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Excerpts from Valedictory Address during Seminar 'Reinventing India-East Asia Relations under N

C3S Paper No. 0130/2016


The following is an excerpt of the Valedictory Address on 24th September 2016 at Senate Hall, Kerala University, Thiruvananthapuram during a Seminar ‘Reinventing India-East Asia Relations under NDA II: Cultural and Strategic Perspectives’. It was delivered by Commodore R. S. Vasan IN (Retd.), Director, Chennai Centre for China Studies and Head, Strategy and Security Studies, Center for Asia Studies. 

First of all, I would like to thank the organisers for inviting me to deliver the valedictory talk at the end of a very productive seminar on East Asia with particular reference to the NDA II Government’s approach in dealing with the developments in the Indo-Pacific area. In addition to getting a sense of the ‘work in progress’ by the present Government, the two day deliberations have achieved the objective of sensitizing and engaging the young minds who are looking for quality inputs that would help in better understanding the theme of the seminar. Also as brought out by the speakers in the inaugural session, the efforts of the present Government is not totally about reinventing but rejuvenating the India-East Asia relations.

From that point of view, the inputs provided by highly experienced diplomats, Academia and Students in the last two days have served the purpose of the seminar. I would like to flag a few more issues of great importance in the study of India East Asia relations with specific attention to the strategic perspectives.

First the South China Sea– It is clear that this will remain the center of gravity as for as the developments in the maritime domain are concerned. There are discernible trends indicative of far reaching consequences in the South China Sea (SCS). An examination of the new entrants in SCS illustrates the strategic importance of the area on one hand and also the emerging nature of competition in the contested areas claimed by China. The response of China to the verdict on 12th July 2016 portends unqualified danger to stability in the region in general and around the contested areas in particular. Some of the incidents where patrolling ships, fishing vessels and aircraft on opposing sides have come in close contact with each other are indicative of the shape of things to come. Such close quarter situations have the potential of escalating mutual responses.

The period, post the verdict of the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) has seen realignments and change of attitude amongst the players.  Japan which is shedding all its past pacifist approach is now willing to join the joint patrols with USA thus changing the maritime equations in the region. Russia is a new entrant in the South China Sea which has joined China in sea patrols. With the entry of Russia in the contested waters, a new cold war appears to be evolving with serious ramifications for stability and security in the region.

The notable change is in the case of Philippines itself which won a favourable verdict. Of late, it has demonstrated a leaning towards China by distancing itself from USA.  China would indeed be very pleased that its promises for greater economic engagement with Philippines is working. USA would indeed be peeved with the response of President Duterte since the success of the pivot to Indo-Pacific hinges largely on the continued availability of bases in Philippines for the redeployment of some sixty percent of the maritime forces as per plans.

From the experiences of the past, it is clear that ASEAN will not be united in terms of expressing support for the verdict of PCA. ASEAN as an economic entity is heavily dependent on Chinese investments and therefore not in a position to take a confrontational approach collectively. From all indications, it is evident that China will insist on bilateral discussions as opposed to internationalisation and will have its way with the small dependent neighbours.

As for as India is concerned, it is obvious that it will not go beyond openly supporting the concept of the Freedom of Navigation (FON) as enshrined in the UNCLOS, but will not join the US in the joint patrols. This is consistent with the desire of India to maintain its strategic autonomy while expressing its support for the provisions of UNCLOS.  However, there has to be greater emphasis on the Act East Policy of the present Government to ensure that east Asian constituencies are cultivated and nurtured. From that point of view the visit to Vietnam by the PM, sale of corvettes to Philippines and participation in the Malabar alongside Japan and US in the Pacific have struck the right note in terms of being relevant in an area which is of both economic and strategic significance to India. However, lot more needs to be done to engage the South East Asian countries who have been heavily influenced in the past through cultural and religious associations.

Second the Indian Ocean Region- The Indian Ocean Region (IOR) will continue to be an area of intense power play between India and China. The developments are keenly watched by other Extra Regional Players(ERP). The One Belt One Road initiative and in particular the Maritime Silk Road that connects China with South and South East Asia, Africa and beyond has the potential to change the existing economic and strategic contours in the region. India by all indications appears to have opted out of the One Belt One Road (OBOR) with very good reasons. The OBOR would benefit China in a big way and there are hardly any long term benefits for India which will see its market share and influence taking a nose dive due to the economy driven MSR initiatives in its neighbourhood.

India has been alarmed with the deployments of PLA Navy units including nuclear submarines in the Indian Ocean and is reshaping its own responses.The presence of the PLA Navy units since 2008 for anti-piracy missions is continuing even today giving them a “feel of the field”. The extended deployment patterns along the African coast made China realise the importance of having forward bases and friends who could be depended up on for supporting its economy, trade and naval missions. The consequent decision of China to build a naval base in Djibouti provides a military foot hold in the IOR and has far reaching impact on the stability and security in the region considered to be in the traditional backyard of India.

The building of Hambanthota in Sri Lanka, the development of Colombo port city, construction and operation of Gwadar, increased investments in Maldives, initiatives in Bangladesh and Myanmar have provided China with strategic options by way of heavy investments in the destination countries.

Prime Minister Modi’s visit to Seychelles, Mauritius, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh obviously is aimed at strengthening the maritime and bilateral relations with the immediate and the extended neighbourhood. That some of the visits have happened after decades is indicative of the lack of vision by the previous Government in terms of nurturing maritime constituencies. The integrated Maritime Domain Awareness (MDA) architecture now has Mauritius, Seychelles included in the outer periphery of India’s maritime interests in the IOR. The tri lateral maritime agreement between Sri Lanka, Maldives and India will need further strengthening to bring these immediate neighbours in to the ambit of surveillance and security architecture. These initiatives in the inner and outer periphery of India’s maritime interests are also aimed at stymieing the advances of China in to the Indian Ocean.

Coming to Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief (HADR), India’s prowess for rendering aid in terms of crisis was proved beyond doubt post Tsunami 2004 when it was able to simultaneously handle the post Tsunami situation both with in the country and also in the neighbour hood. It is on record that within 24 hours after the Tsunami, Indian naval and Coast Guard vessels were already in the affected countries rendering help The setting up of the Tsunami Warning system is a welcome move that will reinforce the confidence of the neighbours who would look for advance warning of Tsunami.

For a long time, there were clarion calls to keep Indian Ocean as a zone of peace but with no avail. The cold war witnessed extensive deployment of war vessels and nuclear submarines in the warm waters of Indian Ocean.  The call repeated by the National Security Advisor Ajit Doval during the Galle conference in Sri Lanka was seen as an effort to keep China out of the IOR. However, India has to brace for the entry of new players and work on contingencies to cater for both conventional and asymmetric threats. With the developments in the Indo-Pacific and the focus of USA in this happening area; the presence of ERPs, whether in SCS or in the IOR is something that needs to be dovetailed in to the security calculus. During some of the security dialogues between India and USA a suggestion that India be the net security provider in the Indian Ocean Region has been mooted. While Indian Navy by virtue of being the strongest regional force is definitely equipped to undertake this role, it has also been seen as an effort of USA to draw India in to the security architecture that would to certain extent offset the expense incurred in forward presence and posturing of the US Naval units.  The recent signing of the LEMOA would provide opportunities for enhanced strategic and technical engagement with USA.

Third Connectivity- While China has massive plans for connecting continents both over land and through the sea routes, India is lagging behind in terms of connectivity with its neighbours and even infrastructure along its own borders in the North East. This despite the large geographical advantage that it enjoys by its unique location in Asia. The jutting in to the Indian Ocean with a long coast line of about 7516 kilometers, the forward post on both eastern and western flanks in the form of A&N Islands and L&M Islands provides an enviable positional advantage vis-à-vis China. This advantage conferred by geography has not been exploited to help India in achieving its pride of place in the comity of nations. While Port Blair the capital of A&N Islands hosts a biennial event Milan which has been well received, it has not really capitalized on the proximity to the South Eastern countries by way of greater engagement with the navies and coast guards of the littorals in the region.

The bureaucratic delays and lethargy have dented India’s aspirations to be regional power capable of standing up to the designs of assertive China which is pulling out all stops to change the geo strategic, geo economic and geo political contours from Asia to Africa. The example of the delays in Bangladesh China India Myanmar (BCIM) corridor (which would give access to people and markets in South East Asia) illustrates a point. Such delays in other projects both within its own borders and beyond has come in the way of India making its presence felt in the destination countries of South and South East Asia. India has not been proactive in the past in terms of protecting its long term economic and strategic interests. Even the connectivity with in the SAARC member countries has not been achieved due to the objections of an obstructionist Pakistan to various proposals. (At the time of this speech extract being uploaded, the recent decision of India to pull out of SAARC along with four other countries has spelt death knell for this sub regional organization that in any case failed to deliver on all counts). However, there are some signs of change for the better under the new Government this momentum needs to be maintained. So in the context of the seminar theme, it would be more beneficial to engage through the BIMSTEC and other East /South East Asia orientations.

During the two day deliberations, many speakers have rightly emphasized on the need for strong national/domestic policies which will aid the process of adopting proactive/successful foreign policies. From that point of view, it is important that India is capable of standing on its own in terms of Science and Technology developments and Indigenisation. It is also important to share its knowledge of the space, oceans and the cyber space with the smaller developing countries for the common good.  While the concept of Make in India is a good one, the practical impediments and related challenges need to be addressed to realise the dream.  It is ironic that a country that has excelled in space, nuclear technology and Information Technology is not able to put its act together to reduce import of military hardware and dependence thereof. Successful projects such as the LCA, ALH, Arihantand other Army, Navy projects need to be fully supported by the users to ensure that the nation acquires a credible military industrial complex for both domestic use and exports. It would therefore be important to ensure that the Make in India dream is not stalled by lobbyists and middlemen for whom profit is the only motive.

It is well known that India cannot match China in terms of its economic clout. Therefore, it is even more important to work on its strength areas including soft power to engage with the world. There can be no disengagement with China particularly in terms of economic investments and other global issues where the two most populous countries can come together.

The term “overcoming the hesitations of history” was used to describe the slew of agreements with USA. However, it would be more relevant and necessary to overcome the hesitations of history in respect of our relations with countries in South and South East Asia. Despite the strong historical, cultural and religious connections with these countries, India has not been able to engage them to derive maximum leverages. This needs to be a priority for the present Government.

In conclusion, the two-day seminar has brought out the current status in terms of India East Asia relations and has identified the challenges particularly in the backdrop of the aggressive actions of China. While some key changes have been brought about and a few corrections have been applied to protecting our long term interests, there are miles and miles to cover before the Act East initiatives start yielding results to serve India’s national interests.

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