In­dia needs to en­hance its mar­itime ca­pa­bil­ity and strengthen diplo­matic ties with IOR stake­hold­ers

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In­dia needs to en­hance its mar­itime ca­pa­bil­ity and strengthen diplo­matic ties with IOR stake­hold­ers, writes Syed Ata Has­nain

Even though the Sri Lankan cricket side is be­com­ing pro­gres­sively less rel­e­vant due to a string of poor per­for­mances, the coun­try ap­pears to be on the path of greater strate­gic sig­nif­i­cance. The run of events over the last fort­night caught many around the world, and es­pe­cially in In­dia, flat-footed. Which way the cookie crum­bles as far as the in­ter­nal power pol­i­tics of the is­land na­tion go, will to some ex­tent de­cide the fu­ture di­rec­tion of the strate­gic game play­ing out in this part of the In­dian Ocean Re­gion (IOR). The re­gion is the cru­cial south­ern flank of the Asian con­ti­nent with Sri Lanka a strate­gi­cally im­por­tant na­tion mid­way be­tween the Per­sian Gulf and Straits of Malacca. It is clear that China can ill af­ford to re­main ret­i­cent about power pro­jec­tion in the In­dian Ocean. So cru­cial are the sea lanes of com­mu­ni­ca­tion (SLsOC) to its very ex­is­tence that it will go to any ex­tent to wield in­flu­ence over the na­tions and re­gions which could be po­ten­tial fa­cil­i­ta­tors to act as choke points. It should be re­mem­bered that it’s the unim­peded move­ment of en­ergy needs from the Mid­dle East and the con­tainer traf­fic from the Chi­nese ports that make the Chi­nese econ­omy what it has be­come. The PLA Navy is yet in­suf­fi­ciently strong to guar­an­tee se­cu­rity but even when it does achieve that ca­pa­bil­ity, the need for strate­gic in­flu­ence in the IOR will be deemed a ne­ces­sity to sus­tain the fa­cil­i­ties through co­op­er­a­tion. Pak­istan, Mal­dives, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Myan­mar, all in the South Asian re­gion can fa­cil­i­tate this in­flu­ence dom­i­na­tion. The Belt and Road Ini­tia­tive (BRI), tem­po­rar­ily gone a lit­tle askew, is very much a part of this se­cu­rity and in­flu­ence dom­i­na­tion.

The US and its al­lies have less ca­pa­bil­ity in this im­por­tant part of the IOR that has the po­ten­tial to con­trol por­tions of the im­por­tant SLsOC. Diego Gar­cia to the Straits of Malacca the In­dian Ocean lies open. That is where the im­por­tance of In­dia comes in. Two state­ments sum up In­dia’s predica­ment and also the strat­egy it needs to fol­low. Prime Min­is­ter Naren­dra Modi is known to have said that the “pri­mary re­spon­si­bil­ity for In­dian Ocean se­cu­rity re­mains with those who live in this re­gion” and that “re­gional con­nec­tiv­ity can­not un­der­mine sovereignty of na­tions.” Wil­liam McQuilkin of the Wash­ing­ton-based Hud­son In­sti­tute, in a re­cent sem­i­nal ar­ti­cle in the South Asian por­tal of the In­sti­tute’s web­site, writes: “To­day, as the silk and spice routes are re­turn­ing, would be a great time for In­dia to re­vive her strong mar­itime her­itage in the IOR. It would also present an op­por­tu­nity for the US and its Al­lies to as­sist In­dia in ex­pand­ing its mar­itime pres­ence, ca­pa­bil­i­ties, ca­pac­ity and mar­itime in­fra­struc­ture in the In­dian Ocean, thereby help­ing to pre­serve the bal­ance of power and the rules-based in­ter­na­tional or­der in the re­gion”.

Now comes the predica­ment for In­dia and it needs some ex­pla­na­tion. De­spite hav­ing an un­re­alised his­tory of mar­itime ca­pa­bil­ity, In­dia has pre­ferred to re­main rooted in the con­ti­nen­tal do­main for its se­cu­rity. No doubt there are bound­ary dis­putes with China and there is also Pak­istan to con­tend with. China has en­sured the per­pet­u­a­tion of con­ti­nen­tal threats, mak­ing use of col­lu­sive sup­port from Pak­istan to keep In­dia rooted to per­cep­tions of pri­or­ity to con­ti­nen­tal se­cu­rity. What the US and its al­lies would de­sire in terms of a strate­gic part­ner­ship with In­dia is to stymie China’s grow­ing eco­nomic and mar­itime power es­pe­cially in the In­dian Ocean part of the Indo-Pa­cific; a near match­ing In­dian mar­itime ca­pa­bil­ity which could greatly bal­ance China as a part of the over­all Indo-Pa­cific strat­egy. Can In­dia af­ford to be a part of this?

Back to Sri Lanka from where we started. Three is­sues need to be taken into ac­count. First, that the NDA gov­ern­ment has made ef­forts but has a mixed bag of suc­cess in Sri Lanka and Mal­dives. Sec­ond, Dok­lam too oc­curred and its af­ter­math was such that a re­set in Sino In­dian re­la­tions and in fact in Si­noRus­sia-In­dia equa­tion was brought into ef­fect. In­dia has been strad­dling the var­i­ous strate­gic camps fairly well in the re­cent past but to ex­pect that China will not strate­gise to its ad­van­tage in the IOR would be naïve. Walk-in at­tempts and trans­gres­sions at the Line of Ac­tual Con­trol (LAC) have been tak­ing place quite fre­quently even af­ter the re­set in re­la­tion­ship and none of th­ese are likely to trig­ger any­thing more than some hot un­armed ex­changes as part of China’s strat­egy to keep In­dia fo­cused on the Hi­malayan front. Third, even with all the co­op­er­a­tion seem­ingly vis­i­ble af­ter the re­set, China will at­tempt to gar­ner ad­van­tage in In­dia’s strate­gic re­gional neigh­bour­hood. Which bet­ter place for this than Sri Lanka where the mon­stros­ity of Ham­ban­tota port is in its con­trol and an am­bi­tious and will­ing to be used politi­cian such as for­mer Pres­i­dent, and now Prime Min­is­ter Ra­japaksa, ex­ist. The Chi­nese are fully aware that the terms of the re­set with In­dia af­ter Dok­lam pre­cluded In­dia’s par­tic­i­pa­tion in any ma­jor equa­tions which were aimed at China’s se­cu­rity.

Thus we found In­dia hes­i­tant about the Quadri­lat­eral of Na­tions. The re­set is un­doubt­edly to In­dia’s ad­van­tage but China up­set­ting the strate­gic bal­ance through ma­nip­u­la­tion of in­ter­nal pol­i­tics, whether in Sri Lanka or Nepal, is surely not some­thing that falls within In­dian ac­cep­tance.

Just three things In­dia has to do manda­to­rily. First, look to­wards en­hanc­ing its mar­itime ca­pa­bil­ity with first sig­nals be­ing in­creased al­lo­ca­tion of bud­getary sup­port to the In­dian Navy with­out af­fect­ing other se­cu­rity bud­gets and plan­ning mar­itime in­fra­struc­ture, in­clud­ing as­sis­tance to the neigh­bour­hood. Sec­ond it must re­main di­plo­mat­i­cally very ac­tively en­gaged with the stake­hold­ers of IOR se­cu­rity, qui­etly rais­ing con­cerns about Chi­nese in­tent; the diplo­matic do­main will need much fleet foot­ed­ness. Third and last it must gin­ger up its in­tel­li­gence ser­vices and their ca­pa­bil­ity to look at the smaller neigh­bours with greater fo­cus with­out tak­ing eyes off the scan­ner of con­ti­nen­tal threats from China and Pak­istan.

PM Naren­dra Modi and ousted Sri Lankan pre­mier Ranil Wick­remesinghe were keen on ush­er­ing in In­dia-as­sisted de­vel­op­ment projects in the is­land na­tion

Syed Ata Has­nain

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