China’s growing interests in the Indian Ocean Region are likely to be jeopardized as the US has called for the establishment of a new naval fleet at the intersection of the Indian and Pacific Oceans.
“We can’t just rely on the Seventh Fleet in Japan. We have to look to our other allies and partners like Singapore, like India, and actually put a numbered fleet where it would be extremely relevant if, God forbid, we were to ever to get in any kind of a dust-up,” US Navy Secretary Kenneth Braithwaite has recently said.
The Indian Ocean is a critical link in global trade routes. For China, it is crucial as 80 percent of its oil imports pass through the Malacca Strait, the Indian Ocean’s busiest choke point, according to an analysis by the Mercator Institute for China Studies.
Without divulging much detail on how large the proposed fleet would be, or if ships from other fleets would be forward-deployed to the new fleet, and how operations would be divided between other fleets in the Asia-Pacific region, Braithwaite said: “More importantly, it can provide a much more formidable deterrence.”
“So we’re going to create the First Fleet, and we’re going to put it, if not Singapore right [away], we’re going to look to make it more expeditionary-oriented and move it across the Pacific until it is where our allies and partners see that it could best assist them as well as to assist us,” he said.
The South China Morning Post has reported that the US’ Seventh Fleet, based out of Yokosuka in Japan, covers some 48 million square miles from the International Date Line in the mid-Pacific Ocean to the India-Pakistan border in the Indian Ocean. “The Fifth Fleet, based out of Bahrain, covers the Middle East and the western Indian Ocean,” the report said.
While the new fleet is a threat to China, the US ally countries have not given any enthusiastic response to the proposal either. India, Japan, Australia are conducting the Malabar naval exercise with the US in the Arabian Sea, but they haven’t said anything on the proposal yet.
While the naval base is likely to be set up in Singapore, the island nation – among Washington’s key strategic partners in Southeast Asia – experts believe, will not entertain the proposal either.
There had not been fresh talks with the US on the deployment of additional warships there, Singapore’s defense ministry told SCMP. “I believe Biden administration would exercise greater caution towards regional political sensitivities to properly review [the proposal] with US allies and partners if not scrapping the plan outright come next January,” he told the news website.
Experts highlight how a new US fleet focused on the Indian Ocean could be a problem for China’s ambitions in the region since it relies a lot more on the Indian Ocean than the Western Pacific.
Song Zhongping, a former instructor with the People’s Liberation Army’s Second Artillery Corps, told SCMP: “Setting up a US Navy fleet would be akin to grabbing China by the throat – it would hurt China’s development interests in terms of energy supply chains and investments in belt and road projects.”
The US has stepped up its presence in the Indian Ocean since the Trump administration introduced the Indo-Pacific strategy in 2017 to counter the Chinese military which is flexing its muscles in the strategically vital region. Another reason is the PLA’s engagement in the hotly-contested territorial disputes in both the South China Sea and the East China Sea.
Beijing has claimed 1.3 million sq miles of the South China Sea and has indulged in building military bases on the artificial islands claimed by Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam.
China is using the ambitious Belt and Road Initiative to further its debt-trap diplomacy where countries end-up giving land to Beijing when they are unable to pay the debts for the loan taken to make projects under BRI.
Chinese foreign ministry has termed the US Navy secretary’s call as Washington hyping the China threat. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian told a media briefing that some people in the US have got into the habit of hyping up the so-called ‘China threat’, because they need excuses for their expanding military prowess and budget so as to seek regional and global hegemony.
While Beijing is accusing the US of “hyping” China’s growing influence, the UK, which has introduced a massive military budget to increase its presence in the international order, will also be sending an aircraft carrier to Asia in 2021.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson reportedly said in an online speech in Parliament: “Next year, HMS Queen Elizabeth will lead a British and allied task group on our most ambitious deployment for two decades, encompassing the Mediterranean, the Indian Ocean, and East Asia.”
The move has been seen as a message to China, whose increasing political crackdown on Hong Kong, a former British colony, has led to diplomatic tensions with the UK.