There’s anxiety in the Indian strategic community that India is about to embrace the US strategically and get locked in an anti-China alliance — without adequate debate. This anxiety is fuelled by three mistaken factors. First, the lack of reading of China’s Defence White Paper of 2015, wherein the debate between the continentalists and the maritime people has been settled in favour of the maritime lobby. China is going to become a maritime power in the “far seas” — the Indian Ocean. Second, “One belt one road” is the larger plan to change the geopolitics of the Indian Ocean to support the permanent presence of a Chinese fleet. It’s admittedly a long-term plan. Third, the Chinese are going full speed to get Gwadar and Djibouti ready for the PLA Navy in the Indian Ocean.
The game is already on. The only decision left for the Indian strategic community is to resolve what the game is and which side they are playing. This is important, for there are still analysts who think the game is in the South China Sea and the Indian navy is required to play a supporting role in ensuring freedom of navigation. There are probably some American analysts who mistakenly think alike.
Make no mistake — the next big game is in the Indian Ocean, through which passes 65 per cent of all Chinese trade, particularly hydrocarbons. The scenario in the South China Sea or the “near seas” is a competition between China and America-Japan. This competition will be decided by technology, anti-carrier strategy and air-sea battle backed by hypersonic aircraft. Indians can contribute very little. On the other hand, the Indian Ocean and, particularly, the Malacca Straits are China’s jugular. In surface combatants, the Indian navy will outnumber the Chinese taskforce 2:1, outnumber the maritime patrol aircraft 2:1, be superior in strategic anti-submarine warfare and satellite communication infrastructure. Why, then, should the Indian navy venture into the South China Sea? If the Chinese pressure the Sino-Indian border, India could put the squeeze in the Indian Ocean. In the next decade or two, the Indian navy will be assisted in maintaining tactical air superiority by the INS Vishal, with its heavy fighter aircraft and electromagnetic catapult. So where do our interests lie?
The answer lies in ensuring China rises peacefully. And there’s nothing more likely to ensure a peaceful Chinese rise than the ability to squeeze the Malacca jugular as a strategic threat.
Admittedly, we needn’t stand alone. We need allies and technological help. We must be seen to be strong by the Indian Ocean powers who will be swayed by the Chinese economy and concessional trade into providing bases to China. Beijing mustn’t be allowed to change its disadvantageous geography. China is a Pacific Ocean power. India is the Indian Ocean power. Changing unfavourable geography in pursuit of maritime power is an old strategy suggested by German strategist Wolfgang Wegener.
Early signals are already there from the US Naval War College that the Chinese are reading Wegener. But we can read Wegener just as well.
What we cannot stop is China’s attempt to influence the geopolitics of the Indian Ocean. But an Indian Ocean nation must clearly understand the military risks in offering a base to China in the littoral. That military risk must come from a truly Indian tri-service expeditionary capability — best handled under a chief of defence staff and with the technological and/ or military support of the US. If the signing of the foundational agreements, in the near future, is going to be the key to partnership in the Indian Ocean, they are well worth signing. For, the benefits far outweigh what we give in exchange. For India to play a level game with China, we need asymmetrical advantage. That advantage is the Indian navy in the Indian Ocean. Once we lose that advantage, all is lost. This is where diplomacy comes in, and diplomacy comes with a price. In this case, the price of the benefits of US technology is not too high. No one wants a war. But a war will result if we show we can be walked over, as happened in 1962 when Mao’s orders were “to teach India a lesson”.