Navies are, indeed, fortunate in that, unlike armies and air forces, they have many roles to play, even in peacetime. This was driven home by Soviet Admiral Sergei Gorshkov, many years ago, when he said, “Demonstrative actions by the fleet, in many cases, have made it possible to achieve political ends without resorting to armed action, by merely putting pressure… Thus, the navy has always been an instrument of policy and an important aid to diplomacy in peacetime.” This unique attribute of navies enables their use in support of foreign policy objectives, to deliver messages of reassurance to friends and of deterrence or coercion to adversaries.
The fact that it has taken a border confrontation in the Himalayas to bring focus on India’s maritime domain clearly indicates that the salience of maritime power is not yet understood in India. The stark reality is that given the huge economic, military and technological asymmetry between China and India, and the active China-Pakistan nexus, the best that India can hope for is a stalemate on its northern and western fronts. Attention has, therefore, been focused on the maritime domain, where it is believed that India may have some cards to play.
This is the lens through which one must see the progressive evolution of Exercise “Malabar”, from a bilateral event involving just the Indian and US navies, to a tri-lateral that embraced Japan in 2015, and now to a four-cornered naval drill that will also include Australia. Apart from its geo-political significance for the Indo-Pacific, this development poses two conundrums. Firstly, given the same composition, what is the distinction, now, between “Malabar” and the “Quad”? Secondly, if Malabar 1992, was emblematic of India’s emergence from its chrysalis of non-alignment, does Malabar 2020 mark the release of Australia from China’s thralldom?
China’s extreme concern about Malabar as well as the Quad arises from the suspicion that they are precursors to “containment” — America’s Cold War geopolitical strategy which eventually brought about the collapse of the USSR. China’s intimidatory conduct has aroused trepidation amongst Quad members, and marked caginess has been evident in their actions and articulations. For India, which faces a massive Chinese military mobilisation on its borders, accompanied by blatant territorial claims, the time for ambivalence is over. While preparing to fight its own battles with determination, it is time for India to seek external balancing — best done via the maritime domain.
While Malabar is the code name given to a naval exercise, the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue or Quad has its roots in the Core Group of four senior diplomats representing the US, India, Japan and Australia, formed to coordinate relief efforts after the Great Asian Tsunami of December 26, 2004. Hailing it as “a new style of diplomacy”, its US member, Marc Grossman, says “…it was an organisation that never met… never issued a communiqué, never created a secretariat, and took as one of its successes, its own demise.”
The present Quad has obviously retained this tradition and its members have neither created a charter nor invested it with any substance, leading China to describe it as a “headline grabbing idea which will dissipate like sea-foam”. The Quad is 16 years old now, and Malabar 28. Both have served a useful purpose, and a reappraisal of the roles and relationship of the Quad-Malabar concepts is, therefore, overdue. Since it is India which faces a “clear and present danger”, it should boldly take the initiative to do so.
Given China’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative and its predicted trajectory as an economic and military superpower, it is clear that no nation would like to burn its bridges with Beijing. At the same time, in order to rein in China’s hegemonic urges, there is need for affected nations to come together to show their solidarity and determination in a common cause. In this context, there is need to create a broad-based “Indo-Pacific Concord”, of like-minded regional democracies, not as an “Asian NATO” but as an organisation with a maritime security charter, which has no offensive or provocative connotations.
Using the Quad and Malabar templates, a shore-based secretariat can be established in a central location like Port Blair, in the Andaman Islands, which would schedule and conduct periodic multinational naval exercises. The exercises could be structured to hone the skills of participating navies in specialisations like humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, countering non-traditional threats, undertaking search-and-rescue operations and establishing networked maritime domain awareness. The Concord could also designate forces to uphold maritime security or “good order at sea”.
Returning to the current context of Quad, there are muted expressions of satisfaction in New Delhi on two counts — the prospect of Australia belatedly joining the Quad and of India signing the BECA (Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement) with the US. These are expected to reinforce the Quad and enhance its credibility, but there are reasons for India to be circumspect in both cases.
While Australia’s admission to the Quad is to be welcomed, memories are still alive of its past political ambivalence towards India, its trenchant criticism of our naval expansion and its vociferous condemnation of the 1998 nuclear tests. Nor should one overlook Beijing’s recent influence on Australia’s foreign policy, which prompted its flip-flops over the sale of uranium to India as well as its peremptory withdrawal from the Quad in 2008.
The signing of BECA, last of the four “foundational agreements”, after more than two decades of negotiations, would eliminate a source of frustration in the Indo-US defence relationship and enhance interoperability between the respective militaries. However, there is need to pay heed to valid concerns, regarding the possible compromise of information impinging on India’s security and whether these agreements will barter away the last vestiges of India’s strategic autonomy.
To conclude, Indians, given our history, should never lose sight of the truism in international relations, that it is the unerring pursuit of national interests that guides the actions and policies of every nation.
This article first appeared in the print edition on October 24, 2020 under the title ‘Riders to the sea’. The writer is a retired chief of naval staff.
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