At the fifth edition of the Raisina Dialogue 2020, a special panel discussion was held on ‘Fluid Fleets: Navigating Tides of Revision in the Indo- Pacific’ to respond to big questions about the Indo- Pacific on the second day of the three-day event of the annual conference in New Delhi; on 16th January 2020. The panelists consisting of Admiral Karambir Singh, Chief of Naval Staff India; Gen. Koji Yamazaki, Chief of Staff, Joint Staff of the Japan Self-Defense Forces, Japan; Vice Adm. David Johnston, Vice Chief of the Defense Force, Australia; Gen. Luc de Rancourt, Deputy Director for International Relations and Strategy, Ministry of Armed Forces, France and Adm. Tony Radakin, Chief of Naval Staff, United Kingdom- an all uniformed personnel panel- answered few important questions like who defines Indo-Pacific? Who will bear the costs of this emerging strategic orientation? What purpose does it serve? And how will it be managed? Whether the ‘Indo-Pacific’ is an organic expression of connectivity, a community of nations, or a strategic construct?
The discussion aimed to provide valuable context to these themes, as the answers to these questions will define national security posture in the region over the next decade.
The panelists found themselves taking many other tough questions from quick-witted moderator Yalda Hakim, Journalist, BBC World News, Australia. The essence of all the questions was whether China’s growing presence and its assertive behavior in the Indo-Pacific region are being perceived as a threat by other nations? Admiral Karambir Singh, Chief of Naval Staff, India, said that India’s focus is on overall regional stability in the Indo-Pacific, and India is well-deployed in the region. Vice Admiral David Johnston, Vice Chief of the Defense Force, Australia, shared that Australia and China have common interests in the Indo-Pacific region and are engaged in a bilateral and multilateral mechanism for the same. The next speaker Chief of Staff, Joint Staff of the Japan Self-Defense forces, Japan Gen. Koji Yamazaki, acknowledged that at present Japanese military expansion is unprecedented and its Defense budget has gone up. He emphasized the importance of the role of Japan and its US alliance for peace and stability in the region. He went on to say that, from time to time, military exercises are held between US-Japan, and both are jointly working on enhancing capability in the cyber and space domain. The goal is to reinforce global norms and the law of the sea. The rules apply equally to all the nations; each country will benefit from the peace and stability in the region. Hence it is important to preserve the rules of the global order. He further observed that there is a lot of difference among the nations, varied national interests in the region, and a combined need to assure freedom of navigation to all. Japan aims to maintain deterrence, and if ever deterrence fails in the future, Japan must be absolutely ready for the next move.
The next speaker from France, Gen. Lu De Rancourt, clearly said that the Indo-Pacific strategy is not designed against China. France aims to protect territories and has its interests from the East coast of Africa to the West coast of the US. Adm. Tony Radakin from the United Kingdom shared with the audience how the UK is trying to build on its existing footprints in the middle of the Indian Ocean. Today, the UK has its presence in the Gulf region, a permanent base in Bahrain, and is firm on maintaining freedom of navigation in the Gulf. The UK is heavily investing in its navy, and the size of its navy will increase by 30 percent until the year 2025. The probing moderator asked how the UK sees itself playing an active role in the Indo-Pacific amidst the defense budget crisis it is currently facing? Speaker replied, saying that is not true, and that, it’s a sensational language used by the media, as the UK will continue to increase its defense budget. He further mentioned that the UK is working with Japan and Australia to respond to the challenges arising from growing China’s presence in the region. The UK has been playing an active role for the past two years in the region.
India’s Adm. Karambir Singh agreed with France Deputy Director for International Relations and strategy, ministry of Armed Forces that Indo–-Pacific construct is not against any nation. The construct is essential for economic prosperity and must appeal to smaller nations as well. India aims to keep seas free and open for commerce. He further mentioned how Prime Minister Modi’s new initiative, ‘SAGAR’ has appealed to everyone. Towards the end of the discussion, many questions came from the inquisitive audience. The Q&A round discussed the future of the Quad. According to the speakers, the construct Quad is still developing and must mature in the future. It is a consultative platform, India is ready to further adapt to the evolution of the Quad if needed. He underlined that the Quad would eventually develop and is not doomed to fail.
The major take away from this discussion is that Australia believes Dialogue is important to resolve conflicts in the region and will keep engaging in all bilateral and multilateral mechanisms. Japan shares an important bilateral relationship with both China and Australia. Japan still heavily relies on its traditional US alliance for security. This time the Raisina Dialogue participation witnessed more openness among the speakers to talk about China and the challenges it poses as compared to the last year’s conference. All the speakers explained their nation’s military preparedness to face the conflict in the Indo-Pacific if deterrence fails. Interestingly, the UK, like any other major power, has shared interests with other powers in the region. European interests in the Indo-Pacific region are growing much more than before. This growing interests of nations, Asian and European alike, can be explained from the fact that in a globalized world, every nation has increased maritime stakes than in the past and most nations aspire for better maritime connectivity.
*** The author is at present a Doctoral Fellow at ICSSR, New Delhi and a Doctoral Scholar at Centre for Canadian, U.S. & Latin American Studies (CCUS&LAS) Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi ***