India's Ostpolitik involving the ASEAN and the ‘‘rimland’’ states farther afield — like Japan and South Korea — has been a success in great part because of naval diplomacy.
Indian naval flotillas steaming into Asian ports, dropping anchor at Limpopo to showcase Indian designed missile destroyers, holding annual joint exercises in the Andaman Sea with the smaller littoral navies, exercising offshore during extended ‘‘goodwill’’ tours with the host country’s naval vessels and, generally, establishing a presence in proximal as well as distant seas constantly reminds these states of India’s strategic importance.
The legendary Singapore leader Lee Kwan Yew referred to India and China as the two wings of a giant airplane. Without either of them, Asia, he implied, could not fly.
What he tactfully left unsaid, but most Asian countries on China’s periphery believe, is that their security depends on the emergence of a militarily strong India as counterweight — because, notwithstanding its security commitments, in a crisis the United States can always choose to withdraw behind the moat of the Pacific Ocean.
The pillars of an obvious and enduring Indian security architecture, if only the Indian government had the wit to envision it, are Israel and a Trucial State, like Oman, in the west and, in the east, ASEAN and Vietnam in China’s ‘‘soft underbelly’’, and Taiwan and Japan on the Chinese flank.
Beijing may be apprehensive of a resurgent Japan but, of all the states on its border, it is most respectful of a militarily scrappy Vietnam, which prides itself on successfully fighting off the Chinese hegemon for ‘‘a thousand years’’. And most recently in 1979 gave the invading Chinese armies a bloody nose, which compelled Deng Xiaoping to do the prudent thing — speedily declare victory and get the hell out!
BY cultivating a resolute Vietnam as a close regional ally and security partner in the manner China has done Pakistan, India can pay Beijing back in the same coin.
China has strategically discomfited India and sought to ‘‘contain’’ it to south Asia by arming Pakistan with nuclear weapons and missiles. Militarily to focus on Pakistan — the Chinese cat’s paw — as India has done is unwise. The cat can be more effectively dealt with by enabling Vietnam — a smaller but spirited tomcat — to rise militarily as a consequential state in China’s immediate neighbourhood.
In the short term, this should reasonably be the prime Indian strategic objective.
An opportunity will arise on October 3, when a defence delegation led by Lt General Nguyen Thinh, head of the Vietnamese Defence Research Centre — the counterpart of India’s Defence Research and Development Organisation — begins its Indian trip. General Thinh is expected to ask for Indian help and technical assistance in acquiring a missile production capability.
The problem is the Vietnamese want the Brahmos cruise missile, with which they promise to keep the Chinese Navy on the defensive in the South China Sea and the approaches to the Malacca Straits. This is an esteemable mission. The Indian government, acting sensibly, should help Vietnam achieve it.
But the Brahmos, entering production stage, will have to be first inducted in goodly numbers in the Indian order-of-battle before a surplus can be generated for friendly states. And, in any case, technology transfer may be infeasible, at least initially.
BUT there is the proven short-range Prithvi missile, with impressive accuracy, that India can part with because, with the family of Agni missiles in the fray, it has become redundant.
The Prithvi in the arsenal highlights the Indian nuclear deterrent’s limited reach and clout and is something of an embarrassment. And deployed on the western border with Pakistan, it is destabilising. It can be give to the Vietnamese without in any way weakening the country’s security.
Moreover, the Integrated Defence Staff, which favours it over the Brahmos even in naval missions, can pass on advice for using the Prithvi, other than in land-based operations, in the sea-surface sanitising mode the Vietnamese envisage. Further, the transaction for the sub-300 km range Prithvi is permissible under the Missile Technology Control Regime.
In exchange for the conventional warheaded Prithvi now and the promise of more advanced missiles and other such strategic cooperation in the future, Hanoi should be persuaded to allow the Indian Navy a basing option in Cam Ranh Bay, unarguably the finest natural deep water harbour in Asia, to match the planned Chinese naval presence in Gwadar on the Baluchistan coast. This, in turn, can be bottled up by the IAF active out of the former RAF base at Gan, leased from the Maldives government.
BUT Cam Ranh Bay is a heady attraction for the United States and China as well. Vietnam has turned down such approaches essentially because it distrusts them. In the past, when the Indian Navy requested access to Cam Ranh Bay, the Vietnamese pleaded this would upset the big powers. However, the offer of missiles and other such strategic cooperation should prevail over Vietnam’s inhibitions.
The crucial question is: has the MEA the imagination to push this deal? Burdened by its pusillanimous take on diplomacy, which pooh-poohs military means of furthering national interest, for instance, it stopped the sale of second-hand corvettes and fast patrol craft to Mauritius and the Seychelles, forcing the navy to gift these in order to maintain goodwill.
Worse, the MEA seems a laggard in strategic thinking. Its attitude was reflected in the response then foreign secretary K. Raghunath gave to the (first) National Security Advisory Board.
To a question about India’s playing the ‘‘Vietnam card’’, he replied: ‘‘It is not practical.’’ That was six odd years ago. With all the strategic goings-on it has since been party to, one hopes the Foreign Office is a bit more canny these days.