Dr. Gautam Kumar Jha. The US is gearing up to move its failed strategic workshop out of Afghanistan to the East. This fact was also acknowledged by US President Joe Biden, reflecting his intention behind the withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan. He also showed that the US is moving its strategic campaign east and towards the Indo-Pacific region. After his statement, many other prominent leaders including US Vice President Kamala Harris visited Southeast Asian countries. In fact, this visit was a sign that America has become very serious against expansionist China and wants to strengthen itself by setting itself against it in the East.

However, since the Vietnam War, the US has already maintained a strong military base in the region with a substantial presence of its troops. America has deposited about 50 thousand soldiers in Japan, about 30 thousand in South Korea and five thousand in Guam. Guam is a small American island located in the Micronesia subregion of the western Pacific Ocean. The US military presence in the Philippines has a different history.

However, the focus of this entire episode is the South China Sea, where the US failed miserably to counter China long ago. China has strengthened its strategic base on many islands in the region by spending billions of dollars on the modern development of those islands, destroying their important coral reefs. Actually these are the coral reefs where thousands of types of sea creatures migrate for the purpose of reproduction. In this way, China is committing a great crime of harming not only the maritime international heritage, but also the environment.

The South China Sea is actually a marginal sea in the western Pacific Ocean. Since it touches the northern coasts of South China, it is called the South China Sea and this is the main reason why China claims the entire sea. This area is full of natural resources. The South China Sea consists of several archipelagos consisting of small, but uninhabited islands. It is surrounded by the Indochinese Peninsula, the islands of Taiwan, the Philippines, Brunei, Sumatra (Indonesia), which share its waters in the East China Sea through the Seven Straits- Taiwan, the Philippine Sea through the Luzon Strait, the Strait of Singapore The Java Sea through the Straits of Malacca, Krimata and Bangka. Not only this, the Gulf of Thailand and the Gulf of Tonkin are also part of the South China Sea.

According to the 2016 data, the global trade of US$ 3.37 trillion was done through this sea route which is about a third of the total global trade. It is found in the south of the Riau Islands, which is called the Natuna Sea. Therefore the South China Sea touches almost all parts of the ASEAN countries. What is also worrying in this whole episode is that China has already built lighthouses, communication facilities, hangars and many other military installations on these artificial islands.

Strategic Group: After the formation of the Akas organization, it is clear that the US wants to empower them by forming small strategic groups in the East and Pacific. For a long time, Australia was struggling with the problem that China takes it on every issue and does not miss to tell its position as soon as it gets the opportunity. If seen, China’s strategy is very clear – to engage with countries economically and pursue their hidden interests to grab water/land there. The second tactic China also adopts is that to increase its interest, it also takes advantage of its influence by breaking into the government machinery. A better position for China in this matter is that most countries in Southeast Asia have governments that are well aware of the consequences of joining hands with China, but they succumb to China’s momentary generosity. .

Competition with China Meanwhile, the process of formation of some geo-strategic clusters in the eastern part of the Indo-Pacific has accelerated. These strategic groups have been formed from time to time to counter the Five Eyes and the Asia Pacific in what is today known as the Hindu-Pacific, followed by the Quad and now the Aqs, China. The changing terminology from the Asia-Pacific to the Indo-Pacific and later the formation of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or Quad, is a purely diplomatic and military arrangement that began in 2007 as a joint military exercise known as the ‘Malabar Exercise’. known by the name. The last meeting of the Quad members on March 12, 2021, jointly reaffirmed the rules-based maritime order in the East and South China Seas under ‘The Spirit of the Quad’, as a clear message to counter China’s aggressive stance. can be seen in.

The emergence of Australia as a regional power: QAustralia is a geographically very large country in the Pacific, located between Southeast Asia and other smaller Pacific Ocean countries. Despite being geographically and economically viable, Australia has a mixed image among its neighbours. Australia has never shown any enthusiasm to engage itself in an inclusive manner among smaller states and there have been instances when it has threatened one or two countries on some minor issues. A notable fact in this episode is that Tony Abbott, who was the Prime Minister of Australia from 2013 to 2015, was maintaining a very close friendship with the Chinese administration. Taking advantage of this, by going inside the Pacific Sea, China invested heavily to create an economic corridor between small countries, mainly aimed at drowning these countries in debt and filling their industrial products in their market.

Thus, completely ignorant of Chinese development strategy, Australia significantly increased its trade with China. By 1999, China became Australia’s largest two-way trading partner in goods and services, accounting for about a third (31 per cent) of global trade, according to a website of the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. China is still Australia’s largest trading partner. The matter was not confined to bilateral trade alone, but China extended its influence in Australia’s media and higher education system and to a lesser extent its defense and strategic sector.

Relations between the two countries began to deteriorate mainly when China began to create a sense of dominance in Australia’s domestic affairs on the one hand and smaller countries with direct stakes in the South China Sea, such as the Philippines, Vietnam, etc. Fears persisted against Indonesia, Brunei and Malaysia. This is the reason why the ten-member ASEAN organization could not jointly raise voice against Chinese terror and Australia, being a big brother, was unable to discharge any role.

The South China Sea is estimated to contain about 11 billion barrels of oil and 190 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. These are treasures for which China claims the entire South China Sea by creating many artificial islands. The Philippines is the only country in this region that has lost most of its maritime territory. Therefore, the Philippines went to the International Court of Justice against the annexation of its legitimate territory by China and it also got a favorable decision under the ‘United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea’. But China, ignoring this international decision, continued its aggressive attitude. On the other hand, other countries like Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia kept sending their complaints to China from time to time. The overall scenario is that ASEAN as a united platform has remained a mute spectator.

The formation and possible effects of the focus: The US administration appears to be trying to reduce military pressure on its part towards its allies such as Australia, in line with the principles of Biden and Trump. It also seems that America is ignoring India in this matter, because after China, India is geographically and culturally connected to this entire region. Furthermore, if we look at the past, Australia’s attitude towards Southeast Asian countries, despite its geographical location and proximity, has never been admirable and Australia has been criticized many times for this. Now the Aakas (Australia, UK and US) have formed a grouping where international relations analysts see this as the beginning of building a strong power bloc in the Indo-Pacific entirely targeted at China.

Although the defense spending of ASEAN countries is not worrying, but China is knocking on their door very closely. ASEAN countries also have many maritime disputes among themselves, but they rely on the International Court of Justice rather than getting involved in any conflict. Thailand, Indonesia, Vietnam, Singapore and the Philippines will all try to acquire the latest submarines given their potential and will all want to know how to increase their underwater combat capability.

[असिस्टेंट प्रोफेसर, जवाहरलाल नेहरू विश्वविद्यालय]

Edited By: Sanjay Pokhriyal