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Updated: March 4, 2013 21:40 IST

The perils of grand narrative

Arun Mohan Sukumar
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Samudra Manthan
Samudra Manthan

Samudra Manthan superimposes a paradigm that articulates developments from a Western perspective

In 2004, the Office of Net Assessment — a think-tank affiliated to the U.S. Department of Defence that specialises in “unlikely scenarios” — commissioned a consulting firm to study energy security in Asia. Analysts on the job, mostly 20-somethings just out of college, realised China was building several ports along the Indian Ocean coastline. They literally connected these dots on the map, suggesting them to be a “string of pearls” with which China would encircle and expand its presence in the region. Within months, the phrase became a buzzword. Never mind some of these “pearls” were cargo ship docks and civilian facilities: here was a term the ‘strategic community’ could put its finger on, while talking up China’s belligerent schemes on the world.

More dignified in its lineage but equally fanciful in scope is another phrase currently doing the rounds — the ‘Indo-Pacific.’ In one fell swoop, it brings together the Indian and the Pacific Oceans, and with it the maritime strategies of India, China, the United States, Australia and the ASEAN littoral states among others — countries which have vastly different blue-water orientations, objectives and not least, naval capabilities. C. Raja Mohan’s Samudra Manthan fashions the Indo-Pacific into an important “geopolitical theater” which will soon witness fierce maritime rivalry between India and China. Why so? Because, well, you know, both are rising powers and also, you see, globalisation is bringing countries in the region closer, and what’s more — here it comes — the seas are connected! Throw in the United States’ announced Asia “pivot”, a term that the Obama administration is yet to flesh out clearly and the stage is set for a grand tale about Great Power oceanic tussle, replete with nuclear deterrents in the high seas and the possibility of space warfare between India and China.

High stakes

For all its claims to present a synergised picture of this power struggle in the Indo-Pacific, Samudra Manthan treats each sub-region, from the Gulf of Aden to the Malacca Strait, separately. The author meticulously outlines what is already known to us: that India and China have significant and sometimes competing economic stakes in West Asia, Africa and South East Asia. But in its attempt to colour this scenario in strategic overtones, Samudra Manthan skips a few steps. Raja Mohan’s narrative relies on a highly problematic assumption that naval conflict and not cooperation will be the norm in Sino-Indian relations. In the absence of any quibble between both countries over maritime borders, the onus is on the author to establish that a history of land-based disputes will automatically spill over into tensions at sea.

If anything, there are compelling reasons to believe otherwise. As Manoj Gupta highlights in his empirical assessment of the Indian Ocean’s political economy, its maritime space can only be effectively governed through cooperation. The stakes are extremely high for India and China — the risk of conflict jeopardises the safety of sea lanes, which channel the lifeblood of commerce. Further, maritime aggression renders infeasible the harnessing of energy sources. This is precisely why India has refused to take sides on the ASEAN-China dispute over the South China Sea. Both New Delhi and Beijing have sought to defuse tension in the Sea through bilateral diplomacy, not confrontational postures.

For the most part, the book happily steers clear of such pragmatic considerations. Sample some of its terrifying assertions, which left this reviewer grovelling for non-existent footnotes: “China and India are chasing each other’s tail in the quest for control of hydrocarbons [...] in every corner of the world”; “their strategic behaviour might look a lot like that of traditional great powers”; “China might acquire the capabilities to [...] outplay the United States in some sub-regions”; “an effort to undermine India’s primacy in the region seems to be Beijing’s logical approach.”

This alarmist narrative would have been palatable had Raja Mohan based it on the naval strength or say, the expansionist maritime agenda of India or China. Samudra Manthan begrudgingly acknowledges page after page that the Indian and the People’s Liberation Army Navies are nowhere near achieving the capabilities that portend an all-consuming rivalry. In fact, both are modernising their blue-water fleets with a stated commitment to territorial defence and protection of economic interests. Raja Mohan is nevertheless insistent: China may have incorporated its legal obligations into official policy, he argues, but that is no reason to dismiss its plans for supra-regional domination. His basis? A solitary article published in the U.S. Naval War College Review by a defence analyst.

India and China’s adherence to international maritime law sets them apart from the Great Power rivalry that characterised the latter half of the 20 century. Neither has aspired to exceptionalism in international affairs, severely denting the book’s hypothesis that one-upmanship at sea is imminent. Moreover, Raja Mohan treats the Indian Ocean’s evolving strategic context as entirely state-led, ignoring the prescriptive richness that history has to offer. Sugata Bose, Engseng Ho, Michael Pearson and other notable scholars have explained how people-to-people ties and commerce flourished in the Indian Ocean despite the presence of empires, even under the watch of the formidable British Navy. No matter how powerful states were, they found it difficult to regulate, leave alone dominate the Indian Ocean rim. The political establishment in India and China are beholden to powerful economic forces, be it private or public constituents. It is almost inconceivable that defense strategies will be formulated unmindful of their concerns.

Samudra Manthan blindly superimposes a paradigm that articulates developments from a Western perspective, with little context-specific analysis. ‘Big Think’ is always welcome, but it must bear some semblance to the reality at hand, backed either by data or political thought. The geo-strategic importance of the Indian and Pacific oceans was first emphasised by a U.S. naval strategist, Alfred T. Mahan, whose political vision Samudra Manthan relies heavily on. The best riposte to Mahan’s argument comes from the late K. Subrahmanyam who wrote in 1989: “Mahan wrote about a world when a major portion of its population did not resist colonial occupation. That world no longer exists.” Interestingly enough, Raja Mohan agreed with this view in an essay in the same book, suggesting that Mahan’s vision was merely a tool for the U.S. to harvest economic gains in the Indian Ocean region. Now, he wants India to balance China’s rising power by aligning with the United States.

Amitabh Mattoo has rightly argued in these pages that International Studies in India needs a grammar appropriate to the South Asian context. Sadly, only cosmetic changes have been forthcoming till now: the title ‘Samudra Manthan’ is prime example. Raja Mohan’s premise — that there is a great deal of churning in the Indo-Pacific region — leads him to refer to the Hindu myth of Devas and Asuras churning the ocean for amrit. The reader, however, is left with little idea as to how this story offers any analytical value. Who are the Devas and Asuras in question? Why would the United States don the avatar of Lord Vishnu and arbiter Sino-Indian maritime rivalry, as Raja Mohan subtly suggests? Ultimately, the grand narrative of Samudra Manthan is propped up using flimsy sticks — borrowing weighty concepts from the realist discourse, or sanskritising the discourse does not translate into original thinking.

(Arun Mohan Sukumar is at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University)

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