QUAD is ready but no more free lunches for ASEAN on South China Sea
In September 2007 under the UPA-I regime, India, US, Japan, Australia, Singapore participated in Malabar Naval exercises in Bay of Bengal. This was before the concept of QUAD - US, India, Japan and Australia - was not even born but Chinese Communist Party (CCP) ruled Beijing sent demarche to all four countries and virtually blaming the exercises partners for targeting the Middle Kingdom. With the Indian Left parties badgering the Manmohan Singh regime already over India-US nuclear deal and not willing to earn the wrath of Chinese rulers, the naval exercise concept was dropped like a hot potato by all barring the US. Thirteen years later, India, Japan and Australia are again on the same cross-road with Chinese dragon breathing on Ladakh land borders with India, contesting Senkaku Islands with Japan, openly threatening Australia with trade war, and talking nuke missiles to exercising US navy in South China Sea (SCS).
While the call on QUAD naval exercises is still to be taken, US Navy following the new maritime policy in SCS has sent a guided missile destroyer into the contested waters at Spratly islands as part of the freedom of navigation operation. USS Ralph Johnson is backed by two super carrier task forces led by USS Ronal Reagan and USS Nimitz, who are exercising in international waters off the Chinese coast.
With the Narendra Modi government not a believer in free lunches as the ASEAN regimes, India has rejected the Chinese claims on SCS by calling it a global commons and openly advocated its long held position of freedom of navigation and overflights. Even though the Russian trade to the port of Vladivostok passes through SCS, Moscow has been silent on the SCS issue given its perceived closeness to the Chinese authoritarian state. Australia and Japan have also bilaterally discussed the SCS issue and like ASEAN want America to be at the fore-front. The so-called Tiger economies of ASEAN talk against China behind closed doors to the QUAD but are virtually servile before the Middle Kingdom as they do not have either the political or military heft to challenge China.
Although China is the first to call out any country opposed to its political and military objectives, the same cannot be said in reverse with exception of a few. And this is despite the fact that Beijing cavorts with most repressive regimes in the world like North Korea, Pakistan and lately Iran. It is this unchallenged belief that China today runs roughshod over most of the countries in the world, either through money or muscle power. The Chinese penetration into the democratic world through its US listed companies is a matter of extreme serious concern as is evident to Delhi with Indian Universities signing scores of MoUs with Chinese fronts without even understanding the cultural implications of the move. The story of Chinese infiltration into global telecom sector is so humongous that it requires another article in this paper.
Also Read: How PM Modi called China’s bluff in Ladakh
The world seemed to be humouring China like an errant child prodigy till the Galwan flare-up took place on June 15. The US, which had decided not to spill any more American blood for global causes, also turned around and threw the SCS gauntlet and challenged the PLA Navy on high seas. While the PLA Navy looks formidable on the paper, China is still to gain expertise on carrier operations as landing a fighter on a moving floating deck in rough seas requires decades of experience. US Navy has it and so has Indian Navy.
The PLA Navy may have Russian made or copy destroyers but dealing with an Indian submarine in equatorial waters is a different cup of tea. The huge difference between surface and temperatures at sea depth, the refraction causes optical paradox and makes the task of detecting submarines very hard and perilous. To cut the long story short, the PLA Navy is unproven on high seas and the PLA Army has not fought a war since 1979. This holds as much truth as the political fact that the objectives of Chinese communist rulers are totally at variance with the democratic world at large.
While the middle-powers like India, Japan, Australia and South Korea have started to rise, it is the democratic world that needs to hold hands together to make China sombre to the global truth. Otherwise, like in 1999 Sci-Fi film, there will be only Mr Smiths left in the Communist matrix.