On Such a Full Sea

A judicious mix of essays that seek to contextualise India’s naval strategy against the backdrop of Asia’s regional security environment.

Written by C. Uday Bhaskar | Published:November 12, 2016 12:59 am
India’s naval strategy ,Asia’s regional security, Geoffrey Till, Naval Policy, book, book review, indian express INDIA’S NAVAL STRATEGY AND ASIAN SECURITY

Book Name – INDIA’S NAVAL STRATEGY AND ASIAN SECURITY

Author – (Edited by) Anit Mukherjee & C Raja Mohan

Publisher – Routledge

Pages – 260

Price – 759

Professor Geoffrey Till is a widely respected scholar of sea-power and the deft hand of the academic tiller is evident in the Cass series on Naval Policy and History of which he is the series editor. This is the 56th volume of the series and is a comprehensive collection of essays by well-known security analysts and academics with an abiding interest in India and the Indian Ocean region. The 12-chapter volume is a judicious mix of Indian and foreign authors that seeks to contextualise India’s naval strategy against the backdrop of Asia’s regional security environment.

Editors Mukherjee and Mohan envision a promising opportunity for the silent service of the Indian military and opine on the “rare strategic moment at hand for the Indian Navy” and add: “We point to the navy’s potential to acquire, simultaneously, a greater salience in Delhi’s national security calculus and become a principal instrument of India’s new ability to shape the balance of power in Asia and its waters.”

This is a heady prescription for a nation that has been often described as being sea-blind or tenaciously indifferent to its considerable maritime potential, given its distinctive peninsular geography. Naval strategy is a subset of a country’s overall grand, national strategy and the related comprehensive military strategy. Each nation and its navy have their distinctive historical experience, which is a complex and contested outcome deeply linked with the strategic culture and maritime affinity — or lack thereof — of the governing elite of the nation in question and the prevailing international power dynamic.

Sea power has an inherently long lead time capability. A 500-year period offers a reasonable temporal span to review naval strategy and the gold standard remains elusive. Yes, colonial power was enabled by an astute understanding of maritime power in its entirety — namely the trade, economic, military and technological imperatives and, in this cluster led by the Iberian powers, Great Britain emerged as the relatively smaller island power that could maximise its maritime affinity and empathy in the most abiding manner.

The colony, in this case the Indian sub-continent, acquired political autonomy in August 1947, but the inherited military tradition was skewed in favour of the land forces — the Indian army. Consequently, a naval strategy for an independent India was nascent and tentative.

As the editors point out, an intellectual formulation about India and sea power was evident in the writings of KM Pannikar (1945) and Keshav Vaidya but a comprehensive, affordable and effective naval strategy evolved unevenly. It was shaped within the matrix of resource allocation, the technology and manufacturing index, professional perspicacity — and, above all, the national will to acquire tangible sea power.

The individual chapters detail the different constraints and institutional obstacles that a credible and sustainable Indian naval strategy has to surmount and many illuminating insights punctuate the book. Some chapters are more rewarding and these include a commendable survey of the operational challenges faced by the Indian navy (Iskander Rehman), projecting India’s naval power (Abhijit Singh), the Andaman and Nicobar conundrum (Mukherjee) and the possibilities of harnessing naval diplomacy (Mohan).

The perspective of the external interlocutor includes a review of the likely Sino-Indian maritime security dilemma (Koh SL Collin) and the hesitant engagement with the USA (Tim Hoyt) and Japan (Tomoko Kiyota). An Australian and Indonesian view complement the regional scan of the Indian naval blue-print and the challenges that lie ahead.

It is encouraging that there is a gradual appreciation of India’s maritime/naval resurgence and the fact that the Indian navy could formulate and release its doctrinal document is illustrative of this orientation. But, as the editors of this very useful volume caution — “implementation and internal political contestation” remain India’s intractable vulnerability.

The writer is director, Society for Policy Studies, New Delhi