US Admiral Proposes 4-Nation Effort to Safeguard Freedom of Navigation in Asian Waters

By Patrick Goodenough | March 3, 2016 | 4:19am EST
The U.S. aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt, India's fleet tanker INS Shakti, and Japan's destroyer JS Fuyuzuki take part in the joint Malabar exercise in the Indian Ocean in October 2015. (Photo: U.S. Navy/Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Chad Trudeau)

( – For the second time in ten days, a senior U.S. official has raised the prospect of joint U.S.-India naval patrols in a region where China’s expanding territorial and military ambitions have raised tensions, and this time the top U.S. military commander in the Pacific suggested widening the proposed cooperation to include Japan and Australia as well.

Addressing a geopolitics forum in New Delhi, U.S. Pacific Command chief Adm. Harry Harris referred Wednesday to “quadrilateral” U.S.-India-Japan-Australia cooperation. A strategic dialogue initiative involving the four countries caused waves with Beijing when first attempted during the Bush administration in 2007.

Harris recalled that India, Japan and Australia last year held a first, high-level, three-way dialogue, which addressed topics including maritime security and “freedom of navigation patrols.”

“An idea to consider is perhaps expanding this trilateral to a quadrilateral venue between India-Japan-Australia and the United States,” he said. “We are all united in supporting the international rules-based order that has kept the peace and is essential to all of us.”

After noting other recent interaction between the countries concerned – including a meeting between the Japanese and Australian prime ministers “where both voiced opposition to coercive actions in the South and East China Seas” – Harris raised the prospect of naval cooperation among the four.

“By being ambitious, India, Japan, Australia, the United States and so many other like-minded nations can aspire to operate anywhere on the high seas and airspace above them,” he said.

“The idea of safeguarding freedom of the seas and access to international waters and airspace is not something new for us to ponder – this is a principle based upon the international, rules-based global order that has served this region so well.”

Harris said the U.S. Navy has conducted “freedom of navigation patrols” (FONOPS) for decades without incident, adding that “no nation” should perceive them as a threat. He also said, though without naming China, that “some countries seek to bully smaller nations through intimidation and coercion.”

His references to FONOPS and the “rules-based global order” have particular relevance to the situation in the South China Sea, where the U.S. Navy is carrying out such patrols near artificial islands built by China in support of its claims to territory contested by half a dozen other countries.

The last time “quad” navy cooperation in Indo-Pacific waters took place, it occurred in parallel to four-way security dialogue initiated by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe during an earlier term in office.

In 2007, a long-running annual U.S.-Indian joint naval exercise was expanded for the first time to include Japanese, Australian and Singaporean warships. Twenty-eight ships, including two U.S. Navy carrier strike groups, 150 aircraft and more than 20,000 personnel were involved in the week-long Malabar exercise off India’s east coast.

But Australia under a subsequent Labor government backed away from the “quad” initiative, leery of its effect on Canberra’s relations with Beijing.

Subsequent Malabar exercises have been bilateral (India-U.S.) or trilateral (India-U.S.-Japan).

U.S. Pacific Command chief Adm. Harry Harris addresses the Raisina Dialogue in New Delhi on Wednesday, March 2, 2016. (Photo: PACOM/Twitter)

‘Stunning’ progress in US-India ties

Although India denied a recent report claiming that it was considering joint patrols in the South China Sea with the U.S. Navy, U.S. officials continue to allude to the possibility.

Harris’ comments Wednesday came several days after U.S. Ambassador to India Richard Verma in a speech voiced the “hope that in the not too distant future United States and Indian Navy vessels steaming together will become a common and welcome sight throughout Indo-Pacific waters.”

Despite Indian concerns about China – a close partner of India’s rival, Pakistan – Delhi has not rushed into strategic alliances in the region. Under the former ruling Congress party in particular, it was wary of both the U.S. and China, while enjoying close relations with Moscow.

But relations with the U.S. have deepened since Prime Minister Narendra Modi of the Bharatiya Janata Party took office in 2014. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter will soon visit – his second trip to the country in the space of a year – and Chief of U.S. Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson visited last month.

Last December, Carter’s Indian counterpart Manohar Parrikar paid a visit to Washington and Hawaii during which the two militaries agreed on several joint naval exercises this year.

Harris on Wednesday called the progress “stunning.”

“We went from rarely talking only a few years ago to not only talking together, but doing together,” he said. “Skepticism, suspicion, and doubt on both sides have been replaced by cooperation, dialogue, and trust.”

At a Pentagon press conference last week, Harris said his goal was to improve the U.S.-India military relationship “dramatically.”

“I think that two countries like India and the United States, the world’s two largest democracies, we share values and we share interests and we share concerns,” he said.

China’s Communist Party-affiliated Global Times published an op-ed last week in which a Chinese scholar warned that navy patrols in the South China sea by any country not party to claims there would signal that the country is taking sides and provoking China.

India would be better off remaining neutral, wrote Long Xingchun.

“Conducting joint naval patrols with Washington in the South China Sea will do nothing but showing its hostility against Beijing and devastate their strategic mutual trust, which will also compel the Chinese government to adopt changes in its India policy,” he wrote.

“In economy, politics and security, China is far more capable of making trouble for India than the reverse.”

But Indian strategic affairs analyst Dr. Subhash Kapila of the South Asia Analysis Group said it was in India’s national interests to cooperate with the U.S. and other regional navies “to checkmate China’s military adventurism and brinkmanship in the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean.”

“India does not have to be apologetic on Indian Navy Task Forces operating in the South China Sea as much as China operating nuclear submarines on patrol in the Indian Ocean under the guise of anti-piracy naval operations,” Kapila said.

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