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Nagorno-Karabakh: Will the Landscape Change following the Latest Unrest?

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EPA-EFE/ARMENIAN DEFENCE MINISTRY/Vostock Photi

The situation surrounding Nagorno-Karabakh, which has deteriorated dramatically in recent days, has clearly demonstrated that it is becoming increasingly impossible to maintain the status quo. An urgent solution to the conflict is needed in order to avert a serious crisis.

External factors that have contributed to the escalation of the Nagorno-Karabakh include: 1) Russia finding itself hemmed in from all sides by the seemingly unbreakable transatlantic coalition which has given the West considerable room for manoeuvre with regard to the Nagorno-Karabakh issue; 2) Turkey’s exponentially growing ambitions to build a new Islamic Empire, which are bolstered by the country’s strong alliance with the United States; and 3) the complete ineptitude of the OSCE Minsk Group (Russia, the United States and France), which has been working towards the settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict for three decades now without a single major breakthrough.

One thing is clear — the conflict needs to be resolved, and now is the time to do it. One thing is clear — the conflict needs to be resolved, and now is the time to do it. Meanwhile, the entire world is calling for the two sides to abandon the hostilities and sit down at the negotiating table. The conflict needs to end now.

All the attempts to resolve the conflict — the Madrid Principles, the Zurich Protocols, the renewed Madrid Principles and the talks in Kazan on the settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict — have looked more like possible ways out of the crisis than roadmaps for concrete actions. This is why they have all remained on paper, as none of the sides has been prepared to make even the smallest of compromises.

While the two central players in this geopolitical puzzle, Turkey and the United States (which is keen to see a settlement), may disagree profoundly on a number of issues, Ankara has always been viewed by Washington as a country of indisputable geostrategic importance and its key partner in the region, and this will not change. It is thus no coincidence that the “Turkey–U.S. Defense Cooperation: Prospects and Challenges” report for the United States Congress notes that “Turkey is a more significant ally for the United States at present than during the Cold War” given U.S. interests in the region. Turkey’s attitude towards NATO will not undergo any major changes either. According to President of Turkey Recep Erdogan, Ankara “has no intention of giving up its NATO membership or its allies.” This is something that Russia must keep in mind when developing its South Caucasus policy.

Turkey and the United States have a number of common interests in the South Caucasus that allow the two countries to work together. These interests include joint projects in the Black Sea region and call for strengthening security cooperation there, an issue that is becoming increasingly important. This state of affairs can be partly explained by the fact that the signing of the Convention on the Legal Status of the Caspian Sea effectively blocked access to the Caspian Sea for non-regional players, at least for the time being, which only makes their desire to be involved in the Black Sea region even stronger.

Both the warring sides and the United States and Turkey have long expressed the desire to find a way out of this impasse, and Washington and Ankara will work together to try and ensure a quick settlement to the conflict.

As far as the strategists in Washington see it, Azerbaijan is far more invested in finding a solution than Armenia is. This is why we have seen significant changes in the U.S. policy towards Yerevan, including insisting that the latter make certain concessions in order to bring the conflict to an end. The arrival of Nikol Pashinyan as Prime Minister of Armenia brought with it a noticeable shift in Armenia’s foreign policy towards the United States, which should make this strategy successful.

Consequently, Washington’s policy in this area will focus, first of all, on normalizing relations between Turkey and Armenia, and then on opening the border between the two countries. After all, it is of strategic importance for Washington to find a solution to this problem, especially when U.S.–Iran relations are likely to deteriorate even further moving forward. This could also help speed up the settlement process, as well as promote cooperation not only between Baku and Yerevan, but also with Ankara, which should lead to Turkey and Azerbaijan lifting the land blockade against Armenia that was established during the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.

What is more, Washington has started to openly demonstrate its intention over the past few years to resolve the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict independently in the context of implementing its policy in the South Caucasus.

This was initially reflected in a statement given by former U.S. ambassador to Armenia Richard Mills, where he claimed that the status quo is unacceptable and cannot last forever, adding that “any settlement of the Karabakh conflict is going to require the return of some portion of the occupied territories,” although events like the 2016 April War make this even more difficult for the Armenian people. And things have gone from bad to worse since then. A series of resolutions passed by the 115th United States Congress — Resolution 573 “calling on the President to work toward equitable, constructive, stable and durable Armenian–Turkish relations,” and Resolution 190 of the 116th United States Congress “supporting visits and communication between the United States and the Republic of Artsakh” (the new name of the Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh following a 2017 referendum) — prove that Washington intends to change the situation in the conflict zone and become the main moderator in the disagreement. In this regard, it is worth paying special attention to the main areas of Washington’s policy towards Armenia, which has been thought-out particularly well, taking into account both the need to repair relations between Turkey and Armenia, giving Yerevan access to the rest of the world, and to improve relations with the Republic of Artsakh, which could become the main stumbling block in the way of Armenia’s drift towards the West.

The U.S. approach to Armenia could thus change completely as it develops its new policy in the South Caucasus. This state of affairs also meets the interests of Turkey, which, as a key player in the South Caucasus, will welcome any positive change in Yerevan’s foreign policy towards the West. With this being the case, it could be argued that Ankara not only pursues its own geopolitical interests in the region, but also acts as an instrument through which the United States can further its policies there. This could lead to a change in the configuration of the South Caucasus as a whole, which is unacceptable for Moscow in terms of preserving and promoting its interests in the region given the fact that Armenia is key to Russia’s plans for maintaining its strategic interests in the Caucasus, as well as in the context of the “Iranian problem.”

Right now, Armenia is Russia’s only strategic ally in the South Caucasus, and ensuring the country’s security is its number one problem. Russia has always played an important role in the Nagorno-Karabakh settlement process, and this will not change. It thus needs to take stock of the opportunities it has to influence the resolution of the problem, which, it would seem, neither Baku nor Yerevan, nor indeed the West, fully appreciate. Moscow believes that the only way to put an end to the confrontation, which has been going on for some 30 years or so, is through political means. It would thus be fair to assume that military intervention “from the outside” is extremely unlikely, because Moscow’s main task here is to maintain at least a shaky balance between Yerevan and Baku. In other words, Moscow believes that “freezing” the conflict is more acceptable in the current climate, where neither Azerbaijan nor Armenia, which are involved in an intense ethnopolitical confrontation, have any intention of making compromises or concessions, than actually working for a final resolution to the long-standing conflict — although this approach has not yet led to peace.

However, given the escalation of the conflict, it would seem that Moscow, for which the two warring sides are of great importance, is in a position to launch the renewed Madrid Principles, which be the first step towards resolving the conflict. Both Azerbaijan and Armenia were prepared to negotiate under these principles and saw it as a blueprint for achieving a peaceful solution. However, the renewed Madrid Principles touch upon issues that are extremely sensitive for Armenia, primarily regarding the international legal status of Nagorno-Karabakh. Azerbaijan has stood firm on its position that a settlement can only be reached if its territorial integrity is preserved, which means restoring its jurisdiction over Nagorno-Karabakh. This condition has been the main obstacle to the settlement of the conflict. Another important issue is the return by Yerevan of seven regions that neighbour Nagorno-Karabakh and are controlled by Armenian forces. Nevertheless, the renewed Madrid Principles project needs to be launched as soon as possible — after all, the main obstacle is the unwillingness of the parties to make concessions. Beyond that, where there’s a will, there’s a way.

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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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