By Captain Manoj Rawat
The new Naval fleet will be focused on countering China and presents both challenges and opportunities for India
The highly successful Exercise Malabar 2020 recently concluded in the Arabian Sea and was significant because all the Quad Navies participated in it after a gap of 13 years.
However, questions are being raised as to whether Quad will be able to sustain this momentum in future. All eyes are on the Biden Administration to see whether it signals a continuing commitment to Quad especially since there are assumptions that the Administration will be less hawkish on China. Amid all these speculations, a senior US DoD official has made a very interesting statement that reveals what the current mindset in Pentagon is with regards to the Indo-Pacific region and especially towards China. Secretary of the Navy Kenneth Braithwaite on Oct. 27, 2020, said he wants to create a new US Navy Fleet, to be called the 1st Fleet, in the “crossroads between Indian and the Pacific Oceans”.
This idea can be seen as a logical progression of increased US focus in this region. From President Obama’s ‘Asian pivot” to President Trump’s embrace of ‘Free and Open Indo-Pacific’, America is showing an increased appreciation of “Indo” in the Indo-Pacific”. In 2018, US redesignated its Pacific Joint military command to “Indo-Pacific Command (INDOPACOM) to focus more on the Chinese challenge in this region.
Currently, the US Navy has the 7th Fleet stationed in Yokosuka, Japan and the 5th Fleet stationed in Bahrain. The new First Fleet when it is organised is likely to be stationed in Singapore. Secretary Braithwaite’s explained his rationale for the new fleet as “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 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,”
The “dust-up “the Secretary had in mind was a future conflict arising out of China’s aggressive expansionism from the Senkaku Islands to Taiwan to the South China Sea to its forays into the Indian Ocean. For India, this idea represents both a challenge and an opportunity. India has in recent years increased its cooperation with the US Navy both quantitatively and qualitatively. Several agreements have been signed between the two countries for data sharing and logistics. An increased US presence in the Indo-Pacific as a result of a dedicated 1st Fleet of the US Navy will lead to better surveillance of Chinese activity in this region. Intelligence sharing will help in monitoring and countering the moves of China in near real-time.
The idea of First Fleet is however still in the conceptual stage and will have to be at the highest political level. Singapore which has been mentioned as the possible base of this new fleet has a large naval base in Changi but it is doubtful if it could support the new fleet entirely on its own. The other possible bases that the US might consider are in Subic Bay, Philippines or Cam Ranh Bay, Vietnam. It is, however likely that the Philippines and Vietnam may not provide permanent basing rights to the US Navy due to apprehensions about a Chinese reaction. One way to implement this idea would be as suggested by Secretary Braithwaite 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”.
The expeditionary model is well suited as the US Navy will not need any permanent bases but could maintain an expeditionary posture with a smaller fleet deployed in the Indo-Pacific. In this expeditionary model of the 1st Fleet, Quad countries like Australia and India could play a major role in providing basing and logistic support. India may be expected under Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Understanding (LEMOA) to provide support to the 1st Fleet. This could be a win-win for both countries which are focussed on challenging the Chinese threat in the Indo-Pacific.
The First Fleet will be a direct challenge to China’s aspirations in the Indo-Pacific and as a Chinese analyst feels ‘would be akin to grabbing China by the throat’. This Fleet in partnership with other Quad navies could exacerbate Chinese ‘Malacca Dilemma’ which is Chinese Achilles heel because 80 percent of Chinese oil imports pass through the Malacca Straits.
The idea of First Fleet is bold and brilliant in its conception however the optimism may need to be tempered with political realities in Washington and New Delhi. The idea, even if it is cleared by the US Defence Secretary will have to be approved by US State Department mandarins and the President-elect Biden. In New Delhi, despite the new Quad spirit, some policy makers still hold the bitter memories of the intervention by US 7th Fleet in Indo-Pak war of 1971 which could dampen political enthusiasm for hosting US Fleet on a large scale regularly.
If these political challenges can be handled, the introduction of 1st Fleet that could dramatically change the security situation in the Indo-Pacific and give China a headache that it will struggle to handle.
(The views expressed are those of the author. This piece is originally published in “Strategic Inquirer”)
Manoj Rawat is a former Indian Naval Captain and Director of Naval Operations at Naval Headquarters, New Delhi. He has years of experience on frontline warships and senior operational and policy positions in the Ministry of Defence. Manoj is an alumnus of National Defence Academy, Singapore Aviation Academy, Indonesian Command and Staff College, and College of Defence Management. His work includes planning and execution of in-depth research programs and the preparation of impactful background papers, presentations, reports and recommendations for senior government and defence leadership. An award-winning writer on strategic affairs and a frequent speaker on the subject of maritime security he has also presented at Think Tanks, in diplomatic circles, and at UN Training Missions. He now works in the Maritime Sector as a full time professional and writes as a freelancer.