Hurt China in its soft under-belly

Image result for pics of sihanoukville port

(Sihanoukville, main port of Cambodia)

Indian foreign and strategic policies suffer from perennial weaknesses. One of them is the Indian government’s/MEA’s lack of what the great geopolitical theorist, Sir Halford Mackinder, called “the map reading habit of mind”.  That’s why India’s foreign policy is usually bereft of a geopolitical frame and undergirding. Further, even when there is a glimmer of geostrategic understanding visible in a stance, it is voided by the tardiness in following up on policy initiatives. For example, the country’s “Look East” policy first enunciated by PM Narasimha Rao in the early 1990s remained just “looking” for some 30 years — a very long time for the policy to lose steam. Only in the last years of the Manmohan Singh regime did the pace pick up in this respect but fell short for want of boldness. Well into the Modi era, Vietnam and Indonesia, repeatedly pleaded for the Brahmos supersonic cruise missile but the invariably frightened Indian government didn’t get up the courage to sell it to them because of the fear of Chinese reaction. Indeed, there’s still some uncertainty about the Brahmos deal to Vietnam. But in his penultimate year in office (of his first term), Modi has finally mustered the vision to do something truly strategic for a change.  He is fully into courting Cambodia. To wrench Cambodia and Laos out of China’s grasp would be to hit Beijing in the gut — because these two states constitute China’s soft under-belly.

Look at the map. Vietnam is viscerally anti-China and so are, in varying degrees, the other ASEAN states on the South China Sea. Land-bound Laos and Cambodia on the littoral are the exceptions. Cambodia is of particular importance to Beijing because of its frontage on the Gulf of Siam (Thailand). Without access to this frontage on the South China Sea , the Chinese Navy would have no friendly landfall anywhere in Southeast Asia in war time. It would make difficult sustained maritime operations by the Chinese Navy even in this sub-region — with Hainan as the nearest base. That’s why China has been so solicitous of the Cambodian strongman Hun Sen. Except now Hun Sen will stay on after the other regional leaders have departed to enjoy some  special treatment — a State Visit just for him with all the pomp and ceremony Delhi can dial up to impress him. If the bait is half-way big and juicy enough he will bite because there’s almost palpable  interest in Pnom-Penh to get out from under the Chinese tutelage. And if Cambodia is detached from China, Laos will come unstuck from China soon enough. Vientiane, like Pnom Penh, has played a canny game, balancing between the benefits of the ASEAN and its connection to the West and the offers of Chinese subsidies, investments and trade concessions that have kept his country above water.

It is significant that all the heads of state/government of the ASEAN agreed to be co-chief guests at the 2018 Republic Day celebrations, suggesting that there is now a collective consciousness among the ASEAN group about the perils of being in hock to China economically or being vulnerable, security-wise, to Beijing which plays with a heavy hand.  India is avidly sought as the alternate power node that can also provide security and free up the policy options for all of them.  It is an opportunity not to be missed. The likelihood, however, is that India will once again miss it. Because MEA’s delivery mechanism is faulty in the extreme — but that’s for another post!

What can Modi offer Hun Sen and, by extension, to Thongloun Sisoulith of Laos? Assistance to restore the Angkor Wat Temple complex is an ongoing Indian programme, but it is old school, encompassed by Modi’s rhetoric of India’s civilizational reachout to Southeast Asia, etc, and lacks the bite. This approach in the 21st Century, moreover, has severe limitations. What Hun Sen will appreciate are things like a programme to modernize the Cambodian railways and roadways, and to help build east-west telecommunications connectivity, all of which can be subsumed under the ‘Ganga-Mekong’ Plan envisaged during Vajpayee’s time. This will have to be done at India’s cost, and which grant-in aid will be a worthwhile investment. Pnom-Penh could be afforded an additional $5 billion credit line to import capital goods from India — which will boost the country’s manufacturing sector and open a new market for it, with the understanding that these goods will be moved to- Cambodia on Indian bottoms, thereby giving a fillip to Indian shipping companies. And India should undertake to re-equip the Cambodian armed services and to train their select officers and JCOs on a regular basis  at Indian military institutions here.

What Modi should ask for in return is the kind of logistics agreement India recently signed with Singapore that allows pre-positioning of naval and military stores and the use of the Sihanoukville port on the Bay of Kampong Som by the Indian Navy — the only deep water port in Cambodia and, use of the airport in the port area for use by Indian Air Force Su-30 fighter squadrons. It will be a deal that Hun Sen might readily agree to because it will principally show India’strategic intent, and lend him some breathing space vis a vis Beijing. And it will be reassuring to other ASEAN states, especially to Laos to the north. China will probably respond with increased aid, credit, etc. but it won’t overcome the desire of the Cambodians and Laotians to escape Beijing’s suffocating embrace.

By thus making the first cut on the Chinese umbilical to Southeast Asia, Delhi will signal its determination to counter China at every step and to establish an enduring Indian presence in these parts. Will Modi do any of this? His record does not hint that he will because, he says, he so hates doing anything disruptive.




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.
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17 Responses to Hurt China in its soft under-belly

  1. devraj says:

    Sir,what is indian position directed energy weapon progrrame compared to china? When will agni v missile fully deployed, means what time frame,?What would be possible yield of warhead on agni v missile? Do s400 has ability to shoot f22? When will fgfa induct in iaf.?

  2. Shaurya says:

    I was just thinking about the status of Cambodia and here comes your post!! Laos would be difficult but Cambodia doable, especially if we seek to build road/rail links from the Indian mainland. We need a new grouping to ally with the SE Asian states with India’s leadership.

  3. poorafauji says:

    Agree with most of the points mentioned. Laos and Cambodia are suffocating in China’s tight embrace. It’d be an achievement for India if we can extricate them. While this would be a welcome achievement, I’d also like India to work out a strategic relationship with the others, especially Vietnam. This is not going to be easy but if we can do this, Cambodia and Laos will be forced to join it. US too can be pestered to help to bring about this arrangement.
    That would be a nightmare for China.

  4. devraj says:

    Sir, do india have slokia type 400 kiloton nukes of boosted fission variety.As russian tested 400kt slokia fbf nukes code named joe4 in 1950s.As israel also follows slokia design in nukes and their nukes yields are 80-100kt .Both nations are indian close friends,help from them in slokia fbf nukes are possible.your view please

    • well just responding to you (however i am not Dr. Bharat karnad) i think sir that we Ultimately have to test AGAIN, our Missiles are World-Class & only Moscow till date had allowed us in their Inertial Confinement Center,no way Israel will do that,the reason being that they themselves will be exposed to the rest of the world that they have N-Weapons which they will not reveal with their recent obsession with Iran right now

  5. sanman says:

    Bravo to an excellent article by Mr Bharat Karnad! Vietnam & Laos are in the better position to flank China and thus take its attention away from going after India. One place that India, US, Japan need to focus on is Cambodia, because removing the pro-Chinese puppet govt from Phnom Penh would significantly help to bolster Vietnam’s prospects against China. Cambodia’s PM Hun Sen is a former cadre of Khmer Rouge, the murderous guerrilla movement that China used to seize control over Cambodia, like Pak did with Taliban in Afghanistan. Removing Hun Sen would remove a key obstacle which has kept Vietnam from more effectively standing up to China.

    I also want to post this timely report which exposes another key soft underbelly in China, vis-a-vis its political setup:

    As we all know, India’s external enemies often exploit India’s internal divisions by attacking Modi/BJP directly, because they know that they can count on being aided in their efforts by India’s domestic opposition forces. They of course gain huge mileage from this.

    Similarly, India should look at ways to embarrass or undermine Xi in particular, in order to give his internal enemies more chances to destabilize or unseat him. Yeh toh Rajniti/Kutniti hai. This could yield better dividends for us compared to simply confronting China as a whole.

    • Sir i Didn’t knew that you were also a fan of SWADESHI GLOBAL Channels like WION LOL,like me

      • sanman says:

        Yeah, I watch them – but I wish they’d bothered to come up with a better name than “World Is One Network” – how trite and cheesy can you get? Anyway, Xi is a juicy target to go after, since it’ll be interesting to see the Chinese propagandists fall all over themselves defending their supreme leader. That should make for a very Congress-like spectacle.

    • exactly Sir & i fully agree with you

  6. sanman says:

    Another thing I want to mention, regarding “Look East”/”Act East” – why do we go out of our way to grandly announce and name such policies? That seems to attract more negative attention than positive. Why don’t we instead just quietly get these things done without announcing them so publicly? Just like our navy’s obsession with aircraft carriers, our foreign policy likewise seems to mainly be about fanfare and pageantry, rather than effective results. No wonder the Chinese see us as peacocks and pushovers.

  7. sanman says:

    The US has been taking a more strident approach towards Cambodia, hoping to replicate its success in changing govts in Eastern Europe:
    Perhaps there is room for some Good-Cop-Bad-Cop, where India can be the Good Cop toward Cambodia. India can try to engage Hun Sen’s govt, but ideally it would be better if Hun Sen’s govt were removed altogether.

    • its better to cut a deal with Dictators like Saddam Hussein & Hosni Mobarak (Egypt) who can get the job DONE,rather than people like Aung San Suu Kyi,wo buckles up under pressure from Beijing

      • sanman says:

        I doubt that Suu Kyi has any serious power in the govt. She’s just there for show now. Problem is that Hun Sen is China’s lackey, and a former Khmer Rouge cadre. From what I see, he’s more like a Ziaur Rahman. The best thing in the long run for Cambodia, would be a deep purge of anyone associated with Khmer Rouge. Anyway, we Indian beggars can’t be choosers.

  8. Gram Massla says:

    China’s eye is on the prize of South China Sea. It wants to control the $5 trillion worth of trade that passes through SCS as well as possess the immense mineral wealth in it. Standing in its way are the nations of ASEAN, South Korea and Japan. To splinter ASEAN it has courted Cambodia and Laos, albeit with some success. The two nations have opposed ASEAN from condemning Chinese policies of island grab. China was magnanimous, in its own mind, when it offered to exploit the riches of the SCS with the individual countries which, of course, was rejected quite sensibly by the affected countries. In revenge, the CCP, being the archetypal teacher, decided to teach the offending nations a lesson by stealing their property and assigning some obscure Ming dynasty map as justification. If India does have the cojones to stall China in this sinister island grab then it must partner with countries such as Japan, Australia and the US and back the peripheral nations of the SCS to the hilt and push China back. Bullies stop only when confronted.

    • Absolutely right sir, but the fact is that they will not be RESTRICTED to the nine dash lines as they claim,they are more concerned about moving towards the Melechha Dilemma @MikePillbury had a translation of PLA DOCUMENTS the the chinese are very rigorous about these things,the translation he did was in the late 90s & in which its clearly stated that Beijing will start pressing on 3 nations i.e. India,Japan & Vietnam,Japan over Senkaku,India over Tawang & Arunachal Pradesh(Of which coming into the Indian Ocean with their SSBNs & so on & so forth was a part of) & with Vietnam (the reason being the Vietnamese IRREGULARS kicked out these PLA troops from Vietnam in 1979,when they Dared to come in the vietnamese territory to teach them a lesson,on the contrary,they were taught a lesson by the Vietnamese IRREGULARS)

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