21st century Maritime Conflict & the US Pivot to Asia


China’s maritime influence is being challenged by the US and its nascent partner India

Oceans for centuries have been the main ground for conflict among nations and countries, apart from its connecting aspects it’s a source of rivalry and war in the 21st century as well. The growing might of nations in the oceans are the proof that major powers are willing to confront each other at sea. This new trend also highlighted the multipolar nature of the world, in which now there are more than one centre of powers the new powers are poised to confront the old ones and their rules of engagement, while the old ones try to maintain their relevance by erecting a web of alliances and new power tools to subdue the new comers from gaining much relevance in the order which can threaten their hegemony.

The United states of America emerged as the one of two major powers after the death of Nazi Germany, the US jazz age and the industrial boom, in pre and post-world war period allow them to become a major actor on the global stage, on par with USSR, the world was then clearly divided into two blocs the Communist and capitalist. The collapse of Soviet Union marked the rise of United States of America as the sole power, which devised new rules for the world, and the absence of any other major power allowed it to expand its maritime focus around the globe, and the 21st century, marled the rise of US as history’s strongest naval power. The emergence of China and the unexpected economic boom of India coupled with other economic powerhouses of Asia, like Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore, South Korea and japan marked the rise of Asia. The US attached much importance to this part of the world, and want to get utilised by its boom, and to maintain its relevance as the sole power, US need to engage in the region, the US with its naval power is keen to maintain the security of the region and want to sail freely in and out in the Indian and pacific ocean, and want a great influence in the entire indo pacific region. The United States pursued an aggressive policy under George Kennan[1] in the form of project solarium to cripple its sole competitor.

The renewed US focus on Asia, and the emergence of china as a major power, brings up the possibility to reinvent the containment strategy, but China’s containment is not just difficult but also impossible[2], because of the inclusion of new domain in the warfare. China is also a major economic power with sufficient influence in various regions around the globe. The United States and India’s rapprochement brings this triangle into a new pattern of conflict as India is pushed deep into the Anglo sphere and is evolving to become a staunch US ally, willing to confront other major powers on behalf of US. The rivalry is now in a new pattern where India is poised to take charge as a regional bully against China, confronting China in the Indian Ocean region and due to its proximity to the pacific, it is willing to complicate the maritime scenario for china, by recently sailing through the South China Sea. The recent thaw in relations with Vietnam and equipping them with state of the art weaponry first by India[3] and then followed by US is a combined strategy of the US and its allies to contain and neutralize the Chinese power in its own backyard[4].

There is not just military dimension to the Asia pivot, but it is also the economic one, the recent shale boom in US, the new sanctions hit Russia and the dwindling gulf oil empires, US is pumping its LNG[5] into the energy hungry economic giants, to introduce an alternate energy order in the form of Liquefied natural gas. The US needs an unchallenged presence to maintain its hegemony in the region. China has a robust plan to advance its rising power status by introducing new projects like AIIB, and the Maritime silk route to rival Indian and US dreams of solely ruling the vital sea lanes, and thus regulating the economics of the vital region. The Indo pacific region is strategically vital and thus militarily is very important in great power competition, but it’s the economic dimension which is important. The power of China cannot be contained by sheer use of military or naval assets, because china unlike USSR is technologically vibrant, and has introduced various strategies and tools to dilute the US naval power in the region. The most recent statement by the Chinese President that pacific is big enough to accommodate two naval powers, is a clear sign of Chinese assertiveness and the challenge to unipolar movement. US operates in the region through its web of alliances. The US wants India to confront China, to elevate its status in Asia. The Chinese focus from the last couple of years is to continue its silent rise while ignoring any major conflict in the region, and thus initiated various vital projects. The China Pakistan Economic Corridor, Bangladesh, Maldives, Fiji, Sri Lankan and Micronesia[6] projects are thus seen with suspicion by both India and United States. The role of Australia and the possible hedging of Indonesia[7] against China are seen as counterbalance to this connectivity drive, which according to some western experts is a web of naval basing push which can encircle the main allies of US and thus will put China on par with United States as far as naval basing is concerned. In Indian Strategic circles the strategy is called string of pearls.

India vs. China in Indo pacific.

The Indian relevance in the new world order is mainly because of its economic might, and its hostilities towards China. India which is trying to dominate the vital region of south Asia, which mainly consists small countries except Pakistan, which is not just big in size but also very important because of its unique geostrategic importance, its nuclear arsenal, well trained armed forces and its cordial relations with China. These factors are enough to limit Indian bullying in the region, and Pakistan along with China constitutes a sufficient force to limit and contain India, in this region. The Indian focus of Nuclear weapons to oust China in the region is futile because of the Chinese nuclear dominance, and its state of the art weaponry, and space aspect of its nuclear weapons, along with its growing naval might, which is now a functional blue water navy[8] thriving for bases far away from its boundary, like Gwadar, Djibouti[9], Hambantota, Chittagong etc. Though India and China are economically viable to each other, but the long term Indian dreams to become a major regional power, on par and above China under the leadership of US is driving the Indian mind-set towards oblivion. China is a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, and thus India due to its hostility towards China and its enduring relevance in the new containment strategy of United States, India is asking for memberships of all elite clubs[10], the US backed or baked Institutions, which are willing to welcome India into the Anglo sphere, and all the elite clubs, are not acceptable to China.

US vs China in Indo pacific

United States unsettled by the growing Chinese might, feels, that it’s free ride in the global commons is now challenged by the new rival power, though China is pursuing a policy of peaceful rise[11], but it is marking an era of power transition, from unipolar world order to a more just multipolar world order. The Chinese presence in the naval, Nuclear and Cyber domain is inflicting damage to US interests indirectly, the US allies in the region like Japan, have some deep rooted hostilities with China, the growing might of China is disturbing the security of those countries which is why US allies are calling for more robust US presence in the region to thwart Chinese plans. Though Chinese strategy is primarily in economic integration with the fast growing world, and also highlights the growing importance of emerging Asia, where countries can limit their mutual distrust to advance the reconstruction and thus extend the industrial boom to other countries[12], but due to historic mistrust and the growing nationalism the way to progress is being halted, thus allowing US and countries like India to use this mistrust against China. With few exceptions in the entire picture, middle powers like Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia, choose a delicate balancing stance between two major powers[13], to gain from both centres. The recent visit of Jokowi to US, and the commitments made by Mr Jokowi to Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Ye over maritime silk route is a proof that strategically important countries will not feed this rivalry by joining camps, instead they opt for the middle way. The US Foreign secretary is convincing the world that China’s growing aggressive posture is a threat to the security of the entire region, and thus US President Obama hosted a conference of ASEAN countries in US[14] to gain a clear support in its drive in Asia. ASEAN though is not a military grouping but is a very vibrant organisation in economic terms, where the growing nationalism was curtailed to achieve a sustained and continuous growth in the complex world. ASEAN is a jewel in the United States’ China Strategy. Due to the growing tensions in South China Sea, and China’s assertiveness over maritime issue, US is making best out of this conflict, while erecting new bases and hiring new allies against China. China’s main concern is to limit US influence in its backyard, but the regional countries are disturbed[15] due to China’s behaviour and are resorting to US camp for help.

US, India vs. China

The Indian, American alliance will surely impact the power of China in the short run, because of the flow of advanced state of the art weaponry, the upgrading of US naval power, to confront china in the high seas, and to protect its own backyard in the Indian ocean and extend its influence in the adjoining waters of Indian ocean, to form a web of allied navies, thus forming a chain of naval assets and bases to complicate the strategy of Chinese naval planners. United States is trying to fill the naval void by erecting Navies of India, Vietnam and other rivals of China, to dilute Chinese naval Basing Strategy. In this scenario the US Navy will continue to manoeuvre freely in the waters of Indian and pacific oceans, while Chinese will be limited by the web of alliance, and will also be afraid of the domino effect, because taking on one of the rival navies may incite an ending response or the major response from the United States. The Indian presence in the Indian Ocean is only restricted to guard its own maritime boundary and the Indian Navy in its present form is not willing to take on Chinese navy because of many reasons but primarily because the present Chinese navy is mightier than Indian navy and any such move can instigate the Chinese navy which may launch regular patrols into the Indian Oceans. In such a scenario, US may not be willing to confront China openly and thus complicating the situation for India. The United States wants to equip the Indian Navy with state of the art assets, and with regular exercises it is assuring the Indian naval planners that they are willing to work with the Indians against China and there is no possibility to back off. The Malabar exercises[16] are one such endeavour to warn China that the new alliance is ready for test. The US Navy launched a series of innocent passage operations to challenge Chinese claims in the South China Sea. Indian naval planners are of the view that with thaw in India US relations, and the growing cooperation can compel Chinese navy to conduct such innocent passage patrols into the Indian Ocean. Indian Navy is expecting these patrols because of the presence of Chinese naval Subs in Sri Lanka and Pakistan in the last couple of years. India also expressed its concerns[17].

Chinese Responses to US India Joint onslaught.

Chinese as mentioned earlier are building a series of projects to ensure their relevance in the Indo Pacific regions, The Clear message by Chinese President that Pacific is big enough to accommodate two powers[18] is a clear indication that US must prepare itself for the rival naval power, which will not why away from confronting it. The possible Chinese responses will be the construction of Pakistan China Economic Corridor to avoid Malacca Dilemma[19], and the peaceful completion of Maritime Silk Route to escape the US web of hostile alliances, which are aimed at curtailing Chinese economic growth. United States and its allies cannot sanction China like Russia, that’s why they are using the economic strangulation strategy to isolate China in its own backyard to ensure its economic demise. China’s connectivity ventures will allow it to maintain its due relevance in the important region, and build sufficient confidence among small and middle powers to join China, or at least stay away from US backed containment alliance. China though not aligned to India, but still the volume of trade, and the inclusion of India in AIIB and other ventures proves that China want to get India on board to dilute US strategy, but this strategy will not work as India is accepted as a major defence partner by the US senate. The change of administration in United States in the upcoming election will decide the fate of Indian American relation, but one thing is clear that, United States follows a new containment strategy, which is more military in nature, because the preceding administrations are getting closer to India without any change in policy.

European Union Role in the Indo pacific Rivalry of the Trio.

European Union being the most important ally of United States, which constitutes a major part of the military alliance called NATO, is reluctant to accept China as a major foe. China developed major strategic and economic relations with most of the European Countries among which Germany, Britain, and France are the most important of all. A major GDP of these countries is because of a trade with China. So a NATO option seems futile in case of China, as major NATO members are economic partners of China as well. The recent contracts of nuclear plants in UK, Major economic ventures between France and China, and strong relations between Germany Turkey etc., are putting US in advantageous position vis-à-vis China, because they will exercise restraint in any major US China conflict, and will meddle only to deescalate tensions, while countries like Australia will openly come to Unites States rescue.


US China India trio is going through rapid transformation both in military and economic terms, the relations between these three like two against one in this vital region, where Chinese power is a fact, Indian power is tied to United States, and the escalation will not be gradual, and will depend on the Indian decision to confront China. Indians are still shying away from openly following American orders, because there will be huge consequences and economic costs if India confronts China. Indian anxieties about the two front war both with China and Pakistan is also complicating the situation for them. For United States the Chinese Economic worth will further upgrade its military outlook, that’s why by labelling China as a bully will distance its major economic partners from China, resulting in isolation. But China is not USSR or Russia, because China has a huge economic value, and capitals around the globe value their relation with China. Only a major conflict will erupt if India openly confronts China on American behest. The conflict will also include the economic blockades of each other first at regional level and then at global level, that’s why the European countries think that any conflicts with China can also implicit heavy damage on them.


[1] “Solarium for Today.” Eisenhower Institute at Gettysburg College -. Accessed June 14, 2016. http://www.eisenhowerinstitute.org/about/living_history/solarium_for_today.dot.

[2] Nye, Joseph. “Only China Can Contain China.” The Huffington Post. Accessed June 14, 2016. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/joseph-nye/china-contain-china_b_6845588.html.

[3] “India and Vietnam Can Rescue Asia’s Balance of Power.” The National Interest. Accessed June 14, 2016. http://nationalinterest.org/feature/india-vietnam-can-rescue-asias-balance-power-15902.

[4] Accessed June 15, 2016. http://www.newsweek.com/vietnam-arms-embargo-lifted-462782.

[5] “US Has a New Role in the Global Energy Market.” CNBC. 2016. Accessed June 15, 2016. http://www.cnbc.com/2016/02/25/us-exports-of-liquified-natural-gas-mark-a-turning-point-in-the-energy-market.html.

[6] “In Micronesia, China Upsets Obama’s Asia Tilt – Asia Sentinel.” Asia Sentinel. 2015. Accessed June 15, 2016. http://www.asiasentinel.com/econ-business/in-micronesia-china-upsets-obama-asia-tilt/.

[7] “Indonesia’s China Strategy: ‘Flexible Hedging'” The National Interest. Accessed June 16, 2016. http://nationalinterest.org/feature/indonesias-china-strategy-flexible-hedging-15843.

[8] “China’s Real Blue Water Navy.” The Diplomat. Accessed June 17, 2016. http://thediplomat.com/2012/08/chinas-not-so-scary-navy/.


[10] “China Calls for Talks among NSG Members to Admit India, Others.” The Indian Express. 2015. Accessed June 17, 2016. http://indianexpress.com/article/india/india-others/china-calls-for-talks-among-nsg-members-to-admit-india-others/.

[11] “Can China Rise Peacefully?” The National Interest. Accessed June 18, 2016. http://nationalinterest.org/commentary/can-china-rise-peacefully-10204.

[12] “Indonesia, China Seal ‘Maritime Partnership'” The Diplomat. Accessed June 18, 2016. http://thediplomat.com/2015/03/indonesia-china-seal-maritime-partnership/.

[13] Kuik, Cheng-chwee. “Malaysia’s Balancing Act.” The New York Times. 2015. Accessed June 18, 2016. http://www.nytimes.com/2015/12/07/opinion/malaysias-balancing-act.html?_r=0.

[14] Los Angeles Times. Accessed June 19, 2016. http://www.latimes.com/world/asia/la-fg-asean-summit-qa-20160215-story.html.

[15] “ASEAN ‘Seriously Concerned’ By China’s South China Sea Behavior.” The Diplomat. Accessed June 19, 2016. http://thediplomat.com/2016/02/asean-seriously-concerned-by-chinas-south-china-sea-behavior/.

[16] “Significance of the India-US-Japan Malabar Naval Exercise.” The Indian Express. 2015. Accessed June 19, 2016. http://indianexpress.com/article/explained/significance-of-the-india-us-japan-malabar-naval-exercise/.

[17] “Chinese Submarines in Sri Lanka Unnerve India: Next Stop Pakistan?” The Jamestown Foundation. Accessed June 19, 2016. http://www.jamestown.org/programs/chinabrief/single/?tx_ttnews[tt_news]=43960.

[18] “Xi Tells Kerry China and U.S. Can Both Be Pacific Powers.” Bloomberg.com. Accessed June 19, 2016. http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2015-05-17/xi-sees-room-for-both-china-u-s-as-powers-in-pacific-region.

[19] “Securing the Energy Supply: China’s.” EInternational Relations. Accessed June 19, 2016. http://www.e-ir.info/2016/02/26/securing-the-energy-supply-chinas-malacca-dilemma/.

is a freelance writer, geopolitical issues interests him the most. He can be reached at aspirant2011@rocketmail.com.

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