Arun Kumar Singh
The confused world is, at present, dealing with four “strong and decisive” leaders viz US President Donald Trump, Chinese Premier Xi Jinping, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Normally, great nations have strong visionary leaders, supported by outstanding bureaucrats and think tanks, who provide their leadership with a continuously updated assessment of the current, near and distant future, with recommendations as to how these events impact national interests and what changes in policy are needed.
Mr Trump, who is apparently aware of the “grassroot sentiments of Americans”, has turned this time-tested “mantra” upside down, by openly upsetting American neighbours (Canada, Mexico), allies in Nato, European Union, Australia and Japan, while withdrawing from international treaties (free trade agreements, Paris climate control treaty, Iran nuclear deal etc) signed by his predecessor and putting the “heat” on Iran and all those who trade with Iran (India has already indicated that it will stop imports of cheap Iranian oil, and may also lose its investment in Chabahar port).
Apparently, Mr Trump also wants to withdraw the US from the WTO, but this requires clearance from the US senate. In the meantime, the US senate last year passed a law (CAATSA) which puts sanctions on all nations buying major arms systems from Russia (India maybe impacted seriously). Ironically, Mr Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un had the well-publicised meeting in Singapore in June for “complete, verifiable and irrversible de-nuclearisation” of the Korean peninsula, and the US called off the planned July 6 Indo-US 2+2 talks (this is the second postponement) because Mr Trump insisted that his secretary of state visit Democratic People’s Republic of Korea at that time. Also planned is a Trump-Putin meeting on July 16 (prior to a Nato meeting) and Mr Trump’s enthusiasm to invite Russia to join G7, despite the ongoing American sanctions on Russia. Also, despite the US-China “trade wars”, abrupt “dis-invitation” of China from the major 26-nation RIMPAC 2018 naval exercises of Hawaii — in which Indian Navy is participating — and American support for Taiwan, the fact remains that China has continued with its thrust on OBOR, temporarily improving ties with India, leading the SCO, and planning a major Naval exercise involving China and the 10 Asean nations. Obviously, India does not figure in the personal “top priority” list of POTUS, though American strategists are aware of the importance of economically rising and strategically located India, for keeping peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific Region (IPR).
While Mr Putin and Mr Xi are dealing with the current international turmoil with measured steps, India, which has no declared “national aims and objectives” and which has traditionally ignored its rapidly degrading military capability, does not have a tradition of strong think-tanks or a strong MEA to render visionary advice to Mr Modi.
A few cases of reactive steps to increasing Chinese naval presence in the Indian Ocean region are the well-publicised agreements with Indonesia to invest in Port Sabang (located only 90 miles from our Indira Point in Nicobar Islands) while ignoring long-pending cases for military and infrastructure in Andaman & Nicobar Islands in the East and Lakshadweep & Minicoy Islands in the West.
The appointment of a distinguished former Chief of Naval Staff Admiral D.K. Joshi as the Lt governor of Andaman & Nicobar islands was only the first of many more steps which have not been taken, while China has built artificial islands in the South China Sea (and converted them to military bases), set up a military base in Djibouti, and has other nations/ports in its cross hairs viz Pakistan (Gwadar and Jiwani ports), Oman (an enclave near Port Duqm), Cambodia (Port Sihanoukville), Maldives, Sri Lanka (Hambantota), Malaysia (Melaka Port deal being “relooked” by President Mahathir).
As regards the latest deal for Indian Navy to use Assumption Island in Seychelles only during peace time and with no nuclear material permitted, I can only say that this island, along with Mauritius are strategically located to monitor most of the “to and fro” sea traffic passing through the Cape of Good Hope (South Africa), while some of this sea traffic also passes just 12 to 20 miles south of Sri Lanka (Hambantota).
It maybe of interest to note that Seychelles ad Mauritius (along with Maldives) had approached India some three decades ago for help in monitoring their exclusive economic zones and we did render some assistance in training and equipment, but are now reacting more actively to China’s moves in the Indian Ocean region.
About MoD “DAC (Defence Acquisition Council) approvals” regularly promulgated by the media, it is important to note that the DAC approvals are only “acceptance of necessity” and most of them lapse within a year and need to be “renewed by DAC” since the follow up actions need many more years (issue request for proposals, analyse the replies to the RFPS, negotiate prices, get approval of Cabinet committee on security and sign contracts).
A simpler way for the layman to understand this is to simply look the “capital” section (new purchases and ongoing payments) of the annual defence budget, for example the Indian Navy average “capital” budget available for any new equipment purchases (after deducting the ongoing payments for past contracts) is barely `6,000 crores i.e. less than US $1 billion and this measly amount invariably lapses as “unspent” because bureaucratic hurdles do not clear long-pending cases. In conclusion, as Mr Modi prepares for election in 2019, he will do a great service to the nation, if the national aims and objectives for 2050 are promulgated and professionals inducted to render him timely strategic advice. Economic growth is linked to national security and national sea power. The present Indian policy of “perception management” will not work in the world of realpolitik.
Mr Modi will be tested soon, if and when India signs the $12 billion military equipment contracts with Russia in October this year, or if China makes a provocative move while India is in “election mode”.