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India dithered over projecting naval power. Now it’s been pushed to the sidelines of the Indo-Pacific

Raja Menon writes: With nuclear submarine technology, Australia has now been catapulted into a frontline state against Chinese aggression, something that India can only dream of, despite its massive army.

Written by Raja Menon |
Updated: September 25, 2021 7:55:45 am
The pact, termed AUKUS, is expected to help Australia acquire nuclear-powered submarines in a bid to counter China's growing power in the strategically vital region. (AP Photo/File)

The announcement from Washington that the US, UK and Australia are to form an alliance against China comes as a resounding slap to the Indian foreign policy establishment trying to ride two horses simultaneously. The information that Australia is to be provided nuclear submarine technology further humiliated the external affairs ministry and rubs salt into the wounds of the Indian Navy. Stunted by the neglect of being allotted just 14 per cent of the defence budget, the Navy has been hit hard by the news that US nuclear submarine technology — the finest in the world — will only be made available to Australia. Canberra has reaped the rewards of steadfast friendship with the US and accepting the punishing tariffs imposed by Beijing on Australian agricultural exports to China. These tariffs were imposed by a vengeful Xi Jinping for Australia’s refusal to abandon its American ally.

Mired in a continental outlook, Delhi has failed to appreciate that the 12,50,000-man Indian army, despite its gallant service, has no offensive capability against the smaller PLA, numbering 9,75,000. Geography is against us in the Himalayas, where China has lateral connectivity of four- to six-lane highways to move acclimatised troops. The Navy remains the only service capable of any punitive action against China. With nuclear submarine technology, Australia has now been catapulted into a frontline state against Chinese aggression, something that India with a population of 1.3 billion and a GDP approaching $5 trillion can only dream of. Australian nuclear submarines can rapidly penetrate the South China Sea through the Indonesian Straits and threaten China at its doorstep.

Despite a lack of support from the PMO and MEA, many naval veterans have, on their visits to Washington, approached key figures in the US establishment about nuclear submarine technology for the Indian Navy. The answer has always been the same — the US Navy is against transferring the technology to a non-aligned state. India’s efforts have been crippled by a lack of funding and the inability to access highly-enriched uranium cores for the propulsion reactor. With the introduction of the Quad, we had an opportunity to operationalise the coalition, and set up a Quad secretariat in India. Suggestions and pleading with the MEA and PMO have fallen on deaf ears, preoccupied as they are with reinforcing failure in the Himalayas and ignoring the Navy. Now a country with 27 million people and a GDP of $ 1.4 trillion has become a power that can influence the choices being made in Beijing.

Naval strategists and well-wishers have often been mystified trying to answer the questions of who makes foreign policy in Delhi. While the charter exists with the MEA, insiders are adamant that the PMO has the last word. So, the thinking public is unlikely to be enlightened as to why we have to remain non-aligned when our neighbour is competing with the US to be the global hegemon — a rogue hegemon. Beijing has armed the Pakistan Navy and Air Force to the teeth, has bases in Gwadar and Djibouti, supports the Taliban in Afghanistan, is a strategic ally of the Myanmar junta – yet, we are reluctant to take the Quad beyond a diplomatic talk shop.

Does this dithering come from timidity or a misplaced sense of Chanakyan cunning to successfully befriend the US without antagonising China? It is time that Delhi realised that regional power will not come from stringing a million men across the Himalayas, but from a navy, supreme in the Indian Ocean and commanding the access choke points to international trade. At the least, an operationalised Quad would have given us info-dominance over critical areas, if the navy’s anxieties are addressed. But by using the Quad for diplomatic and political grandstanding, without naval representation, we have lost the little leverage that we could have had.

The great American thinker Andrew Marshall used to say that strategy should not be written without first defining the scenario to which it applies. Accordingly, the US office Net Assessment defines the evolving scenario every four years in a docket entitled “Global Futures” as a guide to government. We have no such document, but our scenario is fairly predictable, dominated as it is by the rise of a rogue Chinese hegemon. So, why is our foreign policy still hoping to “appease” Beijing by denying India a blue water navy — the only instrument that gives us punitive capability against Beijing?

This column first appeared in the print edition on September 24, 2021 under the title ‘The wages of dithering’. Menon, a former rear admiral, has authored four books on maritime and nuclear strategy.

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