[Kovind and Duterte]
This past fortnight, I was away, participating in the Yushan Forum 2019 in Taipei — an annual effort by the Taiwanese government to forge regional partnerships in the face of unrelentingly punitive policies of the communist China regime to isolate Taiwan, and thence to Istanbul where I sensed considerable unease among the people about the turn Erdogan’s war with the Syrian Kurds may be taking, especially after the videos telecast by CNN showing wanton killings and other atrocities on unarmed civilian Kurds by the Turkish-supported militia in the van of the action. While Ankara, with its critical buy of the S-400 air defence system may have gained some slight capacity to water down Russia’s enthusiasm for the joint front comprising its new found partners — the indefatigable Kurds, and its old ally — Assad’s army, which’s fetching up for a fight, things on the ground may spiral out of its control.
But it is the right time for the Modi government to payback Erdogan’s gambit to insert himself and Turkey into Kashmir affairs by offering Delhi’s good offices for mediation with the Kurds. Of course, Delhi won’t do any such thing because its timorous policy mindset won’t allow it to.
It is precisely this timorousness, or may be it is plain timidity, that may also prevent Delhi from grabbing the opportunity available at the other end of Asia, in the Philippines. Among the most significant state visits in recent years by India’s leaders is the one underway by the country’s President, Ram Nath Kovind — only the third in the last 70 years, to the Philippines, a long neglected archipelagic state that a strategically challenged Delhi has accorded far less importance to than it deserves. This situation is sought to be corrected but whether sufficient seriousness, intensity and purpose will be summoned by the Modi government remains the central question.
In fact, the Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, a true maverick among regional leaders, who is as unpredictable as he is purposeful, referred candidly to the Indian government’s inattention despite Manila’s efforts at engaging it. Both countries, he noted, “are diversifying partnerships, rebalancing old ones and strengthening those that have traditionally been on the margins of our diplomacy.” But with the essence of the Hindustani phrase — “daer se aaye, durust aaye” perhaps in mind, he welcomed “India’s role in [Philippines’] defense capability upgrade program against the backdrop of our growing security cooperation” because as “countries strategically located in the Pacific and Indian Oceans, we [have] shared interest to protect our maritime commons and advance the rule of law in our maritime domains.” But aware of Delhi’s inability to muster strategic focus, Duterte warned, albeit gently, that while “We hope to look back on this day as a milestone in our relations, the day when we set out to turn promise into reality, and potential into concrete benefits” it will require, he said, “a deft and agile diplomacy that empowers us to maximize opportunities for cooperation in a complex external environment.” ( https://www.tataydigong.info/duterte-president-of-india-agree-to-fight-terror-threats/ ) He thereby put his finger on a crucial Indian failing. “Deft and agile diplomacy” is, after all, not one of India’s strengths, or the country wouldn’t be in the dire strategic straits it finds itself in where China holds the whip hand.
Delhi may, however, be belatedly waking up to Philippines’ geostrategic usefulness in dealing with a rampaging China even as Prime Minister Narendra Modi sought not very successfully to inject a dose of Mamallapuram intimacy to the flagging Wuhan spirit. Unlike Modi, Xi Jinping, however, limits the nonsense about peacefully concerting with an obvious and manifest rival only to rhetoric, which costs him nothing, but leaves him free to pursue China’s interests without compromising them in the least, while gleefully expecting India to constrain itself — as it has always done — by following through on the Indian PM’s rhetorical flourishes.
But to return to topic, what sort of security cooperation does Manila have in mind? A couple of months back the leader of an Indian army team visiting Philippines had the remit to offer the Duterte government a “carte blanche” in this respect, in effect, asking Manila to list whatever it thought it needed by way of capacity build-up to militarily ward off China. Mightily impressed, the Philippine regime responded almost immediately with a long wish list, which is at the core of the “defence capability upgrade” Duterte referred to. But the Filipinos also offered India a glimpse of the kind of information Indian armed forces may find operationally useful. Such as real time information about Chinese naval assets, Chinese paramilitary naval vessels, and Chinese merchantmen with military equipment transiting the waters abutting on the Philippines.
For starters, India for the first time will be posting a Defence Attache in its embassy in Manila, who will become the official liaison for facilitating security cooperation particularly in the maritime domain. This will soon result in Indian assistance in erecting and, may be, even manning, radar and electronic intelligence stations on the main and outlier Philippine islands, transfer of naval capital hardware — fast attack and patrol craft and in the future, modern multi-role frigates and submarines, and training to handle and service these complex platforms.
In return, Manila will be more than amenable to the Indian Navy and the Indian Air Force using the vast former US naval base at Subic Bay, the finest deep water harbour outside of Vietnam’s Cam Ranh Bay, and Clark’s air force base, as their forward operational posts with pre-positioned stores in the region. An Indian flotilla and air complement able thus to replenish, restock, and change crews at will in Subic Bay and at Clark’s, will translate into a virtually permanent Indian naval and air presence on China’s door step. It presents India with an extraordinary prospect and capability to bottle-up China’s Navy and naval aviation. But, as detailed in my last book, Why India is not a great Power (Yet), it is the vision-limited nay-sayers in the Indian Navy and in the Pakistan-fixated IAF who may put hurdles against such distant deployment, assuming a suddenly strategically imaginative and live Modi regime desires it.
If Philippines is a must-do security project for India, upgrading relations with Taiwan is an imperative. At the Yushan Forum, President Tsai ing-wen reaffirmed her country’s innovative “south bound policy” featuring in the main India, Australia and New Zealand. In discussions with officials at the highest levels of the Taiwan foreign ministry, it is clear cooperating intensively with Taipei in the military and cyber spheres can seriously hurt and therefore contain China. When, in my presentation and more informally I reiterated my longstanding advice to the Indian government to adopt tit-for-tat policies and in exchange for Beijing’s nuclear missile arming Pakistan that has permanently strategically discomfited India, to return the favour and nuclear missile arm countries on China’s periphery, senior Taiwanese officials reacted, supposedly in a lighter vein, saying “Please pass on some of these nuclear weapons to us!” There were also hints that Taipei had not altogether forsaken its own nuclear weapons option. Taiwan was pressured to close down its atom bomb project in the 1990s by, who else, its ostensible guardian — America!
What made an equal impression on the Taiwanese was my conceptualization of an “Asian Security system for Asia by rimland and offshore Asian states” to box in China that I have articulated in my books and other writings. It caught the fancy of the popular media, particularly online news outlets, and suggests it can gin up traction if India proposes it as a collective venture in this fraught time when Trump’s America is proving too thin a reed for Asian states to rest their security on.
It is still not too late for Delhi to recover the lost politico-military ground by, firstly, putting in motion the ‘Óne India’ concept — an extension of the government’s “One Country, one Constitution” notion generated post-Article 370 abrogation, inclusive of all territories of the erstwhile princely state of Kashmir not excluding the portions presently occupied by China in Aksai Chin, and by Pakistan, demanding that all friendly states sign up for it. It’d be a direct counter to Beijing’s ‘Óne China’ principle its foreign policy adheres to. And secondly, by ratcheting up military security relationships with states bordering China, landward and seaward, with pride of place in this security system accorded Vietnam. Taiwan, Philippines and Indonesia.
A singularly focussed Indian government, practicing hard realpolitik of this kind — something I have advocated for over 30 years now, will immediately vault India into a power that China and the United States will find hard not to respect. Alas, no Indian government to-date — not the ones run by the Bharatiya Janata Party, and even less by the Congress party, has quite grasped the necessity for India to lead the charge against China in Asia, a role almost every Asian country without exception would like India to play as a means of reining in China, making an unreliable US more expendable, and of protecting their interests.