The Indo-Pacific waters are churning with naval exercises and multilateral consultative engagements. The last few weeks have been particularly significant and witnessed three quadrilateral operational naval maneuvers involving seven countries and a consultative meeting among Australia, India, Japan and the United States, the members of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QSD).
First, ships belonging to India, Japan, the Philippines, and the United States conducted exercises in the South China Sea while transiting to Singapore to participate in the International Maritime Defence Exhibition (IMDEX). It is not unusual for these navies to conduct exercises but participation by the Philippines Navy is noteworthy. This should be seen as a steppingstone for this small navy to train with major power navies and “validate the decades of friendship, partnership and cooperative engagement that has been long established and observed between the Philippines, US, Japan and India,”
Second, maiden combined military exercise called Pacific Vanguard involving US, Australia, Japan and South Korea were held off Guam and around the Marianas Island Range Complex.
Third, the Australian, French, Japanese and U.S. navies conducted exercise La Perouse which featured a French aircraft carrier and an Australian submarine. This was spearheaded by France, and involved Charles de Gaulle, the world’s only other nuclear aircraft carrier outside of the US Navy, and JMSDF’s helicopter carrier Izumo, which Japan classifies as a helicopter destroyer. These are major offensive platforms in naval warfare and must have been seen in Beijing as targeted against it.
In May, just before the annual Shangri-La Dialogue, Senior officials of the QSD met in Bangkok for regular consultations on Indo-Pacific engagement and initiatives, and ‘reaffirmed their shared commitment to ‘maintain universal respect for international law and freedom of navigation and over flight,’ and ‘explore opportunities to enhance cooperation, including in support of regional disaster response, cyber security, maritime security, counterterrorism, and nonproliferation.’
Meanwhile, ‘war of words’ broke out between US and China at the Shangri-La Dialogue. Acting US Defence Secretary Patrick Shanahan laid bare his government’s Indo-Pacific strategy. He assured the regional countries of US’ commitments in the region and to “partners who pursue interoperability with us as part of a regional security network will be able to access much of these technologies and benefit from the compounding effects of US investments and progress,”
Without naming China, Shanahan noted “No one nation can or should dominate the Indo-Pacific.” Reacting to the illegal occupation and militarization of the islands and reefs in the South China Sea, Shanahan cautioned China that “If the trends in these behaviors continue, artificial features in the global commons could become toll-booths, sovereignty could become the purview of the powerful.”
General Wei Fenghe, Chinese Defence Minister, who led the Chinese delegation at the Shangri-La Dialogue did not miss the opportunity to convey to the US about his country’s concerns over sensitive security issues such as Taiwan and the South China Sea. He was quite belligerent and accused the US of meddling in its internal affairs (Taiwan). “China must be and will be reunified. We find no excuse not to do so. If anyone dares to split Taiwan from China, the Chinese military has no choice but to fight at all costs, at all costs, for national unity,” Wei did not rule out use of force and that the “ PLA will resolutely take action and defeat all enemies,”
Responding to Shanahan’s comments on the South China Sea, he lay blame on the US and questioned “Who is threatening security and stability in the South China Sea?” Furthermore, the US and its allies and partners ‘flex muscles’ and then "walk away and leave a mess behind.” He defended the militarization of the islands and features in South China Sea and noted “In the face of heavily armed ships and military aircraft, how can we not build defense facilities,” He made it known to the US that Beijing was willing to discuss the ongoing imbroglio over trade issues but cautioned that “trade friction [were] started by the US, if the US wants to talk we will keep the door open. If they want to fight, we will fight until the end…Bully us? No way,”
Both Patrick Shanahan and General Wei Fenghe have returned to their respective capitals, but have left behind a trail of uncertainly and despondency. Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong probably saw it coming and had preempted; in his inaugural speech he counseled the two powers to “find a constructive way forward, competing certainly, but at the same time cooperating on major issues of mutual interest and global importance,” The regional countries are quite unsure of how the trade war will unfold amid fears that the ongoing military posturing by the two protagonists is dangerous and can accidently push the region into chaos.
Dr Vijay Sakhuja is associated with Kalinga International Foundation, New Delhi.