(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.