At a media interaction earlier this month, Admiral D K Joshi indicated that the Indian navy was prepared to protect the nation’s interests in the South China Sea. The navy chief’s comments might well have been eked out of him by excitable journalists, but they are music to this columnist’s ears.
The principal burden of The Asian Balance column since it began over two years ago has been to persuade the reader and the government that India must look east beyond the Malacca straits, and contribute to the balance of power in East Asia. It must do this not because of grandiose ambition, but because it is the best way to manage the geopolitical consequences of China’s rise in India’s immediate neighbourhood.
China’s growing economic footprint will inevitably cause that country to engage with India’s subcontinental and maritime neighbours in ever deeper ways. For their part, our neighbours have a legitimate interest in benefiting from China’s rise. Sometimes this can work against us. For instance, the Waheed regime’s expropriation of GMR’s airport contract in the Maldives might have a lot to do with that country’s domestic politics. It cannot be denied, however, that the China factor emboldened it enough to consider such a move, and perhaps will also permit it to get away with the act.
No amount of handwringing can halt this process. The notion that the small countries constitute a “backyard” into which foreign powers must be prevented from “intruding” is outdated, if it ever made sense at all.
What India must do is gear up its own economic engine that has stalled over the last few years. At the same time, New Delhi must manage the bigger game in the Indo-Pacific in a manner that creates favourable conditions along our land and oceanic periphery. India must demonstrate that it is a credible geopolitical player in East Asia – with the capability and the readiness to play a role there – so that Beijing calibrates its own moves in the subcontinent. Diplomacy alone cannot achieve this outcome. It needs to be backed by economic and military power.
Admiral Joshi’s comments were carefully phrased. “It is not that we expect to be in those waters very frequently,” he reportedly said, “but whenever the situation required, with the country’s interests at stake — for example ONGC Videsh has three oil exploration blocks there ... we will be required to go there and we are prepared for that.” However, they came at a time when National Security Advisor (NSA) Shivshankar Menon was in Beijing parleying with his Chinese counterpart. Unsurprisingly, Mr Menon downplayed Admiral Joshi’s remarks. Since then some commentators have criticised the navy chief for being out of line with the government’s official position, while others have accused the government of demonstrating timidity.
This controversy has the paradoxical nature of being both unwarranted and desirable, for two reasons.
First, defence policy is the insurance against foreign policy failure. In other words, if our diplomacy fails, our defence shouldn’t. It makes sense, therefore, for defence preparedness to not mirror diplomacy’s expectations. It is not at all a bad idea, once in a while, for New Delhi to signal this both to its own people and to the world at large. Let’s not forget that this is perhaps the first time such a signal was sent out in public. The small and medium powers of East Asia have undoubtedly taken notice of the navy chief’s statements and will factor it into their calculations.
Second, given the complex nature of the India-China relationship, it also makes sense for India not to speak in one voice. It is a good thing that the navy chief said what he did. Similarly it is a good thing for the army chief to declare that bilateral relations were “absolutely perfect” and for the NSA to play down the South China Sea issue. A degree of ambiguity in official utterances is desirable, even at the cost of causing some confusion among our own public. In the present context, to the extent that it keeps allies and adversaries unsure about what India might do, it serves a purpose.
Ambiguity can be risky if there are question marks on civil-military relations and the chain of command. This is not the case with the Indian navy. It took a great deal of persuasion by the naval headquarters for the defence ministry to authorise operations against Somali pirates. It’ll take a great deal more on anything concerning the South China Sea. Whatever military chiefs say, it is only the Union Cabinet’s position that counts.
It would have been masterful if New Delhi could engineer the good cop-bad cop routines, the careful ambiguity and the timing that we saw in early December. It’s pretty obvious that it engineered none of these. Then again, sometimes, just sometimes, the largely disconnected nature of the way we continue to run our foreign affairs, commerce and defence establishments does produce outcomes that are not so bad. Serendipity is not strategy, but that won’t stop your columnist from celebrating.
The writer is founder and fellow for geopolitics at the Takshashila Institution, an independent public policy think tank