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

Not Sun Tzu

Beijing’s has made some bad moves recently

It is fairly common to ascribe a certain oriental strategic wisdom to China’s foreign policy moves. That’s not always true. Whatever the outcome of the current stand-off with Japan over the fishing trawler near the Senkaku islands, Beijing has already lost one round of the geopolitical game.

The incident involving a Chinese fishing trawler ramming into two Japanese coast guard vessels in Japanese waters claimed by Beijing should not have allowed to become a litmus test of sovereignty claims. Yet that is exactly what China did. Instead of reciprocating the Japanese government’s early and wise move to prevent escalation of tensions—by returning the trawler and crew, minus the captain—Beijing contended that trying the captain under Japanese law would be an implicit recognition of Japan’s territorial claims. If Japan now concedes to this demand it would be seen as succumbing to Chinese bullying. If Japan does not concede, the leadership in Beijing loses faces to its own people.

If Sun Tzu said something about not putting an enemy with the back to the wall, his modern day compatriots certainly have not paid heed.

There are, of course, face-saving diplomatic solutions possible if China is ready to explore them. However this plays out, Beijing’s actions will push Tokyo, Seoul and other East Asian capitals strongly towards each other and towards Washington. All the more so if, in the unlikely event, tensions lead to military conflict.

It might well be the all Beijing cares for is to ensure that its actions play well to its domestic audience. If so, it has badly miscalculated the international price it will have to pay for playing to the galleries.

Related Posts: Beijing’s series of foreign policy mistakes are likely due to a factional power struggle ahead of the leadership transition in 2012.

Pax Indica: East of Singapore

The waters east of Singapore hold the key to the lands west of the Indus

Yesterday’s post was about the developments in East Asia. In today’s Pax Indica column, I argue that India must be part of the security equilibrium in that region. Excerpts:

India’s strategic power projection will not be unwelcome in South East Asia. It will also enable the United States to remain engaged in Afghanistan-Pakistan by freeing up resources that might otherwise be employed in the western Pacific. Also, regardless of what the United States does, an Indian strategic commitment in East Asia will strengthen its overall negotiation position with China.

Whatever might have caused China to bully its neighbours this year, it has opened another window of opportunity for India to engage with the region. Pre-occupied as it is with the game in the north-western part of the subcontinent, it is unclear if New Delhi sufficiently realises that the seas east of Singapore hold the key to the lands west of the Indus.

India must vastly increase its economic, diplomatic and military presence in and beyond South East Asia. [Yahoo! India]

Pax Indica: The Palestinian Card

The First Law of Middle Eastern Geopolitics

In this fortnight’s Pax Indica column, I record Turkey’s breakout moment.

(It) was only when Turkey floated the flotilla to Gaza that people took notice. The successor to the Ottoman empire had announced its arrival.

The re-emergence of Turkey as a major power offers India the opportunity to balance its relationships with Saudi Arabia, Iran and Israel. This calls for India to reorient its relationship with Turkey, identify common interests—managing China’s influence in Central Asia, for instance—and convert them into cooperative initiatives. That will also require Turkey to look beyond its relationship with Pakistan. In fact, this is the issue that will answer the big question: is Davutoglu’s neo-Ottomanism merely pan-Islamism or is it about Turkey’s national interests? If it is the former, then Turkey will allow its relationship with India to be constrained by its ties with Pakistan. Not so, if it is the latter. [Yahoo! India]

Understanding Israel’s response to the flotilla

Making Israel look bad doesn’t help the Palestinians

The organisers of the “Freedom Flotilla”—a convoy of ships that intended to bust the Israeli blockade of Gaza—presented the Israeli government with a stark choice: stop the convoy and lose the global PR battle, or permit it and lose that and a whole lot more. In the event, it is not surprising that Israel chose the first option—and just lose the PR battle.

Was Israel’s reaction—its forces killed 10 activists and injured several more—disproportionate? That’s a difficult judgement to make. After all, what is a proportionate response to deter non-state actors from violating its authority without any fear of consequences? If, instead of a ‘flotilla’, some state’s navy had attempted to violate the blockade, it would well have been interpreted as an act of war. Why should non-state actors be treated differently? The Israeli government was justified in preventing non-state actors from challenging its authority.

But could Israel’s reaction have been less forceful? Could the Israelis have turned the ships back without using lethal force? Perhaps yes. If you go by the official Israeli version of events, that is exactly what they say they first attempted. They used lethal force only when the activists on the ship put up a fight. The flotilla’s floaters might deny this and argue that they didn’t expect violence. This is disingenuous. It is also unbelievable. They should have foreseen such a scenario before putting civilian activists in harm’s way. It is unclear if there were unambiguous rules of engagement, communicated to the activists and to the Israeli authorities. In the event, the organisers cannot escape their part of the responsibility for the unfortunate casualties.

For their part, the organisers of the convoy won the global PR battle. To what end, though? It’s not as if the Palestinian case needs to be made to the world’s governments (even if it has to be made for another generation of television audiences). The solution to the age-old Israel-Palestinian conflict involves compromises that both sides have to make, which the rest of the world can then support. Actions by outsiders that encourage both sides to compromise are helpful. Actions that attempt to paint one side of the conflict as the villain are not. Infuriating the Israeli government might allow the flotilla’s organisers to score political points and make the Israeli government look bad in front of the world’s television audiences. But it is unlikely to make it any easier for the Israeli government to make the difficult compromises necessary to move towards a solution.

As Yaakov Katz, a commentator in the Jerusalem Post concludes:

Let’s not fool ourselves. Even if Israel allowed these ships and all such ships to dock in Gaza City’s harbor, it would still be accused of laying siege to the Palestinians in the Strip since, albeit along with Egypt, it controls the land crossings.

In the end, after all, the flotilla is just another chapter in an international campaign to chip away at Israel’s legitimate right to defend itself. [Jerusalem Post]

Update:

[1] See Galrahn’s post at Information Dissemination for a discussion on the legality of Israel’s actions.

[2] Alan Dershowitz, professor of law at Harvard university, explains why Israel’s actions were lawful but unwise.

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.

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.

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.

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