since India is engaged in almost all these issues directly or indirectly and happens to be a long term strategic ally of US the talk between Biden and Modi carries several messages. In the meantime, the conduct of Malabar exercise, that formally involves all the QUAD members (India, Japan, the US and Australia) institutionalizes the strategic relationship in the region and promises more stability and peace.

Prime Minister Narender Modi, just like the heads of Canada, UK, and Australia congratulated the new elect on November 17, 2020. The President-elect Joe Biden, in turn, called him back for thanks and reaffirmation of many things suspected to be under shadow by many. The president-elect noted that he looks forward to working closely with the prime minister on shared global challenges, including containing COVID-19 and defending against future health crises, tackling the threat of climate change, launching the global economic recovery, strengthening democracy at home and abroad, and maintaining a secure and prosperous Indo-Pacific region (The Week). Mr. Biden expressed his desire to carry forward the strong ties between the two states and strengthen and expand the US-India strategic partnership alongside the first Vice President of South Asian descent Kamla Harris. His election policy papers also held that no important global challenge could be solved without the Indo-US partnership.

Besides crafting a greater Indian role in world politics, Biden’s reference to challenges of climate change, the Covid 19 pandemic and global economic recovery, the stress on democracy and peaceful and prosperous Indo-pacific sketch some significant flashes of the coming times. ‘Democracy Assistance’ has been an important objective of US foreign policy since beginning but India has a mercurial stance over the goal as it has succumbed to the exigencies of national interest and security thus playing safe with the undemocratic neighbours. Therefore the US reference brings the dictatorial and nondemocratic regimes into discussion that it aims to size.

Indo-Pacific and the Malabar I&II

The Indo-Pacific and the QUAD have gained prominence in recent past on account of heat generated in the South China Sea and China’s OBOR project affecting the trade interests of ASEAN members, India and the US in the Indian Ocean region. In the October 7, 2020 QUAD members meet at Tokyo the issues of collaboration among the democratic states and challenge to world peace, primarily from China, was discussed seriously. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called for the democracies to work together to protect people and partners from the Communist Party of China’s exploitation, corruption and coercion. He referred to the Chinese provocations in the East China Sea, the Mekong, the Himalayas, and the Taiwan Straits (Joshi October 7, 2020). The Indian External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar also called for likeminded countries to coordinate responses. Mr. Jaishanker held that we remain committed to upholding the rules-based international order, underpinned by the rule of law, transparency, freedom of navigation in the international sea, respect for territorial integrity and sovereignty and peaceful resolution of disputes (The Quint, October 7, 2020). However, a strong commitment lacked on the part of India which was met later during the Malabar exercise. India has a clear Indo-Pacific policy as articulated by Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the Shangri-La Dialogue in June 2018, which aims at protecting Indian interests in the Indian ocean region against China’s OBOR and SOP (String of Pearl). Peace and security in the region are high up on India’s list of priorities. As first and foremost, India’s economic interests in the region requires peace and convivial environment. At the same time, India has acknowledged rising China’s threats to its vital national interests in the region. Therefore, India’s strategy must be seen against the background of the interplay between India’s economic interests and national security (Purayil 2019).

The latest 24th edition of Malabar exercises have, however, put all the skeptics aside as India invited Australia also this time for the naval exercises and all the four QUAD members (India, US and Japan) have participated with great zeal. The more interesting thing is that the exercises take place at a time when the world is down with pandemic and the conflicting situations are flaring up in the Middle-East, Central Asia, Caucasus, South Asia and Far East. India is locked up in a border issue at Ladakh with China for over six months and South China Sea simmers under the fire of war threat.  India’s tough times with its smaller neighbours also make the possibility of the institutionalization of QUAD and Indo-Pacific of immense importance.

The first phase of the exercise was held in the Bay of Bengal from November 3-6, and the second phase was conducted in the Arabian Sea from November 17-20. The navies of India, the US, Australia and Japan concluded the second phase of the Malabar naval exercise in the Arabian Sea that involved two aircraft carriers and a number of frontline warships, submarines and maritime aircraft (Mint. November 20, 2020). The major highlight of the exercise was participation of Indian Navy’s Vikramaditya carrier battle group and the Nimitz strike group of the US Navy.

The more significant outcome of the exercise appears to be the proposal of a new fleet by US. On November 17, 2020 speaking at the Naval Submarine League’s annual symposium, the outgoing U.S. Navy Secretary Kenneth Braithwaite suggested the creation of a new fleet within the Indo-Pacific theater, which will take some load off the U.S. Seventh Fleet stationed near Japan. The fleet is to be placed in the crossroads between the Indian and the Pacific oceans, and going to have an Indo-PACOM footprint (Military Men. November 19, 2020). The region already has a Command known as U.S. Indo-Pacific Command found on 30 May 2018 and converted from United States Pacific Command (USPACOM) first found in 1947.

Initially, the Chinese response was balanced, stating that it has noticed the development and believes that military cooperation between countries should be conducive to regional peace and stability. But after the proposed fleet and the President-elect Joe Biden’s presumptive nominee for the secretary of defense position, Michele Flournoy, who is also seen as a China hawk in favor of a robust stance against the People’s Liberation Army, Navy, the idea of the First Fleet may very well carry forward to the next administration (Rej).

Since China had reacted sharply at the inclusion of Japan at the Malabar exercises in 2018 the inclusion of Australia this times irks it more as the idea of QUAD gets more institutionalized and the Indo-Pacific mapping further crystallized. The Biden’s quest for a stronger strategic partnership with India and support for Indian claim to permanent membership of the United Nations and the unflinching support for India against its security issues have raised eyebrows in Beijing. At one stage, the US presence in Diageo Garcia irked India but in the changed scenario the increased US presence in Indian Ocean doesn’t alarm it much, even though it curtails the Indian prominence. In view of OBOR project and the Chinese aggressiveness in the region, India has reconciled to the situation and even the US-Maldives agreement of September goes well with it. However, in the long run it is faced with a double challenge of plugging the Chinese dominance and saving its prominence and at the same time reconcile with a friendly ally in the US. Meanwhile, China, being the largest trade partner of Australia may hurt it economically and rake up heat at the Nine- dash line, Ladakh and Taiwan.

References

  • Joshi, Manoj. October 7, 2020. “The Quad and the Indo-Pacific.” https://www.orfonline.org/expert-speak/quad-indo-pacific/
  • Military Men. November 19, 2020. https://militarymen.in/us-navy-secretary-proposes-new-indo-pacific-fleet-the-diplomat/
  • Mint. November 20, 2020. https://www.livemint.com/news/india/phase-2-of-malabar-2020-exercise-concludes-in-arabian-sea-11605889757803.html
  • Purayil, Muhsin Puthan 2019. Geopolitics. “The 2019 Shangri La Dialogue and Reflections on India’s Indo-Pacific Strategy.” https://thegeopolitics.com/the-2019-shangri-la-dialogue-and-reflections-on-indias-indo-pacific-strategy/.
  • Rej, Abhijnan. The Diplomat. November 18, 2020. https://thediplomat.com/2020/11/us-navy-secretary-proposes-new-indo-pacific-fleet/
  • The Quint. October 7, 2020). https://www.thequint.com/news/india/we-will-work-together-s-jaishankar-meets-mike-pompeo-in-tokyo
  • The Week. https://www.theweek.in/wire-updates/international/2020/11/18/fgn2-us-biden-modi.html

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The imperative of a military QUAD

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After dithering for a while, India has chosen to make the Malabar naval exercise a quadrilateral one by inviting Australia to join the US and Japan.  The exercise this year was held in the Bay of Bengal in the first week of November. This is the second time the four navies have come together for a naval exercise in the Indian Ocean, after 2007 when China objected to it, calling it the Asian NATO. Since then India has been careful not to antagonise China until this year when hostilities broke out along the Sino-Indian border. The exercises are not formally linked to the Quad (Quadrilateral Security Dialogue)  forum but the participation of  Australia will definitely provide a military dimension for the Quad, which was formed in 2017 aimed at establishing ‘free and open’ Indo-Pacific. Though the Quad is currently only a mechanism of official ‘gathering and discussions’ concerning the security issues, it has the potential to become a security forum.

This time, China had a muted response compared with 2007, but it warned against any regional groupings in which the US, a formidable countervailing power against the Chinese military, is a member.

The latest Malabar assumes greater significance as it is conducted amidst Chinese expansionism. China has already achieved its ‘consolidation’ in the South China Sea, has taken control of few strategic locations in the Himalayas, and is upping the ante against the US. Its naval strategy has also been expanded from ‘offshore defence’ to ‘open seas protection’, expanding its wings to the larger Pacific and the Indian Ocean region. With this, the Indo-Pacific is virtually the area of operations for the PLA Navy. However, the absence of a concrete security forum to ‘discuss and act’ has left the region vulnerable to security competition and hegemonistic politics.

In every region, the responsibility to maintain order and peace rests on major powers. When they act in concert with smaller countries, by protecting smaller one’s interests, a region-wide peace and stability is ensured.  Since the US’s capacity to secure security for allies in Asia, let alone preserve the regional order,  is in question, the major powers of the region such as India, Japan and Australia must work closely to prevent China’s ambition of pre-eminence in the Indo-Pacific.

Up until now, these regional heavyweights have conspicuously taken a policy of ‘not antagonising’ China and have also resisted to endorse a US-led balancing against China. This has emboldened China in converting its ‘peaceful rise’ image into an assertive military power, and has derived the premium in changing the status quo both in the   South China Sea (SCS) as well as now in the Himalayas.

So far, China has not employed its military force in its expansionist actions in the maritime domain.  In the SCS, frequent Chinese intrusions into the disputed area have been done with maritime militias, to scare away the fishermen of other countries.  However, with using of a regular military force to change the status quo in the Galwan valley in the Himalayas, where Indian and Chinese military clashed and twenty Indian soldiers and a number of ‘unaccounted’ Chinese soldiers were died,  China has demonstrated that it is not hesitant to employ the PLA to settle scores with the opponents.

An assertive power needs to be checkmated militarily, otherwise, it will become more revisionist. So far none of the regional countries have had the wherewithal to take on China individually, or no regional mechanisms such as ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), or any other existing regional groupings, could mount pressure on China. All of them follow a ‘consensus and compromise’ approach based on ASEAN way of conflict resolution mechanism.

However, the Quad doesn’t need a formal military coalition mechanism modelled on NATO. Formal military coalition follows collective security principles that take the security of the one is security of all. Though it ensures security guarantee of smaller states, it is mostly driven by the choices and preferences of the powerful ones who set the agendas and interests. A military Quad can work without following the collective security principles but can pursue a consensus and norms based approach.

It is necessary for a consensus approach because all four member countries have varied security interests and concerns, and also different approaches and priorities in dealing with China. Compared with the US and Australia, India and Japan are neighbours of China and have territorial disputes with it, so they face direct security threat from China. Similarly, except India, the other three are mutually entangled security partners under the US, so New Delhi stands out from the alliance system, and has no intention to join in it whatsoever. In this respect, the Quad must first formulate agendas based on consensus and norms, and see how it can act upon it.

In the military Quad, the US has to be a facilitator, not a lead balancer, to promote it as an acceptable grouping across the region. For the US, the Indo-Pacific is one of many security concerns, while for other members it is their own region.  India could take up more of a leadership role in the Indian Ocean region, while Japan and Australia can do so in their own areas. Since this is not a formal military arrangement they don’t need to follow the alliance principles, but at the same time they need an institutionalised military arrangement.

Given the context of China’s frequent military provocations against potential rivals to test their resolve as to how they respond to a Chinese aggression, a military Quad is necessary. Chinese domination in the maritime domain is shaping along with its modernised navy, supported by its economic growth. Undoubtedly, China sends out a message to the regional states that if anyone seeks to challenge China then it will be prohibitively expensive for them. So only a joint mechanism would be able to counter the Chinese aggression in the ocean in future.  The Indo-Pacific region requires different layers of organisations and the Quad can be a true military organisation of powerful countries. In this respect, a military Quad is imperative and must take more responsibility individually as well as collectively.

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