Former head of the Indian Navy looks at the world of international politics and national interests here
It is against these touchstones of international relations that we need to gauge the contretemps we are witnessing about the ongoing multilateral naval exercises in the Bay of Bengal.
A little reflection showed that given India’s position astride the shipping lanes of the Indian Ocean, which has 100,000 ships transiting through annually, it made sense for those who depended on these arteries of commerce to know and befriend the sole regional blue water navy. The US is finding to its discomfort that while it can try to set agendas world-wide, it is spread too thin to effectively implement them everywhere. So it is no doubt in quest of “partners”.
Have we shown inadequate concern about China’s sensitivities? We have held naval exercises with the PLA (navy) on many occasions, but at their insistence these have remained confined only to basic manoeuvres. Moreover, the Chinese continuously look over their shoulders to ensure that they balance the IN with the Pakistan Navy. Talk of China feeling “encircled” is nothing but dialectic disinformation; we have no presence whatsoever in the Pacific. At the same time, India is in the middle of the Indian Ocean, and that is where China has implemented its “string of pearls” strategy by creating right around us what are best described as “weapon-client states”: Bangladesh, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Saudi Arabia, Iran and Pakistan. In this context, Gwadar, situated at the mouth of the Persian Gulf, is probably the first in a chain of ports that China is developing in our neighbourhood, and which could provide future facilities to its ships and missile-carrying nuclear submarines.
Why do we need to cooperate with navies of other democracies? The Indian Ocean’s vast reaches are full of security hazards, and we face the full gamut of low intensity threats from piracy and hijacking to trafficking in arms and human beings, and smuggling of WMDs. We need to remind ourselves that in June 1999, alert Indian customs officers in Kandla port had discovered a North Korean ship carrying a clandestine cargo of missile components from Pyongyang to Karachi. No navy can undertake all these tasks single-handed, and it appears sensible to make common cause with other like-minded nations. The tsunami disaster relief and Lebanon refugee evacuation operations clearly showed us the huge benefits of being able to talk, work alongside and operate seamlessly with other navies; or have the ability to be “interoperable”.
Burgeoning Sino-Indian trade is a welcome development for the future of bilateral relations, but we must not allow this aspect alone to lull us into complacency. To all those who get dreamy-eyed about the future of Sino-Indian relations, I would pose just one question. Where in the annals of international relations can one find a precedent for one nation handing over to another not just the designs and expertise, but also actual hardware relating to nuclear weapons and a family of ballistic missiles? And here I hark back to the post-war McMahon Act which was used by the Americans to deny atomic secrets to their Anglo-Saxon cousins, the British.
The Chinese are not even distant cousins of the Pakistanis; so there must be a compelling reason for this nexus which has forced India to divert scarce resources, and substantially checkmated her developmental plans. Till we unravel this conundrum, and as long as Indians resident in Arunachal Pradesh are termed “Chinese citizens”, it would be prudent to remember Palmerston’s words and hedge our bets.
Palmerston's words, as note earlier in the piece were:
“nations have no permanent friends or allies, but only permanent interests”
Interests such as sea lines of communication.
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