In­dia’s missed mar­itime op­por­tu­ni­ties

Ad­mi­ral Arun Prakash rues

Vayu Aerospace and Defence - - Aviation & Defence Inindia -

The Yulin Naval and Un­der­ground Base is shap­ing up to be the most strate­gi­cally im­por­tant mil­i­tary base in the South China Sea. ( photo: Google Earth/ the diplo­

Seven decades ago, In­dian his­to­rian-diplo­mat, KM Panikkar pre­sciently ob­served, “That China in­tends to em­bark on a pol­icy of large scale naval ex­pan­sion is clear enough... with her bases ex­tend­ing as far south as Hainan, China will be in an ad­van­ta­geous po­si­tion...”

No one paid at­ten­tion to Panikkar, be­cause, just weeks be­fore in­de­pen­dence, In­dia was busy with the 1947 Asian Re­la­tions Con­fer­ence, where Nehru ar­tic­u­lated his grand vi­sion of In­dia’s role in emerg­ing Asia – an ide­al­is­tic dream, in which a ‘non-vi­o­lent’ In­dia would be an ex­em­plar by es­chew­ing the use of force. China’s re­al­ist founders, on the other hand, had set two ba­sic objectives for the new­born Com­mu­nist na­tion; that China would at­tain ‘great power’ sta­tus via the nu­clear-weapon route; and that it would brook no ri­val for lead­er­ship of Asia. The quar­ter cen­tury that elapsed be­tween Deng Xiaop­ing’ splea to his coun­try­men to “hide your ca­pa­bil­i­ties, bide your time and never take the lead” ‘Chair­man-for­ever’ Xi Jin­ping’s au­thor­i­ta­tive dec­la­ra­tion of his “dream of na­tional re­ju­ve­na­tion”, has seen China’s eco­nomic heft and co­er­cive mil­i­tary power take a quan­tum jump.

Panikkar’s proph­esy came true in 2000, when China started con­struc­tion of its south­ern-most naval base at Yulin, on Hainan Is­land. Built at colos­sal cost, Yulin’s tun­nel-com­plexes house China’s sub­ma­rine nu­clear- de­ter­rent, while its piers will ac­com­mo­date air­craft- car­rier strike- groups. This is a mar­itime hub cre­ated for the PLA Navy ( PLAN) to ex­er­cise sea-con­trol and power-pro­jec­tion,

across the Pa­cific and In­dian Oceans, whose waters carry China’s vi­tal trade and en­ergy sea- lanes. Pres­i­dent Hu Jin­tao’s ‘Malacca dilemma’ en­cap­su­lated anx­i­ety about China’s vul­ner­a­bil­ity to pos­si­ble in­ter­dic­tion of its sea borne trade by the In­dian Navy. China con­se­quently, decided to be­come a ma­jor player in the In­dian Ocean Re­gion (IOR). Deftly play­ing its eco­nomic and diplo­matic cards, China has es­tab­lished a chain of mar­itime footholds in Myan­mar, Sri Lanka and Pak­istan,and ac­quired its first over­seas mil­i­tary base in Dji­bouti last year.

The tiny, but strate­gi­cally lo­cated archipelagic Repub­lic of Mal­dives has tra­di­tion­ally main­tained warm and friendly links with In­dia. How­ever, alert diplo­mats should have picked up early signs of Mal­dives slip­ping out In­dia’s am­bit; the ap­pear­ance of rad­i­cal Is­lam via Pak­istan and Saudi Arabia, the warm­ing of re­la­tions with China and the de­cline in In­dia’s stock. Pres­i­dent Yameen’s ac­tions, al­beit un­con­sti­tu­tional and ar­bi­trary, still re­main an ‘ in­ter­nal af­fair’ of the Mal­dives and China’s thinly-veiled threats en­able him to defy In­dia.

New Delhi has, very sen­si­bly, re­sisted the urge to in­voke an ‘In­dian Mon­roe Doc­trine’ and at­tempt regime-change in Male through mil­i­tary ac­tion; its for­bear­ance is bound to be re­warded. Alarmist re­ports about pos­si­ble PLAN’s ‘gun­boat diplo­macy’ need to be viewed against the ge­o­graphic re­al­ity that a Chi­nese war­ship would take 8-10 days to cover the 3500 miles from Yulin to Male. The flip side of this re­al­ity is that In­dian troops were in Male within 16 hours to save that na­tion from a coup in 1988, and it took the IN just 24 hours to come to the aid of tsunami-hit Mal­di­vians in 2004. The Mal­di­vian par­tic­i­pa­tion in the IN ex­er­cise ‘Mi­lan’ is al­ways a to­ken one, and too much need not be read into their ab­sence this year.

Against this back­drop, In­dia’s re­cent agree­ment with Oman, pro­vid­ing ac­cess for ‘mil­i­tary use and lo­gis­ti­cal sup­port’ in the new Port of Duqm, has raised hopes that In­dia is, be­lat­edly, strength­en­ing its mar­itime pos­ture in the In­dian Ocean Re­gion ( IOR). There have been other sig­nif­i­cant developments too, such as Pres­i­dent Kovind’s visit to Dji­bouti and its im­pend­ing recog­ni­tion by In­dia; the con­clu­sion of an Indo-Sey­chelles agree­ment for creation of air and naval fa­cil­i­ties on As­sump­tion Is­land and the agree­ment with UAE for joint naval ex­er­cises. Whether they her­ald a re­newed im­pe­tus to In­dia’s mar­itime out­reach or per­haps the ac­tu­al­i­sa­tion of PM Modi’s 2015 ‘Sa­gar’ vi­sion, de­pends on whether they are ran­dom ac­tions, or part of a co­her­ent In­dian mar­itime grand-strat­egy.

China has been re­leas­ing De­fence White Pa­pers ev­ery two years, and its 10th White Pa­per, is­sued in 2015, enun­ci­ated; that “It is nec­es­sary for China to de­velop a mod­ern mar­itime mil­i­tary force, com­men­su­rate with its ... mar­itime rights and in­ter­ests; and to pro­tect the se­cu­rity of strate­gic sea lanes”. Ac­cord­ingly, Bei­jing has built a pow­er­ful navy that will soon over­take the US Navy in num­bers, lag­ging only in ca­pa­bil­ity. New Delhi, on the other hand, has shown no tan­gi­ble signs of strate­gic-think­ing or long-term se­cu­rity planning, as ev­i­dent from a to­tal ab­sence of de­fence white pa­pers or se­cu­rity doc­trines to-date. The navy did spell out, in 2004-05, its own vi­sion of In­dia’s mar­itime in­ter­ests and chal­lenges through a Mar­itime Doc­trine and a Mar­itime Strat­egy. But, in the ab­sence of higher strate­gic guid­ance in the form of a na­tion­al­level doc­u­ment, they are of lim­ited util­ity.

Thus, while lack of po­lit­i­cal re­solve and diplo­matic las­si­tude have been con­trib­u­tory fac­tors, it is the ab­sence of an over-arch­ing vi­sion which con­cep­tu­alises the IOR in a 50- 75 year per­spec­tive, that have led to the ne­glect of mar­itime is­sues crit­i­cal to In­dia’s vi­tal in­ter­ests. Ex­am­ples: the Chah Ba­har port pro­ject should have been com­pleted long ago, not­with­stand­ing US sanc­tions; the of­fer of Agalega Is­lands, from Mau­ri­tius, should have been taken up years ago; the Mal­dives im­broglio, should have been pre-empted and, must of all, our dis­re­gard of dis­tant Mozam­bique and Mada­gas­car, re­mains a huge mar­itime ‘missed op­por­tu­nity’. The IOR strate­gic agenda may be soon taken out of In­dia’s hands, as the Chair­man­ship of two im­por­tant bod­ies, the In­dian Ocean Rim As­so­ci­a­tion (IORA) and the In­dian Ocean Naval Sym­po­sium (IONS) de­volves on UAE and Iran re­spec­tively.

There is no doubt that, to­day, Mr Modi strides the world stage like a colos­sus, gain­ing en­try for In­dia into se­lect in­ter­na­tional clubs and strik­ing strate­gic deals in na­tional in­ter­est. How­ever, at home, the fix­a­tion of our po­lit­i­cal lead­er­ship with un­end­ing elec­tion­eer­ing and po­lit­i­cal sur­vival has re­sulted in egre­gious ne­glect in many spheres, in­clud­ing na­tional se­cu­rity. If In­dia’s po­lit­i­cal lead­er­ship is to spare men­tal space for na­tional se­cu­rity is­sues of ex­is­ten­tial im­port, there needs to be a sem­blance of har­mony in the po­lit­i­cal do­main. This will not hap­pen as long as In­dia’s deep in­ter­nal di­vi­sions and in­sta­bil­i­ties con­tinue to be ex­ploited and its polity re­mains so bit­terly di­vided that Par­lia­ment is ren­dered dys­func­tional.

Let us remember that ‘ great power’ sta­tus is not pre-or­dained for In­dia. If we do not get our po­lit­i­cal and eco­nomic acts to­gether, In­dia could well re­main a large, over-pop­u­lated and chaotic third-world na­tion–even if with the world’s 3rd largest GDP.

In­dia’s vi­tal in­ter­ests in the IOR can­not be over-em­pha­sised

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