Date & Time: 26 July, 2021 at 05:00 PM

Webinar: Discussion on Indo Pacific Strategy: Reimagining the Maritime Outlook

Proceedings Report

About the Event: The webinar was on Indo Pacific Strategy and the US-India Partnership in the Maritime Outlook which was jointly organized by CPPR and the U.S. Consulate General Chennai. 

Key Speakers:

Gregory B. Poling

Gregory B. Poling is a senior fellow for Southeast Asia and director of the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative at CSIS. He oversees research on U.S. foreign policy in the Asia Pacific, with a particular focus on the maritime domain and the countries of Southeast Asia. His research interests include the South China Sea disputes, democratization in Southeast Asia, and Asian multilateralism.

Dr Rajeswari Rajagopalan

Dr Rajeswari (Raji) Pillai Rajagopalan is the Director of the Centre for Security, Strategy and Technology (CSST) at the Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi.  Dr Rajagopalan was the Technical Advisor to the United Nations Group of Governmental Experts (GGE) on Prevention of Arms Race in Outer Space (PAROS) (July 2018-July 2019).  She was also a Non-Resident Indo-Pacific Fellow at the Perth USAsia Centre from April-December 2020.  As a senior Asia defence writer for The Diplomat, she writes a weekly column on Asian strategic issues.


Dr. Lawrence Prabhakar Williams

Dr. Lawrence Prabhakar Williams is Author, Researcher & Professor, International Relations & Strategic Studies, Formerly with the Department of Political Science, Madras Christian College. His books are Growth of Naval Power in the Indian Ocean Region: Dynamics and Transformation (2016), The Maritime Balance of Power in the Asia-Pacific: Maritime Doctrines and Nuclear Weapons At Sea (2006), Maritime Security in the Indian Ocean Region: Critical Issues of Debate (2008).

Webinar Summary 

Purvaja Modak Introduced the panel speakers Gregory B. Poling and Dr. Rajeshwari along with the event’s moderator Dr. Lawrence Prabhakar Williams. Dr. Williams introduced the discussion with a brief regarding the importance of US-India relationship for the Indo Pacific region. He stated that the Indo-US relations basically has a very strong strategic secrution convergence ever since 1992 recognised the proposals which accentuated the India-US partnership in maritime domain, this has been based what we could call the Malabar series of exercises that has come a very long way and today we find that the bilateral relationship has flourished into what we could call quadrilateral secure relationship – the addition of Japan and Australia into this relationship. Secondly, economic activities and trade between India and the United States have increased. What he expects in the Indo-Pacific region is a rules based order which will provide not only a confluence of the Indian and Pacific oceans but it will also be an order which will basically look in terms of peace and conflict, and the most important thing is that the confluence of democracies is coming together.

Dr Rajeswari then takes on the importance of identifying Indo-Pacific as an important aspect over the last year by many European Countries that too have articulated their Indo-Pacific strategies. But the Indo-Pacific strategy came out as a framework for a couple of different reasons. One – as a way to include India as a partner in the leadership role, because the Asia-Pacific did not really include India. The second reason is to bring out the strategic maritime spaces of the pacific and Indian Ocean as one strategic entity. The current competition and rivalry are also a function of the Asian and global power transition and changing balance of power dynamics. With the rise of China, the return of a more normal nation in Japan and the reemergence of Russia, the Indo-Pacific region has become a theatre of great-power competition. 

She further mentions that issues about China’s growing Indian Ocean presence is not just about contesting India’s strategic role in the IOR Indian Ocean Region but it’s also a part of the determinant agenda to emerge as a key player in the Indian Ocean Region which feeds into China’s larger objective of becoming a global maritime power. Even though the Indian Navy has been able to deal with these problems as of now, the scenario will be significantly different in the next 10 years. India has a sea control strategy but we might need to move to sea denial again  for the political and defence leadership to think along those lines and acting on them.  In order to develop concrete ideas on the Indo-Pacific oceans initiative India’s efforts cannot be limited to nominal exercises alone. Strategic partnership with other key countries especially the financially more capable countries such as Japan and others might become critical in the coming years. Discussions are needed for more partnerships and not just a single stack strategy. 

Gregory B. Poling takes on the conversation by focusing on three things – they are ‘direct security cooperation’ enhancing security, one is ‘diplomatic and normative efforts’ and the other one which connects those is ‘maritime domain capacity building’, continues saying that India is now funding radar and other support for the Maldives, Mauritius, Seychelles, Bangladesh, Rwanda, tying all of those radar networks back to the Navy’s Indian Ocean fusion centre in Delhi and then providing that data back to the partner nations. The US is doing similar efforts in South East Asia through the American Security initiative and what we are approaching is a point at which the US, India and both of our partners throughout the region are getting closer and closer to a persistent maritime domain awareness capability. Filled mostly by low cost remote sensing satellite technology and cheap radar allow us to provide public good, search and rescue, counter illegal fishing and piracy as well as keep an eye on the bad behaviour of China enabling smaller states and also assisting smaller states to document what happens in their own sea links. Thus we come to realise just how much illegal and illicit behaviour is occuring in those areas and therefore amplify the message that we are putting out : China is threatening the fundamental rules and the freedom of the seas. 

He believes it is essential to convince the Chinese to change the way they behave in the Indian Ocean in the South China Sea and on the shared land borders with India. On all of these fronts on which China is  increasing land, Xi Jinping is demonstrating China to be a revisionist state and is threatening the rules and norms that we follow. And their long term solution is not military, it is diplomatic and economic cost inventions, convincing Beijing that their goals are better served by acting within the system than without. He said we have to do all three of these things all at once. That we do have to straighten our terms , we do have to establish a long term diplomatic strategy on Beijing and in the end term we have to make sure that the smaller partners are capable of monitoring their own borders the same way that we can and of talking about the bad behaviour they see the same way we do. The last thing he addressed is the threats we face at the sea, as Dr. Raji said there’s often a bit of a disconnect. It is increasingly clear that India’s own interest is at stake in making sure that other states don’t succumb to Chinese aggression in the South China Sea because you cannot ensure freedom of seas in one place if you abandon others.  

Dr. Lawrence Prabhakar Williams then proceeded to ask the revisited strategies between India and US in the years to come. The United States rebalancing Indo-Pacific has been in progress and will this provide the inclusive balance of China both in the South China Sea and East China Sea and the Pacific? What will also be India’s position in the coming years? 

Poling thinks it is going to drive greater collaborations on arms sales, development, exercises, eventually he would imagine maritime patrols in ways that were really impossible due to the lack of strategic trust even ten years ago. China is a great leveler here. He expects to see greater US and India collaboration on joint training and joint exercises for third parties outside the Indian Ocean in the years to come. Vietnam is a clear example where India is the foremost non Russian security partner of Vietnam mostly because it is the only other major party that can provide training, parts and equipment cooperation to what the Russians have. To increase maritime domain awareness, one area that one should be talking about more than we have so far is what Chinese access to third parties in South Asian particularly Cambodia mean for Indian Maritime Security. 

Dr. Rajagopalan agrees a lot with what Greg has already said. In terms of providing support to the third countries and strengthening their overall capacity exercises, every country requires among the key Indo-Pacific powers or the QUAD countries need to have a lot more consultation and coordination mechanisms built in there so that every single country does not have to be involved in every major theatre in a sense. More political dialogues and security consultations will take place among the QUAD countries and other major indo-Pacific powers. These consultations are expected to become much more intense in the coming years. 

The next question was in the strategic security perspectives, what do India and the United States envisage in terms of public goods at sea, in the Indo-Pacific? What will be the public goods that India and the US can bring to the Indo-Pacific? Poling says the first goal is to monitor any threats traditional or non-traditional at sea is maritime domain awareness and the biggest hurdle in places like the Southern Indian Ocean and islands is the lack of maritime domain awareness stability by small island states. Then we get to a point at which island fishing, piracy and trafficking are no longer productive commercial activities. At the same time Dr. Rajagopalan thinks that India for instance traditionally shied away from engaging in smaller exclusive groups and so on and so forth but is a lot more comfortable especially over the last few years as the Chinese threat has become a lot more intense and a lot more precarious and the kind of scenarios that India possibly plays out in the Indian Ocean or elsewhere. Within Asia for instance barging the Indo-Pacific region are the  India US Japan triangle and the QUAD, India, US, Japan, Australia but the Asian triangle, Australia, Japan, India is more important. The other traditional issues, like piracy, have figured prominently for quite some time but issues like the HADR and such kinds of issues are becoming more prominent. Piracy has gotten in the back in some sense within the Indo-Pacific. 

The first question from the audience was the changing geopolitical scenario when economy plays a key role, how effectively the US plays the leadership role in building up critical deterrence against Chinese designs to ensure hegemony in the Indo-Pacific region. Poling answered first  that the only way that the like-minded states can hope to leverage China into better behaviour to deter Chinese aggression is to build up the resilience of smaller neighbours together in a grand coalition on infrastructure, on investment, on maritime security, on cyber security and on and on. The goal should be to wrap the region so tightly on a coalition of like-minded issues that China finds that it is better off working within those systems than without. 

The next question was if Poling sees a stronger engagement of the US in Asia-Pacific under the Biden administration or a continuation of the hands off approach of former President Trump. If the USA engages in TPP? Poling replied that the US is not going to join TPP under the Biden administration. What the Biden administration is likely to do is continue the same level of interest and effort in Asia we have seen building since the Obama administration, but do it more strategically. And the only way the US can compete with China is by having close knit networks, values and partners that amplify the US capabilities. Perhaps a way to think about this point is that the US Navy is indispensable to any counter China coalition but it must be done in a coalition. 

The next set of questions was answered by Dr. Rajagopalan regarding the changing profile of Maritime security in the light of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan and fluid political situation there. How would India use the Maritime route from Kandala to Chabahar port if the new political disposition blocks the land route? Keeping apart China, what will be the likely stand of the US, Russia and Iran in this context from the Marime angle?

She answeres that there won’t be an overall negative impact on the Indo-Pacific strategic dynamics. The strategy itself or the framework was working together, for a couple of different reasons. If the land route is going to be possibly blocked, there are going to be problems. But in terms of keeping apart China, what do the US, Russia, Iran do in the context of Maritime angle – Russia in recent times has been far closer to China, which makes India a little uncomfortable about it. Russia traditionally used to be a close friend to India, close partner of India, but at the same time, especially since developments in Ukraine in 2013-2014, the kinds of strategic equations between Russia and China have changed significantly.  They don’t really care about the India partnership, from a very national security and pragmatic perspective and to her in that sense it is the US as well as other Indo Pacific powers that really need to be concerned about and with whom we are actually building the maritime security collaboration, strengthening the maritime and other larger project in the sense are important for us.

About space security helping in reinforcing the maritime security – The Indian navy should get a better share of the defence budget, because the Navy is capital intensive and it takes time to build your capabilities so if you invest today you are not going to see the returns tomorrow or even next year. It takes about a decade before you see capabilities out in the operation so it is something we need to invest in. The space security and the pandemic have had a huge impact on the Indian launching facilities. The number of launches that have happened over the last couple of years has been pretty low. The recent capacities and the ISRO have not been able to meet all of India’s growing space demands, whether it is in communications requirements,teleducation, telemedicine or the indian military requirements. For naval communication, we have one dedicated satellite but the satellites for the armed forces and the airforce are still pending. If one wants to stay competitive and address the growing requirement for space capabilities and so on and so forth we have to bring in the private sector as an independent stakeholder who is also able to deliver in terms of manufacturing as well as launch capabilities. 

Rethinking island strategy how can the role of islands help in the area to counter the Chinese presence? Islands have been increasingly caught in major power competition between the US, China and may be even India, Australia and so on and so forth. The capacity development, particular for these countries, is in terms of the environmental disasters, climate change disasters. They should be given what they require rather than giving them our own package and trying to impose on them. 

Dr. Rajagopalan ended the discussion with the importance of investment hike in the budget allocation to all of these different sectors, whether it is the space, whether it is the cyber or other types of electronic warfare. So invest now so that we have the technology ready in another ten years time. So there is a huge technology lag, whether it comes to space, maritime and all of that. We significantly need significant allocation but at the same time the post pandemic era will be extremely difficult, given the economic impact of the covid pandemic and how the economies have shrunk so much, and it would take a couple of years at the very least before we recover. The allocations of these will be further reduced in the budget. The material capacity has to be significant if we want to make any changes in any domain

This event report was prepared by Aastha Hazarika, Research Intern at CPPR

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