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M.L. Sondhi and Ashok Kapur

February 17, 2002

2001 was a year of great turbulence, September 11th showed the emergence of a powerful and a destructive nexus of a nongovernmental organization (Al Qaeda) and two powerful state agencies – the Pakistani military and intelligence services and this combination was motivated by a fundamentalist faith with roots in Saudi Arabia.  By attacking American institutions which are bastions of modern capitalism and modern military organization the nexus not only laid down a challenge to the system of states but it also revealed that the center of gravity of Islamic politics had shifted in a clear way to the Afghanistan-Pakistan-Saudi arena.  Although the Taliban is on the run, the Al Qaeda is still in play as frequent US terrorist alerts indicate.  And the ongoing insurgency in Philippines shows that Muslim extremism is still a powerful element in Asia.

The Bush administration’s response to September 11th showed America’s ability to consolidate its military presence in Central Asia, Afghanistan-Pakistan and the Arabian Sea.  America was quickly able to integrate these hitherto separate regions into a single integrated military front where military power and political authority flowed easily under American leadership from the Caucasian region through Central Asia, Afghanistan, Pakistan and the Indian Ocean.  This front will outlive the defeat of the Taliban and the reconstruction of Afghanistan because the war is against a shadowy organization (Al Qaeda) with international links and terrorism is a shadowy problem.  Here intelligence is the Queen, and military power in the King:  the chess game is continuous one without a single front but with opportunities for different moves.  Just as American forces did not leave the Gulf region after Desert Storm, it is unlikely they will leave the Central Asian-Afghanistan-Pakistan-Arabian Sea region.  Moreover, by cutting off the possibility that Gwador could become a PRC submarine base as was planned by the Chinese, America’s military presence in the Arabian Sea ensures that Pakistan is no longer a meaningful strategic gateway for China in the Muslim world via Pakistan.  Surely Pakistan and China understand this as a side effect of the American campaign against Afghanistan-Pakistan based Taliban terrorism.  This has been an important American surprise attack against Chinese interests in the Pakistan-Afghanistan-Arabian Sea area:  China has been contained strategically in a strategically sensitive area even as the Bush administration offered Beijing the blandishments of WTO admission and the prestige of the 2008 Olympic Games.  In other words, the alliance between Confucius and Islam which Beijing assiduously promoted by its policy of missile and arms supply and diplomatic support to Pakistan and key Muslim countries like Iran and Syria is coming apart.

The Bush administration’s military plan reveals a determination to strengthen its military presence in Asia Pacific on the ground and in outer space through its proposed missile defence and by developing its options (some call them poisoned rewards) with Putin.  At the same time the Bush administration’s strategy team – Donald Rumsfeld, Condoleeza Rice, Dick Cheney, Richard Armitage.  Colin Powell and senior analysts like Andrew Marshall -- demonstrate imagination by building new military ties with India, hitherto a non-traditional strategic partner.  They do so recognizing that India sits astride the lines of sea communications in the Indian Ocean in addition to the influence it has in holding its own against the Chinese in the Himalayas, and in exerting pressure at will against Pakistan.  Although Musharraf is lionized by the Bush administration and CNN, Musharraf is now an American client because of his repeated vulnerability to American ultimatums.  September 11 led to an ultimatum to take the American side or else; December 13 led to another ultimatum which produced Musharraf’s January 12th speech.  The interrogations of Al Qaeda prisoners is an intensive experience at Guantanomo Bay and it appears that the Bush administration now has enough evidence from the ‘unlawful detainees’ about the role of the ISI and the Pakistan military in Al Qaeda’s operations, and consequently Musharraf is under an obligation to move against the Jihadis inside and outside his government.  In other words, Musharraf rented Pakistani airspace in exchange for American dollars (a replacable commodity) but he has lost his diplomatic and strategic space because of American and Indian demands to curb the sources and methods of militancy.  In sum, Musharraf’s space in Pakistan, Afghanistan and international affairs has shrunk, whereas America’s has grown considerably, and India as well as Japan and several Asian countries have found opportunities to increase their space in Asian affairs.  September 11th has been good for middle-tiered Asian powers in the post Cold War international system.  Australia and South Korea sent their forces to fight terrorism in Afghanistan.  The Japanese Diet passed the Anti-Terrorism Special Measures Act, SDF Amendment Act and Maritime Security Agency Amendment Act, and in the guise of sending weapons and supplies in support of American anti-terrorist campaign Japan breached an important line in its external policy and internal politics: now Japanese military forces can ‘legitimately’ go overseas.  November 9, 2001 is a day of major change in Japan’s policy because it dispatched two destroyers and one supply ship to the Indian Ocean.  During the Second World War Japan’s army could extend only as far as Myanmar and for decades after its defeat Japan’s diplomacy seemed to stall at the boundary reached by its army in the second world war.  Now the Japanese navy is in the Indian Ocean.  The Philippines government has also declared that the Abu Saffaf group has Al Qaeda ties and American troops have landed in the Philippines to assist them.  In other words, September 11th has produced a system change in the policies of several Asian powers.

What are the implications of these changes for China and India?

The expansion of China’s strategic and commercial influence in Central Asia has been halted by the resurgence of American-Russian cooperation and America’s ascendancy in the region.  The Shanghai Six is now a vague idea.  So China’s maneouverability is limited to the Korean peninsula, South East Asia, the Taiwan Straits, South China seas and possibly the Bay of Bengal if it manages to build a gateway from Yunnan into Myanmar and the Bay.  China still  hopes for a ‘balanced’ US policy towards India and Pakistan and its dream of Indo-Pakistan parity lingers in the hope that Colin Powell and the State Department will help Pakistan in its confrontation with India.  However, recent high level US-India military exchanges suggest a new level of strategic understanding and convergent interests between the two democracies.  China still hopes that America will promote China’s interest and keep India in check.  It is clear however, that India is restrained with Pakistan because it is the mature way to manage Pakistan and not because China wants this and not because China can intervene militarily against India.  China’s plan to have an Indo-Pakistan balance is an unrealistic dream which no longer appeals to the American political establishment.  The dream is under attack from two sides.  First, Pakistan is a weak state, and second, India is able to build up its missile capability against China (while maintaining its internal integrity despite terrorism, and economic stability despite Chinese dumping through Nepal) and it now seeks to build up its naval capacity as well as a sea-based nuclear triad.  This is so because the Indian political establishment no longer sees China as a factor for peace and stability in the region.  China is for China only.

There are many unstable factors in the Asia Pacific region:  terrorism, Pakistan’s instability and oscillation between pro-Jihad and anti-terrorism stances, China’s ceaseless military development including missiles, its belief that it alone is the natural leader of Asia.  China’s reluctance to accept Japan and India as co-equals in Asian and international affairs (which would undermine China’s privileged position at the Security Council), the problems of drug and illicit arms trade and smuggling, political instability in places like Indonesia, piracy in the South China seas and the Indonesian archipelago and the Bay of Bengal.  India needs to strengthen significantly the naval basis of its nuclear triad as well as its naval power projection capability towards the South China seas if its Look East policy is to have an infrastructure.  Sea power is a powerful medium to project power and influence, to shape of reshape images others have of India and it helps guard the coastline as well as the economic zone. (Doordarshan too needs to develop a naval orientation in its reporting).  Command of the sea does not mean that the Indian navy is to be the dominant power in the Indian Ocean.  It means however, that it should possess significant capability to deny such a dominance to a potential hostile power like China.

India’s military shopping list with Russia and America should show its seriousness about its nuclear and naval intentions, and it must be made clear that the object of the shopping list is China and not Pakistan.  It is by developing and demonstrating a capacity to project naval power in the sealanes and the straits of SE Asia that India will be able to convince important SE states that India is there to stay in the commercial, diplomatic and military areas.  India needs Russian equipment like the Victor 3 class nuclear powered submarines which are useful for long patrols and are armed with missiles including cruise missiles with nuclear warheads, along with Russian Backfire bombers and perhaps the Admiral Gorshkov aircraft carrier.  The important time frame is 2004-2009 which is before China completes its military modernization.  Indian naval and nuclear diplomacy will have a real effect on the Chinese strategic mind which soft peace and normalization diplomacy does not.  It is possible also that the US will approve P-3 Orien maritime aircraft for India along with Harpoon anti-ship missiles and other sophisticated military systems.

In advancing its maritime strategy India should be aware of Japan’s rapidly changing interest in Indian Ocean affairs.  Here Japan, India, USA and Australia have a convergent interest to keep the lines of military and commercial communications clear in the strategic sealanes which extend from the sea of Japan to the Gulf and Israel.

India’s naval expansion should be tuned to convey a number of messages:

  1. The object of naval expansion is China not Pakistan.
  2. Diplomatic talk is not enough.  Now India needs coercive diplomacy which provides the naval and nuclear arms and missiles along with landpowered.
  3. India needs a naval base to complete its nuclear triad and it must have a triad if it is to acquire credible second strike nuclear weapons capability.
  4. China is relentlessly pursuing its military modernization under the guise of peace and development and multipolarity slogans and its pursuit of an ambition to gain access to the Indian Ocean via Myanmar is a threat to vital Indian economic strategy and political interests in the region especially the Bay of Bengal.  Safety of the Bay requires a significant naval infrastructure in the entire region.  The Bay is the naval Nepal of India.
  5. The new frontier and the center of gravity is the Indian Ocean which is the junction where Chinese, American, Russian, Indian and Japanese (along with interests of Indonesia and most SE Asian countries) converge, and they collide potentially between China and the rest in the military sphere in the coming decade.
  6. It is no longer necessary for India to worry about Chinese sensitivities.  China is guided by its national security interests and says so openly.  So should India.  The aim of Indian foreign policy is to not to seek ‘good and friendly relations’ as MEA annual reports ritually state.  The aim of foreign policy is to seek the best possible relations which are consistent with a country’s national interest.
  7. The issue of democracy divides China from the rest of Asia.  The new theme in Asia is not ‘America and the Rest’ but the reality in the area of democracy and strategic affairs is that the foreseeable future points to a theme of ‘China and the Rest in Asia Now’.
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