Deciphering the Indo-Pacific focus

A certain power's move to change the status quo in the Indo-Pacific region has triggered a flurry of diplomatic moves. A commensurate response is needed and the routes to do this are many, says the writer.

Rajaram Panda

Rajaram Panda

The Statesman


Representation image [Photo:SNS]

March 28, 2023

NEW DELHI – There has been a flurry of diplomatic moves by leaders in the Indo-Pacific region, signalling the need for security of the region. This is triggered by a certain power determined to alter the status quo on its own terms. This demands a commensurate response from affected nations to maintain the equilibrium. The routes to do this are many.

A week ago history was made in the Indo-Pacific region by Australia, US (both members of the Quad) and UK when the plan to create a new fleet of nuclear-powered submarines was unveiled to counter China’s growing influence in the IndoPacific region.

Under the AUKUS pact, Australia is to get its first nuclearpowered sub ~ of at least three ~ from the US. The allies will also work to create a new fleet using cutting-edge technology, including UK-made Rolls-Royce reactors. Beijing strongly criticised this naval deal.

The issue was mired in controversy when former Prime Minister Paul Keating took aim at the nuclear-powered submarine deal, calling it the “worst international decision” by the Labour government of Anthony Albanese since conscription in World War I.

The former Labour leader also offered a scathing assessment of the government’s most senior politicians, including Prime Minister Albanese, Defence Minister Richard Marles, and Foreign Affairs Minister Penny Wong, dubbing Marles and Wong as “seriously unwise ministers”.

Ahead of the nuclear-powered submarine deal, Albanese was in India to indulge in a bit of cricket diplomacy watching with Prime Minister Narendra Modi the India-Australia test match.

Albanese called India a toptier security partner for his country from the decks of India’s first indigenous aircraft carrier, INS Vikrant, in Mumbai.

Albanese announced that Australia will host this year’s Malabar exercise for the first time even as he stressed that the Indian Ocean was key to the security and prosperity of both countries, which are committed to upholding the rules-based international order in the Indo-Pacific.

When an American president and a British prime minister stood side by side on a warship, it was hard to avoid the historical echo. In August 1941, Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill met off the coast of Newfoundland to sign the Atlantic Charter, setting out a joint vision for a post-War world.

The objective to create a stable Indo-Pacific region went further when in a historic move Japan’s Prime Minister Fumio Kishida welcomed the South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol for a summit to resume reciprocal visits by leaders, which had remained suspended for 12 years. Both Japan and South Korea face the nuclear threat from North Korea. Both are allies of the US and bound by treaty obligations.

It was a welcome sign that the two North-eastern Asian neighbours agreed to overcome the shadow of history and decided to resolve a major row over a wartime labour dispute and the issue of “comfort women”. Talk on strengthening bilateral security talks was another positive sign.

Yoon was the first South Korean President to visit Japan in four years. During the talks, both Kishida and Yoon confirmed they will maintain “close communication” and boost political, economic and cultural exchanges.

Simultaneously defence ministers of Japan, Britain and Italy in Tokyo vowed success in developing a next-generation fighter jet by 2035, a plan unveiled late last year.

In the first trilateral defence ministerial meeting, Japan’s Defence Minister Yasukazu Hamada and his British and Italian counterparts, Ben Wallace and Guido Crosetto, also discussed their cooperation in the Indo-Pacific region, where China has been intensifying its military activities.

There was a self-imposed cap of keeping Japan’s defence spending below 1 per cent of the country’s GDP.

The changed situation makes a compelling reason for the Kishida administration to revisit this issue.

As a result, a decision has been taken to hike defence spending incrementally to 2 per cent of GDP. That still would take time. Japan approved in December 2022 a record defence budget of about $51.4 billion for fiscal 2023, emphasising counter-strike capabilities and strengthening standoff air and missile defence. Other measures of preparedness are also on the way.

Japan also deployed Ground Self-Defence Force units including missile squads to the remote southern Ishigaki Island near the disputed Senkaku Islands and Taiwan, apparently in response to China’s intensifying military activities in nearby waters.

Though mainland Japan consists of four primary islands, Hokkaido, Honshu, Kyushu, and Shikoku, the country has a total of 6,852 islands.

Many are very small and uninhabited. Some are strategically located and thus very important for the defence of Japan as they can be used to deploy forces to secure the country from external threats. Ishigaki Island is one such strategically important island.

This military base on Ishigaki in Japan’s southern island chain will be home to about 600 Ground Self-Defence Forces drawn from security, surface-toair and surface-to-ship guidedmissile units, an underground rifle range, stockpiles of ammunition and anti-air and anti-ship missiles.

After an opening ceremony on 2 April, Camp Ishigaki will begin operations. With this new base, the gap of SDFs in the Nansei region is considerably addressed.

The decision to have a military base in Ishigaka was to check the Chinese military’s increasing presence in the seas east of the island chain and around Taiwan with naval drills, overflights and transits of key, narrows straits that give way to the Pacific Ocean.

Japan is also developing an upgraded version of the highspeed, truck-mounted Type-12 missile with its range extended from 62 miles to 620 miles.

That would put potential targets around the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea and parts of China and North Korea within reach. Critics within Japan, however, say that positioning these assets in the Nansei may violate Japan’s pacifist constitution.

The latest move to secure a peaceful, free and rules-based Indo-Pacific was the visit of Kishida to India this week.

While discussing economic, trade and investment issues, what dominated the discussion was the need to have a secure Indo-Pacific.

(The writer is Senior Fellow at the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, New Delhi)

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