Ad hoc defence

In my Business Standard column today I argue that structural reform of the armed forces is the unfinished business of Kargil:

It may appear that the country has been lucky to have escaped without too much damage for another 14 years. But the failure to restructure our armed forces in line with contemporary needs will impose strategic costs beyond just delays and scandals. The current structure, divided as it is between the army, navy and air force (and within their constituent arms), is unable to holistically conceptualise India’s strategic environment.

Take, for instance, the Cabinet’s approval for a new mountain strike corps to handle the Chinese threat along the unresolved boundary. It involves an army formation of 45,000 soldiers and a cost of Rs 62,000 crore over 2012-17, tasked with mounting an offensive in Tibet in the event of a Chinese attack. This move was widely hailed as a robust Indian response to China’s aggressive actions along the boundary and its steadfast refusal to move towards a settlement. Few asked where the money and the soldiers are going to come from. As my colleague Rohan Joshi notes, the army is already short of 10,000 officers and 30,000 soldiers. With slower economic growth, higher social expenditure and looming deficits, how does the government plan to finance this expansion?

The bigger question, though, is not the financial cost but the opportunity cost. Is an army strike corps India’s best response to the strategic threat from China?

It is possible to argue that by choosing an army strike corps, New Delhi has played right into China’s hands. Beijing has, by inexpensively raising tensions along the Himalayan boundary, managed to induce New Delhi to invest in an expensive military asset that is unlikely to be used. Nuclear deterrence makes a direct military conflict between the two countries unlikely; and a large-scale conflict necessitating the use of corps-level formations is even more unlikely.

Meanwhile, the geostrategic contest of our times is being played out in the oceans. The only regional force that can challenge the Chinese navy’s quest to dominate the Indo-Pacific waters is the Indian navy. And guess what? India has Rs 62,000 crore less to spend on the naval expansion of the kind that would have countered China’s maritime power.

Perhaps the decision to invest in a strike corps is the better one, though this columnist disagrees. Yet, absent the long-pending restructuring of the armed forces, we can never say that the big trade-offs were adequately weighed.

Fourteen years after Kargil, the country certainly cannot afford such ad hoc functioning. [Business Standard]

Coincidentally, another op-ed in another newspaper by one of India’s foremost thinkers on strategic affairs takes up this argument in greater detail. Admiral Raja Menon packs quite a punch in the pages of The Hindu when he argues that instead of a mountain strike corps, a “a flotilla of nuclear submarines and a three carrier air group” makes more sense:

Most of all, we appear not to have assessed the Chinese weakness and strengths. Their strength is the huge logistic network that they have built up in Tibet. By creating a one axis strike corps, we have played into their strengths. The Chinese weakness lies in the Indian Ocean, a fact that even Beijing will readily concede. The clash between their political system and economic prosperity requires resources and, increasingly, the Chinese resource pool is Africa, which generates massive sea lines of communication (SLOC) through the Indian Ocean. Today, they are merely SLOCs; tomorrow they will be the Chinese Jugular. Beijing’s paranoia about the Indian Ocean is therefore understandable but the threat according to its strategic commentators comes only from the U.S. Sixty thousand crore spent on strengthening the Indian Navy’s SLOC interdiction capability would have given us a stranglehold on the Chinese routes through the Indian Ocean. The Himalayan border, the entire border, could have been held hostage by our strength in the Indian Ocean with an investment of Rs.60,000 crore. [The Hindu]

While I am not a fan of aircraft carriers, I am of the same opinion as Admiral Menon on the need to invest in naval and expeditionary assets. The absence of a higher defence structure that can look at strategy in a comprehensive manner—including the nuclear dimension—is causing India to engage in linearism, incrementalism and ad hocism.

Is China being bullied by the Philippines?

The disproportionate negotiating power of strategic proxies

Today’s Asian Balance column in Business Standard.

The small-country bullies
China’s aggressive posturing over maritime boundaries has caused East Asian countries to look at other powers for support

It’s those Chinese fishing vessels again. Last month they ventured into a shoal in the South China Sea, presumably hunting for giant clams, when they were apprehended by the Philippines’ naval patrols. If the Philippines claims the Scarborough shoal – a few hectares worth of low-lying rocks 200 kilometres from its shores – China claims the entire South China Sea as its own. In what has become a familiar pattern over the last few years, the Chinese fishing vessels triggered off a confrontation that quickly escalated into a maritime and diplomatic stand-off. Chinese tourists left the Philippines, and Filipino bananas face an uncertain prospect now in clearing China’s food safety tests.

The two countries are now trying to back off at this time, but not before the “w” word surfaced in the popular discourse.
War? Over some uninhabited rocks in the middle of nowhere? Between China (GDP $7.3 trillion, defence budget $106.4 billion) and the Philippines (GDP $213 billion, defence budget $2.3 billion)? Who would want it?

Not China. While it certainly wants to keep its territorial claims alive by letting intrepid fishing vessels do to South China Sea islands what dogs do to lamp posts, it knows that an outright military conflict will be counterproductive to its longer-term interests.

Provocative fishing vessels and Beijing’s aggressive diplomatic posturing over maritime boundaries have already caused East Asian countries to look at the United States, India and other powers for support. In case China finds itself in a war with the Philippines, opposition to Beijing will consolidate, and the US will make strategic inroads into the region, making it harder for China to achieve its goal of dominating the Western Pacific.

The US too does not want a war. It has a military alliance with the Philippines, and Manila could call upon US support if it is attacked. Washington is understandably reluctant to let itself be dragged into a war against a great power by a small ally over a tiny issue. The Obama administration has signalled that territorial disputes are outside the scope of the defence pact. Even so, if it is seen as shirking from supporting its ally, the value of Washington’s strategic promissory notes in East Asia will sharply depreciate. It cannot, however, support its ally without provoking Beijing. A war would cause the US to choose between losing its reputation and getting into an unwanted confrontation with China.

Most East Asian countries do not want war either. They have spent the last decade attempting to engineer “regional security architectures” – essentially multilateral forums that discuss security issues – that hope to solve tricky geopolitical disputes without being bullied and without having to fight. Yet for all its achievements, the Association of South East Asian Nations (Asean) has little to show in terms of ability to manage armed conflict, even between its member states. Thailand, for instance, has stonewalled the deployment of Indonesian military observers over its border dispute with Cambodia over the Preah Vihear temple.

Nor has Asean been very vocal in insisting that China comply with the code of conduct in the South China Sea they agreed to in 2002. Its member states are unlikely to want their solidarity to be put to the kind of test that a China-Philippines naval conflict would entail.

What about the Philippines itself? For Manila, maritime boundaries in the South China Sea assume an economic significance that goes beyond nationalistic sentiment over territory. The seabed is supposed to have rich reserves of oil and natural gas, although estimates vary. The technology to exploit natural gas fields in the South China Sea is maturing. China National Offshore Oil Corporation already has semi-submersible deep sea drilling platforms. Manila has its eyes on healthy revenue streams from energy exports which can make a substantial difference to its fiscal position and overall economic health.

This, coupled with the security guarantee the Philippines enjoys by virtue of its alliance with the US, has caused it to stand firm and confront China. So much so that Dai Bingguo, one of Beijing’s top foreign policy hands, accused the Philippines, “a smaller country”, of bullying China. He has a point. As China’s leaders ought to know all too well, small countries that are backed by great powers have disproportionate negotiating power, and they “bully” both their adversaries and their backers. The Philippines might calculate that it has relatively less to lose by letting tensions escalate.

That’s the main risk — when pesky fishing boats, Chinese law enforcement vessels and Philippines naval ships are facing off each other, an accidental trigger can cause an unintentional escalation. Given the turbulence in China’s civil-military relations ahead of this autumn’s leadership transition, and the numerous Chinese state agencies engaged in the South China Sea, the risk of escalation is higher on its side. The onus, therefore, is on Beijing to keep a lid on the tensions.

Unrelated to the stand-off, a contingent of four warships from the Indian Navy’s Eastern Command is on a routine long-range overseas deployment to the South China Sea, and ports in China and the Philippines are among those it will call on. It does come at an interesting time, given its mission of what the Navy terms “generating goodwill among the neighbouring countries”.

Copyright © 2012. Business Standard. All Rights Reserved.

The Asian Balance: Assessing India’s East Asian engagement

Geoeconomics is the key to the seas East of Singapore

This was published in yesterday’s Business Standard.

The Asian Balance turns one today. It had promised to “devote itself to chronicling and interpreting the unfolding geopolitics of East Asia. It will be an unabashed advocate of Looking East far beyond the Straits of Malacca”. If anniversaries are a good time for some reflection, recent events make it even more necessary.

I had argued that three factors would shape the Asian balance. First, nuclear deterrence would shift the India-China context away from direct military conflict along the disputed land borders to theatres in and around the Indian Ocean. Second, the small- and medium-sized countries of East Asia would look towards India to help them counter the pressures arising from China’s geopolitical assertiveness. Third, the whole effort to create “one workable grouping (such as the East Asia Summit) is premised on the unfounded hope that a powerful China will play by the rules it promises to”.

It is not uncommon to hear Indian commentators lament how China is expanding its presence in countries traditionally considered close to India, how it has hardened its posture on the border dispute, and how it continues to prop up the Pakistani military-jihadi complex. New Delhi could do little about much of this because, by and large, it lacks direct levers. The structural geopolitics of the subcontinent leads to our neighbours welcoming an outside power to balance India.

Seen from the confines of a subcontinental mindset, New Delhi appears to have few options between resigned hand-wringing and reckless aggressiveness, both accompanied by rhetorical frenzy. But if you realise that the game board of the raja-mandala is global, New Delhi doesn’t look that helpless any more. Continue reading The Asian Balance: Assessing India’s East Asian engagement

The Indira Doctrine is dead

Make way for the Global Raja-Mandala Doctrine

Led by the redoubtable Aziz Haniffa some observers are getting more than a little flustered at a senior US official’s remarks about the United States letting China play a bigger role in and around the Indian subcontinent. Speaking at a seminar at the Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars, James Steinberg, deputy secretary of state in the Obama administration said “”China has an important role. It’s a neighbor of South Asia. And it’s unimaginable that China would not be involved.”

Well, he’s right. He appears to refer to Afghanistan and Pakistan, but even if he were to mean the subcontinent and its neighbourhood, he would not be wrong. Whether you like it or not, China is and will, in the coming years, become a even more influential player in India’s immediate neighbourhood. This will undoubtedly mean that India’s neighbours will attempts to play one against the other, and because India is the status quo power, this will work to India’s relative disadvantage vis-a-vis China.

The Indira Doctrine—which saw the subcontinent as India’s exclusive sphere of influence—died somewhere over the last twenty years. Whatever might be the reasons for its lapse, the objective reality today is that India is a pre-eminent power, but not the sole hegemon, in its immediate neighbourhood. Getting excited over Mr Steinberg’s realist appreciation of the situation is therefore unwarranted.

Should Indian foreign policy attempt to resuscitate the Indira Doctrine? Doing so would be limiting the vision to India’s capabilities and interests to what obtained during Indira Gandhi’s days, would be very challenging, of dubious strategic wisdom and perhaps even unnecessary. Why? Because India is playing in a much bigger playground today. New Delhi needs a Global Raja-Mandala Doctrine. If China seeks to gain influence in India’s neighbourhood, India should do the same in China’s neighbourhood and elsewhere. [See East of Singapore and The Asian Balance]

What is interesting about Mr Steinberg’s remarks is that the United States is prepared to engage India on this. “Just as we talk about South Asia with China,” he said, “we talk about East Asia with India…” In fact what is even more interesting is this “We see India as (an) East Asian country. We engage with them on issues like North Korea and the like because we think of the importance that India plays.” This is almost exactly The Acorn’s argument.

Because of geography if not anything else, India’s influence in its immediate neighbourhood will grow in parallel with its own development. It is important, however, to understand the opportunities in the geopolitical environment that allow India to implement the Global Raja-Mandala Doctrine. At this moment, it is in the United States’ interest to support India in the East Asian balance of power. New Delhi must swing towards this opportunity.

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]

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.

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.

Blame it on Lax Indica

Where India yields, China will step in.

Quite often, the alarm and indignation comes from a sense of entitlement. Surely, the argument goes, India’s size and geographical location entitles it to a pre-eminent maritime status in the Indian Ocean, so how dare China intrude and construct a “string of pearls” around India?

To be sure, the emergence of China as a regional maritime power is the big story of our times. Over the past two decades, China has methodically developed basing arrangements (the ‘string of pearls’), invested in a submarine fleet designed to counter the US Navy’s aircraft carrier groups and, is now working on a surface fleet (including six aircraft carriers) whose purpose is to project power. This worries Indian strategists, because some of China’s accretion of power will come at India’s expense. While China certainly seeks to contain the expansion of Indian power, the object of its grand strategy is to counter the United States. And it is getting there: not by matching renminbi-for-dollar and getting into an arms race, but largely by developing capabilities that exploit United States’ weak points.

So at a time when China seeks to play in the same league as the superpower of the day, it is to be expected that it will try to extract advantageous positions in the Indian Ocean region at India’s expense. The big scandal is not that China is securing bases in India’s neighbourhood by shoring up nasty regimes and abetting their outrageous policies; but rather, India does not even show any sign of doing what is necessary to protect its interests.

So Home Minister P Chidambaram criticised China for fishing in troubled waters by backing the Sri Lankan government to the hilt in its war against the LTTE. So what else does Mr Chidambaram expect it to do? If the UPA government couldn’t find the resolve to shape a bold Sri Lanka policy that would promote India’s interests, why should he hold it against China for doing so? Similarly, if the UPA government found itself immobilised over its Nepal policy, why should China be blamed for promoting what it sees as its own interests? (See Lax Indica). Surely, the likes of Pranab Mukherjee and A K Anthony didn’t think that China should be held to the statements they made about there being enough space in Asia for two powers to rise simultaneously? (Even as Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Mr Chidambaram did gruesome damage to the pace at which India could rise in the first place).

Let’s face it: unless the next government—regardless of whether it is the UPA, NDA or a Ghastly Numbered Front that comes to power—firmly resolves to ensure that India’s strategic frontiers are not rolled inwards, strategic containment is assured. Those who take recourse to fatalism and declare that coalition politics doesn’t allow an assertive foreign policy, especially in India’s neighbourhood, better not express indignation when they spot a Chinese aircraft carrier group a few hundred nautical miles from Kochi or Mumbai. Actually, coalition politics has been offered as an excuse for gross mismanagement of neighbourhood policy—other than during the election season, coalition partners limit their foreign policy demands to largely to rhetoric. It stands to reason, therefore, that a central government that can’t stand up to pressure from its coalition partners can’t stand up to pressure from Beijing.

Don’t rule out military options

The navy shouldn’t have its hands tied in the fight against pirates

That the Indian government is ‘finalising’ a strategy against piracy in the high seas is good news, although that a special strategy is being contemplated suggests an absence of an effective, comprehensive maritime strategy. Pirates, after all, have been around for almost as long as there have been ships, and tackling them should actually be old hat.

So while we await what the government will finalise, we know that it has already ruled out some options. According to Defence Ministry A K Antony “as a policy, the government would not carry out hot pursuit of pirates, as it had wider implications.” Mr Antony’s statement ruling out one option or the other is not prudent, not timely and wholly unnecessary. Not least when negotiations are in progress to secure the release of Indian crew held hostage by Somali pirates.

What Mr Antony should have said is that “all options are on the table.” Ideally the ‘finalised strategy’ should say so too. But now pirates, terrorists and Indian naval commanders know that the Indian Navy’s hands are tied behind its back.