At the close of the 20th century, global optimism and hope for a more peaceful world were common. More than a few national, naval, and even corporate strategy formulations contained the appealing phrase “vision 20/20.”1 The 9/11 attacks swiftly dampened the positive emotions, as did the ensuing multinational involvements in Afghanistan, Iraq, and several other small conflicts across Eurasia, the Middle East, and Africa over the first two decades of the new century. In the Indian Ocean region, through all the years of turmoil since, China steadily, stealthily made remarkable economic and military headway. In hindsight, 2020—the year of COVID-19—may long remind us of the pitfalls of hope as a strategy and of despair as a viral presence in the Indian Ocean littoral.
Across the vast region, China kept up its statecraft. This included naval deployments, exercises, increased ocean-data collection, and senior-level military and political visits.2 The Belt and Road Initiative faced some challenges, but these appear mainly tactical, not strategic.3 Chinese influence in international bodies, media, academia, and among policy-makers continues to grow, even as it is noted with increasing concern in many quarters.
Across the Indian Ocean, Beijing’s “wolf-warrior” diplomacy continued unabated. Ironically, China’s exports of medical and personal protective equipment in the year of the coronavirus were considerable. Its new domestic laws give more teeth to the People’s Liberation Army as well as to the echeloned instruments that patrol the region in China’s fishing fleets, maritime militia, and a newly powerful China Coast Guard.4 These layered forces—operating for the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)—could provide Beijing tools for provocation, escalation/de-escalation management, and even deniability, in some cases. Finally, China’s economic setbacks in 2020 were less serious than for almost any other country, and China may make this count, too, in coming years. The good news is that, mindful of such Chinese advances and advantages, several nations are readjusting and reconfiguring their maritime strategies, fleets, and operations.
Indonesia is an important example. Like most Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) members, Jakarta’s economic relationship with Beijing is important, but this has not kept China from illegally fishing in Indonesian waters. In January 2020, the Indonesian Armed Forces (Tentara Nasional Indonesia, TNI) inaugurated a combined Maritime Information Center (Pusinformar). This was followed in July by the Maritime Security Agency (Bakamla) setting up its own, more focused equivalent for law enforcement (given the rise in crime against Indonesian crew on Chinese-controlled boats) and for preventing illegal fishing and piracy. It seems the Indonesian Coast Guard is gearing up for expansion and easing the pressure on the TNI for some tasks done earlier by the Navy. Significantly, Admiral Yudo Margono, Chief of Staff of the Indonesian Navy, announced plans to shift the headquarters of the Marine Combat Team from Jakarta to Natuna, because of Chinese activities in that area.5 These are important developments—Indonesia straddles several strategically important Indo-Pacific access routes.
India remained at a heightened alert while countering border violations in the Himalayas that started in May. The tense standoff is likely to continue well into 2021 or even flare up. Despite multiple operational deployments, the Indian Navy assisted other regional governments with humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, something it has been doing for years.
Four developments may offer long-term benefits. First, the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad)—India, Japan, Australia, and the United States—began its transition from talk to walk at the foreign ministers’ level with an increasing emphasis on a “free and open Indo-Pacific.”6 Giving this concept executive substance will present challenges, but universal concerns about China are nudging the members toward greater alignment.
Second, the navies of the Quad sailed together in both phases of Exercise Malabar 2020—in November in the Bay of Bengal and then in the Arabian Sea in December. While the Malabar series predates the Quad, the combination now becomes significant. Exercises are an important aspect of demonstrating cooperative capabilities. If this cooperation can be gradually expanded to a Quad-plus arrangement with other nations, the counterbalancing could help deter Beijing and more meaningfully support the free and open Indo-Pacific ideal.
Third, Sri Lanka, Maldives, and India agreed on an important road map for regional security partnerships on 28 November 2020 at Colombo, in a meeting of national security advisors and senior officials. Mauritius and Seychelles also participated virtually, spreading the possibility of better outcomes across the Indian Ocean.
Fourth, India finally embarked on several defense reforms, including appointing a Chief of Defence Staff—General Bipin Rawat—and setting plans for the creation of joint theater commands.
Concerns arising from Sino-Pakistani cooperation spanning nuclear weapon and missile proliferation, a growing naval relationship, and the Belt and Road Initiative remain serious for India. The Pakistan Navy is embarking on a qualitative and quantitative enhancement of its offensive power that includes ships from China and Turkey.7 Of greater concern is the sale and construction of at least four and as many as eight Yuan-class Type 039A/041 air-independent propulsion submarines from China. These could be equipped to fire nuclear-tipped cruise missiles, but they pose a serious threat even conventionally armed.
In November, then–U.S. Secretary of the Navy Kenneth Braithwaite called for the establishment of a First Fleet for the Indian Ocean, possibly based out of Singapore.8 This could be a meaningful enhancement if there are actual accretions to U.S. maritime power in the region and not just reassignments of a shrinking fleet to face a rapidly growing PLAN. Mauritian Prime Minister Pravind Jugnauth seems to have used his congratulatory phone call to then-President-elect Joe Biden to renew his country’s offer to arrange an extended lease for the U.S. airbase in Diego Garcia.9
With the recent U.S. diplomatic enhancement with Maldives (the United States announced in October it would open an embassy in the island nation) among these other Indian Ocean developments, visibility ahead may have improved, especially given India’s role in many of them.10 Perfect 20/20 clarity can never exist, and some risks may lurk in the haze. But a taut watch on the bridges of Indo-Pacific maritime services will remain very helpful in keeping the peace.
1. “Joint Vision 2020: America’s Military Preparing for Tomorrow,” Joint Forces Quarterly (Summer 2000): 58–76.
2. CAPT James E. Fanell, USN (Ret.), “China’s Global Navy,” Naval War College Review 73, no. 4 (Autumn 2020): 13–43.
3. “Belt and Road Initiative: Evaluating Geopolitical and Geo-economic Implications,” 5th Mandala Dialogue, www.facebook.com/NehruMemorialLibrary/videos/2367495180165042.
4. The Policy Planning Staff, Office of the Secretary of State, “The Elements of the China Challenge,” U.S. Department of State, November 2020.
5. “TNI Commander Inaugurates Maritime Information Center,” Indonesia Today, 6 January 2020.
6. RADM Sudarshan Shrikhande, IN (Ret.) “For a Secure Indo-Pacific, Grow the Quad!” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings 146, no. 8 (August 2020): 38–43.
7. Naveed Siddiqui, “Admiral Niazi Takes Charge as Chief of Naval Staff,” The Dawn (Pakistan), 7 October 2020.
8. Megan Eckstein, “SecNav Braithwaite Calls for New U.S. 1st Fleet near Indian, Pacific Oceans,” USNI News, 17 November 2020.
9. Marwaan Macan-Markar, “Mauritius Makes Play for Future with U.S. Base on Diego Garcia,” 18 November 2020, asia.nikkei.com.
10. Pranshu Verma, “U.S. to Establish Embassy in the Maldives,” The New York Times, 28 October 2020.