NESA MARSEC Digital Series 4: IOR Digital Roundtable

The fourth digital session of NESA’s IOR Maritime Security Series focused on American experts and how they see the Indian Ocean Region amidst the Covid-19 pandemic.  The speakers represented various USG affiliated research institutions, private think tanks, and universities.  The conversation was moderated by Jeffrey Payne of NESA.  The conversation covered a wide range of topics, with highlights provided below:

Maritime Concerns:

During the pandemic, illicit maritime activity has spiked because of disruptions to law enforcement and strains on government operations throughout the Indian Ocean Region (IOR).  In many cases, particularly island states, the priority is to keep the citizens at home to impede the spread of the virus and not on investigating criminal activity.  Intensified challenges are not purely related to criminality.

Vessel defaults are also increasing, which not only has a cascading effect on regional/global maritime trade, but also creates opportunities for criminal exploitation.  The collapse in oil demand around the globe has in turn created a situation where tankers are stuck at sea with oil shipments.  This poses both a possible environmental danger, but also increased prospect for theft.

Views from Regional States:

Iran was a hotspot for COVID-19 in the IOR because Tehran did not suspend air travel from China initially. Iranian criticism of China for its COVID-19 response caused diplomatic tensions between Tehran and Beijing and has fed into China’s perception of vulnerability as a result of the pandemic outbreak.

India also faces a complicated situation relating to Covid-19.  The rising numbers in India will strain state resources, which is unfortunate for both costs to be felt by the Indian people, but that it will also cost the Indian state several important opportunities.  The pandemic did provide an opportunity for India to exert great regional leadership through humanitarian/global health measures, along with intensified diplomatic efforts (including reinvesting in the Quad).  Needed military modernization will likely be pushed back.  As it stands now, India will face several major hurdles in responding to the pandemic and emerge from this period with the additional complication of a much more tense relationship with China.

Cumulatively, the pandemic has exposed substantial weaknesses in the public health capabilities of South Asian states and their overall skill at governance during a crisis.  No actor currently has the ability to serve as a regional leader or a regional model. Internal cohesion in South Asian countries is marred by political divisions, issues of minority rights, and ethnic confrontation. The pandemic environment seems to only be strengthening such divisions.

Looking further west, states in the Horn of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula are juggling their own set of challenges tied to the pandemic, but the Red Sea does offer some potentially hopeful trends regarding regional cooperation.  Saudi Arabia, with Egypt’s support, is pursuing a cooperative organization linking together Red Sea states for the purpose of enhancing security.  This effort echoes similar cooperative efforts being pursued by the African Union and the Intergovernmental Authority on Development.  Part of this push for cooperation is tied to security concerns in the maritime domain, but such efforts are also tied to the prospect of greater regional economic exchange and infrastructure development.  Regional tensions and complications are not yet overcome, nor are any of these cooperative efforts associated with a real organized institution.  The result of these efforts will be seen with time.

Major Power Issues:

The coronavirus pandemic has accelerated existing trends, underscoring that some IOR countries are overly-reliant on Chinese supply chains and Chinese commodities.  This overreliance creates real problems for states amidst a regional or global crisis.  There has not been a decrease of Chinese assertiveness during the pandemic, which is perhaps a reflection of China being under immense political pressure. China also faces challenges in implementing the Belt & Road Initiative (BRI) and debt repayment because of the pandemic’s economic effects on low-income countries.  In total, COVID-19 has shifted China policy toward the IOR in a number of ways.  First, China is engaging in aid diplomacy but these efforts have not significantly improved China’s image in parts of the region.  Second, China’s naval escort missions to the region have not been affected in any dramatic fashion. Later in the conversation the discussants addressed how China’s policy could be characterized as “reactive assertiveness” due to a sense of vulnerability in its strategic perception because of COVID-19.  Third, BRI projects in the IOR have been suspended, and it is unclear whether China will be able to resume those projects post-coronavirus because the pandemic has restricted its budget.

In terms of the BRI and debt relief, China is but one part of the debt profile of these countries; South Asian nations were facing debt issues before China came along. COVID-19 has exacerbated their economic challenges, in particular by hitting remittances from the Middle East and the tourism industry.  Global perception of China and its COVID-19 narrative differs depending on who you ask. In India people are furious with the Chinese government over coronavirus, but in other countries Chinese diplomacy and propaganda has been highly effective.  When it comes to the IOR, China wants to keep the maritime sea lines of communication (SLOCs) of the region open.  It is useful to compare China’s views on the Indian Ocean to its policies and approaches to keeping the South China Sea closed to other actors. Beijing is of the opinion that is cannot compete with India’s maritime position in the Indian Ocean, so its approach to the Indian Ocean is to ensure that India cannot block China from access.

Per the larger Indo-Pacific, China employs an interesting set of arguments that could at best be called “quasi-legal.”  For example, China argues that it can violate the maritime sovereignty of another state because the United States does the same in its near seas; the South China Sea.  Further examples used by Beijing are the argument that a sea is fundamentally different than an ocean; an apology for how China condemns the actions of other states in the South China Sea but acts the same way in another context (like in the Artic).  These are examples of China’s “Dynamic Principles.”  This term has two meanings.  The first is the “principle of reciprocity”, or that China should be able to do to others what others do to them.  The second is the “dynamic interpretation of international law”, which means China’s interpretation, hence observation of international law, is subject to changes on the ground, such as China’s changed power projection capabilities. The conversation highlighted the dynamic interpretation of international law using colorful language to emphasize that such a concept is ridiculous from any legal standpoint.

India-China Border/LAC Dispute:

China is determined to emphasize that the line of actual control (LAC) is not its priority. Some analysts in China argue that keeping the border issue unresolved will allow India to become bogged down at its northern boundary, thus prioritizing its military budget towards the army rather than strengthening its navy. Ultimately, China can confine India as a continental power.

This idea is problematic though, as India could retain its border forces while still also focusing on naval commitments.  Furthermore, any gap in India’s naval capacity could be offset by partnerships with other states which would only intensify based on the border conflict.  One major cost of Chinese aggression at the LAC is alienating an entire generation of Indians from cooperation with China.  A possible Chinese counterpoint is that China puts a high value on retaining a reputation for resolve when it comes to claimed territory. China view border disputes through a domestic lens and favors an aggressive position that emphasizes its comparative strengths over its neighbors.  This point led to a debate among the participants, as it was pointed out that showing territorial resolve makes sense if India was the one pushing at the border and China stood its ground. China, conversely, does the pushing in this case, so cannot be showing resolve in the face of aggression.  The counter from the group was that China’s strategy makes sense because it believes India will back down as the situation at the LAC becomes too risky. India will not be pushed into the U.S. camp because India does not want a full alliance with the U.S. and India needs China for trade.

Is China willing to trade its territorial integrity for Indian neutrality that may or may not be sustainable? China’s influence over India is uncertain so China opts to stand up for territorial integrity instead of befriending India.  Beijing is determined to put an end to an infrastructure “arms race” in the disputed area. Both sides are violating the status quo and have their own arguments/justifications.

The views presented in this article are those of the speaker or author and do not necessarily represent the views of DoD or its components.