( Published in IndraStra Global on 25 Feb 2016, ISSN 2381-3652 )
“The ongoing disputes in the East China Sea and the South China Sea mean that Japan’s top foreign policy priority must be to expand the country’s strategic horizons. Japan is a mature maritime democracy and choice of close partners should reflect that fact. I envisage a strategy whereby Australia, India, Japan, and the US State of Hawaii form a diamond to safeguard the maritime commons starting from the Indian Ocean Region to the Western Pacific. I am prepared to invest the greatest possible extent, Japan’s capabilities in the security diamond”
Shinzo Abe, 2013
Interestingly, John Foster Dulles of the US of A propounded the Island Chain Concept, comprising of three island chains, in 1951 for strategic containment of USSR and China. The key component of the First Island Chain was Taiwan (it was thereafter christened as one of the Unsinkable Aircraft Carriers); it extended from northern Philippines & Borneo, up to Kuril islands. The second line of defense was from Mariana Island to Islands of Japan. The Third Chain’s key component was Hawaii; it began at Aleutians and ended in Oceania. Now that the breakdown of USSR has taken place, the Chinese believe that this concept would be used to contain China.
General Liu Huaqing had articulated a three-tier program for modernizing the PLAN (commonly referred to as Chinese Navy),according to which the Chinese Navy is proceeding to fast pace its modernization efforts. The program essentially comprises of three time lines, namely:
Year 2020- Acquire capability to exert sea control up to the First Island Chain i.e. bracketing the South China Sea and the East China Sea.
Year 2020- The sea control capability would be extended to the Second Island Chain, which amounts to bracketing the Philippines Sea.
Year 2050- The capabilities would extend to operating Carrier battle groups globally.
The phenomenal economic growth followed by upgrading of military capabilities of PLA and the subsequent claims on islands in the South China Sea, probably led Mr. Shizo Abe, the prime minister of Japan, to articulate the “Asian Security Diamond” in 2013. It called upon India, Australia, and Hawaii (US) to form a strategic coalition for safeguarding the maritime commons comprising the Indian Ocean and the Western Pacific. The Japanese Prime minister has also approached France and United Kingdom to join this Asian Security Diamond keeping in view the significant strategic presence of these two countries in the IOR and the Western Pacific.
The Polynesian Link in the Third Island Chain
The third Island Chain as espoused by Dulles; from the Aleutians to Oceania with Hawaii as a key component; has started to assume relevance with an assertive China militarizing disputed islands. New Zealand –Tonga – Hawaii link within this chain; could play a significant role at least as far as Maritime Domain Awareness (MDA) is concerned. Whereas, New Zealand and Hawaii may not need any benign assistance, Tonga, with its 177 islands spread over an area of ~700,000 sq km in southern Pacific Ocean, is a different story.
Currently, in the maritime arena, Tonga is grappling with security of its extensive coastline as well as policing of its EEZ of 676,401 sq km. Its remote location, over 2,330 km from New Zealand and over 5000 km from Hawaii make it a fertile region for transnational crime. Tonga has insufficient physical and electronic monitoring resources to remain updated about real time situation in its vast area and is severely constrained as far as MDA is concerned. Tonga with its outlying islands is susceptible to gun running, narcotics, human trafficking and other criminal activities. In addition, unauthorized exploitation of its fisheries and marine wealth in its coastal waters as well as in its EEZ has direct impact on its national economy and security. As regards applicability of MDA to Tonga it would be prudent to take a cue from the definition and scope of MDA, as has been articulated by the US government vide their document National Security Presidential Directive 41, 2004:-
Maritime Domain Awareness is “the effective understanding of anything associated with the global maritime environment that could impact the security, safety, economy or environment of U.S. This is accomplished through the integration of intelligence, surveillance, observation, and navigation systems into one common operating picture (COP) that is accessible throughout the U.S. Government.
Unlike traditional naval operations, it is apparent that the goal of MDA is far more than simply looking for potential maritime enemies poised to attack Tonga. The implications of “Anything associated” with the maritime environment that can affect the security, safety, economy, or environment go far beyond a classic maritime threat. As per the US interpretation, these include smuggling of people or dangerous cargoes, piracy, proliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD), identification and protection of critical maritime infrastructure, oil spills, weather, and environmental concerns among other events. What Tonga needs today is a robust MDA along with a rapid air & sea transportation capability.
An important factor that has to be considered while discussing the Third Island Chain is that Tonga is being aggressively wooed by China, even though there are only about 300 Chinese residents as per some estimates.
India has been participating in bilateral and multilateral strategic dialogues in the region including those involving Japan, Australia, and the US and the Indian Navy has participated in various naval exercises. However, India has not joined any group, which directly aims at containment of China.
India maintains cordial relations with nations in the Pacific; however, Tonga and other smaller nations in the South Pacific Ocean aspire for more attention from India. India could assist Tonga, benignly, in setting up of its MDA infrastructure. This would not only enhance the potency of the Polynesian Island link in the Third Island Chain, but also strengthen Tonga’s maritime security.