The Singapore statesman, Lee Kuan Yew likened Asia to an airplane with India and China as the two wings keeping the continent flying. This aviation metaphor was constructed, at least in part, on the hope and prayer that India would get its act together and emerge with heft matching China’s. Otherwise the Asian plane, assuming it could take-off at all, would bank to one side and crash.
It has been an unequal game so far. Managed effectively by a Communist Party cabal able to deliver world class infrastructure that meets the basic needs of the people, China is the proverbial hare to the Indian tortoise. India’s mindless bureaucratism and vicious domestic politics paralyse government and negate private sector-led economic growth.
China’s spectacular economic rise has spurred its military ambitions. The aggressive Chinese posture with several ASEAN members over the rich oil- and gas-bearing offshore territories has driven home the wisdom of Mr. Lee’s metaphor of India having to be equal of China in order to reap the region’s benefits of peace, order and stability.
Despite considerable growth in India’s conventional and nuclear military reach and clout, the problem has been India’s slow pace in advancing economic reforms. This may be changing. Fatigued by two decades of foreign wars, the United States is seeking a standoff role, notwithstanding its “pivot to Asia”. India has to step into providing overarching security to the Asian rimland. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has publicly and privately urged India to be a “net security provider” to Asian states. While this has not fallen on entirely deaf ears, the Indian government is moving with its customary caution.
Even as Delhi plays Hamlet in a gradually worsening security situation in Asia, India’s strategic military capabilities have matured. The long range Agni-5 successfully test-fired last month is one such instance, with the state-of-the-art chip-embedded guidance system and accurate delivery at extreme range. Indeed, Chinese military sources are convinced that Agni-5 is an intercontinental-range ballistic missile (ICBM) tested at a reduced 5,000 km range. Outfitted with MIRV (Multiple Independently Re-targetable Vehicles) technology, a single Agni-5 and a true ICBM follow-on Agni-6 of 10,000 km range will be able to engage five to eight targets. With Agni-5, India has deterrence parity in being able to strike anywhere in China. It is no coincidence that a few weeks before the Agni launch, the mild-mannered Indian foreign minister, S.M. Krishna, responded with fighting words to Beijing’s warning India against joining Vietnam in offshore oil exploration, saying “the South China Sea is not China’s sea”. It mirrored a Chinese Admiral’s challenge from an earlier decade that the “Indian Ocean is not India’s ocean”.
With the 50,000 ton Kiev-class carrier, Vikramaditya, carrying MiG-29K attack aircraft soon joining the navy, the Arihant nuclear powered ballistic-missile submarine undergoing sea-trials, an Akula-II already patrolling, and both submersibles sharpening the Indian Navy’s Eastern Fleet, India has impressive naval forces on call. Add the possibility of Indian naval ships based on the central Vietnamese coast at Na Thrang, offered by Hanoi to protect potential Indian oil assets in the South China Sea. Further, with a Division-sized amphibious force and attendant sealift capability, and the Indian Air Force’s Su-30 MKIs presently deployed on the Car Nicobar Island, India’s military pieces are in place on the geopolitical chessboard.
What is missing is Indian political will to capitalise on the interest created by Agni-5 and Indian “naval diplomacy” – joint exercises and joint anti-piracy patrols with littoral navies. Delhi has to explore ways in which the Indian armed forces can actively contribute to South-east Asia’s sense of wellbeing, in line with the Indian Defence Minister A.K. Antony’s plea at the ASEAN Plus Eight Defence Ministers Meeting in Hanoi in November 2010, for “cooperative approaches” in the Asia-Pacific region to keep “the sea lanes…open, secure, and free for navigation”. India can begin by selling Vietnam the supersonic anti-ship Brahmos missile it seeks. Indonesia desired the same weapon but Delhi’s procrastination drove Jakarta to buy a variant directly from Russia.
With both China and India having observer status, it is tricky for India and the Asean members to work to, in effect, ring-fence China and Chinese ambitions. But that’s a political hump the two sides will have to get over.
[Published in the 'Straits Times', Singapore, on May 2, 2012]