Friday, February 3, 2023

The Final Frontier

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India’s destiny lies in building its sea power to emerge as a major player in the Indian Ocean. It can ignore the navy only at its own peril.

By NV Subramanian

Prime Minister Narendra Damodardas Modi’s inauguration of the aircraft carrier, INS Vikramaditya, and his conceptual joining of the navy to India’s economic and industrial growth, should hopefully lead to an overdue reassessment of the country’s national security doctrine of strategic autonomy. In its earliest, post-Independence form of non-alignment, it carried a negative cadence and connotation, of equidistance from the two rivalrous great powers, namely the United States and the Soviet Union. But, it barely stood the test even within the lifetime of its architect, Jawaharlal Nehru, who ignominiously had to appeal to the United States for military assistance following the 1962 Chinese aggression. His daughter, Indira Gandhi, swung the other way for the successful prosecution of the 1971 Bangladesh War, aligning with the Soviet Union through a peace-and-friendship treaty, which prevented immediate American and Chinese intervention in the conflict on the side of East Pakistan and its egregious military rulers.

PANAJI, JUNE 14 (UNI):- Prime Minister Narendra Modi dedicates the largest warship INS Vikramaditya to the nation in Goa on Saturday. UNI PHOTO-68U
PANAJI, JUNE 14 (UNI):- Prime Minister Narendra Modi dedicates the largest warship INS Vikramaditya to the nation in Goa on Saturday. UNI PHOTO-68U

 The collapse of the Soviet Union since and its shaky rebirth as Russia; the rise of the United States as a hyper power and its decline and growing self-isolation; the heightened belligerence of China with its new-found economic and industrial strength, tormenting its East Asian neighbors about their common seas and the embedded mineral and hydrocarbon treasures; and the upsurge of Islamic Jehad demand urgent reassessment and re-imagination of India’s 67-year-old security doctrine. Not to speak of the intensified threats on our borders due to the strategic alignment of the two nuclear powers and allies, China and Pakistan, inciting specters of a two-front war, in addition to the episodic scourge of Pakistan-sponsored terrorism.

In small ways, there has been evolution from the timid non-alignment to a quest for robust strategic autonomy, compelled by the disintegration of the Soviet Union, and with the decision to go nuclear following the May 1998 second Pokhran test, bolstering efforts in this direction. But true strategic autonomy has eluded the country, not least because of the wasted decade under the two UPA governments, although India has also suffered from a general absence of audacious forward thinking on the subjects of frontiers and grand strategy, long the playing field of great powers.

India’s future lies seaward, towards the Indian Ocean, the only world ocean named after a country. But we have poorly employed and deployed it for our economic, industrial and military rise. The great powers of the present and the past have never underestimated the criticality of how sea power could lead to sovereign rise. The Greeks, the Romans, the Carthaginians, the European colonial powers, pre-eminently Britain, right up to the military-industrial states of the last 100 years, including the United States and Soviet Russia, recognized the centrality and uniqueness of sea power. “Only when England ceased to be a Continental power,” reminded Lord Curzon in his famous Romanes Lecture of 1907, “did the national spirit blossom into any fullness.”

To be sure, India has tried to break away from the prison of South Asia since at least the early 1970s. Indira Gandhi’s creation of Bangladesh, although valid in the circum-stances of the genocide and mass rapes in East Pakistan carried out by the Pakistan Army, also owed its debt to Curzon’s ideas of buffer states and protectorates.

Taken together with the first nuclear test at Pokhran in 1974, the consolidation of island territories, the absorption of Sikkim and so forth, these steps ought, by rights, to have elevated India to a regional and bigger power, but the outcomes were quite underwhelming. It is hard to find the reasons for this in the military realm, as the political leadership was engulfed by domestic crises—the Emergency followed by government changes, drift and stasis. This period of decline continued right up to the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union. From then till Narendra Modi’s present accession, it has been a case of hit-and-miss for India’s strategic rise, and there is just the smallest hope that things will change. India must change not to perish.


The country has long seen itself as a land power, epitomized by a large army, a middling air force and a relatively small navy. For a country, whose coastline length is just over half the land frontier, this constitutes a serious strategic imbalance. In the modern age, an ambitious state can’t conceive of itself exclusively or even predominantly as a land power. When political geography imposes this condition, as it did in the case of Germany in both the world wars, one has to derive the best advantages, but they are never good enough.



Finally, sea power, deployed for blockade, sinking of capital ships and merchant tonnage, movement of expeditionary forces, and so on, overcame the mighty German war machine on land. In World War II, the Heer (land forces) and the Kriegsmarine (navy) pleaded with the Fuehrer (Hitler) for gaining hegemony over the Mediterranean to choke Britain’s empire assets and successfully attack the Soviet Union from its soft underbelly in the Caucasus. Adolf Hitler confessed to being terrified of sea-fighting, the chief reason for his forces never being able to invade the British Isles. On the other hand, Britain and Japan were primarily marine powers, through which they facilitated their colonial acquisitions.

India is a status quo power. It has never been aggressive for territory. But it has been invaded, and China and Pakistan to this day hold large chunks of its territory. All the five wars that independent India has fought have been land wars. So, it will continue to be committed to security of its land frontiers in the foreseeable future. But the country is killing its future by not simultaneously expanding seaward.

India has to be a mixed land-and-sea power (with drones and missiles principally representing air power at a third level), with the capital-intensive navy building bulk, as India grows. It is not enough to operate a large navy. The country must think sea-wise. To give an example, Britain protected its empire through a network of alliances, in which Japan played a key role, even as it fought the Great War in Europe. India may have to follow on those lines, opting for imaginative partnerships, which could harden into alliances as time proves their worth. You cannot choose your land neighbors, but you can indubitably select your allies at sea.

The Chief of Naval Staff, Admiral R.K. Dhowan having discussions with the Chief of Army Staff, General Bikram Singh and the Chief of the Air Staff, Air Chief Marshal Arup Raha, in New Delhi on June 26, 2014.
The Chief of Naval Staff, Admiral R.K. Dhowan having discussions with the Chief of Army Staff, General Bikram Singh and the Chief of the Air Staff, Air Chief Marshal Arup Raha, in New Delhi on June 26, 2014.

These measures need to be rolled out over the coming decades. At the same time, India must enter into serious engagement with its land neighbors. Pakistan faces the danger of slipping into becoming a failed state and other countries of South Asia only markedly less so, and they need India to raise the tide, which can only flow from the sea. India has to employ some Curzonian tactics to discipline the neighborhood, which would also ensue from the expert deployment of soft-speaking, carrot and big stick.

Modi has moved on that course, but these are still early days. If India has to be a breakout power, it must think beyond South Asia, and the Indian Ocean beckons. Once it deploys genuine hard power in the ocean, it will beget goodwill and gain weight in world affairs. The sea is India’s new frontier. Its destiny lies in the great blue waters.


—NV Subramanian is editor and writes on politics and strategic affairs


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