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Indian Ocean Region: An Area of Conflicting Maritime Strategies and Power Struggles

Aditi Mukhopadhyay

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The Indian Ocean region has grown in terms of its profound strategic power in the world order because of its advantageous geostrategic location. The Indian Ocean region has become a hotbed of increasing power struggle of various countries to prove its prominence and its dominant nature. Various countries like USA, India and China have been in constant competition to increase its naval supremacy in the Indian Ocean Region(IOR) to serve its own national interest in this region which is of greater strategic interest in the recent times because of its huge energy reserves and the existence of relevant choke points in this region altogether. Robert D. Kaplan in his book, Monsoon: The Indian Ocean and the Future of American Power, explained rightly that, “Throughout history sea routes have been more important than the land ones….the Silk Route from Venice to Japan across the Indian Ocean in the medieval and early modern centuries was as important as the Silk Route proper…..Globalisation relies ultimately on shipping containers, and Indian Ocean accounts for one half of the world’s container traffic. Moreover, the Indian Ocean rimland from the Middle East to the Pacific accounts 70% of the traffic of the petroleum products.”(Kaplan, 2010)

The USA had continuously been trying to prove its prominence in the Indian Ocean region but is being contested by China because of its rising power in Asia as well as the world. On the other hand, India has also been trying to become the sole power in the Indian Ocean region by increasing its naval exercises and also the joint exercises with various other countries like USA and Japan in this region. The power conflict rises to use the Sea lines of Communications (SLOCs) to fulfil its energy procurement and trade through this region whereby the Malacca Strait, Strait of Hormuz and the Bab-el-Mandeb are significant choke points in the world order. China, which is a very ambitious power have been constantly increasing its military assertiveness in this area and these are serious concerns for India and United States for this reason. Hence this makes Indian Ocean the busiest and significant Ocean in the world order. With this the energy needs of various countries will increase by almost 50% by 2030. Moreover, India and China will be the greatest consumer of energy because of its huge population. It also is the new point of rising armed conflicts because of the rise of various Asian powers like India and China, constant conflicts between India and Pakistan over the Kashmir issue and so on. Some of the other conflicts are those of USA’s interventions in the countries of Iraq and Afghanistan, the rise of sea piracy, increased terrorist activities and incidences of drug trafficking in the Indian Ocean region. These conflicts have risen to such a point that there is even a reduction in the fisheries in this region.

The Indian Ocean area would in a greater way face various challenges in the advent of increasing military interventions in this area and also affect the mobilization of energy resources of various countries through this region. Almost all the countries in the Indian Ocean region have deployed substantial amount of military in this region whereby there have been greater incidences of security threats around this area. Powerful Asian countries have always been in a rising competition in the Indian Ocean and this has resulted in escalation of mutual distrust of one country towards the other. China and India are the biggest example of degrading relations being neighbours and their only way to prove its powers are that of increasing military control over the Indian Ocean region altogether. In this power struggle which has successfully manifested around the Indian Ocean between the major powers of India-USA and on the other hand China; the other equation which was successfully added by the United States to ease down the assertiveness of China was another rising Asian power which was Japan. Japan which in the recent times have been an emerging partner of India is that of the political diplomacy of United States to make its side better in the power game against the vehemently increasing power of China in Asia and more specifically of China in the Indian Ocean Maritime supremacy altogether.

There have been major challenges both traditional and non-traditional which are as follows:

  1. Proliferation of weapons of mass destruction
  2. Increased nuclearization in the maritime arena which has been acting as a threat to the environment and energy and also causing climate change in this area.
  3. India’s increasing border dispute with its neighbours like Pakistan and China.
  4. Piracy in the Sea
  5. Disruption in trade
  6. A continuous power games.

The nuclear submarines which not only a security threat to the region but also have adverse effects on the blue economy of the region on which the population of the littoral states depend for their livelihood. China’s String of Pearls strategy or otherwise called the Diego Garcia also poses a serious threat to the security environment of the Indian Ocean. Adding to these the presence od various extremist groups have increased terrorist activities in the maritime domain of the Indian Ocean Region. This has called for the need of initiating a peaceful and stable environment in the seas and this has resulted in the initiation of India-Japan ties to bring about “Good Order at the Seas” and also the organisation of Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) whose main focus is to enforce the maritime security and safety in the Indian Ocean Region which is infested with conflicts and insecurity. It also aims towards the trade and investment mobilisation, fisheries management, disaster risk management in the Indian Ocean Region. The India-Japan ties have manifested a great initiative to balance China as well as bring into the ambit the security of the Indian Ocean Region. For this reason the Asia-Pacific has been shifted to a more precise Indo-Pacific policy by USA’s initiative and later called by Japan as the confluence of the seas to cooperate amongst various countries for bringing a peace and stabilising effect in continuum in the whole Indo-Pacific region in the modern political dynamics of world order.

This brings to the forefront a clear picture of the triangular power game which dominates the Indian Ocean maritime strategy whose base lies in the individual interests of the three main countries- the USA, China and India-who are always in a tryst of proving its influence in this region. India has undertaken the policy of “Security and Growth for all the Region” which is based on its Act East Policy and the Look West Policy. USA’s Indo-Pacific Strategy and China’s Maritime Silk Road Strategy which is part of the One Belt One Road (OBOR). Hereby its always Indian and United States on one side and China on other. The SAGAR taken up by India is a balancing strategy of India to influence power balance in the IOR region. India has been giving a tough competition to the military power of China in the Indian Ocean Region.

China’s conceptualisation of the One Belt One Road has been said to be a continuation of the Maritime Silk Road which will use the waterway of Indian Ocean and its various choke points for acquiring its energy needs and has also been blamed for its highly imperialistic foreign policies amongst which also includes the String of Pearls Strategy. China also possess the greater design to dominate the whole of Asia and Europe connecting it through pipelines, roads and railways. Moreover, China’s close relation with Pakistan and the huge investment on the China-Pakistan Industrial Corridor is also a major concern for India’s security and military threat.

The United States which has been the major pioneer in conceptualising the Indo-Pacific Strategy in which first India and now Japan has also been a major addition did it as a counter policy to check the Chinese domination in world order and specifically in the Indian Ocean Region.

Conclusion

The Power competition of India, USA, and China should be able to counterbalance each other to maintain the power dynamics of the Indian Ocean region. It also is essential that no one country should dominate completely the political scenario of the IOR which would destroy the multipolar structure of power and result in the emergence of a hegemonic power. Also, the role of India-Japan relations is also important to maintain maritime security through policies like “Confluence of Seas”, enforcing “Good Order at the Seas” and so on. Peace and stability is essential in this region as there is an increasing incidence of mistrust and conflicts which may result in a probable military conflict in the near future. India is trying to strategize as a middle negotiator between China and United States to maximise its advantages in the Indian Ocean region.

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Defense

India’s Test of Hypersonic Technology Demonstrator Vehicle and Implications for South Asia

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In September this year, India claimed to have successfully tested scramjet engine technology. This has been indigenously developed for its hypersonic technology demonstrator vehicle (HSTDV). As per the Indian estimates, this particular and sophisticated technology would be a key component for the development of the next generation of hypersonic cruise missiles. After attaining supersonic technology and developing supersonic cruise missiles with the help of Russia, India now also aspires to have hypersonic weapons in its inventory. India’s pursuit of hypersonic cruise missiles would bring new security challenges for Pakistan. This would have devastating implications for the strategic equation of the region since it would further enable India to a resort of the first strike against Pakistan. Likewise, this would ultimately destabilize the already volatile South Asian region.

It would be pertinent to mention here that hypersonic weapons are of two types: hypersonic glide vehicles (glide towards the target before dropping) and hypersonic cruise missiles (use scramjet engines). Furthermore, the hypersonic missiles are not just deadly because of their incredible speed (sustained speed of more than Mach 5); even ballistic missiles could reach up to Mach 25 in their re-entry phase. The major difference is the maneuverability and terrain hugging capability of the hypersonic missiles, which allows them to have more unpredictable flight paths. Consequently, they can easily penetrate the advanced air defence systems that are currently available in the world and might even in the near future as well. Furthermore, hypersonic missiles can carry both conventional and nuclear warheads. What makes them more lethal is their enhanced speed, with which even a conventional warhead hypersonic weapon can destroy unhardened or underground facilities. Moreover, because of their speed, range, precision, and lethality, they are also considered as ideal weapons against time-sensitive targets and missile defences.  Therefore, it can be said that hypersonic weapons are effective counter-force weapons because of their precision and capability to target and destroy high-value targets with incredible speed and accuracy.

After the successful test of the scramjet engine meant for powering the HSTDV, India has been aiming to become part of the elite group of states that possess this technology. Previously the US, Russia, and China have been part of the arms race to develop hypersonic weapons. Last year in June, India failed to successfully test scram-jet technology. However, the recently claimed success of the September 7th test of HSTDV has been celebrated by the Defence Research and Development Organization (DRDO), Prime Minister Modi, and the Defence Minister Rajnath Singh as a ‘landmark achievement’. According to the Press Release by the Indian Ministry of Defence, HSTDV was launched on top of a solid-fueled rocket; it carried to an altitude of 30 kilometers at the speed of Mach 5 for about 20 seconds.  Though Indian media considers this test as India’s entrance into the “elite league” of nations possessing hypersonic weapons, in reality, the test has been conducted at the speed of Mach 5 which is believed to be the lowest possible speed for hypersonic weapons. This reflects two things: firstly, India has improved its technology from the previous failure, and secondly, there is a long way ahead of India to develop and deploy hypersonic weapons. Moreover, this capability also reflects India’s inclinations towards the development of counter-force and pre-emptive nuclear capabilities, which are contradicting its long doubted policy of ‘no first use’. This situation has become more alarming since India has been acquiring advanced missile defense systems and also developing counter-force technologies like the hypersonic weapons simultaneously. This could result in a false sense of security and superiority within the Indian strategic elite. Inspired by this India could attempt to launch a first strike most probably against Pakistan.

Hence, the development and deployment of hypersonic weapons by India would likely eliminate the existing parity in South Asia primarily ensured by Pakistan’s nuclear capability. Today, deterrence stability exists between both countries because both possess the capability to inflict the damage and it becomes unappealing for them to initiate a nuclear attack. However, if the Indian pursuit of hypersonic weapons goes on with its belligerent policies, the deterrence stability might not hold for long. Therefore to maintain parity and deterrence stability in South Asia, Pakistan might need to think of the probability of developing its supersonic and hypersonic weapons or at least come up with an alternative and a plausible way-out. Moreover, Pakistan needs to further ensure the adaptability of the mutually assured destruction in South Asia and eliminate the chances of the first strike by India. Since hypersonic weapons would reduce the response-time and blur the line between conventional and strategic weapons; Pakistanneeds tofurther develop a mechanism to address this emergent threat to maintain the nuclear deterrence equilibrium in the region.

Summarizing it all, the emergence of hypersonic weapons in South Asia has posed a serious threat to regional security. It seems that India is quite eager to develop and ultimately deploy the hypersonic weapons. There is no doubt that at the moment South Asia is engulfed in an action-reaction spiral between India and Pakistan mainly triggered by Indian offensive strategies and threatening policies vis-à-vis Pakistan. Once becoming operational, India’s hypersonic weapons would likely add up to this chain of action and reaction. This might ultimately compel Pakistan to revisit its existing nuclear posture vis-à-vis India.    

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Evolution of Indian Nuclear Doctrine: From NFU to Preemption

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India’s obscure nuclear doctrine of ‘No First Use’ (NFU) had evolved over the years since it was first declared in 1999 by NSAB’s (Nuclear Security Advisory Board) in the ‘Draft Nuclear Doctrine’(DND) that forms the very basis of the official Indian nuclear doctrine. Subsequently, in 2003after a review by the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) the DND had emerged as India’s official nuclear doctrine. However, the later developments are quite evident that India has shifted its nuclear posture from NFU to preemption. In August 2019, a statement made by Mr. Rajnath Singh (Indian Defence Minister) made headlines amid rising tensions between India and Pakistan, the two arch-rivals in South Asia. This was an assertion of India’s likely shift from its long doubted NFU policy. This has further exposed the pretense of India‘s NFU policy, to which Pakistan has never given any credence. This shift in Indian nuclear doctrine seems to be purely Pakistan centric.  Such an Indian shift is further evidence of India’s focus towards nuclear war-fighting rather than maintaining deterrence. In the wake of the evolved tensions in the region, India’s offensive nuclear posture of preemption would have dire implications for the strategic stability of South Asia.

Over the period, various statements by the Indian government officials and prominent academicians have raised serious concerns over India’s adherence to the NFU policy. In 2010 Shivshankar Menon, the then National Security Advisor of India stated that according to Indian nuclear doctrine NFU policy is meant only for non-nuclear-weapon states. Hence, it implies that using a nuclear weapon could be a resort against nuclear-weapon states, particularly against Pakistan. Later on, in 2016 Manohar Prakar the then Indian Defence Minister questioned “Why do lots of people say that India is for no first use? Why should I blind myself?”  Moreover, in 2017 a prominent Indian scholar, Vipin Narang while speaking at the conference at Carnegie stated that India would not let Pakistan go first.  These assertions are quite evident that in a crisis, India might take a nuclear first strike against Pakistan. Such drifts in Indian policy have further enhanced Pakistan’s threat perception vis-à-vis India. Similarly, Pakistan would be further compelled to maintain a credible nuclear deterrence posture to overcome India’s offensive nuclear posturing.

India’s pursuit of offensive nuclear capabilities further reveals its aspirations of a pre-emptive nuclear strike against Pakistan. This, for instance, is further evident from the fact that India has been involved in developing ground-based and space-based surveillance, reconnaissance, and intelligence capabilities, and new precision weaponry for the last few years.  These would further embolden India to take any move toward pre-emption or first use. In the same vein, India’s adoption of Pakistan specific policy of first use would likely result in the lowering of the Indian nuclear threshold. This might bring serious implications for Pakistan’s existing nuclear deterrent posture which covers a broad spectrum of threats coming from India including its conventional advantage. It would further generate an unnecessary arms race in the region and might force Pakistan to further revisit its doctrinal and force posture vis-à-vis India’s notions of preemptions. The likelihood of India’s shift towards preemption would also mean that India’s nuclear weapons would be kept in the state of readiness. This would also increase the risk of unauthorized or accidental use of Indian nuclear weapons. Such a scenario would likely create a complex security dilemma for Pakistan, thus undermining the deterrence equilibrium in South Asia, primarily ensured by Pakistan’s nuclear capabilities.

In recent years, India’s massive naval buildup is also aimed at maintaining an offensive sea-based nuclear posture. In this regard, India’s acquisition of SSBNs (nuclear-powered submarines) is quite significant since along with the assurance of second-strike capability, they are also meant to be used to launch a multitude of nuclear weapons. Other than that, India has been maintaining an operational BMD (Ballistic Missile Defence) system; also, it would have the most advanced anti-missile systems like the Russian S-400 in its inventory very soon. Hence, having been assured that it would be protected against any counter-strike by Pakistan by its BMD systems; India might potentially launch a land, sea, or air-based pre-emptive strike against Pakistan. This would create a false sense of security among the Indian decision-makers and they might act aggressively in the time of crisis. Pakistan needs to keep a close eye on India’s shifting nuclear policy to counter the probability of a nuclear first strike initiated by India. Pakistan has already developed MIRV (Multiple Independent Re-entry Vehicle) capable short and medium-range ballistic missiles. Apart from that Pakistan has also developed a sea-based delivery system such as Babur-3, a Submarine Launched Cruise Missile (SLCM) which is aimed at ensuring a credible second-strike capability. These would serve as a reliable and credible deterrent against Indian notions of preemption.

Hence, at the present, the assertions of Indian officials to abandon the long doubted NFU policy and a move towards pre-emption is mere irresponsible and belligerent behavior. India in its pursuit to become a regional hegemon would destabilize the already conflict-prone South Asian region by further provoking an arms race. Pakistan needs to further increase international pressure by highlighting India’s aggressive and irresponsible nuclear posturing. The world needs to know that India’s shift from NFU is merely reckless and dangerous. On the other hand, Pakistan also needs to ensure its safety by further enhancing its assured second-strike capability and acquiring advanced BMDs while staying within its existing posture of minimum credible deterrence.

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Defense

Afghan Peace Talks And Prospects For Pakistan

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On 3 September 2020, the three brave sons of Pakistan, soldier Usman, Naek Imran and Lieutenant Nasir Khalid embraced shahadat during a patrolling in North Waziristan in a terrorist attack. Since US officials and representatives of the Taliban signed a peace agreement on 29 Feb 2020 in Doha to end the conflict, the various affiliated groups of TTP began launching attacks against the security forces of Pakistan. According to the report of the Pakistan Institute of Peace Studies in August 2020, 12 terrorist attacks were launched in Pakistan. In these terrorist attacks, 14 people lost their lives and 68 people were injured. The terrorist carried out 75 % terrorist attacks against the security forces. These terrorist attacks on the security forces of Pakistan are evident that TTP and its affiliated groups are confident after the peace deal of the Taliban and the USA. It illustrates the scenario of post-US withdrawal from Afghanistan. Following the deal, the US will withdraw from Afghanistan within 14 months. Even though the Taliban are negotiating with the USA and Afghan government but fighting is continued in Afghanistan from both sides.

The US withdrawal will create a power vacuum not only in Afghanistan but also in the South Asian region that is likely to be filled by a stronger state or a group. The US withdrawal is creating the same challenges that are similar to the USSR withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1990. After the withdrawal of the USSR, civil war broke out in Afghanistan for the assumption of power. Taliban emerged as victorious after a deadly civil war. Afghanistan is the home of various terrorist groups and their presence is a threat to the South Asian Region once the USA leaves Afghanistan. The US withdrawal will also affect Pakistan.If the Taliban assumed power in Afghanistan then TTP will be strengthened in Pakistan. As soon as the USA making arrangements to leave Afghanistan, various militants groups of Pakistan are uniting. The two militant groups Hizb-ul-Ahrar (HuA) and Jamaat-ul-Ahrar have merged into one terrorist group on 17 August 2020. Both of the groups pledged its affiliation to Mufti Noor Wali as its chief. The leader of Punjabi Taliban Asmatullah Muawiya has joined the Taliban. Once the militant groups are on the same page, the impact will be disastrous for Pakistan as it did not chalk out a comprehensive policy following the US withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Over a decade Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) wants to establish Sharia in Pakistan and for that, it is in confrontation with Islamabad. Mullah Muhammad Omar, the leader of the Afghan Taliban is considered as the spiritual leader of TTP. Since its inception in 2007, TTP has proved to be the deadliest terrorist group in Pakistan. TTP was an ally of Al-Qaeda to operate from FATA. The group has its presence in Swat and Karachi. The TTP launched massive attacks in Pakistan like the terrorist attack on the General Headquarters of Army (2009) attack on PNS Mehran in Karachi (2011) and an attack on the Army Public School (20140in Peshawar. TTP also using different channels to radicalize youth like Sunnat-e-Khaula to radicalize and recruit females in Pakistan. The TTP and Afghan Taliban worked in partnership in the past and they are interconnected. In the past couple of months, TTP has increased its terrorist attacks against Pakistan.  The JuA took the responsibility of an improvised explosive device (IED) thatwas planted on a bike to hit a vehicle that has killed 7 members of the anti-narcotics force in Chamman, Baluchistan in August. 

The report of the Pak Institute of Peace Studies (PIPS) is evident that since 2019, TTP remained a major source of instability in Pakistan. It carried out 82 terrorist attacks in which 69 attacks were taken in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and 13 from the province of Baluchistan. It seems that TTP is becoming stronger after living in the shadows for years. According to the UN report approximately 65000 militants of TTP are stationed in Afghanistan. With a merger, it will become a force that cannot be neglected. The merger of various factions of TTP is a threat to CPEC. China has begun the number of development projects like infrastructure and hydroelectric in remote areas of KP.

Currently, Chinese companies are working on Karakoram Highway Phase II,SukiKinari Hydropower Station and the Havelian Dry Port. TTP have kidnapped and killed Chinese from Baluchistan and KP. In 2013, Pakistan banned 3 militant groups that were affiliated to Al-Qaeda namely the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, the Islamic Jihad Union and East Turkestan Islamic Movement on the request of China. TTP targets China as a retaliation of mistreating the Uyghur Muslim minority in the province of Xinjiang. In 2014,the leading Al-Qaeda ideologue Mufti Abu Zar al Burmi in a video message that was titled as let’s disturb China stated that the withdrawal of the USA from Afghanistan is a victory for the Taliban. In the video message, he also urged the militant groups to carry out attacks on Chinese companies and embassies and kidnap Chinese nationals. Foreign CPEC is hope for Pakistan to bring investment and embark on the road of peace and prosperity. The reunification of militants can’t be ignored as once they are strengthened they will carry out massive attacks against Pakistan. Therefore, Pakistan needs to chalk out a comprehensive policy to root out terrorism. It’s up to the policymakers to shake hands with militants like the US or take coercive military operations.

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