India can play bigger military role in Asia

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]

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 Asian geopolitics, Defence Industry, Geopolitics, Great Power imperatives, India's China Policy, India's strategic thinking and policy, Indian Air Force, Indian Army, Indian Navy, Indian Ocean, Military Acquisitions, Missiles, Nuclear Policy & Strategy, Nuclear Weapons, Strategic Relations with South East Asia & Far East, Strategic Relations with the US & West. Bookmark the permalink.

14 Responses to India can play bigger military role in Asia

  1. vihan says:

    Brilliant article as always you out do yourself! However, there are a few (somewhat undiplomatic) terms which I would add namely, “sea denial”, “keeping a naval force ready to block the Malacca straits and other choke points” and “a possibility of conducting battle drills to test these scenarios”. Since this was written for Straits Times and consequently an ASEAN audience I can understand why you left out greater co-operation with Mongolia in terms of joint military exercises and even possibly opening up observer and later military bases there. Let us not forget that, like the Vietnamese the Mongolians too have the killer instinct to deal with China with unmatched ferocity.

    • In a larger architecture, Mongolia does join Vietnam as India’s pincers — if only GOI had the geostrategic vision to see the obvious!

      • Ravi says:

        Vietnam not only needs the BrahMos, but as you may know has expressed a desire for the Prithvi and/or Agni-1. The Agni-1 will ensure that the PLA will not conduct is genocidal scorched earth policy in any future confrontation with Vietnam with impunity and sans fear of counter-strikes, as it did when it was running away after getting hammered by the Vietnamese Army during the last Sino-Viet conflict.

      • GOI has been trying to palm Prithvis off to Vietnam for almost 6-7 years now. The liquid fuel is the problem. Any solid-fueled missile — such as Agni-1, would be fine, except Delhi has accorded priority to equipping Indian Arty units with this SRBM. Really, really myopic. Have things changed? Not last I heard.

      • Ravi says:

        When the Shaurya is available which does everything the A-1 can do and a lot more, why this “fetish” for inducting more A-1’s?

  2. vihan says:

    @Ravi Agreed, only we can’t export Agni-1 and Prithvi variants beyond 1 due to the 300 km MTCR restriction. You also raise another interesting question, can we export PAD/Pradyumna to Vietnam if they asked for it? Would it violate any treaty?

    • MTCR notwithstanding, you can sell anything to anyone. After all, how was the MTCR range limitation adhered to on the brahmos? a software that cuts off fuel after the 300 km range. It is nothing that can’t be fiddled with.

      • vihan says:

        This is indeed good news. I too put Indian interests before treaties, only I would be on the fence for a while if a 3rd party was involved. If it was just India I would say go ahead guns blazing. On the same topic what is the true range of Brahmos keeping true its speed and accuracy?

    • Ravi says:

      @vihan India is not part of the MTCR, but instead has been a victim of it. There’s no point adhering to a treaty like this. About exporting PAD to Vietnam, yes if they asked for it. However, they are more inclined towards offensive systems. The present Vietnamese Army brass are still sore about the PLA’s tactics while fleeing.

      • vihan says:

        @ravi I think we have to play this in terms of becoming a part of all the arms control and non proliferation regimes *strictly* on our own terms. The regimes are useful for us as it helps us get intelligence and put pressure on the Chinese establishment which has been the worst threat to global security with their terrifying proliferation record. Moreover, being a part of those regimes can get us some technology which is useful e.g the engine of the LCA. If however, national interests require us to junk these regimes, by all means we should.

  3. Ravi says:

    @vihan: Pray, do indulge me as to how becoming part of nonproliferation regimes will enable India obtain technology for the LCA engine. That’s been available for quite some time even without India being part of such regimes. It’s just that the Indians didn’t play their cards correctly!

    • vihan says:

      @ravi Getting on those regimes helps our case in the US Congress to get technology from the US. We only recently got the LCA engine from GE and while the US is primarily doing it so we can be played against China, their is a process in which lawmakers need to justify to their electorate that an an armament subsystem was exported but only after the end user country has or is on its way towards signing arms control and non proliferation regimes.

      • Ravi says:

        @vihan: WRT “lawmakers need to justify to their electorate that an an armament subsystem was exported but only after the end user country has or is on its way towards signing arms control and non proliferation regimes”, you mean the way Pakistan is! Get real man!

  4. Actually what works by way of Congressional push to sell what mil-tech India needs is to make the case to Congressmen and senators about such transfers generating revenue for American arms producing plants in their constituencies, and employment — economic considerations that will override other concerns/reservations they may have, including adherence to tech-denial regimes.

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