Time to shift focus to the maritime sphere

India’s obsession with continental strategies has yielded unflattering results — no secure borders or deterrence stability

Updated - October 01, 2020 01:16 am IST

Published - October 01, 2020 12:02 am IST

For a country that has been traditionally obsessed with a continental approach to war and peace, India’s continental ‘grand’ strategy is facing an existential crisis today. Given that reconciliation with its key adversaries, China and Pakistan, is unlikely at this point and pursuing its ambitious territorial claims on the ground is almost impossible, New Delhi’s continental options seem restricted to holding operations to prevent further territorial loss. Put differently, New Delhi’s grand strategic plans in the continental space may have reached a dead end.

State of continental strategy

The current state of India’s continental strategies is hardly flattering. China has begun to push the boundaries with India, quite literally so, and Beijing is neither keen on ending the ongoing border stalemate nor reinstating the status quo with India as of March 2020. The peaceful India-China Line of Actual Control in the Northeast is now a thing of the past with China pushing back New Delhi’s claims on Aksai Chin and New Delhi defending against Beijing’s expansive territorial claims and their slow but aggressive implementation. China has crossed the red line with India and India’s LAC with China is not going to be the same ever again: It is the beginning of a long, bitter winter in the Himalayan borders between the two Asian giants.

Comment | A case of a maritime presence adrift

In the Northwest, the Pakistan front has also been heating up. Ceasefire violations on the Line of Control (LoC) have spiked since last year as has the infiltration of terrorists across the LoC. With the change of the status of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) by New Delhi in 2019, and Pakistan altering its political map a few months ago to include all of J&K, the India-Pakistan contestation over Kashmir has become fiercer. Equally important is the geopolitical collusion between Islamabad and Beijing to contain and pressure New Delhi from both sides. While this is not a new phenomenon, the intensity of the China-Pakistan containment strategy against India today is unprecedented. The extent and intent behind this collusion will determine the future of the high stakes game in the Himalayas for a long time to come.

Changes in Afghanistan

The ongoing withdrawal of the United States from Afghanistan (the loss of a friend in the region for New Delhi, and the consequent reduction of India’s influence in Afghanistan) and the return of the Taliban, with whom India has very little contact, could turn the geopolitical tide against New Delhi — similar to the situation in the early 1990s. But unlike in the 1990s, tables have turned in Afghanistan: the Taliban is no more an outcaste, and with the withdrawal of forces of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization from Afghanistan, the geopolitical interests of Pakistan, China and Russia would broadly converge in the region. The change of the geopolitical landscape in Afghanistan and the frictions in Iran-India relations will further dampen India’s ‘Mission Central Asia’. In sum, this is perhaps the end of the road for New Delhi’s north-eastern and north-western geopolitical forays.

For sure, India needs to find a way out of this situation. One key part of the solution is to creatively deal with its continental dilemmas. To begin with, New Delhi must seek ways to break up the ‘nutcracker situation’ that the Pakistani and Chinese strategies have forced India into. To do so, India would need to deal with the comparatively easier part first — the Pakistan front. Pressure from the Pakistan front could be eased by addressing the Kashmir question with Islamabad. Creating a modicum of normalcy on the LoC by activating existing mechanisms such as the Director General of Military Operations (DGMO) hotline is another way to deal with the Pakistan front. However, there is little appetite in New Delhi to do so. So, unless there is political will in New Delhi to put in place a strategy to address the Pakistan front, there will be little respite from the nutcracker situation that it faces today. And yet, it is time for New Delhi to think beyond its continental fixation.

Comment | Putting the SAGAR vision to the test

Maritime strategy explained

It appears abundantly clear now that New Delhi’s excessive focus on the continental sphere since Independence has not yielded great returns in terms of secure borders, healthy relations with its neighbours or deterrence stability vis-à-vis adversaries. If so, it is time for India to change its grand strategic approach — by shifting its almost exclusive focus from the continental sphere to the maritime sphere. Clearly, New Delhi has already begun to think in this direction with the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) establishing a new division to deal with the Indo-Pacific in April 2019. The work in this direction, both ideational and practical, needs to be fast-tracked to keep pace with the emerging realities and to make use of new opportunities.

There are several reasons why a maritime grand strategy would work to India’s advantage while still struggling with a continental dilemma. To begin with, unlike in the continental sphere where India seems to be hemmed in by China-Pakistan collusion, the maritime sphere is wide open to India to undertake coalition building, rule setting, and other forms of strategic exploration.

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Visualise this: while India seems stuck between Pakistan and China from a continental perspective, the country is located right at the centre of the Indo-Pacific geopolitical imagination, in the midst of the oceanic space spanning “from the shores of Africa to that of the Americas”, as Prime Minister Narendra Modi put it at the Shangri La Dialogue two years ago, on June 1, 2018.

Second, unlike in the continental sphere, there is a growing great power interest in the maritime sphere, especially with the arrival of the concept of ‘Indo-Pacific’. The Euro-American interest in India’s land borders with Pakistan and China is negligible, and more so, there is little any country can do to help India in its continental contestations. The situation in the maritime sphere is the exact opposite: great powers remain ever more interested in the maritime sphere and this interest has grown substantially since the coinage of Indo-Pacific. For instance, Germany recently released its Indo-Pacific guidelines following the example of France which brought out its Indo-Pacific strategy last year.

Third, Beijing’s bullying behaviour in the South China Sea in particular and the region in general has generated a great deal of willingness among the Euro-American powers and the countries of the region, including Australia and Japan, to push back Chinese unilateralism. This provides New Delhi with a unique opportunity to enhance its influence and potentially checkmate the Chinese ambitions in the region.

Comment | All out at sea: India’s engagements in the Indian Ocean

Finally, the maritime space is a lot more important to China than engaging in opportunistic land grab attempts in the Himalayas, thanks to the massive Chinese trade that happens via the Oceanic routes and the complex geopolitics around the maritime chokepoints which can potentially disrupt that trade.

A revitalised Indian maritime grand strategy may or may not checkmate China in the Himalayas; it may even prompt Beijing to increase pressure there. But it will certainly provide New Delhi a lot more space for manoeuvre in the region and message Beijing that its Himalayan adventure could become costly for it. New Delhi must use its Indo-Pacific engagements to dissuade Beijing from salami-slicing Indian territory in the high Himalayas.

Quad | The confluence of four powers and two seas

Think beyond a division

Therefore, it is high time New Delhi shifted its almost exclusive focus from the continental space to the maritime space, stitching together a maritime grand strategy. The MEA’s Indo-Pacific Division is a good beginning; so is the decision in 2019 to elevate the Quad meetings among India, Japan, the United States and Australia to the ministerial level. New Delhi would do well to ideate on the current and future maritime challenges, consolidate its military and non-military tools, engage its strategic partners, and publish a comprehensive vision document on the Indo-Pacific; the current ‘Indo-Pacific Division Briefs’ document put out by the MEA does not make the cut. More so, New Delhi should consider appointing a special envoy for Indo-Pacific affairs.

The Asian geopolitical chessboard awaits bold moves by New Delhi.

Happymon Jacob is Associate Professor, Centre for International Politics, Organization and Disarmament, School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi

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