The Asian Balance: Policing the Indian Ocean

Doing more maritime chowkidari

Excerpts from my column in Business Standard:

What can we do in the short term? Now, while the Indian Navy has discharged itself admirably in escorting convoys and fighting pirates, it is primarily a war-fighting force. New Delhi’s priority must remain equipping it to become a blue-water navy capable of projecting power in India’s extended maritime domain. At this time, assigning more ships to maritime constabulary duties off the Horn of Africa could risk blunting the navy’s war-fighting edge. At the same time, India must not underestimate the growing pirate menace that threatens its commerce and the lives of a large number of its seafaring citizens.

One way out of this dilemma is for New Delhi to lease a handful of commercial vessels, equip them with adequate fire power, and place them under the operational control of the Indian Navy. After all, you don’t need BrahMos missile-equipped Talwar class battle axes to tackle pirates armed with assault rifles. Operating commercial vessels on lease can be adequate to the task, is less expensive and will allow the navy’s combatant warships to focus on their core competence.

In parallel, India should use its upcoming presence at the UN Security Council to strengthen the mandate, personnel strength and international support for the African Union (AU) force that is currently deployed in Somalia. Ugandan officials have long been asking the UN for more troops so that the AU force can take effective control over Somalian territory and secure its ports. This makes sense. The challenge will be to manage the complexities of Africa’s regional politics so that the international effort has both robust international oversight and legitimacy. It is uncertain, perhaps unlikely, that the AU force will fully succeed in establishing order in the near-anarchic world of Somalian civil wars. There is, however, a good chance that it will seal off the pirates’ main launching pads.

Read the whole thing at Business Standard

Now China wants to divide up the sea

Maritime territorialism is a bad idea—but it might signal something worse

Rory Medcalf, over at the Lowy Interpreter flags a very important issue (via NRA). He draws attention to a media report that suggests China is considering maritime territorialism in the Gulf of Aden where navies from as many as 40 countries are engaged in anti-piracy operations. Not only that, but in what appears to be another manifestation of the kind of thinking that made a Chinese admiral recently offer to divide up the world’s oceans with his US counterpart, China is discussing this with Russia, Japan, EU and NATO. Mr Medcalf writes:

I very much doubt that other powers would accept such a move—and nor should they—because it would suggest that China is not really willing to engage in serious coordination, cooperation or transparency at sea. Carving up national maritime zones in the Indian Ocean would both reflect and worsen mistrust. It implies the failure of multilateralism, not its success. The Cold War was all about zones, spheres, sectors: think occupied Berlin. And what would happen if ships from one country strayed into another’s chosen sector?

We also need to wonder how accurate is the article’s assertion that ‘the prospect of each country being given responsibility for a certain area of ocean’ is being welcomed by the shipping industry.

Second, it was intriguing that India received no mention in the article as one of the countries that China needs or wants to coordinate with in the Indian Ocean.[Lowy Interpreter]

The first thing to note here is that such territorialism doesn’t make much sense given the vast expanse of the world’s oceans—or even the Gulf of Aden—compared to the number of ships that the world’s navies have. There is thus a very strong case for naval co-operation and co-ordination against maritime threats. It is inconceivable that Chinese maritime strategists are unaware of this.

So why is China floating what appears to be a foolish idea? Look at the countries mentioned in the media report—Russia, Japan, EU and NATO. What is common to them is that they—like China itself—are outside the Indian Ocean region. Furthermore, China has not been admitted to the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium (IONS), a new platform for the navies of Indian Ocean littoral states. Beijing might be attempting to force its way into IONS by raising the bogey of an alternative organisation of extra-regional powers. (India’s unwillingness to admit China into IONS is par for the course, as China routinely attempts to keep India and the United States out of East Asian groupings)

But that is only a charitable explanation. China might be trying to gain exclusive control of key international waterways—an intention that is all the more disturbing given the rapid expansion of the PLA Navy’s capacity.

In any event, India must strengthen not only its naval operations in Indian Ocean theatres like the Gulf of Aden—something that we have been stressing for long—but also deepen maritime co-operation with the navies of the United States, Australia, Japan and Indonesia.

Ruddying relations

A closer strategic India-Australia relationship—the “how”

The Lowy Institute has released an excellent policy brief, authored by Rory Medcalf, coinciding with Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd’s first visit to India. You should read it in full—but the cogent executive summary is worth reproducing on this blog.

What is the problem
Strategic ties between Australia and India keep falling short of expectations, despite strong growth in trade. Controversy over the welfare of Indian students has added to differences over uranium exports to cloud what should be promising links between two countries with many common concerns. The relationship will weather recent turbulence. But without major diplomatic initiatives soon, the prospects for a truly strategic partnership between these Indian Ocean democracies will be set back for years.

What should be done?
The relationship needs to be invigorated through a leaders’ commitment to a strategic partnership, informed by a fresh awareness of how each country can help the other increase its security. This needs to be more than rhetoric.

A bilateral security declaration would add Australia-India relations to a regional web of defence ties involving Japan and South Korea. India should reciprocate Australia’s overtures to engage as a priority maritime partner, including in exercises. The two armies should help each other too, for example in special forces training.

Australia and India should work to expand common ground on nuclear non- proliferation and disarmament, which might help open the way on uranium sales. Both governments need fully to grasp Australia’s vast potential in ensuring India’s energy security.

Regular strategic dialogue should focus on common interests, including relating to China, Pakistan, Afghanistan, terrorism and maritime security. Options should also be explored for new regional arrangements including a three-party forum with Indonesia. [Lowy]

Related Link: Mr Medcalf also has an op-ed in today’s Indian Express. In the February 2008 issue of Pragati he argued that closer India-Australia ties requires political will on both sides.

What the admiral said about China

Beyond a realistic appreciation of the situation

“Common sense” according to Admiral Sureesh Mehta, “that cooperation with China would be preferable to competition or conflict, as it would be foolhardy to compare India and China as equals. China’s GDP is more than thrice that of ours and its per capita GDP is 2.2 times our own.” (linkthanks Commodore C Uday Bhaskar)

The economic penalties resulting from a military conflict would have grave consequences for both nations. It would therefore, undoubtedly be in both our interests, to cooperate with each other in mutually beneficial endeavours, and ensure that the potential for conflict is minimised…

On the military front, our strategy to deal with China must include reducing the military gap and countering the growing Chinese footprint in the Indian Ocean Region. The traditional or ‘attritionist’ approach of matching ‘Division for Division’ must give way to harnessing modern technology for developing high situational awareness and creating a reliable stand-off deterrent. [Adm Mehta/NMF]

Those looking for a hawkish tone would understandably be disappointed at these words, but the outgoing navy chief’s understanding of the geopolitical context is infused with realism. There is a wide gap between India and China in terms of aggregate national power—not least because China opened its economy earlier, did it more purposefully—and the gap may be widening despite India’s own growth take-off. A military confrontation, therefore, is not desirable. In Kautilya’s metaphor “attacking a stronger king will meet the same fate as that of a foot-soldier opposing an elephant.”

While Admiral Mehta’s reading of the situation is astute, his policy prescription summarily rejects the possibility that competition and conflict might be in India’s interests, should such competition hurt China more than it hurts India. That’s in Kautilya’s Arthashastra too, actually. Galrahn over at Information Dissemination has a valid point when he argues that “military asymmetry in interstate relations does not mean the weaker side must bend to the dictates of the stronger, nor should the weaker state seek to propitiate it.” Perhaps Admiral Mehta’s office constrained what he could say openly, but his point about countering the growing Chinese maritime footprint in the region suggests that he has left some things unsaid.

B Raman reads in Admiral Mehta’s speech the UPA government’s re-orientation of grand strategy “from power projection” to “deterrence and self-defence.” If this is a conscious choice, it is a bad one. It should be obvious for anyone to see—no one can reasonably argue that the extended neighbourhood is any more stable after the UPA government’s strategic myopia allowed China literally unbridled room to encircle and contain India. The question is whether this situation came about due to neglect or design. The former is perhaps excusable. The latter is not.

This blog has consistently argued that “projection of power is necessary to create the conditions for human development”. Because there are Maoris out there.

Where’s the quake information?

The Indian government must provide timely, accurate, accessible information on natural disasters

The Indian Ocean tsunami that resulted in the deaths of around 20,000 Indian citizens (and displacement of around 700,000) occurred less than five years ago. The human tragedy of the earthquakes in Kashmir (October 2005) and Gujarat (January 2001) are also relatively fresh in public memory. After these natural disasters you would have thought that the Indian government would be a little more active in disseminating timely, accurate and relevant information regarding seismic events. And you would be wrong.

The online edition of the Times of India reported a 7.6 magnitude earthquake off the coast of the Andaman islands at 7:55 UTC on 10th of August. It was a wire service report, quoting the US Geological Service (USGS). The USGS site provides a summary, measurement details, maps and other information, including a link to a tsunami alerts. Its Indian counterpart, in comparison, only showed a terse ‘preliminary’ report stating the location of the quake and its magnitude. Neither the Indian Meteorological Department (IMD) nor the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) had any useful information about the nature of the quake and the risk of a tsunami.

There is, however, a ‘crowdsourced’ website that provides such information based on secondary (reported) information. The Amateur Seismic Centre is a commendable initiative, run by one Stacey Martin who started it in June 2000 as “a one-stop guide to earthquakes in India as well as south Asia.” It puts the Government of India to shame. (See its report on today’s quake)

The UPA government has shown itself adept at creating new bureaucracies after disaster strikes. It does not seem to be capable of doing the relatively trifling—but crucial and life-saving—things such disseminating timely information.

Update: Amit Varma wrote about last night: even the Indian mainstream media was late in reporting it.

Update: On 12th August, The Hindu reports that India’s National Tsunami Warning Centre had issued an alert six minutes after the quake. Why then didn’t the media pick it up, while they picked up the USGS report?

The Longbottom standard for Rajapakse

Colombo might have won the war with China’s help. It can’t win the peace without India’s

Just in case you missed it in the heat of the elections, here’s the take on the situation in Sri Lanka:

Now, while President Rajapaksa’s election manifesto promised to include in the Sri Lankan Constitution a charter to “uphold and protect social, cultural, political, economic and civil rights of all Sri Lankans”, there are some among his supporters who want to translate the LTTE’s defeat into a victory for Sinhala supremacism. The immediate task for Indian foreign policy, therefore, is to hold President Rajapaksa to the Longbottom standard: It takes a great deal of bravery for him to stand up to his enemies, but a great deal more to stand up to his friends.

How? Well, read on.

My op-ed in Mint: Leverage in Sri Lanka

A stable balance between Sri Lanka’s ethnic groups better serves India’s interests than a partitioned island

In an op-ed in Mint I suggest how India might acquire greater leverage over the Sri Lankan government and use it to shape post-civil war situation.


New Delhi’s half-apologetic, half-embarrassed attitude towards providing military assistance to Sri Lanka pushed Colombo into the arms of China, Pakistan, Iran and Libya. India was too timid to support, or oppose, any one side. As a result it not only finds itself little more than a bystander, but grasping for ways to avoid the consequences of the Sri Lankan civil war from destabilizing its domestic affairs.

It is possible to arrest this loss of leverage and, indeed, to reverse it. First, New Delhi should restate its position—to Sri Lankans as much as its own citizens—that it does not favour an independent Tamil Eelam. A stable political balance between the two main ethnic groups will better serve India’s interests than a partitioned island. Those who contend that an Eelam will be more sympathetic to India should contemplate the lessons of Bangladesh. Neither gratitude nor ethnic-cultural links will prevent a sovereign state from pursuing its interests. For India’s smaller neighbours, this means playing India against China, Pakistan or the US. Moreover, if an independent Eelam were ever to come about, its Sinhala counterpart is likely to align with China.

Second, New Delhi should signal to Colombo that it will calibrate bilateral relations to progress in rehabilitating the Tamil minority. Even as Colombo has sought to engage distant benefactors, it is aware that rebuilding its war-ravaged economy is impossible without good relations with India. Colombo needs urgent assistance from the International Monetary Fund. Given Western criticism over its human rights record, it will need India’s support to tide over even its short-term difficulties.

Third, India must play a constructive role in rebuilding Sri Lankan Tamil politics. In this regard, instead of merely grandstanding on behalf of a terrorist organization, politicians in Tamil Nadu would do well to cultivate ties with moderate Sri Lankan Tamil political formations. This would not only serve India’s interests, but also help secure peace and stability in Sri Lanka.

The LTTE’s defeat is an opportunity for India to re-craft its approach towards Sri Lanka. Unless New Delhi acts decisively, it risks its strategic frontiers being shrunk by Colombo’s wartime benefactors.[Mint]

Indian submarine says an unfriendly hello to Chinese destroyers

So an Indian submarine was caught snooping around the two ships that China sent on an anti-piracy mission to the Gulf of Aden. The South China Morning Post (subscription only | available here) reports that the two ships and the Indian submarine were "locked in a tense standoff for at least half and hour" on January 15th. (linkthanks V Anantha Nageswaran)

According to the report—the Indian submarine tried to jam the warships’ sonar systems, and tried to evade them by diving deeper. But it was "eventually" cornered and force to surface. In the meantime, the Chinese ships activated their anti-submarine warfare (ASW) helicopters and prepared their torpedoes for action.

That’s how the movie ended. But what the Chinese naval strategists will be worrying about is "just when did this movie start"? They will also be worrying about whether the ending was somehow or the other scripted by the Indians.

In any case, as the SCMP points out, while "provocative and unfriendly" such an incident is hardly unusual. China knows this all too well, given that its submarines buzzed a US naval carrier group and its ‘fishing boats’ travel on two thousand mile fishing expeditions.

Given how rare it is to see a Chinese destroyer in the Arabian Sea, it is understandable that the Indian navy wanted to have a closer look. And even if the SCMP might not have all the details right, the message from this incident cannot be lost on the international community. Not least in Beijing.

Related Link: Pragmatic Euphony on the China and the military equation

Prabhakaran’s getaway plane?

Those planes can take passengers too

Sandeep Unnithan reports that the Sri Lankan troops who captured airfields and landing strips used by the LTTE didn’t find the two Zlin Z-143 planes that made up its air wing. Some analysts think that the light aircraft could have been dismantled and stowed away in the jungle. (via R Hariharan’s MI blog)

There is also another possibility. The four-seater planes with a normal range of over 1000km (according to the manufacturer’s specifications) could be used as getaway vehicles for LTTE’s top leadership. Given that these aircraft have successfully evaded radars and air-defence in the past, there is a good chance that the escape has gone (or will go) undetected. Indeed, an organisation as astute as the LTTE might well have set-up a contingency plan, with a camouflaged landing strip on a remote beach far away but within range of the planes; next to a jetty with a high-speed boat with an even longer range.

So Velupillai Prabhakaran & Co could be very much anywhere by now.

Strengthening India’s naval presence off Somalia

Remaining sensitive to the maritime balance of power

How success changes things. It was only a couple of months ago that Defence Minister A K Antony said that “as a policy, the government would not carry out hot pursuit of pirates, as it had wider implications.” Today, on the back of INS Tabar’s stellar performance, the Indian government has let it be known that not only will the naval presence be strengthened, but that it has allowed the navy to conduct hot pursuit into Somalian waters.

No, is not the Indian Navy that has come of age—rather, India’s political leadership has—with much kicking and screaming—shockingly realised how military capability can be used to advance India’s geopolitical interests.

That the INS Mysore, a Delhi-class destroyer will join and eventually replace the Tabar is a good thing. So is the decision to deploy an aircraft for aerial reconnaissance. For while there is much celebration on the Tabar’s sinking of a pirate mother ship, it remains exposed to asymmetrical warfare at sea. The Somali pirates are aggressive and their rocket-propelled grenades could cause some damage to naval assets. Explosive-laden speedboats could be used to ram naval ships if they are off-guard. But the naval ships’ weapons have greater range and superior firepower. Therefore the capability to engage pirate vessels while remaining outside their range is a source of tactical advantage. Aerial reconnaissance is one way to augment this capability. Another way is to coordinate with international navies patrolling those waters.

Coordination is also useful is to optimise patrolling arrangements. While coordination is necessary, placing the flotilla under a UN flag is unlikely to be the answer. The idea of a UN command has surfaced again. That is a dogmatic approach and adds the deadweight of bureaucratic and political control that is both unnecessary and counterproductive. If the UN peacekeeping has failed on land, there is no reason why it will succeed at sea. As we have argued it is timely for India to rethink the entire policy on overseas military deployments to ensure that these are effective, and serve the national interest. Another issue—as highlighted in our policy brief—is for the armed forces to develop “cooperation capital” that will allow them to coordinate with those of other countries on such missions.

Finally, commenting on the issue, the Indian Express asserts that “international naval presence in the region will work to everyone’s advantage”. The developments in Somalia do not support this conclusion, nor does it stand up to scrutiny. Much depends on the identity, capabilities and intention of the international naval presence in the region—India must remain sensitive to the maritime balance of power in the Indian Ocean region, and not get carried away by a rare moment in history where the world’s major powers appear to have a shared interest in one theatre.