Strategic Chess

Big-power military blocs appear to be back on the table in Asia. In a vast geographical exercise held with surprisingly little publicity earlier this month, the navies of the United States, Japan, Australia, and India took to the Bay of Bengal for war games stretching from Andhra Pradesh to the Andaman Islands. The first security exercise by the “Quadrilateral initiative,” as the group is known, it also included a small contingent from Singapore. It involved two US carriers, the Kitty Hawk and the Nimitz, plus 25 other surface ships and submarines.

This display of floating iron, one of the biggest exercises of its kind ever, is notable because it came just after the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), comprised of China, Russia, and four Central Asian countries, held its group summit and military exercises. It remains to be seen if the SCO will become more than a symbolic talking shop, but it seems to have energized India into becoming involved in a way the previous Congress governments would have abhorred. In the past, they saw the Indian Ocean as a zone of peace, freedom and neutrality, particularly nuclear neutrality. Today, ships like the Nimitz, which are assumed to carry nuclear weapons as a matter of routine, are allowed to berth in Indian ports.

And, whatever the claims to the contrary, it is clear that the Quad initiative, as it has come to be called, was formed with the express aim of countering the Shanghai bloc, and in particular containing China. Defense papers published independently by all four countries have recently listed China as a potential “military threat.”

The quad countries assert that the joint military actions are not directed against China, which to Beijing seems disingenuous. But the budding alliance may think this a perfectly justified explanation because they consider their moves purely defensive.

The military exercises may also have been timed to coincide with the recent APEC meeting in Sydney so as to ensure that the games were not front-page material. While the Shanghai cooperation group joint exercises in August were subject to extensive coverage and fanfare in the international press, with images of Chinese, Russian, and Central Asian forces storming simulated “terrorized villages” in the Russian Urals, coverage of the Quad games has been relatively light, with more attention being paid to the amount of barbed wire being used to cordon off the Sydney Opera House for the APEC leaders.

Apart from cooperation on energy and “counter-terrorism,” the SCO is seen as a bulwark against perceived US meddling in Central Asia, and as such it has been labeled by some as a “NATO of the east” that pointedly excludes Washington. How close this perception is to reality is debatable. Unlike NATO, the SCO has little shared substance, ideological or otherwise, and appears to be formed through expediency for all parties concerned.

As with the SCO however, there are legitimate and pragmatic reasons for the Quad nations to conduct joint military cooperation, revolving mainly around the twin issues of energy and security. All four Quad countries are keen to ensure that the Malacca Strait between Malaysia and Indonesia, the world’s busiest waterway, is kept free of threats. Roughly 30 percent of the world’s cargo trade passes through the strait and the need to ensure safe passage is certainly paramount. The strategic importance of the strait as a conduit for oil imports is sacrosanct to a number of countries, including China, Japan and South Korea.

However, with the Quad exercises being conducted with a heavy arsenal that included aircraft and submarines, it is clear that potential threats posed unconventional forces, like terrorists or pirates, have hardly been accorded first priority. Moreover, effective patrolling of the strait can be enforced primarily through close coordination between Malaysian, Singaporean, American and Indonesian intelligence agencies, without any need for substantial Indian or Japanese involvement.

The irony regarding the argument for protecting the Malacca Strait is that controlling it through a forum in which China is not involved effectively hangs a psychological noose over China’s head. Roughly 60 percent of China’s foreign trade and 75 percent of its oil imports also pass through the Malacca Strait, and it explains why China has been so aggressive in creating new transport outlets for itself away from the coast.

Such projects have come in all sorts of forms, from blasting the banks of the Mekong River to deepen its waters and facilitate river transport, to expanding road networks to create a direct link between Kunming in China’s Yunnan Province and Bangkok, and onwards to Singapore.

In addition, China has also shown strong support for a Malaysian initiative to lay new oil pipelines traversing peninsular Malaysia. If realized, oil from the Middle East could potentially be transported by ship to Malaysia’s west coast, where it would then be piped over to the east coast, stored, and then shipped again north to China. Such a route would completely bypass the Malacca Strait and also reduce transportation expenses.

It is important to put the recent display of Quad initiative military solidarity into proper perspective. This is by no means a showcase of the four powers firing off threateningly on all cylinders. In fact, the exercises are arguably nothing more than an expansion of recent naval exercises conducted exclusively between India and the US, known as the “Malabar series,” with new additions Australia, Japan and Singapore.

The US contributed 13 warships to the Quad exercises and India seven, Australia was only represented by one frigate and a tanker, and Singapore one frigate. Japan was represented by two destroyers. As far as the Quad countries are concerned, such initiatives are simply a natural extension of the well-molded alliances between them, with both Australia and India having recently signed cooperation pacts with Japan in the last year.

For India, the latest exercises symbolize the extent of cooperation with the United States everything from "civil nuclear material" to counter-terrorism. With India being a nuclear-armed country that has refused to sign the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, US support of its policies is a major factor deflecting intense scrutiny on the issue from the international community.

Mutual concern over China may be what really brings the US and India together. Throughout the Cold War, the two were diametrically opposed, and often at loggerheads, as India fought a border war with China and became the Soviets' staunchest ally in the region, while the US threw its weight behind Pakistan.

The sudden shifts in allegiance after the Cold War suggest that US-India concerns were based more on pragmatism than ideology. Certainly there is still considerable anti-US sentiment in India in the form of economic protectionism, as well as recent public demonstrations against the idea of India being seen as an American puppet. But there is also the worry that Pakistan’s growing closeness to Beijing needs to be countered.

India believes it has legitimate cause for concern over China. In 1962, the two countries fought a brief but bloody war along their mountainous borders, during which the Indian forces were comprehensively routed. To this day, border issues remain among the most prickly of concerns between the two countries, with both claiming large areas of land within each others’ borders as their own.

India also sees China as a meddler on the subcontinent, traditionally an India-dominant sphere of influence, and a direct competitor in other regions, including Central Asia and ASEAN, in which China has the clear upper hand. Recently, Chinese companies also outflanked Indian rivals on a number of occasions to secure important energy contracts in Kazakhstan.

For its part, Japan will see the Quad initiative as a welcome boost for itself in an Asia where, due to continuing animosity stemming from the Second World War, it could not seriously depend on alliances with its neighbors to guarantee its safety.

It will also see the Quad military exercises as a symbol of the renewed legitimacy of Japan as it moves farther away from its post-World War II status as a country without an offensive military capability. And as with India, China has territorial disputes with Japan, as well as bitter arguments over deep-sea oil rights in the East China Sea, which remain in deadlock.

Most importantly though, China’s always threatening stance towards Taiwan, coupled with its disregard for the American military presence in the Taiwan Strait, has caused Japan to feel that it can no longer look solely to the US Navy as the ultimate guarantor of security.

It is the unpredictable nature of China's government, stemming from the passage of its 2005 anti-secession bill that advocates the use of force against Taiwan if it should it ever declare independence, that may be the most important reason why China, the US, and other regional powers are unlikely to form a singular grouping on regional security in the near future, despite this being the most pragmatic and conciliatory approach for all sides concerned.

Fueling the incipient fear of China is its sheer size. China has the world’s largest army, with roughly 2.2 million active troops and another 5 million in reserve. It has roughly 14,000 tanks, 15,500 artillery pieces, and 450 helicopters, while the navy has 63 submarines and18 destroyers. The Chinese Air Force operates more than 2,550 fighter jets.

As for the United States, the Quad initiative itself is hardly a foreign policy priority. It seems just another convenient vehicle to help the US maintain its strong footing in Asia, at a time when it is bogged down with disasters of its own making in the Middle East.

Moreover, bringing the four countries together under a banner of democracy encourages countries in the region, particularly in ASEAN, to remain close to the US and Japan while simultaneously giving extra impetus to democratic reforms currently under way in many of those countries, such as Indonesia.

Unsurprisingly, of all the major Asia-Pacific players, Australia has the most laid-back and friendly attitude towards China. Popular perceptions tend to be the least negative in Australia compared to the other three countries, according to published polls.

This is partly due to Australia’s recent economic boom, which has largely been fueled by Chinese demand for Australian resources. China is now Australia’s largest trading partner, and Australia enjoys a trade surplus with China. At the recent APEC meeting, John Howard signed a gas export deal China worth up to AU$45 billion. In 2006, China bought an estimated US$250 million worth of uranium.

Australia has done the most to allay Chinese fears, with its government announcing in July that Australia, New Zealand, and China would hold their first ever joint naval exercises later this September.

China, meanwhile, remains confident in its backyard, with much of the region under its sway. While ASEAN countries still look to the US as the region’s ultimate guarantor of security, Beijing has played a skillful diplomatic game in Southeast Asia, according the region top priority during a time when the United States has tended to take ASEAN for granted, as symbolized by Condoleeza Rice skipping several key ASEAN summits. Philippine President Gloria Arroyo even referred to China as a “big brother” at an ASEAN summit this year.