Washington: Terming the Indian Ocean as a “sea of stability”, the US on Friday publicly questioned the intent of China’s OBOR (One Belt One Road) initiative in the maritime domain.
Admiral Scott Swift, US Pacific Fleet commander, who met civilian and military leadership of India, said Chinese ships were doing an OBOR tour – “right now there are more questions than answers. China has increased its presence in the Indian Ocean.” He said his discussions with Indian officials covered what India and US could do to provide stability in the region. Chinese actions, he said, were adding to a sense of “anxiety” in the region. Uncertainty over the consequences and a lack of clarity about the goals of China’s OBOR programme is being raised “in every country I visit,” he said.
Although the chief of US Pacific Command, Admiral Harry Harris had, earlier this year, spoken about a future of joint patrols and joint tracking of Chinese submarines if India signed on to the remaining foundational agreements, these ambitions now appear to be less publicly articulated. Swift instead spoke about “pass-ex” and the upcoming Malabar exercises.
Scheduled for July in Bay of Bengal, Malabar has attracted extra attention this year because of Australia’s public request to join. But Swift said this would only happen “step by step” a clear indication that neither the US nor India wants to raise Chinese hackles further by turning the Japan-India-US trilateral exercise into the “quad”. Swift clarified that P8s and ASW (anti-submarine warfare) would be part of the exercise this year, an acknowledgment of China’s submarine capabilities. He admitted China’s naval capacities were rising quickly.
But compared to the “instability” in the South and East China Sea he said Indian Ocean’s stability stemmed from the fact that as the larger power, India abided by the UNCLOS ruling to settle the maritime boundary with Bangladesh, despite losing some territory, thereby adding to regional stability. That is missing in the South China Sea.
While India and the US have a working group on carrier technology and building, Swift indicated the progress was slow. He said there was an issue with “capacities” linking the shortage of interlocutors on the decommissioning of their own carrier, the USS Enterprise.