New Frontiers on the East

M.L. Sondhi & Ashok Kapur

The Telegraph, March 19, 2002

The year 2001 was a year of great turbulence.  September 11 marked the emergence of a powerful nexus of al Qaida and two powerful state agencies – the Pakistan army and the Inter-Services Intelligence.  By attacking the bastions of modern capitalism and military organization, this nexus not only challenged the United States of America, but it also revealed how the centre of gravity of Islamic politics had shifted to Afghanistan-Pakistan-Saudi Arabia.  Though the Taliban is on the run, al Qaida is still at play, as frequent terrorist alerts in the US indicate.

The response of the Bush administration to September 11 was to consolidate its military presence in central Asia, Afghanistan, Pakistan and the Arabian Sea.  The US was quickly able to integrate these hitherto separate regions into a single integrated military front in which military power and political authority flowed easily 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 terrorist organization with international links.  Just as the US forces did not leave the Gulf region after Operation Desert Storm, it is unlikely they will leave the central Asia-Afghanistan-Pakistan-Arabian Sea region.

Moreover, by cutting off the possibility of building a submarine base at Gwadar as the Chinese had planned, the US military presence in the Arabian Sea has ensured that Pakistan is no longer a meaningful strategic gateway for China into the Muslim world.  The alliance Beijing had assiduously promoted with its missile and arms supply and diplomatic support to Pakistan and Muslim countries like Iran and Syria, is coming apart.  China has been contained in a strategically sensitive area even as the Bush administration offered Beijing the blandishments of admission into the World Trade Organization and the prestige of hosting the 2008 Olympic Games.

The Bush administration’s military plan is to strengthen its military presence in the Asia-Pacific region, through its proposed missile defence programme as also by cultivating Vladimir Putin.  At the same time, the US administration is also trying to develop new military ties with India, hitherto a non-traditional strategic partner.  They recognize that India sits astride the lines of sea communication in the Indian Ocean, besides holding its own against China and exerting pressure on Pakistan.  Though the Bush administration and CNN lionize Pervez Musharraf, the Pakistan president is now vulnerable to American ultimatums.  September 11 led to an ultimatum to side with the Americans, or else.  December 13 led to another ultimatum, the result of which was Musharraf’s January 12, 2002, speech.

From the interrogations of al Qaida prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, it appears that the US now has enough evidence of the role of the ISI and Pakistan military in al Qaida’s operations.  Hence Musharraf was obliged to move against jihadis inside and outside his government.  In other words, Musharraf may have rented Pakistani airspace in exchange for American dollars but he has lost his diplomatic and strategic space because of US and Indian demands to curb the source and methods of militancy.  In effect, Musharraf’s space in Afghanistan and international affairs has shrunk, while the US’s has grown considerably.  India, Japan and several Asian countries have also found opportunities to increase their influence in Asian affairs.  September 11 has been good for middle-tier Asian powers in the post-Cold War international system.  Australia and South Korea sent their forces to fight terrorism in Afghanistan.

Under the guise of sending weapons and supplies in support of the US’s anti-terrorist campaign, Japan breached an important line in its external policy and internal politics.  November 9, 2001, is an important day in Japan, because it was on that day that it dispatched two destroyers and a supply ship to the Indian Ocean.  During World War II, 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 World War II.  Now the Japanese military forces can “legitimately” go overseas.  The Philippines government has also declared that the Abu Saffaf group has ties with al Qaida and American troops are in the country to assist them.  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 US-Russia cooperation and the US’s ascendancy in the region.  The Shanghai Six is now a dream.  China’s manoeuvrability has been limited to the Korean peninsula, southeast Asia, the Taiwan Straits, South China Sea and possibly, the Bay of Bengal.

But China still dreams of an Indo-Pak parity in US policy and hopes that the US state department will help Pakistan in its confrontation against India.  But the recent high level US-India military exchanges suggest a new level of strategic understanding and convergence of interests between the two democracies. China continues to hope the US will promote its interest and keep India in check, but the idea no longer seems to appeal to the American political establishment.  China’s hopes are under attack from two sides.  One, Pakistan is a weak state.  Two, India has been able to build up its missile capability against China and now seeks to build its naval capacity as well as a sea-based nuclear triad.  The Indian political establishment no longer sees China as a factor for peace and stability in the region.  China is for China only.

India needs to strengthen the naval basis of its nuclear triad as well as extend its naval power to the South China Sea.  Command of the sea does not mean that the Indian navy is to be the dominant power in the Indian Ocean.  It means that it should possess significant capability to deny such dominance to a potentially hostile power like China.

India’s military shopping list to Russia and the US should reveal the seriousness of its nuclear and naval intent.  India needs the Victor 3 class nuclear powered submarines from Russia, as also Backfire bombers and perhaps the Admiral Gorshkov aircraft carrier.  The US might also possibly approve P-3 Orien maritime aircraft for India along with the Harpoon anti-ship missiles and other sophisticated military systems.

In advancing its maritime strategy India should be aware of Japan’s rapidly changing interests in the Indian Ocean region.  Japan, India, the US and Australia have a converging interest to keep clear the lines of military and commercial communications along strategic sea routes in the Indian Ocean, which extend from the sea of Japan to west Asia.

India’s maritime strategy should be tuned to convey a number of messages.  One, that the object of naval expansion is China, not Pakistan.  Two, diplomacy is not enough.  India needs coercive diplomacy which includes naval and nuclear arms and missiles.  Two, diplomacy is not enough India needs coercive diplomacy which includes naval and nuclear arms and missiles.  Three, India needs a naval base for its nuclear triad, which is necessary to acquire a credible second strike nuclear weapons capability.  This is especially important since China is relentlessly pursuing military modernization under the guise of peace and development.  Its desire to gain access to the Indian Ocean via Myanmar is a threat to vital Indian economic and strategic interests in the region. 

Finally, just as China is guided by its national security interests and says so openly, so should India.  The aim of Indian foreign policy should not be to maintain “good and friendly relations” but to seek the best possible relations which are consistent with the country’s national interest.

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