“Our concerns relate to not just China’s growing naval presence in the IOR but how it’s going to express that presence and what its intentions are…We have started to see a pattern of its behaviour that we have seen in other parts,” US assistant secretary of defence for Indo-Pacific security affairs Ely S Ratner said during a virtual media roundtable.
Consequently, the India-US strategic-defence partnership is “central” to Washington’s vision for a free and open IOR and the wider Indo-Pacific region. “While there may be bumps in the road along the way, we are really focused on the long game, which is building our partnership into the future and supporting India’s ability to shape a favourable balance of power in the Indo-Pacific,” he said.
Armed with the world’s largest Navy with 355 warships and submarines, China has cranked up its hunt for logistical bases in the IOR, from Cambodia, Seychelles and Mauritius to east African countries, after establishing a full-fledged overseas base at Djibouti on the Horn of Africa, as was reported by TOI earlier.
China’s adroit use of its debt-trap policy was also evident when its research and space-tracking vessel Yuan Wang-5 docked at Hambantota last month. This raised red flags in the Indian defence establishment that it could lead to Chinese warships regularly using Sri Lanka as an operational turnaround facility in the future. China, of course, already has full access to Pakistan’s Karachi and Gwadar ports.
Ratner, on his part, said India and the US were now “more closely aligned” than ever before in history, with “converging strategic interests” and a “shared vision” for the Indo-Pacific region.
He listed out Pentagon’s three key priorities for India. One, supporting India’s military modernization, its deterrent capability and rise as a defence industrial power through co-development and co-production of weapon systems. This will help India’s own modernization goals as well as its ability to export to “our partners” across the region, he said.
“The second priority that we are pursuing is deepening our operational cooperation and coordination, with an eye toward countering and outmatching our competitors across critical warfighting domains,” Ratner said. This has translated into naval exercises, information-sharing, technical exchanges, and cooperation on maritime and underwater domain awareness. There is also expanding collaboration in cyber, space, artificial intelligence and other emerging technology areas.
“Third and finally, as we move toward a more advanced phase in our partnership, we are thinking more expansively about how we work together in the broader regional architecture, including in coalition settings with partners both within and beyond the region,” he said.
An example of this growing strategic congruence to deter coercion in the Indo-Pacific was the `Quad-plus-France’ exercise called La Pérouse’ in the Bay of Bengal in April last year.