Many years ago, an Indian flotilla out in the Gulf led by Rear Admiral Madanjit Singh (later Vice Admiral and Flag Officer Commanding-in-Chief, Western Naval Command) was asked by an United States naval ship to identify itself and to its query “How long have you been here?” replied “Since before Christ!” Wonder how the Captain of the amphibious assault ship INS Airavat, steaming out of the Vietnamese port of Nha Trang on the South China Sea and proceeding up-coast to Haiphong in the third week of July this year, and ordered by a Chinese naval ship to, in effect, get the hell out of “Chinese” waters, responded? One hopes he did so with the proper amount of insouciance and steel.
Run-ins on the high seas are not that uncommon, but the manner in which a country’s warships react to challenge, matters. If they show confidence and don’t back down, the navy earns respect, and the country too. In the early Nineties, the Australians got the fright of their lives when another Indian flotilla returning home after the Naval Expo in Limpopo in Malaysia, this one under Vice Admiral Vishnu Bhagwat, then Flag Officer Commanding Western Fleet (Later Admiral and Chief of Naval Staff) warned an Australian Naval surveillance aircraft against buzzing the Indian ships and violating the sovereign air space above the Indian naval group, and to show his intent, opened up the short range surface-to-air missiles for firing. Admiral Bhagwat was criticized by Nervous Nellies in the Service and in the government for being “trigger happy”. But, the Australian planes high-tailed it out of the area and never bothered the Indian ships again. There’s more gained in military encounters from standing one’s ground than buckling under at the first sign of pressure.
It is all very well for the Indian Navy to carry out manifestly minor tasks — tracking down pirate mother ships off Aden and its Marine Commandos beating up on the Somali irregulars in the business of holding merchant vessels hostage for big money ransoms that are then channelled to rich international criminal syndicates. Or, even “escorting” American naval ships through the Straits of Malacca, a task the Navy boasted of early in the last decade as a meaningful mission. It is a quite different thing for Indian Navy ships to face down the Chinese Navy in what the latter considers its backyard. But it is precisely these sorts of operations that the Indian Navy better prepare to prosecute here on, because their Chinese South Seas Fleet out of the Sanya base on Hainan Island means to lord it over the entire watery expanse east of Malacca, using that commanding presence to bully smaller littoral nations in the region and to psychologically cripple the Indian Navy – the only Asian navy in South East Asia that can match it in the technological realm and is its superior in conventional fleet tactics. For it to back down even fractionally would be to hand the advantage to China, which whatever its pretensions backs itself with nerveless actions. Like deterring the US carrier task force steaming towards the Taiwan Straits during the 1996 crisis from crossing the Chinese-designated red-line by firing a live missile across the bow of the lead American ship. In early 2001, a Chinese J-8 interceptor first damaged US Navy’s EP-3 aircraft by deliberately brushing this American signals intelligence plane before forcing it down on Hainan base where its aerospace technologists studied it for reverse engineering purposes. The American plane and crew were released only after the process of scrutinizing the downed aircraft was completed and Washington issued an abject apology. Would the Indian Navy do anything remotely this aggressive in the waters off the Indian mainland, let alone take on the Chinese naval main force elements in this manner in defence of the larger principle of freedom of the seas?
One of the reasons to suspect it won’t is the craven attitude of the Indian government to international laws and principles that Beijing has increasingly taken to violate in the belief that, one, India lacks the guts to reciprocate or counter with harsh measures no matter how much its national interest is compromised and, secondly, that, if actually roused, it can be pacified with some small gestures and conciliatory noises. Such bone-headed pusillanimity is on display in every aspect of India-China relations. Take the significant issue of the Brahmaputra River diversion that this analyst has been highlighting since 2000 and the present Congress government began taking seriously only around January 2008 when Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on a state visit to China suggested a joint mechanism to monitor the flow of water in this shared river, upstream of the Great Bend in Arunachal Pradesh where the Tibet-originating Yarlung-Tsangpo River enters India as the Brahmaputra, and was peremptorily turned down. Since then every year brings new evidence of plans and massive head works being built or survey tasks being undertaken on the Tibetan side of the border without so much as a squeak from the Indian government. And, when some slight noise did finally emanate from the Prime Minister’s Office a couple of months back, it was only to state that Dr Manmohan Singh trusts in China’s profession of benign intent and is convinced the Chinese would only construct run-of-the-river projects. What’s one to make of such cupidity, such extraordinary levels of wilful naivete and gullibility, and the tendency to lend credence to Beijing’s assurances than rely on incontestable evidence of massive upstream civil engineering activity picked up as imagery by Indian satellites and confirmed by Indian military’s field intelligence and information from the Tibetan exile community circles?
If the Indian government is unwilling to uphold international law supportive of India’s interests which prevents an upper riparine state from diverting any shared river waters, it is hardly surprising that recurrent violations by the Chinese People’s Armed Police and People’s Liberation Army units manning the 4,000-km long Line of Actual Control separating India and China are dismissed by the Indian Foreign Secretary as inadvertent and inconsequential, and Indian Navy ships sailing in the South China choose to swallow insults than get into an altercation. The more China pushes India in the chest, unless India push back muscularly, it will soon itself pushed into a corner. The Indian armed services ought to react to Chinese military provocation in a military manner, and not look over the shoulders fro instructions from MEA, and the Indian Navy ought to make it clear that it is patrolling South China Sea, which’s not China’s sea.
[Published in ‘The New Indian Express’, Sept 9, 2011, at http://expressbuzz/op-ed/opinion/No-buckling-down-to-china/312413.html