India has, since 1998, signed “strategic partnership” agreements with 30 countries and organisations, ranging from Afghanistan and ASEAN to Uzbekistan and UAE. Since the term “strategic” in international relations implies a convergence of interests in areas of security, economics and foreign affairs, perhaps the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) needs to be more discriminating in its choice of partners lumped together in this pro-forma inventory.
Ironically, the US (figuring in this list) has been in quest of a “strategic partnership” with India since 1991. As the Cold War ended and winds of change brought globalisation and pragmatism to India, the US mooted a set of proposals seeking military-to-military cooperation. The Indian Navy (IN), eager to emerge from its chrysalis of isolation, took a lead by initiating the first ever Indo-US naval exercises, to be named “Malabar”. These became a precursor for bilateral exercises with at least a dozen other navies, internationally; it has now become an annual feature of India’s maritime outreach.
During the first decade of the century, such diplomatic initiatives by the IN — especially in the US context — did not always have a smooth passage. Having a comatose Ministry of Defence (MoD) and suspicious MEA were bad enough, but the full political spectrum, from archaic left-wing ideologues to right-wing ultra-nationalists, could be rallied by an accusatory war-cry of “pro-Americanism” to bully the timid ruling UPA coalition. In this writer’s experience, every Malabar exercise was hostage to a capricious Parliament, and was liable to be cancelled at the last minute.
The Modi government, in a dynamic foreign policy transformation, has not only backed a stronger strategic partnership with the US, it has also converted “Look East” into a more positive “Act East” policy and initiated a more intense engagement with the Gulf and West Asia. Emphasising inclusivity in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR), Prime Minister Narendra Modi encapsulated this thought in the watchword, SAGAR, signifying “security and growth for all in the region”. SAGAR should become the leitmotif for India’s maritime diplomacy.
Against this backdrop, it was a disagreeable surprise to read in the September 2017 issue of the respected US Naval Institute Proceedings, an article, which, bluntly described Indo-US maritime engagement as, “a security cooperation courtship that never gets past the first date”, and then asked rhetorically, “If India is not ready, willing or able to play in the maritime security cooperation game, what is the benefit of trying to force it?” Modi would, therefore, need to bear in mind that while visionary leaders may strategise on a grand scale, their policies will be only as good as the implementation on ground by bureaucrats, technocrats and diplomats.
This aspect assumes salience in light of the November 2017 revival of the India-Australia-Japan-US quadrilateral (or Quad) dialogue. Representatives of the four maritime democracies met ahead of the East Asia Summit, in Manila, for “consultation on issues of common interest in the Indo-Pacific region”. The renewal of this dormant grouping and repeated use of the term Indo-Pacific by President Trump seems to have generated a degree of animation in strategic circles. As it happens, the provenance of the Quad, and coining of the term, Indo-Pacific, have an Indian context that bears mention.
On December 27, 2004, a few hours after the tsunami struck, I received a phone call from distant Hawaii. It was the US Pacific Fleet Commander, requesting IN concurrence for deployment of US units in our region and asking for the deputation of a liaison officer to the Utapao air base in Thailand, where a joint task force was being set up. That is how we found ourselves working in close coordination with a “core group” that included the US, Australia, Japan and India; the future Quad.
The term Indo-Pacific was coined by young IN captain, Gurpreet Khurana, in a 2007 essay, wherein he visualised the linking of the Indian Ocean with the Western Pacific, across the Malacca Straits, to form a seamless economic and security continuum. It was offered as an alternative to the “Asia-Pacific” paradigm which included only Northeast Asia, Southeast Asia and the Pacific islands, and terminated at the Malacca Straits, leaving out India. Despite the scepticism of Indian diplomats, the term seems to be here to stay.
It is in the interest of all nations that peace and stability are preserved and good order is maintained at sea in the Indo-Pacific. Ensuring the safety of international shipping would involve anti-piracy operations, maritime interdiction and cooperative maritime domain awareness. Natural calamities and man-made crises may call for humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, non-combatant evacuation, and search and rescue operations.
No single nation or navy can hope to provide all this, and the Quad would be well-placed to form a maritime partnership for the common good. While each of the four participants, no doubt, has its own national interests to advance, there is no reason for China to suspect containment or “ganging up”. In fact, if all goes well, there is no reason why the Quad cannot, subsequently, become a pentagonal or a hexagonal partnership.
Turning from idealism to realism, there was a time when India’s dynamic economy, its demographic profile, military strength and nuclear capability tantalised us with the hope of becoming China’s rival. Today, China’s economy is five times the size of ours and growing; and this economic asymmetry is reflected in the unfavourable military and technological balance. Having translated its enormous economic gains into coercive military power, China expects neighbours to submit to its hegemony.
If India is to resist domination and gain a breathing-spell for economic consolidation, it will need hand-holding — moral and political — for a few years. At the same time, it must boost its military muscle by urgently modernising the armed forces. Above all, India must attain true “strategic autonomy” through an infusion of advanced technology for its defence-industrial complex. The choices before us are few and stark; and being a member of the Quad — a concord of four democracies — has many potential advantages that India could adroitly exploit, in many spheres.