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QDR 2014 and the Evolving US Grand Strategic Approach in the Indo-Pacific

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Balaji Chandramohan
FDI Visiting Fellow

 

Key Points

  • The US Quadrennial Defence Review (QDR 2014) will focus on the importance of the Indo-Pacific region and re-emphasise the geostrategic significance of India in that region.
  • The US will be anxious to avoid getting entangled in ground-based regional conflicts. India, however, will certainly be watching QDR 2014 to see what help the US might offer New Delhi in addressing as the main issues in its immediate national security threats.
  • QDR 2014 is likely to foreshadow increased India-Australia-US strategic co-operation.

 

Summary

If the focus of the first term of Barack Obama’s presidency was on ending the protracted land wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, inherited from the George W. Bush Administration, the second term is concerned with developing the maritime dimension of US strategy, especially in the emerging Indo-Pacific theatre. The next Quadrennial Defence Review (QDR), now just few months away, will form an important part of that.

 

Analysis

The 2014 QDR, produced by the United States Department of Defence, is expected to focus on the new strategic objectives in the Indo-Pacific region. As stipulated in the 1997 National Defence Authorisation Act, the QDR is to be conducted every four years. Four QDRs have so far been published: in 1997; September 2001; February 2006; and February 2010. The first three primarily dealt with the peripheral security threats to the United States and the responses required from the US government. The 2010 QDR, for instance, stated that, after exiting from the land wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the US would endeavour to concentrate its resources and seek alliances for its forward policy in the Asia-Pacific region. It is also interesting to note that QDR 2010 focussed more on the strategic situation in the Indian Ocean, rather than the Atlantic or Pacific Oceans. Giving greater significance to the Indian Ocean was a way of setting the scene for the Obama Administration to gather a consensus for its exit strategies in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Since the last QDR, a lot has changed in the political landscape of the Asia Pacific, especially with the adoption of the term Indo-Pacific. It is a term that could be seen as an attempt to join the Indian and Pacific Oceans into one geo-political strategic entity, which would help the US to concentrate its diplomatic, economic and military resources in this largely maritime zone.

On that note, in July this year, after a four-month long deliberation, the US Department of Defense released the Strategic Choices and Management Review. That document was prepared for the QDR, to assess how the budgetary allocation can be utilised to fulfil the strategic objectives outlined in the Defence Strategic Guidance, released in January 2012.[1] Thus, if the Defense Strategic Guidance is a strategic policy document, then the Strategic Choices and Management Review outlines the tactical financial aspects of US strategic priorities on the way to QDR 2014.

The Defense Strategic Guidance primarily focussed on how the United States will make the shift from its North Atlantic Treaty Organisation oriented strategy of building European coalition powers against Russia and countering non-conventional threats, such as terrorism and insurgency. The aim is a much more innovative, low-cost and small footprint approachin the Indo-Pacific, by building effective coalitions and partnership with allied countries, such as Australia, Japan, India, the Philippines and even Vietnam.[2]

With that as the strategic objective, the tactics will be along the lines of joint military co-operation with those countries. This marks a strategic shift in the US from a continentally-oriented offensive strategy in central Europe, to a more co-operative maritime strategy in the rimlands of Asia, in partnership with other maritime powers in the region.

This strategy is based on the concept of the twentieth century geo-strategist and the “godfather” of the containment strategy, Nicholas John Spykman, who propagated the doctrine that ‘Who controls the rimland rules Eurasia; who rules Eurasia controls the destinies of the world.’ Typically, the rimland refers to the maritime fringes of the Eurasian continent.

Spykman also emphasised that the US needs partners in the rimland to counter any rise of the Heartland (Soviet Union) or the Middle Kingdom (China). US forward policy in the maritime rimland of the Indo-Pacific is based on the following: In that geo-strategic equation, China poses a far greater geostrategic challenge to the US than the Soviet Union did. China is both a maritime and a continental power; the Soviet Union only the latter; therefore, current US forward policy includes both a continental and a maritime orientation.

The other powers in the region, especially India, Australia, Indonesia and Japan, will try to respond to the change in the US strategic objective by making their own internal military changes. For example, they may increase the capacity for joint action within their services and boost their amphibious capabilities for effective power projection.

QDR 2010 and the Indian Ocean 

QDR 2010 identified, for the first time, the significance of the Indian Ocean in geo-strategic terms:

The United States has a substantial interest in the stability of the Indian Ocean region as a whole, which will play an ever more important role in the global economy. The Indian Ocean provides vital sea lines of communication that are essential to global commerce, international energy security, and regional stability. Ensuring open access to the Indian Ocean will require a more integrated approach to the region across military and civilian organisations.[3]

If the ‘wide area security mission set establishes conditions necessary for humanitarian relief, peacekeeping, counterinsurgency, mass atrocity response and homeland security’, then ‘the combined arms manoeuvre mission set establishes the conditions necessary for mounted manoeuvre, attack and defence, over extended distances.’ These two operations are primarily land operations and the expectation is that these operations will again be important parts of QDR 2014.

The 2010 QDR acknowledged India’s rise as a military power in the Asia-Pacific and the dominant role its navy could play in years to come. It also mentioned that the US Navy would be increasingly deployed in forward positions. In many ways, QDR 2010 overlooked the importance of land forces, preferring the use of Special Forces for specific operations. It is also important to note that QDR 2010 was a wartime QDR, much like those released in 2006 and 2001.

The Indian strategic establishment began to increase its focus on the maritime aspect of its strategic orientation following the release of QDR 2010. It started to align itself more closely with countries in the Indo-Pacific that are wary of China’s maritime capabilities, such as Vietnam, Japan and Australia. In the wake of QDR 2010, India started to increase the operational capabilities of its Eastern Fleet, based in Vishakhapatnam.

India also started to increase its co-operation with the US Fifth and Seventh Fleets, to counter China’s so-called “string of pearls” strategy in the Indian Ocean. It increased its involvement in annual multilateral naval war games involving the United States, Japan (most recently the JIMEX 12 bilateral exercise), Singapore and Australia (who participated in the 2007 exercise, conducted in waters near India’s eastern command). At present, India and the US have conducted more than 50 joint military exercises in the last ten years; that is set to increase again as the US shifts its focus to Air-Sea battles.

India has extended its submarine patrols into places like the Gulf of Aden and the South China Sea; its vessels have had one reported encounter with Chinese warships conducting anti-piracy patrols off the Somali coast. Following the US pivot to Asia, India’s submarine operations might be expected to increase in tandem with the “Deter and Defeat Aggression in Anti-Access Environments” mission, identified in QDR 2010.

India and QDR 2014

As an emerging power in the Asia-Pacific, India has always been interested in a strategic partnership or co-operation, if not an outright alliance, with the United States.

After the release of QDR 2010, the Indian strategic community perceived that India’s initiatives to expand its military presence across the Indian Ocean to the South China Sea and into the South-West Pacific, would be welcomed by the US. Ahead of QDR 2014, Indian strategists will again be geared for that.[4]

India will also be looking at US policy on Afghanistan, after the exit of US forces in 2014. New Delhi will want to see what policy options might be outlined in the QDR.

One important issue will be whether there is a blueprint for strategic co-operation in the QDR – one that includes the US helping to address India’s immediate national security threats near its borders, from both Pakistan and China. India will also want to see whether the 2014 QDR addresses the issue of US bases or surveillance operations in the Indian Ocean and, if so, under what terms and conditions they will be operated.

India is increasing its defence and strategic co-operation with France and Britain (France, in particular, has a considerable military presence in the Indian Ocean); countries which also share intelligence with the US and Australia. Greater strategic co-operation between India and the US and between India and both France and Britain, could indirectly bring all these countries together for deeper, more effective strategic co-operation.

Under such an umbrella, India would expand its military presence across the Indian Ocean to the western Pacific Ocean. India currently has no military presence in the western Pacific, but that is expected to change in the next five years, as India starts increasing the Eastern Command’s operational capabilities. Given its expanding commercial engagement with South-East Asia and the western Pacific, it seems like a natural evolution for the Indian Navy to participate in maritime patrols along the relevant sea lanes. For that to happen, however, it will have to secure the support of Australia, New Zealand, the US and the other states of the strategic arc that effectively acts as a containment mechanism on Chinese military ambitions in the region.

On the other hand, apart from the US, Australia and India have the largest naval deployments in the Indo-Pacific and they share US concerns about Chinese military expansionism in the region. In Australia’s case, this is added to extant concerns about Chinese blue water operations in the South-West Pacific. The two oceans carry the vast majority of Australia’s exports and imports and, therefore, are considered national lifelines worthy of priority protection. In light of this, Australia’s strategic re-orientation requires the upgrading and expansion of its Navy, as was highlighted in the 2013 Defence White Paper.

One of the main constraints for US strategic policymakers, in general, is not to get entangled in any regional conflicts that would force the US to send in its ground forces. This was touched upon in QDR 2010 and it is likely reappear in 2014. This includes the possibility of US ground troops getting dragged into a number of fragile states in the Horn of Africa and the Middle East, such as Somalia, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Djibouti and Yemen.

From India’s point of view, this scenario has negative connotations, as New Delhi prefers that the US concentrate more on the maritime aspect of its strategy, rather than getting dragged into some prolonged, land-based counter-insurgency and/or stabilisation operations. Australia, too, would be happy to avoid being called upon to send troops to the troubled rimlands of the Indo-Pacific in the near future.

Conclusion

If, in the nineteenth century, the US concentrated its military, economic and diplomatic orientation primarily towards the Western Hemisphere, in the twentieth century, it was focussed on the Northern Hemisphere, concentrating on Europe. Finally, after getting bogged down in responding with conventional means to unconventional warfare in Iraq and Afghanistan, the US is seeking to focus its military presence in the Indo-Pacific, concentrating on the rimlands of Asia. QDR 2014 will thus provide further confirmation of US strategic intentions in the Indo-Pacific for the next four years.

  

 

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About the Author: Balaji Chandramohan is Editor of the ‘Asia for World Security Network’ and a correspondent for the Auckland-based newspaper, Indian Newslink. He is a member of the Bharatiya Janata Party in India and the New Zealand Labour Party.

 

 

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Any opinions or views expressed in this paper are those of the individual author, unless stated to be those of Future Directions International.

 

 

 

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[1] Preparing for the 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review, Centre for International and Strategic Studies: Washington DC, March 2013. <http://csis.org/files/publication/130319_Murdock_Preparing2014QDR_Web.pdf>.

[2] Sustaining US Global leadership: Priorities for the 21st Century, US Department of Defense: Washington DC, January 2012. <http://www.defense.gov/news/defense_strategic_guidance.pdf>.

[3] Quadrennial Defense Review Report, US Department of Defense: Washington DC, February 2010. <http://www.defense.gov/qdr/images/QDR_as_of_12Feb10_1000.pdf>.

[4] Chandramohan, B., ‘US courts India in the Indian Ocean’, Asia Times Online, 6 May 2010. <http://www.atimes.com/atimes/South_Asia/LE06Df02.html>.