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Is a Militarisation of the Indo-Pacific Occurring?

16 Jun 2023
By Shoumik Malhotra
Watching the Straits. Source: NZ Defence Force/

In an attempt to secure the region in the interests of peace and stability, states are increasingly militarising their activities and foreign policies. The implications of these actions are likely to fall hardest on the small regional states, looking to stay out of the way of great power rivalry.

A gradual militarisation of the Indo-Pacific region is occurring. In more recent developments, Japan has announced a significant increase in its defense expenditure, the US has inked new defense agreements under the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA) and Acquisition and Cross-Servicing Agreement;  China has upped its strategic incursions into Taiwanese airspace, and the joint statement on the AUKUS pact in March 2023 has Australia promising to spend an eye-watering AU$368 billion on nuclear submarines. All these developments illustrate that there is a visible and growing militarisation of the Indo-Pacific region underway.

Japan’s announcement to increase the defense budget has perhaps received the most attention from security and global affairs analysts. By announcing defence reform in December 2022, the Japanese military is seeking to build offensive capability platforms and “counter strike” abilities. The three policy documents, National Security Strategy, National Defense Strategy, and Defense Buildup Program, outline increases in defense spending from one to two percent of GDP, making it the world’s third-largest defense spender. President Fumio Kishida has pledged to spend $324 billion over the next five years to put the country within the NATO standard for spending. Already in Fiscal Year 2023-2024, Japan has increased its defense budget to US$51.4 billion – a 26 percent from the previous fiscal year. Among other weapons, Japan is keen to buy long-range missiles such as Tomahawks to increase its striking capabilities.

The violent clash in Galwan Valley in June 2020 between Indian and Chinese forces has expanded India’s foreign and defence policies deeper into the Indo-Pacific. The poorly marked borders often bring soldiers from both sides face to face. On 9 December 2022, a new clash erupted with further injuries, causing both sides to increase their military presence on the border areas. According to the Indian foreign minister, these incremental encroachments are without precedence in India-Chinese relations on the issue. Despite being a “South Asian incident,” the consequence of these events cannot be separated from geopolitics in the Indo-Pacific as both are significant rival actors. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has recently been in Papua New Guinea shoring up regional support for its increasing engagement, which in the past few years has witnessed a growing naval presence in the region.

Meanwhile, China has increased its daily incursions of warships and fighter jets along the contiguous zone on Taiwan’s side of the Taiwan Strait. In the first week of January this year, Taiwan tracked 24 Chinese fighter jets and four naval ships within its air defense area. The presence of Chinese aircraft and naval ships have become a recurring event since US Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi’s August 2022 visit to the island. The US continues to sail warships through the Strait citing routine operations in its commitment to upholding maritime rights under the framework of the free and open Indo-Pacific.

For China, the US’ pursuit of security agreements in the Indo-Pacific region represents an unmistakable attempt to contain China’s rightful claim to greatness under the vision of the rejuvenation of the Chinese nation. The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad), an informal platform to promote a “free and open Indo-Pacific,” brings together the US with Japan, Australia, and India to balance against China’s ostensible militarisation of its armed forces – the greatest peacetime military build-up in the history of the world. These forces are all located in the littoral waters of the East and South China Seas, but are increasingly breaking out into wider domains, such as the Indian Ocean.

The AUKUS pact, encompassing the US, UK, and Australia, seeks to boost Australian maritime capabilities in a big way with nuclear-powered submarines. In March 2023, the partners unveiled the details of the pact, which included a second pillar on advanced technological exchange and force integration with a significant new role for AI-enabled platforms. According to the announcement, the US’ and UK’s nuclear submarines will sail recurringly to the Australian port at Perth starting from early 2027 to provide training on how to handle them.

Among these minilateral groupings, the US is also seeking defense agreement opportunities with Indo-Pacific states. The US has several military agreement frameworks, including the Status of Forces Agreement with Japan and South Korea. In South Asia, Washington is pursuing both General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA) and Acquisition and Cross-Servicing Agreements with Bangladesh. Dhaka has been studying the agreements for the past three years, though recent statements by the foreign minister have indicated that it may not be looking to sign on.

However, as time passes, the pressure is increasing on littoral and small states in the region to sign defence agreements. The US is seeking these states to join its Indo-Pacific strategy. China also has been seen to employ greater pressure on them. Balancing the great powers is becoming increasingly tougher. On 24 April, Bangladesh joined the growing list of nations to announce its own Indo-Pacific Outlook. In the 15-point strategy, the small nation reaffirmed maintaining a balanced and neutral policy towards great powers. To avoid any pretense of coming down on one side, Dhaka incorporated existing liberal values such as a free and open Indo-Pacific, a positive-sum approach in its Indo-Pacific affairs, and reliance on multilateralism. In targeting trade, it also sought to accommodate powers such as India, Japan, and Russia with prospects for new areas of connectivity, and the free movement of products, services, and people.

Finally, QUAD members are looking to increase the monitoring of the major maritime routes jointly against “dark shipping” (vessels that operate without identification or turn off their Automatic Identification System) to reduce the occurrence of illegal fishing, piracy, ships that sail without a transponder, or spy ships operating in the seas. The new initiative, titled Indo-Pacific Partnership for Maritime Domain Awareness program, is likely to clash with China who will undoubtedly perceive patrolling under program as an intimidation.

In summary, Japan’s military build-up, increasing military deployment in Sino-Indian frontiers, confrontations in the Taiwan strait, the AUKUS pact, and the US pressure for inking security agreements suggests that militarization is increasing in the Indo-Pacific region. This raises an important question, can further militarisation bring about the security, peace, and stability that all states want, especially the small states that opt to stay out of great power rivalry?

Shoumik Malhotra is currently working as an Independent Researcher. Formerly, He was an Associate at the Center for Border Studies, O.P Jindal Global University, India. He has completed his BA in Political Science and MA in South Asian Studies. He has also completed his 2nd MA in Sociology from Bielefeld University.

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