India’s first line of defence

Nations establish moral ascendency over other nations only by victory in war. Shrugging off the possibility of American nuclear attack, China crossed the Yalu River in October 1950 and almost brought the United States led-forces in Korea to their knees, rubbed India’s nose in the dust in 1962, and in 1969 militarily stiff-armed the Soviet Union on the Ussuri River. Elsewhere in Asia there is Vietnam, a much smaller but a truly extraordinary military power with an unmatched record of serially beating up on intruders and interventionists. It bloodied China every time it ventured south over two thousand years of its history. In more recent times, Vietnam ended France’s imperial pretensions at the Battle of Dien Bien Phu, kicked the Americans out and in 1979, even as its regular Divisions were held in reserve, its militia of  hastily armed and trained villagers in the border provinces proved more than adequate to kill 25,000 and injure another 75,000 out of an invading force of 100,000 Peoples Liberation Army troops Chairman Deng Xiaoping had ordered into action to teach Vietnam “a lesson”, much as Maozedong had launched his “self-defence counter-attack” against India.

Except, it was the Chinese who were taught a brutal lesson in offensive guerrilla resistance and faced humiliation they cannot easily forget. The thrashing China received at the hands of the Vietnamese 32 years ago has resulted in respect Beijing shows Hanoi that Delhi can only dream of. Thus, in the latest clash last month in the South China Sea over the disputed Spratly island chain, after Chinese ships cut the cables of a PetroVietnam oil exploration vessel, Vietnam responded with strong words backed by naval live fire drills. Fearing the situation was sliding into loss of face, this time on sea, the Chinese quickly asked for talks.

But Vietnam is no brash belligerent ready to take on the next bully on the block. While prepared to fight any comer in defence of its territory and interests, it is mindful of its military weaknesses where China is concerned, one of which is its seaward flank fronting on Hainan Island complete with the Sanya nuclear submarine base, hosting the most versatile of China’s three fleets — the South Sea Fleet. During the 1979 Chinese invasion, Vietnam faced possible Chinese naval attacks which Beijing was deterred from mounting because the Soviet Union, then at loggerheads with China, sent in four warships into the South China Sea. Vietnam has ever since viewed a meaty presence of an out-of-area friendly naval power in waters offshore as an insurance to ward of the dangers from the Chinese Navy.  Russia today, much reduced, cannot perform that role, and the United States is unreliable. Hanoi’s hopes, therefore, rest on the Indian government mustering the strategic will to fill the void. A Vietnamese military delegation headed by its Naval Chief, Vice Admiral Ngyuyen Van Hien, visiting Delhi a fortnight back, explored ways of developing mutual confidence and trust. For a start, they sought training for its crews – that the Russians had previously trained obviously not to the Vietnam Navy’s satisfaction, for the Kilo-class submarines Vietnam is acquiring from Moscow. Should China act up, a strong Vietnamese submarine arm will be a meaningful counter to Chinese warships mucking about offensively around the Spratlys.

The more significant thing was Van Hien’s offer of the port of Nha Trang on the South China Sea for Indian Navy’s use. Nha Trang shares virtually the same longitude as the Sanya base on Hainan but, Latitude-wise, is located a few degrees south. An Indian naval flotilla voyaging frequently between the Andamans and Nha Trang, and sustained by a basing and provisioning arrangement on the Central Vietnamese coast, will amount to a near permanent Indian presence in the South China Sea, signalling Indian intent and forward positioning that can screw up the Chinese naval and strategic calculus, and push Beijing planners, for once, onto the back foot. At a minimum, it will be an analogue of the sizeable Chinese para-military (Peoples Armed Police) presence in the Gilgit and Baltistan regions of Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. And, it will aggravate China’s offshore situation already roiled by the US Navy’s continued loitering in this area contested, other than Vietnam and China, by Malaysia and Brunei.

As always, however, there’s a glitch. Even though Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and his National Security Adviser Shiv Shankar Menon are reportedly for an Indian naval presence in the Vietnamese seas and want India to be a staunch strategic partner of Vietnam, the until recently Defence Secretary, Pradeep Kumar, was pressing the brakes. Fuelling the innate over-caution of his minister, A.K. Antony, he argued that such a stance would needlessly “provoke” the Chinese and, therefore, is avoidable. It is remarkable characteristic of the dysfunctional Indian system that despite the PM’s and the NSA’s support for this initiative, a Defence Ministry bureaucrat can so easily gum up the works. Hopefully Kumar, the latest in a long line of military ignoramuses and strategically inaction-minded Defence Secretaries, will be succeeded by someone a bit more on the ball.

Tit-for-tat is something Beijing appreciates better than the apologetic do-nothing tone of statements on China usually emanating from the Ministry of External Affairs and the generalist Defence Ministry civil servants. The Indian government should long ago have responded to the nuclear missile-arming of Pakistan by China by equipping Vietnam with nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles and the Brahmos supersonic cruise missile, as I have been advocating the past 15 years. The fact that the Indian government has not done this and, indeed, not accorded top priority to militarily advantaging Vietnam in every possible way, indicates the essential infirmity in India‘s strategic thinking. China has used Pakistan to try and contain India to the subcontinent. Time India returned the compliment and cooperated with Vietnam, which does not shrink from a fight, to contain China to its immediate waters. To act on the basis that Vietnam constitutes India’s first line of defence is long overdue. It will ensure, among other things, that the bulked-up Chinese Navy can be bottled up well east of the Malacca Straits.

[Published as “Good morning, ‘Nam” in ‘The Asian Age’& ‘The Deccan Chronicle”, July 7, 2011 at–604 ]

About Bharat Karnad

Senior Fellow in National Security Studies at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi, he was Member of the (1st) National Security Advisory Board and the Nuclear Doctrine-drafting Group, and author, among other books of, 'Nuclear Weapons and Indian Security: The Realist Foundations of Strategy', 'India's Nuclear Policy' and most recently, 'Why India is Not a Great Power (Yet)'. Educated at the University of California (undergrad and grad), he was Visiting Scholar at Princeton University, University of Pennsylvania, the Shanghai Institutes of International Studies, and Henry L. Stimson Center, Washington, DC.
This entry was posted in Great Power imperatives, India's China Policy, India's strategic thinking and policy, Indian Navy, Strategic Relations with South East Asia & Far East. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to India’s first line of defence

  1. Anant says:

    Bharat. What is your take on Shashi Kant Sharma? Is he the right man for the job? Very happy that you started your blog. I am sure you will have a big following soon.

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