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 12:32:05 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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