Bottomline | Sea, the Challenge

The second edition of Raisina Dialogue created space for the Indian perspective

Pravin SawhneyPravin Sawhney

On January 18, two days before the inauguration of US President Donald Trump, the US Pacific Commander, Admiral Harry Harris delivered an important message in Delhi. Speaking at the second Raisina Dialogue, he said that the incoming US defence team “understands the importance of the region (Asia-Pacific and the Indian Ocean). They assured me that the Carter (the outgoing defence secretary Ashton Cater) view will transcend the new administration.”

Harris emphasised the need for the US and India “to shape the New Normal and uphold the rules-based international order.” What this meant was that instead of allowing China to shape new security architecture in the region, the US would, along with its allies and partners, ensure that China abides by the agreed international rules including Freedom of Navigation (FON) across the two Oceans (western Pacific and Indian Ocean). “Shared domains will not be closed down,” he asserted. Making a strong case for working together, Harris said that the US’ objective was the same as Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s vision of SAGAR (Security And Growth for All in the Region) for the benefit of the region.

In a one-on-one interaction with me in March 2015, Harris had said that “the US considers India as the pivot in the Indian Ocean.” Explaining rebalancing or the pivot to Asia, he had asserted that, “‘Rebalancing is real. By the end of 2020, the US will have 300 ships, 60 per cent of which will be in the Pacific (55 per cent are presently in the region), while 60 per cent of the submarines are already here. We will invest in new capabilities and strengthen our alliances and partnerships.” He had, however, added, “Rebalancing serves diplomatic, economic, strategic and military interests. However, the most important component is economic not military. We will have a forward presence when it comes to humanitarian needs and for this we will have bilateral readiness programmes with various countries.”

Harris’ position, it seems, might soon alter under the Trump administration. While rejecting the Trans Pacific Partnership (the lynchpin of trade), and by signalling a trade war with China, President Trump has announced the strengthening of US military, especially navy power. This could imply a substantive shift in the US’ rebalancing strategy: from economic to military.

What does this mean for India? That pressure from the US and China on India for maritime security will increase. From the US, it will be to end political posturing and bureaucratic procrastination in implementing the 2015 Joint Vision statement for Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean region. And from China, it will be to prevent India from jumping whole-hog onto the US military bandwagon to pose a threat to Chinese interests in the Indian Ocean.

According to Harris, the US wants its navy to develop multilateral cooperation (to include Japan and perhaps Australia) for interoperability — capability to fight together for common mission — with the Indian Navy, and for the latter to assume the lead for the security of Sea Lanes of Communication (SLOC) in the Indian Ocean. To do so, the two navies should ideally have common equipment and combined training through joint patrols where the two sides can exchange maximum classified operational information.

The US’ 2016 designation of India as a Major Defence Partner and the 2012 Defence Technology and Trade Initiative (DTTI) are meant to develop equipment compatibility. While under the unique defence partnership, the US would encourage India to buy its military hardware, the DTTI is meant to co-develop equipment with India for (a) India to become a major link in the US global defence supply chain, and (b) to help India develop its own military industrial complex.

Admiral Harry Harris

Joint patrols require that India go beyond the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA) which was signed in 2016 after 12 years of excruciating negotiations. India would be required to sign two additional hold-out agreements — Communication Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA) and Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA) — for good operational (bilateral and multilateral) cooperation. Without mincing words, Harris made it clear at the Raisina Dialogue that he hoped India would set the pace in frustrating bureaucratic delays by signing the hold-out agreements.

For India, the problem is not at the bureaucratic but policy level since the Modi government has adopted a hedging posture towards the US and China. Without declaring China as its adversary, India wants to use the US card to neutralise Chinese growing footprints in the Indian Ocean. Delhi is conscious about its limited strategic options on land in Jammu and Kashmir where the China-Pakistan nexus and its own appeasement policy since 1988 towards Beijing has foreclosed its strategic options. Piggybacking on the US’ military power, India now hopes to project itself as a leading power through its Act East policy in the contentious region where the US and China rivalry for global supremacy is unfolding.

China, however, means business. This is evident from the unfolding South China Sea (SCS) dispute where, since 2014, the reality is not what is being projected by the US. For instance, the SCS dispute is not about massive untapped resources in the SCS that China would be unwilling to share with the 10 smaller ASEAN countries. It is also not about freedom of navigation through the world’s busiest sea lanes of communications that the US, with its pivot or rebalancing to Asia, proposes to safeguard against a belligerent China. For China, it is about breaking free from its strategic confinement to gain unfettered access to the Western Pacific. To be the foremost power in Asia, China must become a maritime power in the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean region, in addition to being a land power.

For this reason, while demolishing the myth of it being India’s own waters, China has expanded its footprints in the Indian Ocean region. It started with the so-called ‘string of pearls’ strategy in 2005 where China assisted small littoral states in the Indian Ocean region with infrastructure development and financial and military assistance. The unveiling of the 21st century Maritime Silk Road project, in 2013 included Myanmar, Sri Lanka, the Maldives, Seychelles, Djibouti and of course, Pakistan’s Gwadar, which would be the hub of China’s commercial-cum-military activities. While these small nations are playing India against China to draw maximum benefits from both, in time, they will be compelled to show their preference. Given the extent of assistance provided to them by India and China, it is obvious which way the pendulum would swing.

Given the above scenario where India would be required to disclose its strategic posture regarding the Indian Ocean, it should weigh its options earliest. Behaving like a leading power — which it is not, since it lacks credible naval power — would require it to protect the SLOC in the Indian Ocean with US’ support. Since the Chinese maritime One Road passed exactly along these SLOC, a clash of interest between India and China cannot be ruled with serious implications on the land disputed border between the two. Dilly-dallying on signing the hold-out agreements with the US will prevent both sides from undertaking meaningful bilateral and multilateral naval interactions let alone joint patrols. At a time when maritime threat given the interoperability between the Chinese and Pakistani navies has increased, this will not help India’s territorial integrity and Act East policy.

So, what should India do? Two things. It should direct its navy to focus on its primary task of preparing for war. This would require the navy to concentrate on maritime domain awareness, by itself, and bilaterally and multilaterally with the US and friendly navies in the region. For example, during the Raisina Dialogue, Harris disclosed that the US Navy was sharing information on Chinese submarines in the Indian Ocean with the Indian Navy. To being more transparency to this cooperation — which is vital to deter the adversaries — India should seriously consider signing the hold-out agreements with the US.

However, this will not be enough. The Indian Navy should be relieved of the huge burden of coastal defence, which should rightly be given to the coast guard. The Indian Navy C-in-C, Western Naval Command, Vice Admiral Girish Luthra, said as much during his presentation at the Dialogue. According to him: “Development of military infrastructure and dual-use infrastructure in coastal and port areas, both at home and abroad, has added to security challenges.”

The reason why Luthra was constrained to not speak more clearly (unlike Harris) was because the Indian Navy (and other defence services) is not formally a part of Indian diplomacy. For a country, which projects itself as a leading power, India does not has its defence services as a part and parcel of its diplomacy, this is a critical shortcoming. Take the case of China. Once China decided in 2008 to adopt a proactive foreign policy — a must for major or leading powers — it set-up the new ministry of national defence spokesperson. The latter was necessary to signal to the world that the People’s Liberation Army would be available to protect Chinese overseas assets and interests. India should learn from China which it views as its rival in Asia.