K Subrahmanyam on Admiral Mehta’s speech

Admiral Mehta’s speech signifies “the arrival of senior service officers at the top rung of national grand strategy formulation”

Coping with China

By K Subrahmanyam

Admiral Sureesh Mehta, Chief of Naval Staff and Chairman of the Chiefs of Staff Committee who is due to retire at the end of this month delivered an address on national security under the aegis of the National Maritime Foundation on the 10th of August. It was a fairly comprehensive overview of our national security perspective. Though delivered by the senior most Service Officer, the lecture was remarkable as it went beyond the military realm and focused on a broad strategic and political vision in the currently evolving international situation.

In a sense this address by Admiral Mehta signified the arrival of senior service officers at the top rung of national grand strategy formulation. His eminently pragmatic, strategic vision has been misinterpreted in certain sections of the media as a cry of despair that India will not be able to catch up with China militarily. He has made it clear that India has no intention to do so. At the same time he has formulated the most viable strategy to cope with this situation. Whether India—with a population likely to exceed China’s in the next two decades; the advantage of a much younger age profile of that population; its post September 2008 integration with the rest of the world; and being a democracy along with the all other
major powers as also English-speaking—will ultimately catch up with China it is too early to predict. China today has the advantage of a decade and half of head start in economic reforms and globalisation and very close industrial cooperation with US and other multinational firms. Admiral Mehta has detailed the lead China has gained on this account over India. That is an inexorable reality which Indian strategists have to accept and factor in coping with China. The word Admiral Mehta has chosen to use is ‘coping with China’, not confronting or competing with it.

While China by switching sides in the Cold War and repudiating the Maoist legacy broke out of its isolation in the seventies, India could do so only in 2008 with the waiver of NSG guidelines. While China was a tacit but active strategic partner of the US and NATO during the Cold War and an established permanent member of the Security Council and an accepted nuclear power of the Nonproliferation Treaty, India’s recognition as one of the rising powers and a balancer in the international system began less than a decade ago.

India presently has strategic partnerships with all great powers including China. Today India’s largest trading partner is China. Yet as Admiral Mehta pointed out, in China’s case India has a trust deficit because of the long standing territorial dispute and among other issues, the China-Pakistan connection. Unlike in India’s case where its emergence as a power does not cause concern in the world, that is not the case with China. Its propensity for intervention in space, both on earth and in outer space and cyber warfare have been cited as causing concern to other nations.

Addressing those who entertain expectations that 1962 can be repeated, Admiral Mehta highlighted that the economic penalties resulting from a potential Sino-Indian military conflict would have grave consequences for both sides. Unlike in 1962, China has today multiple vulnerabilities and has to consider seriously the effect of a war on its energy supply lines. In such circumstances mutual cooperation is to the benefit of both countries. Therefore Admiral Mehta’s advocacy is for India reducing its military gap with China and countering the growing Chinese footprint in the Indian Ocean region.

He does not favor the traditional bean-counting or division-for-division approach in closing the gap. Instead, he wants to rely on harnessing modern technology for developing high situational awareness and creating a reliable standoff deterrent. The recent launch of the nuclear submarine, INS Arihant, is a step in that direction. Admiral Mehta further adds, that in order to minimise the chances of conflict, India should proactively engage China diplomatically, economically, culturally and in people-to-people contacts. At the same time India should nurture its relations with US, Russia, Japan and other East Asian countries to leverage towards this end. In his view our growing relations with South East and East Asian countries would increase opportunities for cooperative engagement with China as well.

What Admiral Mehta does not say in his speech is as important as what he has said. China is looking forward to emerging as the foremost power of the world. Its GDP is expected to overtake the US in the next two decades. The recent economic recession has narrowed the gap between the two and made China the second largest economy of the world. While US and China have some mutuality of interest in ensuring the stability of the dollar, as otherwise China will lose heavily on its large dollar holdings, in the period beyond the recovery the US will be keen to sustain its preeminence as the foremost military, economic and technological power of the world. There will be radical changes in the US-China economic relationship so far anchored on China selling enormous quantities of consumer goods to US and running huge balance of payments surpluses. Those were saved and lent back to the US to enable American consumers to spend more.

This world order is unsustainable and is bound to change. As US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said, India is seen as one of the key partners for the US to reshape the 21st century. The US has agreed to sell high technology defense equipment to India while it is not likely to sell them to China, its main rival in the coming decades. Therefore Admiral Mehta’s reference to the innovative use of technology by India to close the military gap with China.

Besides focusing on this core subject, the lecture also dealt with non-state actors, shaping our immediate neighborhood, securing our maritime borders, internal security, intelligence, cyber-warfare, higher defence integration and jointness among the three services, nuclear issues, reducing dependence on other countries for equipment, trends in defence expenditure and adequacy of our defense outlays, delays in our procurement procedures, governance and culture of strategic thinking. His ideas are thought-provoking and deserve to be objectively debated by the Indian strategic community.

In a sense this address breaks new ground. A service chief has put on record his views on a whole host of national security issues just a few weeks before demitting office. Many of these issues have been under consideration for ages without solutions. In today’s security environment these need to be debated openly in the country—to generate public pressure for early decision-making in the Government. Regrettably, in our Parliament national security issues do not receive the attention they merit and therefore greater the need for informed public debate.

A Hindi version of this op-ed was published in Dainik Jagran yesterday. This piece appears here thanks to Commodore C Uday Bhaskar.

4 thoughts on “K Subrahmanyam on Admiral Mehta’s speech”

  1. Admiral Mehta’s address indeed breaks new ground – a interesting and timely shift!

    You mention:
    in our Parliament national security issues do not receive the attention they merit and therefore greater the need for informed public debate.

    Isn’t this true for anything of significance in Indian parliament? National budget, defense policy – beyond the name calling and shouting matches (while poor overworked bureaucrats drive and implement policy) what debate do we ever see?

    In today’s political climate, the need for open public debate and public pressure on Govt is greater than ever.

  2. Shri KS quote:
    ” Regrettably, in our Parliament national security issues do not receive the attention they merit and therefore greater the need for informed public debate.”

    That about says which direction things will go even after the honest and frank appraisal of India’s sorry state of affairs by Admiral Sureesh Mehta. It would be very surprising to me if our Parliamentarians were even aware of the issues Adm. Mehta touched on.

  3. Good to see KS positive about military officers thinking grand strategy. The only person who did that was the other KS, who died prematurely IMHO. IN seems to have gotten the hang of things better than the IAF and the IA.

    As for parliamentarians…he asks for too much. I think if the standing committees do their job well and ensure that GOI implements their reports we should be quite happy.

  4. Would it to much to have open media hearings for the relevant parliamentary subcommittees – on defense, finance and the like?

    Summon and grill serving and retired babus, regulators, mantris, pvt citizens etc for their acts of omission or commission impinging on these domains? Just wondering.

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