The spike in multilateral naval engagements excluding China has not gone unnoticed in Beijing.
The recent French-led La Pérouse naval exercises in the Bay of Bengal featured vessels from Australia, Japan and the United States.
– The La Pérouse exercise is just one of a series of recent naval exercises involving Indo-Pacific nations to promote the idea of a ‘free and open Indo-Pacific’ (FOIP)
– India, and to a lesser extent Australia, have been reluctant participants in recent exercises, seeking instead to strike a balance in their relationship with China
– These naval exercises risk provoking China and jeopardising relationships with Beijing
– A lack of an agreed-upon FOIP-centric strategy may hinder its effectiveness
The French-led Exercise La Pérouse was recently conducted in the Bay of Bengal for the first time, bringing together naval assets from four key Indo-Pacific powers. The exercises in late May involved a wide range of operations from humanitarian and disaster relief to anti-submarine and anti-air defence manoeuvres.
Led by the French aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle as part of a French Carrier Task Group, the exercises brought together a variety of vessels including the Australian frigate HMAS Toowoomba and the flagship of its submarine fleet, the HMAS Collins. While the exercises notably excluded a major regional power, India, it forms just the latest in a spike of multinational naval exercises across the region seeking to maintain a ‘free and open Indo-Pacific’ in the face of an increasingly aggressive Beijing and a deteriorating regional order.
A FREE AND OPEN INDO-PACIFIC
These multinational military exercises are now increasingly commonplace across the region. Just two months prior to La Pérouse, the 2019 iteration of the Australian-led Indo-Pacific Endeavour exercise brought together several Southeast Asian nations to enhance naval operability and conduct humanitarian operations across the region, including a naval transit of the extremities of the South China Sea. Another operation prior to La Pérouse, a four-way sail-through of the South China Sea by the US, Japan, the Philippines and India, occurred in early May, while in mid-April Indian and Vietnamese vessels undertook bilateral exercises off Cam Ranh Bay. Following La Pérouse, joint drills with Japanese, Australian, South Korean and US naval vessels were conducted near Guam as part of the Pacific Vanguard exercise. And, in recent months, Canada, Britain and France have conducted freedom of navigation operations in the region.
For many of these nations, there is a growing appreciation of the idea of the ‘free and open Indo-Pacific’, with the idea now a central policy in both Japan and the US. FOIP, as it is colloquially known, is seen as an expansion of the Asia-Pacific security concept that was common in the 1990s, especially the values and principles that underpinned it such as freedom of navigation, economic liberalism and free trade, and adherence to sovereignty and the rule of law. While there has been some confusion over what exactly FOIP entails, its emergence as a key policy driver has been caused primarily by China’s increasing assertiveness and the threats that this is posing to the existing regional order. Many of the nations participating in these naval exercises share similar values and have actively voiced their concerns over Chinese aggression and behaviour in areas like the South China Sea and the Pacific. However, some like Australia and India have been far more cautious in recent times, seeking to strike a careful balance in their relationships with both Washington and Beijing.
BETWEEN A ROCK AND A HARD PLACE
In many of these recent exercises, there is a notable absentee. While being a major Indo-Pacific power, India has been reluctant to participate or contribute to many naval and military exercises. In fact, New Delhi has long been considered a ‘holdout’ in regional exercises and informal arrangements such as the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (the Quad) while also being unwilling to allow nations like Australia to participate in the annual, Indian-led multinational Exercise Malabar.
New Delhi is extremely conscious of its relationship with Beijing. Fostering this relationship is important from both an economic perspective — China is India’s largest trading partner — and from a security perspective, with recent border skirmishes in the Doklam valley between the two countries bringing them close to confrontation. As both nations now aim to diffuse tensions and improve ties, India has sought to ensure that it does not engage in activities that may be received poorly in Beijing, such as engagement in potentially provocative military exercises.
Australia has increased its participation over recent years in military exercises in the region, driven by the goal of Canberra’s 2016 Defence White Paper of increasing engagement in multinational exercises across the Indo-Pacific. However, it too has been somewhat reluctant to engage in more confrontational activities such as freedom of navigation operations (FONOPs) in the South China Sea. Like India, Australia’s interests lie in carefully balancing its relationship between the two regional powers; it is dependent on Washington’s security guarantees and China’s economic heft. As a result, it has pursued a policy of ‘strategic ambiguity’. While Canberra has recently become far more explicit in confronting China’s growing influence in the Pacific Islands, it is still seeking to avoid engaging in activities in the Indo-Pacific that may directly confront and anger China.
POKING THE DRAGON?
The growing rate of naval exercises in the region, and the closer that they are moving towards China’s disputed territorial claims in the South China Sea, risks provoking Beijing into being far more aggressive in its maritime pursuits. While exercises such as La Pérouse may not occur in disputed areas or claim to be in response to Chinese military expansionism, Beijing may see these exercises as a method of encirclement by Indo-Pacific powers and respond in kind.
This increased aggressiveness in the region could also jeopardise the careful balance that Indo-Pacific powers have sought to achieve between strategic confrontation and maintaining lucrative economic links, especially for Australia and India. While the risk of all-out conflict is limited, China may have already flexed its muscles — Australian military aircraft were attacked with lasers during a recent traverse of the extremities of the South China Sea, while Australian coal imports were reportedly restricted at the port city of Dalian, possibly in retaliation for banning state-owned telecom Huawei from participating in its 5G telecommunications network. While nations are increasingly concerned about Beijing’s territorial ambitions, they are also conscious of avoiding any activity that could result in negative economic or strategic consequences; these increased military exercises may serve to continue provoking the ire of China.
With key Indo-Pacific powers like India and Australia reluctant to participate in more confrontational exercises, preserving the existing maritime rules-based order and preventing Beijing’s expansionist tendencies in the East and South China Seas and along the China-India border will be difficult. While their reluctance to participate may shield them in the event of a direct confrontation, the lack of a broad regional cohesion on a FOIP strategy may hinder its effectiveness, allowing Beijing to exploit these weaknesses and drive wedges between the loose partners.
The colliding mix of interests could facilitate the emergence of new regional players over traditional ones, which has already occurred with France’s rise as a key Indo-Pacific maritime power. However, in recent years there has been growing consensus about the idea of the free and open Indo-Pacific and an increase in bilateral security engagement between partners like Australia and Japan and between India and the US. As these bilateral ties continue to develop, it is likely that there will be greater regional convergence on the concept of the FOIP. While there will be continued hesitancy in participating in more provocative naval exercises, it is likely that the already large number of naval exercises in the region will only grow in number and scale. The question that remains unanswered, however, is whether Beijing’s response will grow in kind.