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Voyagers to the East
The Eastern Naval Command goes in a diplomatic drive
 
 
Two significant statements by Rear Admiral Anil Chopra, chief of staff at Headquarters, Eastern Naval Command (ENC) at Visakhapatnam sum up the thinking here. Sharing his views with FORCE, he said that, “The emphasis has shifted from Pakistan to issues in the east,” and “It is no longer India or China, but India and China.” What he did not say is that the Indian Navy has taken the US’ and other western nation’s perspective that India is a rising major power seriously. Speaking on the occasion of the President’s Fleet Review, President APJ Abdul Kalam himself said that: “Nearly 40 per cent of the world population lives in our region. The economic growth of this region depends on the heavy transportation in the Indian Ocean particularly the Malacca Strait. The navy has an increasing role to provide necessary support for carrying out these operations.”

It becomes obvious that the Indian Navy’s thinking runs something like this: Given the political and military stalemate with Pakistan, India should grow towards the east by taking advantage of its strategic location astride Indian Ocean, and the fact that India shares maritime boundaries with five countries in the eastern theatre, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Thailand and Myanmar. Therefore, while the navy’s war-fighting and constabulary roles cannot be undermined, its diplomatic role assumes enormous importance during peacetime if India is to expand its area of influence commensurate with its rising stature. To do this, as a beginning, the Indian Navy must develop friendly relations with its maritime neighbours, countries straddling the prominent chokepoint — Malacca Strait, and with extra-regional and big navies that operate in the Indian Ocean. The only problem with such an activity is how China would react to India’s growing naval diplomacy. This assumes importance as China itself is concentrating on its naval power to reach out to littoral nations in Asia, and is wary of India’s growing naval clout. It is for this reason that following the government’s directive the navy is not only downplaying rivalry with China, but is talking of naval cooperation with China. But no one is really getting fooled. India’s ‘Look East’ policy is seeking greater involvement of the Indian Navy to maintain the time-tested balance-of-power dynamics with China in the region.

Therefore, in consonance with the Indian Maritime Doctrine released in June 2005, that states that naval diplomacy is one of the primary tasks of the Indian navy during peacetime, responsibility have been cut out clearly. A new directorate for foreign cooperation has been set up at the Naval Headquarters to synchronise policy for naval diplomacy with the ministry of external affairs, and the ENC is the operational headquarters responsible for implementing the policy. This has generated euphoria at the ENC, which, at present, is exercising at various levels with neighbouring navies in the east, countries around the Malacca Strait, and Russia which under President Putin has asserted an Asian identity (see interview with Flag Officer Commanding Eastern Fleet, Rear Admiral Sanjeev Bhasin). The navy’s western fleet at Mumbai has been tasked to exercise with extra-regional navies like the US and French. Therefore, it is little coincidence that the recent President’s Fleet Review held in Visakhapatnam had three definitive messages to deliver: a show of presence, reach and interoperability by the mix of frontline warships culled from the western and eastern fleets, an operational demonstration including missile and torpedo firings and Indian Marine Special Forces to show the navy’s growing prowess, and to underpin the importance of the ENC for peacetime activities. It is, therefore, essential to have a close look at the ENC.
 
 
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