Advocating a nuanced approach towards China, former Navy Chief Admiral Arun Prakash today said a possible radical shift in US policies under the Trump administration could trigger instability in the Indo-Pacific and asked New Delhi to seek multi-lateral partnerships within the strategic region. Till recently, the Indo-US relationship seemed to be following a mutually-beneficial trajectory that could have ensured a stable balance-of-power and peace in the Indo- Pacific, he said here. However, the election of President Donald Trump has signalled a radical shift in many of America’s long-standing policies which could result in heightened tension and instability in the region, the ex-Chief of the Naval Staff. He was delivering a talk on ‘Security Issues in Indo-Pacific –India’s Response’ at an international conference on ‘Changing Security Dynamic in the Indo-Pacific’. “In the approaching era of uncertainty, it would be unwise for India to put all its eggs in any one basket and prudence demands it should seek multi-lateral partnerships within the region,” he said, calling for a nuanced approach towards Beijing.
India’s trade links, investment and diaspora today span an arc extending from Siberia and New Zealand to its east to Africa and Central Asia to its west, Prakash said. “Any attempts (by China) to dominate waters of the Indo-Pacific would represent a grave threat to India’s vital interests. “While we lack the deep pockets and dynamism that underpins Chinese overseas initiatives, the India Navy has concluded formal agreements whereby its warships, submarines and aircraft can put into about 25-30 friendly ports across the Indo-Pacific for operational or other reasons.” “China’s footholds in Indian Ocean locations, dubbed the ‘string of pearls’, are meant to provide it a network of port facilities, which could support long-range maritime operations,” the Navy veteran said.
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The ‘Maritime Silk Road’, a component of the ‘One Road One Belt’ initiative, pursues an even more ambitious agenda by creating a huge arc of maritime and economic influence across the region, according to him.
“The deployment of PLA Navy submarines in the Indian Ocean, that commenced in 2013-14, was a clear indication China seeks to not only gain strategic superiority across the Himalayas, but also to establish maritime dominance in the Indian Ocean with the Pakistani port of Gwadar as a key logistic base,” Prakash explained.
“Commencement of work on the CPEC (China Pakistan Economic Corridor) project will further tilt the balance against India.”
Given its growing military strength and “revisionist outlook”, the Communist giant can be expected to push its influence in the region, grab territory, and re-write the rules of international conduct to suit its own interests, Prakash maintained.
“It (China) has, lately, roiled the waters of the South and East China Seas as well as the Indian Ocean by its outrageous claims about ‘core national interests’ and frequent shows of maritime muscle,” the retired Navy chief stated.
“Choices for India, in the face of Chinese hegemony, are stark. The constraints of India’s political system render it unlikely that it can bridge the economic and military gap vis-a-vis China within a reasonable timeframe.
“Under these circumstances a military confrontation would be imprudent, and the only hedge for India would be to create countervailing power-balancing equations,” he said.
“I think a nuanced approach to China, therefore, needs to be adopted, combining active economic and diplomatic engagement with subliminal deterrence to ensure it remains within the bounds of normative behaviour.
“It is encouraging to see India’s current leadership reaching out to the Indo-Pacific neighbourhood to create partnerships and cooperative mechanisms for mutual benefit.”
China, too, must remain a part of India’s new economic and strategic outreach, he suggested.
“At this juncture, the Sino-Indian equation may be tilted in China’s favour, but as a democracy, a nuclear weapon state and a significant economic and military power, it is incumbent upon India to stand firm as a bulwark against attempts at regional hegemony. To attain its ‘manifest destiny’ India needs breathing space and a little help from its friends.”
India’s policy-makers and diplomats must learn to play hardball and practice realpolitik. They must not overlook either the vital role of the seas in India’s destiny, or the use the maritime power as a diplomatic tool. In India’s modern and capable Navy they have a powerful instrument of state policy, the retired Admiral maintained.