As the Hong Kong protests show no sign of easing, observers are wondering if crunch time is approaching. October 1, 2019, is the 70th anniversary of the founding of the Peoples Republic of China (PRC) and it is just about a month away. Beijing would like to give an image of authority and control on that occasion; the continuance of large-scale protests in Hong Kong would contradict that. The PRC is confronting the most significant challenge to its power since the ill-fated Tiananmen Square uprising, and there are no clear indications as to how it plans to handle it.
The Chinese authorities have been increasingly critical of the protestors, especially after the national insignia at the Central Liaison Office which represents the PRC government in the city was defaced in late July. Since then, the rhetoric has been scaled up to blaming the unrest on unspecified “black hands.”
In the first half of August, the Communist Party of China brass met at the resort town of Beidaihe as per its summer tradition. According to a report, they are increasingly talking about the developments there as a “colour revolution”, of the kind that shook the former Soviet Union and the Balkans in the early 2000, reportedly aided by western intelligence agencies.
On Sunday, the protests picked up momentum, compelling the Hong Kong police to use water cannons for the first time at protestors who threw bricks and firebombs. A Hong Kong police officer also fired a warning shot into the air after seeing a fellow officer fall.
China’s official news agency Xinhua shifted from comparing the Hong Kong protests with colour revolutions, to directly charging that they were, in fact, that. A commentary published late on Sunday quoted Deng Xiaoping in 1984 saying that in the event of unrest in Hong Kong, the central government should intervene. The commentary said that under the Basic Law (Hong Kong’s mini-Constitution) and the Garrison Law, “it is not only the authority of the central government but also its responsibility [to intervene]” .
Last Saturday, at a meeting of 40 advisers and political bigwigs in Shenzen, neighbouring Hong Kong, organised by the Chinese Association of Hong Kong and Macau Studies largely agreed that Beijing had the right to intervene and resolve the crisis and that using the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to do the needful would not necessarily spell the end of the city’s autonomous status. They said that the protestors were jeopardising the ‘one country, two systems’ framework, rather than defending it. Under this, Hong Kong, though a part of the PRC, has its own political, legal and financial system.
Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam speaks during a news conference in Hong Kong, China August 5, 2019. Photo: REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon
Carrie Lam’s meeting
On the same day, nineteen city influential people and politicians met at the official residence of the Hong Kong chief executive Carrie Lam to suggest a way out of the stalemate. According to the South China Morning Post more than half of them recommended that Lam meet the demand for a public inquiry into the events and completely withdraw the extradition Bill that triggered the current crisis. The report suggests that Lam was hesitant to act on both issues.
But speaking before a meeting with her advisers in the Executive Council on Tuesday morning, Lam acknowledged that the current stalemate arose from the government’s refusal to accept those demands. She said this would not happen as long as there was violence in the streets. She insisted that the Hong Kong police had used minimum force against protestors.
As the Hong Kong protests have continued and gathered intensity, the possibility of a PLA intervention has grown. Speaking at a reception in the city to celebrate the 92nd anniversary of the PLA on July 31st, Major General Chen Daoxiang, the commander of the PLA garrison in the city, said that violence by the protestors would not be tolerated. He said the garrison supported the Hong Kong government’s efforts to deal with the protestors through the law.
The garrison also released a video showing PLA soldiers practising storming a street protest and shouting commands in Cantonese, the language spoken in Hong Kong, rather than the mainland.
Military vehicles parked on the grounds of the Shenzhen Bay Sports Center in Shenzhen, China. August 15, 2019. Photo: Reuters/Thomas Peter
Chinese central government must tread carefully
The Chinese central government is likely to be very careful in committing PLA forces in the city which, as one of the major financial and business centres of the world, is a cash cow for its economy. Its stock market is the fifth largest in the world by capitalisation.
Since China’s reform and opening up, Hong Kong has played a significant role as a channel of funds and technology into the mainland, accounting for 50-60% of all FDI flows. Since 1997, the Chinese economy began to get less dependent on Hong Kong, even while the latter’s prosperity became more entangled with that of the mainland.
In 2016, China’s total FDI was $133.7 billion of which 61% came through Hong Kong. In turn, the city has also played a role in China’s outward direct investment (ODI). And in 2016, of the $196.1 billion ODI, 60% was invested in Hong Kong or went to other destinations through Hong Kong. A PLA-led crackdown would lead to a major exodus of businesses, especially MNCs, along with the talent pool of finance professionals.
Hong Kong city. Credit: abdulrahman-cc/Flickr, CC BY 2.0
Given the consequences of the use of the PLA to crush the protests, the Chinese central government may not bind itself to the October 1 deadline. On the other hand, should the situation worsen, it could work along two parallel tracks. First, have Carrie Lam invoke the Emergency Regulations Ordinance which would give the chief executive in council the power to make “any regulations whatsoever which he/she may consider desirable in the public interest.” These could be used to cover issues relating to censorship, detention of protestors and trade.
Second, follow this up with the mobilisation of pro-PRC elements in Hong Kong to mount counter-protests and even take on the protestors with the help of police. Officially the Communist Party of China does not exist in Hong Kong and its operations are through the Central Liaison Office and various front outfits like the Fujian Hometown Association, Hong Kong Residents Association of Tianjin and the newly formed Great Alliance to Protect Hong Kong that held a big rally in mid-August. There are also newspapers like Ta Kung Pao always ready to attack the protestors. These could always be supplemented by volunteers from the mainland.
Both Prime Minister Narendra Modi and US President Donald Trump stuck to an orthodox script, ensuring that their second substantive meeting of 2019 on the sidelines of the G7 Summit at Biarritz, France was not wasted.
For his part, Modi, in a polite yet firm statement at a joint appearance with Trump just before their bilateral discussion on Monday, 26 August, laid out India’s position on Kashmir, leaving no room for any mediatory excursion.
“All issues between India and Pakistan are bilateral in nature,” he said, adding tartly, that India did not want to “inconvenience any (third) country on this issue.”
Trump, meanwhile, said that he was confident that “they can do it themselves, they’ve been doing it for a long time.” Asked pointedly whether the offer to mediate was still on the table, all he had to say was “I’m here.”
He also mentioned the previous night’s conversation about Kashmir with Modi: “The prime minister feels he really has it under control; and now, when they speak with Pakistan… I’m sure they will be able to do something probably very good.”
The two leaders had last met at the end of June on the sidelines of the G20 Summit in Osaka, but this was after nearly 18 months in which there had been no direct contact.
In a tweet later, Modi said that he had had an “excellent meeting” with Trump and that the two had agreed “to address trade issues for mutual benefit soon.”
At the press meet, Trump said that the two sides had been talking about trade, about military and other issues. “We had some great discussions, we were together last night for dinner and I learned a lot about India,” he said.
Trump also seemed to try and get over another cloud that had been hanging over his relationship with Modi: A January 2018 report that claimed he had been ‘affecting an Indian accent and imitating Modi’s style of speaking.’
At the Monday press meet, after Modi said in Hindi that the two would discuss the issues and then inform the press about the same, Trump interjected, saying: “He actually speaks very good English… he just doesn’t want to talk.”
The two laughed loudly at this and clasped each other’s hands, as the room erupted with laughter.
The clear message here is that as long as the situation in Kashmir is under control, neither Trump, nor the US as such, are likely to get involved in any mediation.
As of now, barring some scattered incidents, the situation does seem to be under control, but the reality is that the state remains under a lockdown spanning 22 days.
The security forces’ presence and restrictions remain, communications are fitful, the streets are deserted and people seem unwilling to step out into the streets or send their children to school to signal that things are, indeed, normal.
Modi’s Uneasy Relationship With Trump
Modi shares an uneasy relationship with Trump. After an over-the-top meeting in the White House during his first official visit to the US, in June 2017, where the PM embraced a distinctly uneasy Trump, things went downhill. The November 2017 meeting, on the sidelines of the Asean Summit in Manila, went well for all public purposes.
A White House readout talked about the discussions on their comprehensive strategic partnership and commitment to a free and open Indo-Pacific region and the decision to enhance their ties as ‘major defence partners’. Trump even thanked India for buying 10 million barrels of American oil.
Over the years, the president seems to get worked up only on issues relating to trade, while his officials have been assiduously promoting defence and economic ties with India. Even the Kashmir issue was a bit of a diversion for him.
So, whether by accident or design, there was no meeting between the two through 2018. This was the year that also saw two issues clouding the relationship – that of sanctions relating to Iran and Russia.
While India quietly accepted sanctions against Iran and stopped all oil trade, it has insisted on continuing its weapons acquisition deals with Russia despite the threat of sanctions.
India-US Trade War
Actually, when Trump has spoken on issues relating to India, they have mostly been on trade. After he publicly called out on the issue, India reduced the tariff on Harley Davidson motorcycles from 75 to 50 percent in February 2018.
However, this did not satisfy Trump, who said the US was getting nothing by the 50 percent decision, adding “They (the Indians) think they’re doing us a favour. That’s not a favour.”
Later in October, he slammed India for its allegedly high tariffs on US products. Announcing the key elements of the new US-Mexico-Canada (USMCA) agreement and the deals that were being negotiated with others, Trump described India as the “tariff king” and said India wanted a trade deal just to keep him happy.
India has been one of the countries affected by the Trump Administration’s steel and aluminum tariffs imposed early in 2018. It held off retaliatory tariffs for a while and tried to appease the US by reducing duties on Harley Davidson motorcycles, but to little avail.
In early June 2019, the US terminated India’s designation as a beneficiary nation under the Generalised System of Preference (GSP) .
So, later that month, India put in place its retaliatory tariffs on some 30 US items. Trump was enraged and publicly demanded that India withdraw the tariffs and said he would take up the issue of India having put “very high tariffs against United States” for many years with Modi, who he was planning to meet on the sidelines of the G20 Summit in Osaka at the end of June.
A little over a week later, on 9 July, he tweeted “India has long had a field day putting tariffs on American products. No longer acceptable!” Later, in August, he said that India and China were no longer developing nations and that they had been “taking advantage” of the tag given to them by the World Trade Organisation.
So, if things remain stable in Kashmir, POTUS will remain silent on the issue. But that cannot be confidently asserted about other issues, especially the one closest to his heart, trade.
Preliminary reports – that have not been officially confirmed yet – suggest that Pakistan has been ‘blacklisted’ by the 22nd Asia-Pacific Group on Money Laundering (APG), an affiliate of the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), that concluded in Canberra on 23 August. This should send alarm bells ringing in Islamabad.
On the eve of the meeting held in Canberra, the Pakistani authorities were allowing it to be known that they would sail through, based on the mutual evaluation report (MER), related to the work they had done in ‘strengthening’ anti-money laundering (AML) exercises, and ‘countering’ financing terror (CFT).
Now, however, they are saying that the MER may not reflect the ‘real’ progress that they had made since October 2018.
The APG and FATF processes are separate, but they have an important bearing on each other.
Has Pakistan Flunked the Test?
As per the reports which have mainly played out in the Indian media without any official confirmation yet, Pakistan seems to have flunked the test royally: the APG reportedly found that Islamabad failed to meet its rules on 32 out of 40 special standards and benchmarks, relating to its legal and financial system, and 10 of 11 ‘effectiveness’ parameters relating to the enforcement of safeguards against terror financing (TF), money laundering, and have effectively ‘blacklisted’ Pakistan by awarding it its lowest “enhanced expedited follow-up” ranking.
The APG and FATF processes are separate, but they have an important bearing on each other. It is clear now that Islamabad will not only find it difficult to extract itself from the FATF’s grey list – also known as “jurisdictions with strategic deficiencies” – but actually have to confront being blacklisted.
Islamabad might find it tough to get going in the FATF meetings – first, a review meeting in Thailand in September, and then the crucial plenary on 18-23 October
FATF’s To-Do List for Pakistan
Pakistan was placed on the FATF grey list in June 2018. A press release of the FATF at that time, noted that Pakistan had made a “high level political commitment” to work with the FATF and APG to strengthen its AML/CFT regime, and “address its strategic counter-terrorist financing related deficiencies”.
First, to have Islamabad identify terrorism financing (TF) risks, and then assess and deal with them.
Second, to demonstrate that remedial actions are applied in the case of AML/CFT violations, and that they are complied with by financial institutions.
Third, to demonstrate that action is being taken against illegal money or value transfer services.
Fourth, to show that action is being taken to identify cash couriers, and enforcing controls on illicit movement of currency.
Fifth, improve coordination between the provinces and federal government.
Sixth, show that the authorities are identifying and investigating terror-financing (TF) activity, and TF investigations and prosecutions are hitting the right persons and entities.
Seventh, show that TF prosecutions are effective.
Eighth, demonstrate effective action against all terrorists in the UN’s 1267 and 1373 designation lists.
Ninth, demonstrate that designated persons are deprived of their resources.
In turn, Pakistan had given the FATF a 27-point Action Plan through which, it hoped, it could exit the grey list. A year later, in June 2019, the FATF said that Pakistan had failed to complete its action plan, and warned that Islamabad could face blacklisting if it did not meet its commitments by October.
Though Imran Khan has accused New Delhi of lobbying the FATF against Pakistan, the real push is coming from its members like UK, Germany, France and the US.
Earlier this month, Islamabad had given the FATF a 450-page compliance document outlining its actions against terror groups in the past 18 months, the changes it had made in laws dealing with terrorism, and so on. Pakistan claimed it had charged Lashkar-e-Taiba chief Hafiz Saeed with terror financing, and froze all the assets of the Jamaat-ud-dawa and other UN proscribed groups.
In view of the APG ruling, Pakistan’s chances of exiting the grey list look bleak. Indeed, Pakistan’s struggle now will be to stay out of the black list.
Clearly, the APG did not buy this and if its action is any guide, Islamabad is going to find it tough to get going in the FATF meetings – first, a review meeting in Thailand in September, and then the crucial plenary on 18-23 October.
India is a member of both the APG and the FATF, and though Imran Khan has accused New Delhi of lobbying the FATF against Pakistan, the real push is coming from its members like UK, Germany, France and the US, countries which play a key role in the global financial system and can impose restrictions and penalties on Pakistan.
It is more than likely that western countries are squeezing Pakistan where it hurts its pockets.
In view of the APG ruling, Pakistan’s chances of exiting the grey list look bleak. Indeed, Pakistan’s struggle now will be to stay out of the black list.
This would lead to a financial downgrade and restrictions on its markets. It would find it difficult to get more money from the IMF and other western countries or, for that matter, service its debts which take up a quarter of the government’s revenues currently. It is more than likely that western countries are squeezing Pakistan where it hurts its pockets.
The FATF is really about naming and shaming, rather than actually directly fighting terrorism. After all, people like Hafiz Saeed, the Haqqani network, and Masood Azhar are known and already proscribed.
But the importance of the action lies in the fact that like all political parties, insurgencies and terrorist groups require money to function. Squeezing their money supply is sometimes a more efficacious way of dealing with them, than sending in the police or the army. This is the logic that has confronted Pakistan since the Financial Action Task Force got underway.
Modern India cannot but have a sharp awareness of the importance of sea power. It is conscious of the country’s painful history when, beginning in the 16th century, traders from Europe rudely disrupted the stability of the Indian Ocean Region (IOR), established trading stations on the Indian peninsula and then subsequently conquered and impoverished the subcontinent.
Independent India’s leaders have therefore devoted a great deal of thought to the country’s maritime past and future and have sought to recreate that world where the Indian Ocean is the source of everyone’s prosperity, and no one seeks hegemony over it. However, the lack of resources and developments beyond their control, have prevented them from giving full rein to their ideas and plans. Moreover, with its disputes with Pakistan and China, India’s strategic focus has been on its continental borders.
But as the country becomes one of the world’s leading economies, the centre of gravity of its strategic thinking is shifting towards the Indian Ocean, through whose sea lanes two thirds of the world’s oil, a third of the bulk cargo and half of all container traffic travel. India is conscious that its sea power will help preserve peace and stability in the Indian Ocean in the coming decades, something that it needs to undertake its economic transformation.
Sadly, in recent times, the Indian Ocean littoral has seen a great deal of conflict, especially in its most critical region, the Persian Gulf. It has also been afflicted by piracy in the Red Sea and Horn of Africa that has required fleets of the international community to safeguard the region. In the 1980s it saw a long-running terrorist insurgency in Sri Lanka requiring the commitment of an Indian military force for some years. Long running tensions between nuclear armed India and Pakistan have led to war in the past and pose an ever-present danger to the stability of the region.
The major priority for Indian strategic planning is protecting the sea lines of communications (SLOCs), since they are the channel through which 83 per cent of India’s crude oil comes. As it is 95 per cent of all Indian trade uses the oceanic sea lanes. The first task for India is, of course, to protect the mainland, recall the Mumbai attack of November 2008 and a brief brush with Sri Lanka based terrorism. Thereafter comes the importance of protecting its island territories in the Bay of Bengal and the Arabian Sea, and, finally, the 2.37 million square kms of the EEZ with important fishery resources, as well as the country’s most important domestic oil reserves.
Jutting 2000 km into the ocean, India has played a central role in the history of the Indian Ocean. The ocean, actually, its two huge bays—the Arabian Sea and the Bay of Bengal– have carried commerce since the times of Sumer and Mohenjodaro. Uniquely, the ocean can be accessed only through its choke points at Cape of Good Hope, Bab-el-Mandeb, Hormuz, Malacca, Mozambique channel, Sunda and Lombok Straits, which are often the fulcrum of military and pirate activity.
The Turk and Moghul conquerors of India who came across the mountain passes through Afghanistan, eventually assimilated into the body politic of the country. But they never quite understood the maritime imperative and as a result they were not able to deal with a succession of Europeans who came as traders and eventually established their hegemony over the ocean and its littoral. The British were the last great hegemons, and they used India as their base to maintain their control of the ocean and the littoral spread from East Africa, to West and South-east Asia for over a century till India became independent in 1947.
Freedom also brought partition of the subcontinent. One major consequence of the emergence of Pakistan was the loss of control over the land routes to Central and West Asia and beyond. Prolonged hostility of Pakistan and geographically difficult northern and eastern borders, has meant that India, in effect, has been an island and so that most of its overseas trade uses SLOCs.
Independent India decided that it would not take sides in the Cold War and became a leader of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) in the 1950s. India began to assert itself to assume the responsibilities of protecting its coast as well as its seaborne trade in the event of war. To this end, given the experience of World War II, it was felt that India needed a “balanced” navy, one with a combination of aircraft carriers, surface combatants and submarines, along with shore-based aviation and support vessels. But India’s continental commitments—the ongoing conflicts with Pakistan and China—ensured that the Navy has had a low priority for resources.
Well into the mid-1960s, India remained dependent on UK for its naval requirements—frigates, destroyers, mine-sweepers and, in 1961, the aircraft carrier Vikrant (ex-Hercules). The break came in 1965 when it decided to induct ex-Soviet Foxtrot class submarines since the British expressed their unwillingness to provide any.
The Cold War came to India in 1971 when the United States decided to support Pakistan against its rebel province East Pakistan. An extremely dangerous situation emerged and India intervened, leading to the the emergence of a new nation, Bangladesh. In the last phase of the 13 day war, the US ordered a carrier battle group, led by USS Enterprise into the Bay of Bengal. A Soviet battle group, followed the Enterprise into the area. Fortunately, the war ended before any clash occurred.
But the entry of the Enterprise, its implied threat to India, shaped Indian thinking thereafter and leading to its first nuclear test in 1974. India began adopting a political position calling for all foreign navies to depart from the Indian Ocean, even while seeking to build a stronger navy with Soviet assistance. But by the end of the decade, there was another development which affected India—the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, variously mooted as a Soviet thrust towards the warm waters of the Indian Ocean. The Soviet era peaked in the 1980s even as the Soviets agreed to provide top-of-the-line equipment like their Kashin-class destroyers, the latest Kilo-class submarines and TU-142 M long range maritime patrol aircraft; they even leased a nuclear-propelled submarine to India.
The end of the Cold War
But the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan had already initiated a strategic shift in India, marked by the conscious decision to seek weapons systems from elsewhere, notably Europe. As part of this India acquired the HDW Class 209 diesel electric submarines and also planned to make them in India. Other acquisitions—the Jaguar strike aircraft optimized for maritime strike, the Dornier Do 228 surveillance aircraft—too signaled this trend as, indeed, did the acquisition of the second aircraft carrier, the INS VIraat (ex HMS Hermes of UK) equipped with Harrier V/STOL fighters.
The collapse of the Soviet Union was a major strategic setback for India as it was confronted with a major problem in maintaining its Soviet equipment. The nuclear propelled submarine’s lease was terminated. Fortunately, this also coincided with India reaching the point where it could construct large warships like the INS Delhi, which were Indian designed and fabricated, though they still required Soviet/Russian sensors and weapons.
From the mid 1980s, with the growing proximity to the US, India’s attitude towards Washington changed, and New Delhi accepted that the US played a general role as a stabiliser in the Indian Ocean region. The US supported Indian interventions in Sri Lanka in 1987 and Maldives in 1988. In turn, New Delhi was generally supportive of the US war against Iraq in the wake of the invasion of Kuwait in 1991.
The end of the Cold War also persuaded New Delhi to launch a new phase of diplomacy beginning 1991, that involved confidence building by holding naval exercises with foreign navies, notably with the US and India’s South-east Asian neighbours. The goal was to show that India was no Soviet puppet, but an independent actor. New Delhi also took the initiative, along with South Africa, to promote the inter-governmental Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) in 1997 to promote economic growth and security for the IOR.
A new element into India’s larger power calculations was added in May 1998 when the country carried out five nuclear weapons tests, with the situation becoming more complex when traditional rival Pakistan followed suit. After a break, in which India came under severe US sanctions, relations were renewed, and actually became stronger. The improved relations saw the Indian Navy assist the US war effort in Afghanistan by escorting US ships transiting the Straits of Malacca.
Another big shift began to occur in India’s perspectives from around 2008 or so. This coincided with a similar change in perceptions of the US and its allies. It was marked by what the US called its decision to “pivot” to Asia. On one hand, after assessing the developments, the Indian Navy issued its maritime doctrine in 2009 which said that “sea control is the central concept around which the IN is structured.” On the other, India took steps towards closer cooperation with the US Navy.
At the same time, however, New Delhi also took the initiative to maintain its IOR leadership role by the initiative to create the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium (IONS) in 2008. This links 24 IOR countries and 8 observer nations to promote cooperation among the maritime security agencies of the member countries through seminars, working groups and actual exercises.
This was around the period in which the PLA Navy made its first major foray in the Indian Ocean as part of the international mission to deal with piracy in the Gulf of Aden and the eastern coast of Somalia. Since then, even though piracy is over, China has maintained a task force in the region, dispatching its 31st task force to the region in June 2019.
Chinese economic growth, its dependence on trade and resources from abroad has made it conscious of the importance of its SLOCs going across the Indian Ocean. China has systematically emerged as the major, if not principal, trading partner of countries of the ASEAN, India, Pakistan, Iran, and the African countries of the IOR littoral. It also became a major importer of natural resources, mainly crude oil from the region. Through its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), it has also become a major financer of infrastructure for many of the poorer countries of the region.
Besides developing closer political ties with India’s traditional friends Sri Lanka and Maldives, China has taken measures ranging from stepping up its naval activity in the Indian Ocean, to developing ports and pipelines to avoid what is often termed as its Malacca Dilemma because over 80 per cent of its oil imports go through these straits and waters dominated by India. Since 2014, Chinese naval presence has been a constant feature of the IOR. In 2017, it established its first overseas military base in Djibouti and there have been reports of a facility coming up on the Jiwani peninsula across the sea in Gwadar, Pakistan.
This has generated concerns in India which has a major dispute with China in relation to their land border and Beijing’s use of Pakistan as a foil to India in South Asia. The Indian reaction has been to draw closer to the United States which retains by far the strongest military position in the Indian Ocean. This process has been assisted by the Indo-US Nuclear Deal of 2005 and the subsequent Indian acquisition of American military equipment.
In turn, the US has sought to use the closer alignment with India to offset the Chinese gravitational pull in East Asia. India’s Act East policy, aimed at playing a greater political and economic role in the South-east Asian region, fits well with what is now called the Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) mooted by the US and Japan in the region.
As a gesture signaling the seriousness of its intent, Washington renamed its Hawaii-headquartered Pacific Command as the “Indo-Pacific Command” and now looks at the region from the western shores of India to the western shores of the US as one politico-military region. This has been incapsulated in the Joint Strategic Vision for the Asia Pacific and the Indian Ocean region enunciated at in January 26, 2015 on the occasion of President Obama’s visit to New Delhi.
Over the years, India has signed several “foundational” agreements aimed at lubricating military cooperation between the two countries. Among these are those which relate to sharing information and logistical facilities in the region. US-supplied P8I maritime surveillance aircraft and the soon to be acquired Sea Guardian drones form an increasingly important components of the networks to track Chinese naval movements.
However, there is an important difference in the way India views the Indo-Pacific. Prime Minister Modi told the Shangrila Dialogue in 2018, that India viewed it as a geographical concept covering the western shores of the US to the eastern shores of Africa. Further, he said, it was not an exclusionary notion directed against China.
Differing visions of what Indo-Pacific is, limits Indo-US cooperation to the eastern Indian Ocean. The western part of the region which is of far greater importance to India, sees little or no interaction since it is looked after by other US geographic commands—the AFRICOM and the CENTCOM. Indeed, this is underscored by the June 2019 Indo-Pacific Strategy Report (ISPR) issued by the US Department of Defence.
The Blue Economy
Sea power does not depend on naval might alone. There are other elements —merchant marine, marine construction, maritime diplomacy– that provide the integrated whole of what constitutes sea power. Indeed, India is now seeking to integrate what it calls the ‘Blue’ oceanic economy into its larger economic planning.
One part of this is the Modi government’s Sagarmala project to build and upgrade ports and enhance their inland connectivity. This is aimed at promoting coastal trade and thereby reducing logistics costs and promoting coastal economic zones. The Modi government has articulated its support for the Blue Economy concept repeatedly by adopting the acronym SAGAR (Security and Growth for all in the Region) as the liet motif of its Indian Ocean policy.
As for the Navy, it completed the first phase construction of a new base on the western coast at Karwar in 2005. Several years ago it also began to construct a new facility in the east coast at Rambilli, 50 km south-west of Vishakapatnam which will house India’s nuclear submarine assets. With its peninsular position and strong bases, Indian planners believe that they do not really need bases in other IOR countries, though they may seek repair and maintenance facilities there.
There needs to be interdependence between maritime commerce and naval capabilities, but India remains an anemic player in both areas. India’s foreign trade in 2017 was just $ 756 billion, as compared $ 3.95 trillion of China. Another measure—that of the merchant marine of the two brings out this as well. As of now, India has 1,719 commercial ships as compared to 4,600 of China. In other words, whether it is for raw materials or accessories and components, China’s dependence on secure oceans is great and is matched by the investments it is making in its navy, merchant marine, ports and facilities abroad. Presumably, India, which, too, seeks to follow the model of export-led growth, will likely to step up its naval and maritime investments as its dependence on overseas SLOCs grows.
The Indian Navy
India may draw closer to the US politically, it still sees itself as an strategically autonomous player. Its contemporary maritime strategy remains independent and involves four elements—sea control, power projection ashore, presence and strategic deterrence. The essence of sea control is to assure usage of the seas and deny it to the adversary; power projection is a subset of this ability. “Presence” is more about peacetime display of the interests of a nation through ship visits and exercises, as well as elements of coercive diplomacy. Strategic deterrence are the strategic capabilities of the country to keep similar capabilities of potential adversaries in check.
This is what provides its force mix comprising of aircraft carriers, destroyers, frigates, patrol vessel etc. India currently operates one aircraft carrier (ex Gorshkov) with a contingent of Mig-29 fighters. Most of the warships are Indian designed and made such as the 6 lead destroyers of the Kolkata and Delhi class. In addition, there are 13 frigates of which half have been made in Russia and 22 Indian made corvettes.
India has fabricated a nuclear ballistic missile submarine (SSBN), the Arihant, with Russian assistance and operates a Russian made attack submarine (SSN) Chakra on lease. In addition, it has two French-designed but Indian made Kalvari class, 9 Russian made Kilo class and four German/Indian made Class 209 conventional submarines. India also has several amphibious warfare ships, such as the US-made Jalashwa (ex-Trenton), as well as several Landing Ship Tanks and Landing Craft mainly of Indian. But the Navy remains hampered by the lack of adequate helicopters, sonars and torpedoes.
Under the latest version of the Maritime Capabilities Perspective Plan, the Indian Navy will have some 200-ship and 500 aircraft force by 2027. Currently Indian Navy has 137 ships. Even though the Indian Navy it remains a “balanced navy” with aerial, surface and sub-surface capabilities, it suffers from a number of problems that begin with the fact that it continues to get a short shrift in terms of resources. In terms of naval construction, India has reached a stage where it has 100 per cent “float” capacity of building all the hulls it needs. But in areas like “move” which involves engines and transmission, it is still at around 50 per cent and when it comes to “fight”, that is sensors, radars, sonars, missiles, and torpedoes, it still has some way to go. But, not only is the overall budget of the Indian military declining as a proportion of the GDP, the share of the Navy, too has been going down from 18.2 per cent in 2012-2013 to 13.11 per cent in 2018-2019.
This has an impact on naval plans. There is an overall slowdown in the construction of warships. With the first domestically built aircraft carrier yet to be commissioned, there is little news of follow on carriers. Because of the slow output of its yards, it is seeking to obtain 3 frigates off-the-shelf from Russia. The Navy also has an in-principle approval for the construction of 6 nuclear powered attack submarines which could be built with Russian assistance. At the same time, relations with the US have helped India acquire powerful surveillance capabilities through US-made P8I maritime surveillance and attack aircraft. A deal for acquiring Sea Guardian drones is in the offing. The resource issue may see the Indian Navy shifting its priorities towards developing a fleet of nuclear propelled attack submarines (SSNs) in the place of large carriers.
The Mumbai attack of 2008 led to crash project to enhance surveillance capabilities along the coast. A new Information Management and Analysis Centre (IMAC) has been set up near New Delhi to network sensors and optelectronic devices linking 51 nodes along India’s coast. This has been linked to the Navy’s National Maritime Domain Awareness system which links coastal surveillance radars in Mauritius, Madagascar, Seychelles, Oman, Maldives and Sri Lanka with naval surveillance platforms. India is in talks with other nations on the Indian ocean littoral to expand the system.
India maintains a vigorous “presence” across the Indo-Pacific. Its naval ships are frequent visitors to ports in Indian Ocean and the western Pacific. Besides the multilateral exercises like MILAN and Malabar, it is also undertakes coordinated patrol Corpat exercises with the Myanmar, Indonesian and Bangladesh Navies and bilateral exercises with the Singapore, Oman, Russia, Sri Lanka, UK, and South Africa. It has logistics exchange agreements with the US and France and its navy has access to Singapore and Duqm ports. India is developing the Chah Bahar port in Iran to enhance access to Central Asia and Afghanistan and it has also undertaken the Sittwe port project in Myanmar as part of its effort to promote connectivity to its North-east.
India may have large ambitions for its ocean. But the Indian Navy’s current force holdings are relatively modest for the tasks that the country confronts. The future of Indian seapower depends on many inter-related developments. First, and most important, is whether India can get on to the path of high and sustained economic growth so as to generate the resources to fulfil its seapower ambitions. This is linked, too, to whether it can manage to moderate competition and conflict with China and Pakistan, and thereby shift its politico-military priorities in the oceanic direction.
The Chinese have developed important interests in the Indian Ocean region. In the coming decades, the PLAN is likely to boost its presence in the IOR significantly, with one or even maybe two aircraft carrier battle groups and even more bases. But it is highly unlikely that they will have the ability to challenge India in the Indian Ocean. Their interest will be in the protection of their SLOCs and their economic and trading interests in the region.
This, of course, does not preclude competition to gain the diplomatic upper hand in this or that section of the IOR littoral or even military or covert intervention. India is particularly sensitive to activities in Sri Lanka and the Maldives because both of them are proximate to its key sea lanes, which also happen to be some of the most important sea lanes in the world.
Aligning with a powerful actor like the US, has been enormously beneficial to India not only in direct military terms, but in aiding New Delhi to develop important ties with American allies like Japan, Australia, Singapore and Saudi Arabia. But there is also risk in this association of India being entangled in periodic US ventures which, in the recent past in Iraq and Afghanistan, have proved to be uncommonly destructive, expensive and destabilising.
India’s primary interest remains in a peaceful and stable Indian Ocean which will enable it to achieve its primary goal of the economic transformation of the huge, but poor country. What India would prefer is an autonomous role, have friendly and even close ties with the dominant force, the US Navy towards maintaining peace, stability and SLOC security in the region and providing humanitarian aid and relief, wherever it is needed. It would like to undertake issue-based cooperation with other Navies such as that of China, Japan, Australia, and of course, the ASEAN. At the same time, it could mark out an area related to its primary goals of homeland security and strategic deterrence where it would seek to maintain capabilities that do not require any third party assistance.
Limes: Rivista Italiana di Geopolitica August 22, 2019