The closely packed state visits by three heads of governments in South Asia and the extended region – Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan, Truong Tan Sang of Vietnam, and Thein Sein of Myanmar signified something the Manmohan Singh government did not think through, and the Indian Armed Services may not have bargained for. India has made a military commitment requiring insertion of Indian boots on the ground, IAF planes in foreign airspace, and naval presence afloat and ashore in distant waters. The agreements signed with these three countries will, at once, increase manifold India’s involvement and profile in the arc “Central South Asia” (as Karzai called it)-South China Sea by way of the Irrawaddy, thereby establishing India as the “go to” option for regional countries feeling insecure and facing an uncertain future.
These countries, it is clear, want to leverage India’s friendly heft for their own purposes. By forging security links with India, Karzai means to derail Pakistan’s plans for “strategic depth” at Afghanistan’s expense and deter it from meddling in Afghanistan’s internal affairs, courtesy the Afghan Taliban and Jalaluddin Haqqani’s Waziri tribal group controlled by the ISI. Vietnam means to exploit the oil and gas-rich seabed of South China Sea claimed by several countries and principally disputed with China, which has made an expansive claim based, it says, on “history”, not international maritime law and encompassing the contested Spratly and Paracel Island chains and the oil and gas fields. With the powerful Chinese South Seas Fleet berthed at Sanya on Hainan Island at the northern end of South China Sea, Vietnam feels exposed and threatened, and sees an India with an energy stake in Vietnam’s offshore oil as an effective counterpoise to China. Likewise, the Thein Sein regime in Yangon, having discovered that China’s economic stranglehold on the country doesn’t serve Myanmar’s national interests is seeking the counter-balancing involvement of India in its national life. After all the well-being of Afghanistan, Vietnam and Myanmar is central to Indian security.
In each instance, the visiting head of state has felt encouraged and reassured because of the promise, such as the one publicly made by the External Affairs Minister, S.M. Krishna to Karzai that Delhi will, at all times, “be guided” by the beneficiary state in how and when Indian material support and assistance is used by the recipient state, which is the right attitude for Delhi to adopt. This will require Delhi to be prepared to militarily deliver should Kabul, Hanoi, and Yangon demand a more direct Indian role in stiffening up their defensive military stance vis a vis China or, as in Afghanistan’s case, require deployment of regular Indian military units , which may be more imminent than the Indian government has so far let on.
The new India-Afghanistan security cooperation accord and changes in US tactics of targeting the Taliban-Haqqanis with drones in cities like Miran Shah where the militants have taken refuge undeterred by concerns about collateral damage, will make Pakistani ISI all the more determined to make life difficult for India. Terrorist attacks will be marshalled against Indian diplomatic presence and Indian PSUs and private sector Companies building roads, constructing Parliament House in Kabul, involved in other development works, and entering the mineral and oil extraction sectors, with Afghan reserves of iron, copper, cobalt, gold and lithium valued in excess of $1 trillion. A point will soon be reached when the ITBP or Industrial Security Force units posted there will prove inadequate for protecting the enhanced Indian economic interests in Afghanistan, and the deployment of Indian armed forces will become imperative. The army can muster a Division-sized force at relatively short notice. In early 2003, it may be recalled, an infantry Division (ex-Lucknow) all but embarked on the defence of Kirkuk in Iraq at President George W Bush’s request. Equally, the Indian Air Force can, with few hiccups, station half a dozen of its strike aircraft at Bagram base outside Kabul, for contingent use.
The copious references to the “strategic partnership” in the Indo-Vietnamese Joint Statement and its playing up of India’s role in developing that country’s South China Sea oil deposits, in effect, defines the Indian navy’s prospective roles in upholding the principle, as Defence Minister, A.K. Antony stated of free passage in the oceanic highway, but also in safeguarding India’s oil assets in South China Sea. Hanoi has apparently concluded that according Indian navy the rights to use the port of Nha Trang on Vietnam’s South China Sea coastline, will help firm up its claim over the disputed sea territory. But, to make the right sort of impression India will have to have at least a naval flotilla presence out of Nha Trang, with ships in it rotating from their home bases in the Andaman Command, the Western Fleet in Mumbai, and the Eastern Fleet in Vishakapatnam. South China Sea will provide the Indian navy what it has never had – a challenging milieu to project power it has so far mostly talked about. It will also afford it the occasion and opportunity to blood its officers and men in tough situations when crises and live fire engagements could happen at any time. The analogue of this is the Indian army’s continuous involvement in counter-insurgency campaigns since 1947 in the North-East and Jammu & Kashmir, which has resulted in its being blooded and tested in action, and emerging as amongst the sharpest, most effective and battle-ready land forces anywhere.
Military leaders actually have to play catch-up because the government has already transitioned into an expeditionary policy mode with Antony recently informing the naval brass that the navy’s “mandate” is to be “net security provider for island nations in the Indian Ocean region.” Drawing Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Myanmar inside the Indian security perimeter is a mere extension of that mandate. Of course, tackling China and limiting its influence will be a difficult task, but one that will be the making of the Indian military as a meaningful force for peace and stability in 21st Century Asia.
[Published as “India must show muscle”, lead op-ed page article, ‘The New Indian Express’, Oct 21, 2011, at http://expressbuzz/op-ed/opinion/India-must-show-muscle/325427.html ]