Addressing the media earlier this week, Adm. Nirmal Verma, chief of the Indian Navy, spelt out the broad contours of India’s maritime doctrine.
“From our perspective”, he said, “the primary area of interest to us is from the Malacca Strait to the Gulf in the west, and to the Cape of Good Hope in the south… The Pacific and the South China Sea are of concern to us, but activation in those areas is not on the cards.”
Depending on how one sees it, the admiral’s statement is realistic or limiting. It is realistic because despite urgings from American and Australian strategic thinkers, India is reluctant to expand its ambit to the Indo-Pacific, the confluence of the eastern Indian Ocean and the western Pacific.
Influential sections in New Delhi believe there is no point biting more than one can chew and entering a wider geography and interoperability protocol without the wherewithal to play a truly effective role.
Yet, by announcing a virtual abdication from the South China Sea and the Pacific, has Adm. Verma also exposed the political establishment’s tepidness? Let alone Australasia and the Indo-Pacific, India is diffident about exercising politico-military heft in even the Asean region. Asean countries themselves are puzzled at this.
The South China Sea is a part of the Pacific that abuts the Indian Ocean. It is impossible to tell one from the other, draw a line in the water and suggest India’s strategic focus is conterminous with one, and vanishes at the beginning of the other.
To be fair, Adm. Verma may have been reflecting the compulsions the political system places on him. For the moment there is no political ownership or grand strategy in New Delhi for a deep Indian Ocean thrust. India still awaits a political/foreign policy leadership that will build on the Look East policy and explicitly define India’s strategic frontiers and interests in the Indian Ocean or its adjacent waters.
The polity is not ready for that yet.
That aside, India has been extraordinarily wary of being drawn into superpower rivalries. Strong reactions from China to the Indian proposal to collaborate with Vietnam and explore the South China Sea for oil made apparent Beijing’s hypersensitivity. This led to elements of the Indian strategic establishment stressing two messages: “Don’t rile China” and “Beware the plans of Uncle Sam.”
It is probable that from their individual vantage positions both China and India are over-interpreting America’s so-called containment of China in maritime Asia. Frankly, there is little evidence this is happening at a pace rapid enough to satisfy maximalist war gamers or truly threaten Beijing.
In Canberra, for instance, less than a year after US President Barack Obama’s visit, the “pivot to Asia” moment and inauguration of an American naval presence in Darwin (in Northern Territory, just south of Indonesia), officials are at pains to underplay its significance. The US will use facilities in Darwin for six months each year for training purposes. This is part of a larger repositioning of US troops and machines from north-eastern Asia to south-eastern Asia.
US marines are in search of new facilities following the decision to vacate Okinawa (Japan). Darwin is one option, but naval bases in Singapore and Thailand have also been finalised, as well as enhanced cooperation with Vietnam and Indonesia.
To what degree is this simply a need dictated by the pressure to leave Okinawa and to what degree does it reflect the early stages of a new Cold War? There is no unanimity and, in fact, intense argument not just between countries but within countries. Nevertheless, given the concentration of Chinese power in the region — both economic and military — nobody is seriously talking about an aggressive posture.
The Australians, for example, are alarmed at the idea of having to choose between their history and geography, to quote former Prime Minister John Howard, between America, their biggest political ally, and China, their biggest trading partner. They are wary of even describing the Darwin facility as a base.
What then is emerging is a network of naval missions, some with an American stamp and some independent of it, that could coordinate humanitarian and anti-piracy missions. They could also make up pieces of a condominium of maritime powers (perhaps democratic maritime powers) and be a collective counterweight to China without expressly describing themselves thus. In the long run this necessitates some form of Indian commitment.
It is noteworthy that Adm. Verma referred to the “Gulf of Aden to the Straits of Malacca” formulation imperial strategists, including George Curzon, as Viceroy of India, spoke about. That naval geography did not exist in isolation. It was part of an inter-linked British presence. The challenge is to rebuild that security structure without an overarching suzerain in London (or Washington, DC, for that matter). The internal dynamics can be discussed, the level of cooperation with China and need to allay its suspicions can be debated, but the idea cannot be wished away.
In September 2014, India will observe the centenary of the attack on Chennai (then Madras) harbour by the German cruiser Emden. The Kaiser’s World War I Indian Ocean raider destroyed a merchant ship, killed several civilians and caused hundreds to flee. Then she moved further east, in the direction of Sri Lanka and what would in today’s terminology be Asean waters. Two months later, in November 1914, the Emden was challenged and wrecked by an Australian ship, The Sydney, off the Cocos Islands.
The intelligence cooperation that led to the Emden’s destruction drew from the military base in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. Today this is the location of India’s only tri-services command and its naval capacity upgrade. As for the Cocos Islands, there is a proposal — admittedly a loose, long-term one — to build capacities in this Australian territory and allow the US to use it for surveillance of the South China Sea.
How should India plug into this matrix? That is a question for its naval strategists to address in the coming years.
First published in The Asian Age.
Image: Charles McCain/Flickr