Mastering the seas

The absence of an over-arching vision which views the Indian Ocean region in a long-term perspective has led to the neglect of maritime issues critical to India’s vital interests

Written by Arun Prakash | Updated: March 2, 2018 12:32 am
Mastering the seas 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. (Illustration by C R Sasikumar)

Seven decades ago, historian-diplomat, K M 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 Jawaharlal 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 new-born 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’s plea to his countrymen to “hide your capabilities, bide your time and never take the lead”, and “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 prophecy 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 the anxiety about China’s vulnerability to possible interdiction of its seaborne trade by the Indian Navy (IN). 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. Alert diplomats should have picked up early signs of the Maldives slipping out of 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 Abdulla 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 “gunboat diplomacy” need to be viewed against the geographic reality that a Chinese warship would take 8-10 days to cover the 3,500 miles from Yulin to Male. The flip side of this reality is that Indian troops were in Male within 16 hours to save the 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 its 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; like President Ram Nath 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 the UAE for joint naval exercises. Whether they herald a renewed impetus to India’s maritime outreach or, perhaps, the actualisation of Prime Minister Narendra 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: “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 behind 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 national-level document, they are of limited utility.

Thus, while a 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 has led to the neglect of maritime issues critical to India’s vital interests. Examples: The Chabahar 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 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 the UAE and Iran respectively.

There is no doubt that, today, Modi strides the world stage like a colossus, gaining entry for India into select international clubs and striking strategic deals in the 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 — maybe with the world’s third largest GDP.

The writer is a retired Chief of Naval Staff

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  1. George Jacob
    Mar 4, 2018 at 1:56 pm
    Sir, your article breathes on the missed opportunities that has changed the strategic map of Indian Ocean. But I thi that there is a deeper root in the cause. India came to existence in this form and shape only in British times. Prior to that it had been a Northern Sub continent with only the Southern kingdoms having an eye for the nation. Post independence the soul shifted to north of Delhi and our ocean space has been neglected. Sometimes I wonder if there is a case for shifting our capital to somewhere south which could possibly make our governments realise the true value of our geography. Delhi continues to grow Deadwood. And it takes a century to create a Navy which knows the swathe of an Ocean and here we have missed the bus. Even if we expand our navy now, it would possibly take at least two generations to make them rule the Indian Ocean. There is also a need to have some real strategic thinkers among our bureaucracy. Baby steps are on but we need a push rather than a shove.
    1. G
      Mar 3, 2018 at 12:35 am
      the problem with our country is it is run on the interest of select few, who can flee india when either india or they are in trouble. they run by controlling the politicians who in turn only need to win the next election or even not that.
      1. Employ Ment
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        1. K
          Mar 2, 2018 at 12:22 pm
          The writers comparison of democratic systems like India with non-free ones like China and the allusion to the benefits of non-democratic systems of government is Sad and objectionable. As much as the military needs to be ready, it has to work within the framework of a democracy. Maybe what India needs is a multi-partisan bench to sit to expedite defense strategy and considerations. Otherwise, one ends up with a strong defense force for a country that does not exist - cue the USSR.
          1. T
            Mar 2, 2018 at 2:25 pm
            Neighbours do not care what form of government you have. They will respect only your ability to repulse attack when attacked, which comes from a long term vision of what your country needs vis a vis where it is located and how you prepare your defences. That vision asked for by the author is indeed sadly missing from the first PM until or even now. It is not late but the realisation must come to the cow and Ram Mandir obsessed political party ruling today. May it have the wisdom to focus on the important.
            1. K
              Mar 3, 2018 at 3:43 pm
              It is not the neighbors business what government India has - but it is the Indian people’s. A strong, well-prepared, well-resourced defense force is necessary, but the need for defense when preceding the needs of ordinary people usually leads to military states and dictatorships - just ask Pakistan. Thankfully for India, both sides of the aisle are usually on the same page as far as defense is concerned. The danger is, like so many other countries, that India falls prey to a military dictatorship. To her credit, she has avoided this so far. That said, Indian defense capabilities and strategy need constant attention and review.
            2. G
              Mar 3, 2018 at 12:38 am
              if democracy is leading to chaos in such important things like defence then the flaw is in democracy and leadership irrespective of the party. to make democracy work smoothly is the of leaders and not to blame it.
              1. K
                Mar 3, 2018 at 3:51 pm
                How is democracy leading to chaos when India has a 70-years and counting record as a democratic state? For all intents and purposes, India is far more stable than any of her neighbors. The armed forces need funding - fair enough. But the writer showing discontent with regular democratic processes is frankly beyond his mandate as a military person and uncalled for. Were India that weak, her neighbors have had 70 years to occupy her. Plus there is no chaos in defense. Indian Armed Forces are too professional for that.
            3. G
              Mar 2, 2018 at 12:14 pm
              While the lack of attention given to over-arching strategic needs of the Indian Navy are indeed matters worth considering, the Admiral makes thinly veiled references to less-than-democratic systems ing stability and continuity, as if in support. This is unhelpful. Of course, comparisons with China, the other Asian giant are valid. Democratic process, as painfully slow as it is, is necessary for people to make their voices heard, especially in a vast land such as India. The democratic process and defense must not be held prisoners of one another. A multi-partisan Committee arrangement like in the US could be formed in India for medium-term strategizing. There is little point in having a very strong defense force of the country itself will cease to exist - cue the USSR. As a very much pro-military person, I have to disagree with the gist of the article.
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