An Indian Ocean Entity
“Status and symbolism” said George Tanham a RAND Corporation researcher in his monograph on Indian strategic thought, “matters greatly in Indian society…and Indian Admirals may need no justification or rationale for a powerful navy other than that India’s greatness mandates it.” Others have alleged hegemonistic intentions on the part of India. With mindsets of this nature, I considered this somewhat lengthy prologue necessary to obtain a correct perspective about our past, and to provide reassurance that Indians are neither interlopers nor parvenus in the Indian Ocean.
Our post-independence leadership, for various reasons, developed a utopian outlook, which led to a moralpolitik rather than realpolitik orientation in our policies.
We, therefore, need to examine whether in trying to become a pre-eminent IOR entity India seeks merely ‘status and symbolism’ and hegemony; or is it actually seeking to fulfill a manifest destiny and a tangible need. The British, because they had arrived in India by sea, realised the gravity of the potential maritime threat, especially from their European rivals. Accordingly they adopted a maritime strategy for India, which was a sub-set of their global game plan to gain and maintain control of all major oceanic choke points worldwide, especially those leading to the IOR.
Our post-independence leadership, for various reasons, developed a utopian outlook, which led to a moralpolitik rather than realpolitik orientation in our policies and a focus on lofty concepts like ‘non-alignment’, ‘universal disarmament’ and ‘zones of peace’ which were rich in rhetoric but did nothing to further our national interests, gave us a moralising image and endeared us to no one.
The British have not forgotten that their economic rise and fall had been closely linked with their navy’s rise and fall. Shorn of all imperial or colonial trappings, their Defence Doctrine still speaks of maintaining the capabilities required “for independent action to meet inescapable national obligations and safeguard British interests worldwide”. Many times the size of this tiny island nation, we need to make a serious assessment of India’s own national interests and compulsions in the context of the IOR.
Due to a lack of vision, diffidence, and preoccupation with internal matters we have over the past 60 years embraced insularity and neglected our maritime security. Even if some kind of a ‘Monroe Doctrine’ was cultural anathema for us, we should at least have declared to others our strategic frontiers, and defined for ourselves a strategy to safeguard our interests within their bounds.
A Maritime Destiny?
India’s overarching interests are clearly defined by the need to guarantee a stable and tranquil external environment for two reasons. Firstly, our own people expect that favourable conditions will be maintained for speedy implementation of the nation’s lagging developmental process. Secondly, we have an obligation to the international community to ensure that trade and shipping traffic flows unhindered in the IOR sea-lanes.
With ample justification, our strategic frontiers can, therefore, be considered to extend from the Persian Gulf down the east coast of Africa, across to the Malacca Strait and south to the Southern Indian Ocean. In this context, as a peace loving status quo power and a law-abiding nation state with an impeccable record of observing international conventions, we must disregard those who are inclined to cry wolf about ‘hegemony’.
the Bay of Bengal provided a highway for a succession of kingdoms in the southern and eastern Indian peninsula to embark on cultural, colonisation and proselytisation missions to lands beyond the Malacca Straits ““ as Far East as Japan.
Admiral Mahan the renowned American strategist, had specified six conditions, as having a vital bearing on the sea power of a nation: (i) geographical position; (ii) physical conformation; (iii) extent of territory; (iv) number of population; (v) national character; and (vi) policy and nature of government institutions. Let us examine our country against the touchstone of Mahan’s conditionalities.
As far as the first three, essentially geographical conditions are concerned, no country – perhaps not even an island state – could be as favourably placed as peninsular India, for the development of maritime power. The next two conditions relate to the commercial enterprise and seagoing proclivities of the populace; and with 11 maritime states and island territories India probably has more seafaring people than the population of most European countries; but more of that later. It is the sixth and last condition, on which we will need to focus our attention rather sharply.
Having seen that the portents are appropriate and propitious for India to redeem her maritime destiny, we have to recognise that there are a number of distinct strands to the logic, which must underpin her endeavours in the maritime domain. It is necessary that we examine (the threats, and opportunities that constitute) these strands and then weave them all together into a cohesive cord.
States & Non-State Actors
For a threat assessment to be objective, it must recognise Lord Palmerston’s dictum about nations having neither permanent friends nor foes, but only permanent interests. An appraisal, divested of sentiment, will therefore show that India and China are going to be competitors for the same strategic space in Asia, and no matter how peaceful their rise or how intense their bilateral trade, a clash of interests cannot be ruled out. It is intriguing, in this context, to note that of her 15 neighbours, China has painstakingly settled land boundaries with all, but stoutly maintained her claim on Arunachal as well as occupation of Aksai Chin.
The sustained transfer of not just conventional arms but also advanced nuclear weapon technology as well as missiles, to Pakistan either directly by China or through the North Korean conduit has no precedent in international relations. In addition, China’s strategy of creating a ring of weapon client states right around India has placed us strategically on the backfoot. This situation is, however, of our own making, because over the years, China has provided sufficient indications of her plans for ‘containment’ of India, which we have disregarded.
It should come as no surprise to us if in the next few years PLA Navy ships and nuclear submarines are put regularly into harbours like Chittagong, Sittwe, Hambantota or Gwadar in our immediate neighbourhood. In pursuit of their grand design, the Chinese are planning or in the process of building container terminals in all these ports.
By herself, Pakistan may or may not have been able to do much vis-à-vis India, but as China’s surrogate she has received strategic support, and managed to achieve a great deal. And of course the Chinese puppet-masters have manipulated a willing Pakistan brilliantly to checkmate India at minimal cost to themselves.
The seven tons of explosives, which created mayhem in Mumbai in 1993, arrived on our shores by sea. Today, the Golden Crescent and the Golden Triangle on either side of India are the source of financial sustenance for terrorist organisations
Developments post 9/11 have garnered for Pakistan, moral and material support from the USA, and further buttressed the position of her military ruler. As a consequence of this implicit and explicit abetment, Pakistan continues undaunted, to be the nursery of religious fundamentalism and fountainhead of nuclear/missile proliferation.
Moving away from our immediate neighbourhood, we also need to factor into our calculus, the substantive presence of extra-regional powers in the IOR. Friendly they may be, but one should never forget that they are in these waters, not for altruistic motives but specifically to safeguard their perceived national interests; economic and strategic.
Should a conflict of interests ever arise, we must be in no doubt that coercive force will be brought to bear on us. Under such circumstances, we have to be prepared to act in our own self-interest. And we must let neither the Hyde Indo-US Nuclear Energy Act, or any similar document, nor the manifold ‘strategic partnerships’ that we seem to have crafted with other nations ever cloud our vision.
The seven tons of explosives, which created mayhem in Mumbai in 1993, arrived on our shores by sea. Today, the Golden Crescent and the Golden Triangle on either side of India are the source of financial sustenance for terrorist organisations like the al Qaeda and Jemmiah Islamiah, which use maritime routes for lucrative narcotic and arms trafficking. The LTTE, apart from its combatant Sea Tiger wing, also has a small merchant fleet, which conducts clandestine trade in Southeast Asia to replenish the organisation’s logistics. Add to this, the freewheeling piratical activity in locations like the Horn of Africa, the Bay of Bengal and the Malacca Straits, and one gets an idea of the vigil that is necessary to maintain order in the waters of the IOR.
Maritime Assets & Liabilities
The Indian Ocean sees about 100,000 ships transiting across its expanse annually. Two-thirds of the world’s oil shipments, one-third of its bulk cargo, and half the world’s container traffic pass through its waters.
The vibrant economies of China, Japan, and South Korea as well as the rest of Asia-Pacific rely on oil supplies, which emerge from the Strait of Hormuz and transit via the Malacca Strait into that region. Over 70% of our own oil comes by ship from the Persian Gulf. Any disruption in oil traffic could destabilise the price levels, resulting in a major upset for the world economy and a setback for our developmental process. As mentioned earlier, India’s fortunate geographical location astride Indian Ocean sea-lane gives her a key role in safeguarding their integrity and ensuring unhindered traffic.
India’s burgeoning economy, which ranks fourth in the world in PPP, is inextricably linked with sea borne trade. Our exports were about US$ 100 billion in 2005-06 and are slated to double over the next five years. Of our foreign trade, over 75% by value is carried by sea. India’s growing merchant fleet is the 15th largest globally and operates out of 12 major and 184 minor ports scattered along our 7500 km long coastline.
Another aspect of the ocean, which presents the prospect of wealth and prosperity, and yet contains the seeds of conflict, is undersea resources. The average depth of the Indian Ocean is less than 4 km, and that is the distance, which tantalisingly separates us from a veritable treasure-house of rare minerals, gas and hydrocarbons awaiting exploitation on the ocean bed. India has a mineral rich EEZ extending currently, over 2.2 million sq km (and likely to increase). In many instances, especially in deep basins of the Andaman Sea, technology is the only barrier that currently hinders exploitation of these resources at this moment.
In an effort to diversify resources and ensure stability in supplies, ONGC Videsh Ltd has acquired oil concessions abroad in Russia, Myanmar, Iran, North Africa, the CARs and South America. These represent investments of several hundred billion dollars in real estate, infrastructure and national resources, which may one day require us to reach out across the seas for their protection.
The frozen wastes of the Antarctic have been attracting expeditions of Indian geologists, meteorologists, oceanographers and others for over two decades now. Our scientific community has established a succession of manned scientific stations, which have yielded valuable data over the years. Their worthy endeavours have been fully supported by the navy, and should this unique continent have anything to yield in terms of mineral or organic wealth (even if 50 years hence) India’s stake would need to be protected.