Fear, it seems, is the reigning global emotion and is reflected in innumerable speeches at the seventy-sixth United Nations General Assembly session. The dangers posed to humanity by climate change, extremism, and human and women’s rights violations were seated in the front row of the hall of fear. Cooperation was a popular antidote. The problem is that global geopolitics is currently afflicted by a surge in confrontations, especially between the United States and China — the big powers.
Power balancing is the name of the game and both are in search of partners. Middle powers in Eurasia and the Indo-Pacific cannot possibly escape the shadows cast by the global and regional struggle for domination. India’s geographic endowments make it a prisoner of forces at play in both geographies. The Eurasian geopolitical struggle is for India, a primarily continental one, while the Indo-Pacific struggle is maritime. Striking a balance between the two is one of the central challenges of India’s national security strategy.
India’s balancing act must be cognisant of its core fundamental interest — socio-economic progress. Economic progress with equitable growth is the sine qua non. Trade routes across India’s continental borders seem to hold very little promise of utilisation. In the West, Pakistan, and now Afghanistan, is expected to continue blocking access to Central and West Asia. To the North, China cannot be trusted to provide access that is trouble-free. To the East, the military coup and China’s activities in Myanmar act as a drag that delays Myanmar’s realisation of becoming a land bridge between South Asia and Southeast Asia.
India and South Asian relations
The best avenue for economic progress for India is mostly the maritime realm and the ability to use it for trade, while internal governance policies provide the ballast for equitable growth. In the continental space of South Asia, India must focus on improving political, socio-cultural and economic ties with Nepal, Bhutan, Myanmar and Bangladesh. Improving transportation with these countries must be prioritised and efforts that are already underway must be accelerated.
India’s long-term vision must encompass the establishment of stable relations with China and Pakistan, however distant the prospect might look in contemporary geopolitics. Admittedly, India’s relations with both will be shackled by the larger China-US struggle. But New Delhi’s policy of strategic autonomy must be protected from being pulled in by one or the other in order to serve their purposes and at the cost of our interests. Preserving the interests of our maritime domain must guide our strategic approach. In terms of continental space, for the next decade or so, India’s land border with China and Pakistan must be viewed more as an issue of territorial integrity and not as an avenue that can be opened for trade. This framework will remain a key challenge to India’s foreign policy.
The national security strategy must be based on the policy of strategic defence in the continental space that is coupled with strategic offence in maritime space. Politically and militarily, cooperation in continental space can be expected to be limited to defence modernisation, intelligence sharing and diplomatic support. Cooperation in the maritime space may be expected in the Western Pacific, East Asia and South China seas but may be limited in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) due to differing priorities of interests of the powers concerned – US, Japan, Australia and the nations of Southeast Asia. India’s maritime capability development must therefore be tailored within such reality.
The China challenge
From an Indian perspective, China, which is its major trading partner and also the primary and potential adversary, has its major sensitivities on their eastern seaboard. Taiwan and the South China sea are its major areas of concern and its strategic anxieties derive from attempts to reduce the potential of the US and its allies, throttling its trade. The frantic expansion of its maritime capabilities, coupled with building transportation corridors across the continental space of Eurasia, has been a strategic choice and is in progress through the Belt and Road Initiative. However, it cannot escape from its dependency on the maritime domain as the shipborne container revolution cannot be replaced by transportation by road, rail or even by pipelines, due to vulnerabilities across the Tibet, Xinjiang and Central Asian regions. Geography is not on China’s side.
In the IOR, China can overcome, to some extent, the limitations posed by distance, if it develops suitable and operable bases. But its power projection roles will be limited by the number of its aircraft carriers. The creation of military bases in Djibouti and Gwadar, Pakistan are in advanced stages and are accompanied by several dual-use ports that can provide administrative support but not military logistics in terms of ammunition, ship repair, etc.
China’s impressive sub-surface naval capability based on submarines is understandably its answer to protecting its trade routes in the IOR. China presently has six nuclear-powered SSNs and forty-seven modern conventional submarines. By 2030, it plans to expand the SSNs to fourteen while conventional submarines remain the same.
The Indian Ocean Region strategy
If India aspires to build a capability for a strategic offensive in the IOR, it must enhance its submarine building capability. Preferably, it must have an affordable mix of nuclear-powered and Air Independent Propulsion (AIP) platforms. However, India’s submarine building capability has been marred by a host of unresolved issues. An opportunity may have opened up for India with Australia ditching its submarine building commitment with France.
France is already building six Kalvari-class submarines at Mazagon Dock, Mumbai, a project that has been delayed due to inefficiencies on the Indian side. India should explore the possibility of leveraging France’s loss of order to Australia and expediting its tardy progress in the next generation of submarine-building. It is a strategic opportunity that India must not miss out on and calls for political intervention to break the inertia of our submarine acquisition and production process.
Driven by technology, naval power is finding greater depth underwater. India’s balance of naval capability must shift towards greater sub-surface capability without sacrificing the surface elements for constabulary and power-projection roles. It can only be done if the Indian military priorities in the continental space are properly aligned to political objectives. It must accord importance to India’s national interests – greater maritime trade and the safety of its routes.
Fear born from political hostility and mutual distrust is leading countries to seek greater safety through enhancement of operational effectiveness in the sub-surface waters of the Indo-Pacific. Embracing the offensive capability of submarines has emerged as the preferred doctrine in this contest. The Indian Navy had identified its need several decades ago, but the acquisition remained stymied. India can no longer wait. Australia may have unknowingly opened the French door for us. Like the Rafale, the submarine deal must be rescued from the sluggish pace of India’s civil–military bureaucracy. The Prime Minister’s Office must act and work out a government-to-government deal.
Lt Gen (retd) Dr Prakash Menon is Director, Strategic Studies Programme, Takshashila Institution; former Military Adviser, National Security Council Secretariat. He tweets @prakashmenon51. Views are personal.
(Edited by Srinjoy Dey)