India has the ability to be a great power and address our security challenges in the best national interests.
Our foreign policy has come of age and will stand the test of time in the days ahead.
It is best to keep out of geopolitical power games with due consideration to the foundations of our foreign policy, notes Commodore Venugopal Menon (retd).
The geopolitical canvas in our immediate neighborhood is changing rapidly and this has put India in a dilemma on the efficacy of our stated policy of strategic autonomy.
There is a fundamental apprehension in policy circles as to whether our stand will enable us to face security challenges in the foreseeable future.
The combination of sub-conventional violence from Pakistan and land border tensions with China has triggered concerns within the political and military establishment.
Although I would not categorise South Asia as a volatile region in the current juncture, it has its share of uncertainties caused by the rise of China, instability in Pakistan, terrorism and asymmetric warfare, and the extent of engagement by China in the Indian Ocean region through their BRI projects and last but not the least the future of Afghanistan under the Taliban.
These aspects are beyond our control and hence the need for a counter-strategy to meet the challenges.
The fact that China shares a long land border with India is a geographic factor that cannot be changed.
It is also important to note that China considers India as a challenger to its supremacy in the region.
An arms race to equal the Chinese juggernaut would only incur heavy costs and drain the coffers.
At the same time, we need to ensure and maintain credible deterrence levels at the border to thwart any border incursions by Chinese troops.
Alliances with other nations would at best provide diplomatic support to our stand on contentious issues, but it cannot provide a permanent solution to our bilateral issues.
The situation in Kashmir has improved considerably in the recent past, however, isolated incidents of terror do take place.
There is no reduction in the trust deficit between the two countries.
Pakistan continues to build up militarily with assistance from China.
Although our military modernisation programme is progressing albeit slowly, there are critical deficiencies in assets faced by the three services.
One such example and challenge for the Indian Navy is in our submarine force levels.
Currently, the Pakistan navy has three Air Independent Propulsion (AIP) conventional submarines which give them an advantage in undersea warfare.
The future induction of eight Yuan class boats (with AIP) from China would increase the number to 11 by 2035.
This is not a comfortable situation and can create an asymmetry in our maritime domain as we are way behind the starting blocks of our Project 75 I submarine construction programme.
The US withdrawal from Afghanistan has created a vacuum in that country from a security perspective.
The waters look murky at the moment and it would be advisable to wait and watch as the situation evolves.
Big Power games in the Indo Pacific region
Security in the region cannot be viewed in isolation or exclusively from India's prism.
It is important to factor in the influence of big powers and their competition to project power and gain influence in the region.
The question in this regard is what should be India's stand in this power play? To maintain our policy of strategic autonomy or to team up with the Western alliance? There cannot be a third option.
Containment of China
The US had ignored the growth of China's economic and military might during the last two decades which ironically was ignored by India too.
US foreign policy is desperately in need of a counter to China's power potential lest it loses its unipolar status in the world.
Although then Japanese prime minister Abe Shinzo floated the idea of Quad in 2007, the movement fizzled out till 2017 when then US president Donald J Trump revived the concept.
The reasons could be many, but the most important factor is that there was no convergence of strategic objectives between the member countries.
Regrettably even now, little or no work has been done towards achieving that aim.
Terms like the Rule-Based International Order, shared democratic values and free and open Indo Pacific etc do not have any essence or meaning in the absence of clearly defined strategic objectives.
China has not been named for its hostile actions in any of the joint statements following a Quad summit thus far (one exception being when then US secretary of state Mike Pompeo singled out China in October 2020).
Why is this hesitation? The answer is very simple -- China is an important trading partner for all members of Quad.
Hence, it is important to realise that behind the shadows of Quad, member countries continue to maintain bilateral relations with China in accordance with their national interests.
Is there any point in sailing in a rudderless, coxswain-less boat towards an unknown destination? Hence there is a need to deliberately analyze the advantages/disadvantages before taking a call.
One sincerely hopes that we do not fall into the trap of being a pawn and get Ukrained in the bargain.
Importance of Alliances in Our Context
As per the foundations of our foreign policy, acceding to any security alliance is not an option unless there is a paradigm shift in our grand strategy (if there is one). A counterargument could be that the Quad is not a security grouping or a counter-China initiative.
Then, what is its objective? Why is it ambiguous and open-ended? There are no free lunches in international relations and it is very likely that Quad will insist member countries to contribute significantly towards infrastructure development and other initiatives in Indo Pacific region.
Do we have the economic clout to invest in the region at the cost of our development? Therefore at some stage, we will have to take a call in the foreseeable future on whether this arrangement suits us or not.
Hope the establishment at Delhi is not contemplating that piggy banking on a loosely formed group like Quad is the best solution to project India as a big power? If that is so, it will be a big blunder in the long run.
US' Indo Pacific Strategy: Where do we fit in?
Although the name changed from Asia Pacific to Indo Pacific, nothing much has changed in US policy of demarcation of the world to suit its area of influence, provide a security umbrella for their allies and for power projection.
The term Indo Pacific brought about a euphoria amongst India's strategic community about India's centrality in US strategy which in a way is a false assumption. Strategically, the US interest is centered on the South China Sea, the Far East and Oceania which is the fulcrum of its Indo Pacific strategy in order to check or counter Chinese influence and challenge to the unipolar world order.
The region to the west of the Malacca Straits and South Indian Ocean till MENA (Middle East and North Africa) is of less strategic importance to the US as has been seen post World War II.
We cannot expect that India's security concerns in South Asia will be addressed by the West and therefore it is pragmatic to avoid any false sense of security.
Our engagement in the SCS -- Practicality
Chinese engagement with countries bordering the South China Sea is deep-rooted and currently, we do not have the economic clout or resources to make a dent in that arrangement.
Continuous military presence in the region is neither desired nor warranted and it is quite possible that some of the ASEAN countries may object to our permanent presence if all it happens in the future.
In effect, there is a big gap between our Look East policy and Act East policy.
It is well known that about 50% of our inbound and outbound trade transit through the South China Sea, but there have been no instances of any trade being hampered by the Chinese navy or coast guard.
China has objected to 'Freedom of Navigation' patrols by the US navy through contested waters which have only increased the volatility in the region and increased tensions. India has not participated in such patrols thus far and is unlikely in the future too which is a wise decision.
Moreover, it is very unlikely that our trade would be hampered by China in the South China Sea fearing a backlash towards their safe energy flow through the south Indian Ocean which is within close proximity to India.
In conclusion, I would like to reiterate that India has the ability in all respects to be a great power and address our security challenges in the best national interests.
Our foreign policy has come of age and will stand the test of time in the days ahead.
There is no requirement of toeing the line of any country to suit their national interests or be a client State.
It is best to keep out of geopolitical power games with due consideration to the foundations of our foreign policy.
The need of the hour is to give an added impetus to our indigenisation efforts as our national policy and support it with a long-term vision and goals.
If South Korea which was in the same state as India two decades ago attained a high degree of indigenisation and self reliance, we too can achieve it.
YES, WE CAN!!
Commodore Venugopal Menon served in the Indian Navy for 29 years in operational roles, including commands at sea, and training and staff assignments at Naval HQ.
In addition to the staff and war courses in the Indian Navy, he underwent the executive course at the Asia Pacific Centre for Security Studies, Honolulu.
Feature Presentation: Rajesh Alva/Rediff.com