July 19, 2012

The hawk and the minnow

graphic- Telegraph, India.

There is something simple in the thought that India can counter China's 'string of pearls' strategy by ratcheting up military spending or expanding Indian military presence in the region. India's simultaneous strategy of building alliances with countries as far away as Vietnam and Japan- its own string of pearls, if you will, to encircle China- are likely to be a little more successful. But just a little, because India is operating from a position of immense weakness- that it continues to ignore at its own peril.

The soon to be commissioned Indian Naval Air Station NAS Baaz (the word means 'Hawk') at Campbell Bay near the Nicobar Islands- which will superintend the six degree channel close to Indonesia- seems like an excellent idea on the face of it; after all, anything from a quarter to forty percent of the world's trade (50,000 ships) passes through here every year before entering the Malacca Straits, as does, more importantly, eighty percent of Chinese oil.  Campbell Bay is to become India's easternmost forward operating base; military aircraft and ships will spy on the Malacca and Sunda Straits from here; experts also seem to think, somewhat simple mindedly, that India will be able to threaten to choke the Malacca Straits after Baaz is up and flying.

It is equally naive to think that Baaz will be able to contain the sixty percent of naval assets that the US wants to deploy in the Asia Pacific as part of its new 'rebalancing' strategy for the region- something India, with its non-alignment bent- is understandably wary about.

Some Indian weaknesses are apparent and do not need elaboration- economic and military disadvantages, for example. India will not be able to trade blows with China on these two fronts. The Chinese string of pearls- the projection of Chinese geopolitical, military and diplomatic power through the Malacca Straits right up to the Persian Gulf- operates from a position of strength. Countering this effectively- even with tacit American backing- will require more than just dreaming, or a Baaz or two. 

Other Indian weaknesses are not so apparent- well, they are, actually, but it is assumed that they either will be sorted out or are peripheral. Trust me, they are not peripheral at all; they are absolutely central to our ability to project power in the waters around us.

Corruption, for example. It is laughably asinine that a country whose coastline remains porous almost four years after the Mumbai terror attacks- even Somali pirates have been 'found' on the mainland not so long ago, having swum there- can project its naval or military power thousands of miles away from its shores with any confidence. Corruption's close cousins- ineptitude, unaccountability, nepotism and lethargy- will continue to ensure the failure of both policy and execution in future. The fact that corruption- endemic in Indian politics, industry and bureaucracy- has spread alarmingly into the military establishment is well known by now. At least I have little confidence that this has not castrated the country's ability to defend itself- or to project its military power (I was aghast when I heard a former Army Chief say, reacting to a question on corruption in the armed forces, 'But we are not as bad as Pakistan!' Is that our benchmark now?)

In addition, in connection with the NAS Baaz, one question is this: In a country riddled with corruption, are such military decisions taken keeping the national interests of a billion Indians in mind, or are they taken for the personal interests of a dirty dozen or two? What is the quality of these decisions?

India- already being referred to as the first "Fallen Angel" of the BRIC countries-has other huge weaknesses that make it unsuitable, to put it mildly, to aspire to be a regional satrap. Rising disparity and destitution (there is something odd in the statistic that says that more people have been 'lifted' from poverty but destitution has increased) have created a schism in society- the Naxalite 'Red Corridor' is the prime example of this. The country's resources are on fire sale; everybody- politician, industrialist, intermediary, and bureaucrat- wants a piece of the action. Critical institutions hollowed out by corruption and mismanagement, administrative paralysis, public and private sector corruption are today, when combined with a young population, a dry tinderbox waiting for a spark. All the ingredients are already in place. Major civil unrest is simply a matter of time.

What does this have to do with China or Baaz, I hear you asking. I could somewhat cynically reply that a country that cannot control Dal Lake in Srinagar has no business trying to control the Indian Ocean, but that would miss the bigger point, which is this:

Conflicts between large nations rarely end up in military face offs these days- and they have not for a long time, because the stakes are too high in a nuclear world. Powerful countries usually attain their geopolitical objectives (or personal loot objectives, as in Iraq) in other, insidious ways. Lies. Subterfuge. Proxy wars. Spreading influence. Strengthening economic ties. Bribing. Plundering natural resources after bribing. Spreading discontent within disaffected populations in target countries.

We are no stranger to these ways; our enemies have succeeded too often here. We have played the game ourselves- in Bangladesh and Sri Lanka for example, and are playing it in Eastern Africa today. The Indo-Chinese game will see all these tactics again, especially since the Chinese are allied with Pakistan and its 'death by a thousand cuts' strategy targeted at India. The problem for India is that its social schisms, born out of rising disparity on one hand and destitution of many of its citizens on the other, are weakening it at the very point where the enemy will logically attack.

So, expect more unrest in the Northeast, in the Red Corridor and elsewhere. And, while it is true that China suffers some of the same problems as we do- corruption and internal unrest, for example- it nevertheless pursues its geopolitical interests with single-mindedness, strength, integrity of purpose and continuity. India does not.

So, there will likely be no India-China face off in the Malacca Straits or anywhere else. That is not the way today, and we are too weak. I believe that we will only get strong if we address the tumultuous issues at home first.

We won't become stronger with NAS Baaz. Not while that hawk is crippled with a broken wing. We cannot be sharks in the Bay of Bengal and minnows at home; that does not compute, because minnows are only good as bait.


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