A few days before Indian and Chinese soldiers clashed in Galwan Valley in eastern Ladakh, three American aircraft carriers, accompanied by Navy cruisers, destroyers, fighter jets and other aircraft, began patrolling the Indo-Pacific waters.
According to AP, for the first the first time in three years, American carriers were spread across the Pacific. The USS Theodore Roosevelt and its strike group was operating in the Philippine Sea near Guam. The USS Nimitz strike group was in the Pacific off the US West Coast. The USS Ronald Reagan had left port in Japan and was operating in the Philippine Sea south of there.
As predicted, China portrayed the massive show of naval force by the US as an example of American provocation, and evidence that the US is a source of instability in the Indo-Pacific region.
File image of Prime Minister Narendra Modi an Chinese president Xi Jinping. Reuters
On the surface, there may appear to be no connection between the presence of US warships in the Indo-Pacific and what transpired in the Galwan Valley. But when one considers India's recent foreign policy decisions, the growing ties between the US, India and Australia " three of the four members of the Quad formed to defend the openness of the Indo-Pacific " in the context of China's ambitions for the resource-rich Pacific waters and its growing assertion amid COVID-19, and the reciprocity becomes clear.
What's the Indo-Pacific?
According to The Diplomat, the Indo-Pacific is a mental map that stretches from the eastern shores of Africa to the western coast of the US. However, countries differ on the expanse of this 'imagined' region, depending on their geographic position there.
The Indo-Pacific region has gained importance in the last few years largely because of China's rise as a superpower, India's growing economic and strategic clout and the strategic importance of the Indian Ocean in global trade.
According to Reuters, China has been more active in the resource-rich Pacific in recent years, seeking to extend influence with aid and encouraging countries away from diplomatic ties with Taiwan, which China regards as renegade province with no right of state-to-state ties.
According to AFP, "Between 2011 and 2018, China committed loans to the region worth $6 billion " around 21 percent of regional GDP".
"A majority of that money, $4.1 billion, was earmarked for Papua New Guinea. Only a fraction, less than $1 billion, has so far been disbursed but China is still the single largest creditor in Tonga, Samoa, and Vanuatu," the article said.
Two other island-nations in the Pacific " Solomon Islands and Kiribati " have already switched diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to Beijing.
China's increasing assertiveness in the energy-rich South China Sea, an important constituent of the Indo-Pacific, has raised US and regional concerns.
China claims most of the South China Sea, through which some $3.4 trillion in shipping passes each year. Several countries including Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Brunei have overlapping claims to parts of the sea.
The COVID-19 pandemic, which had hit the US hard, has further heightened the need for Washington to keep the Indo-Pacific "free and open", especially among reports of China capitalising on the pandemic-led lockdowns.
According to reports, while the US and China's rival Southeast Asian claimants of the disputed waters, Philippines and Malaysia, conducted military drills, China extracted natural resources and even deployed large-scale military assets in South China Sea.
In April, there were reports of a confrontation on the sea between a Chinese government survey ship Haiyang Dizhi 8 and an oil exploration vessel of Malaysia's state oil company Petronas.
The vessel, Reuters said, was earlier also spotted off Vietnam, where it had last year conducted suspected oil exploration surveys in large expanses of Vietnam's exclusive economic zone. Beijing, however, denied the reports.
The US has been conducting its own routine 'freedom of navigation' exercises to enforce 'free and open Indo-Pacific'. In April, amid heightened tensions between China and Taiwan, USS Barry, a US warship sailed through the sensitive Taiwan Strait for the second time in a month.
"The ship's transit through the Taiwan Strait demonstrates the US commitment to a free and open Indo-Pacific. The US Navy will continue to fly, sail and operate anywhere international law allows," Lieutenant Anthony Junco told Reuters.
According to the US naval officers, China is slowly and methodically building up military outposts in the South China Sea, putting missile and electronic warfare systems on them. China already operates in Djibouti in the Horn of Africa, and has plans to increase its Marine Corps to 1,00,000, from existing 20,000, a large chunk of which are likely to be stationed there.
It also owns the world's largest coast guard, which has often been at the centre of most stand-offs in the disputed waters, according to Asian Military Review.
It's perhaps because of these reasons that in less than a month after 5,700 of its servicemen tested positive for the novel coronavirus, the US was in the Pacific with three warships. And that too on the same day the US Senate cleared a $7 billion fund focused on competition in the Indo-Pacific (Pacific Deterrence Initiative or PDI) in the 2021 National Defense Authorisation Act (NDAA).
The PDI aims to make funds available to "improve military and defence infrastructure, basing, logistics, and assured access in the Indo-Pacific region" in order to "respond to adversarial threats in a timely manner".
The idea of a 'free and open Indo-Pacific', however, is not one that is espoused by the US alone. It's something India has often expressed its commitment to protect, both at home and internationally for years.
New Delhi not only shares the US view of the "free and open Indo-Pacific", but has in the past, openly supported it to the extent that it even backed out of the China-backed economic agreement RCEP.
India is also part of the Quad grouping, which also includes Japan and Australia as well as the US. The grouping was most recently upgraded to Quad Plus with Vietnam, an ASEAN country, and New Zealand and South Korea, also extending their support.
Australia, which long enjoyed unrivalled influence in the Pacific, too in recent years become more assertive in maintaining its standing in the region. In 2018, it launched an A$3 billion fund to offer Pacific countries grants and cheap loans for infrastructure.
Australia has also been slowly upgrading its armoury in the Pacific. In February this year, Australia Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced that his government will spend A$1.1 billion ($725.9 million) to upgrade an airbase in the country's tropical north.
Most recently, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Australian prime minister Scott Morrison, signed a Mutual Logistics Support Agreement (MLSA), which will allow militaries of the two countries to use each other's bases for repair and replenishment of supplies besides facilitating scaling up of overall defence cooperation. This agreement will give Indian warships and aircraft enhanced reach towards the Pacific.
India has already signed similar agreements with the US, France and Singapore.
The Galwan Valley connection
In the days since the violent face-off took place between the soldiers of the Indian Army and the People's Liberation Army, the Chinese media has time and again brought the US and Indo-Pacific Strategy into the conversation. The propaganda has been three-pronged: first, downplay the US' presence in the Pacific, second, portray that a huge gap exists between the military capabilities of the India and China, and third, present the US and the deepening India-US ties as the problem.
This approach is clear in a Global Times editorial published on 17 June.
The editor says that India has "misjudged" the situation in thinking Beijing lacks the will to "hit back provocations from the Indian side" because of increasing strategic pressure from the US.
It also warns New Delhi against relying on US, stating that Washington will extend help only to worsen ties between the two neighbours and make India "dedicate itself to serving Washington's interests".
In an article that appears simultaneously in the PLA Daily, the official daily of the Chinese People's Liberation Army and Global Times, Dr Qian Feng of the National Strategy Institute, Tsinghua University, makes Beijing's disgruntlement with the US' Indo-Pacific Strategy and India clear as it proclaims: the US plans to use "use" India to "contain" Beijing.
Feng goes on to say that "some countries in the Indo-Pacific region have mounting suspicions about China's rise, and more or less want to leverage the US to balance China's growing influence in the region".
While these "countries" have not been named specifically, the attempt to dissuade India from taking sides in the Indo-Pacific amid a border clash, is evident.
The article says that the best option for New Delhi to safeguard its interests is to "maintain current balance among major countries" such as the ASEAN countries, Japan and China.
Japan is part of the Indo-Pacific grouping Quad that includes India, Australia and the US.
It then adds that India's "'strategic independence' principle goes counter to 'America first'" and hence the US Indo-Pacific Strategy is not a suited for New Delhi.
Needless to say, the biggest gain for China would be to keep India out of the US-led military grouping in the Indo-Pacific. Some Chinese projects in the Indian subcontinent and the Indian Ocean Region as part of the Belt and Road Initiative " Gwadar Port in Pakistan, a port in Myanmar's Kyaukpyu town, Hambantota Port in Sri Lanka, infrastructure projects in Nepal, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor and its investment in modernising the Chittagong port " are believed to have been designed to encircle India in the south Asian region.
China appears to perceive the growing size of the Quad Plus and India's increasing presence in the Indo-Pacific as a threat to its ambitions. Its objective, therefore, would be to keep India out of the US' Indo-Pacific strategy.