Tackling the dragon on land and at sea
Recent army chiefs’ meet sought to course correct the perception about Indo-Pacific as a maritime grouping. For India, Navy continues to be a force-multiplier
The past year has seen India adroitly negotiating a diplomatic minefield by participating, on the one hand, in forums such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation and the BRICS alliance – both with overtly anti-western orientation – while, at the same time, upholding its deep commitment to the United States (US)-led Malabar/Quad grouping. Further endorsement of India’s diplomatic heft came with its successful presidency of the G20 summit, clearly manifest in the crafting and adoption of a consensual declaration.
In the military domain, India has just co-hosted with the US, the 13th biennial Indo-Pacific Army Chiefs Conference (IPACC), on September 26 and 27. This was yet another significant event, which underscored India’s regional and global leadership bid and its commitment to promoting peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific region. With participation from 30 countries, IPACC provides a forum for the senior leadership of Indo-Pacific armies to discuss issues of mutual interest and to develop cooperative approaches.
It was not very long ago that the Japanese-conceived and US-promoted “Indo-Pacific” concept found grudging acceptance in the international geopolitical and diplomatic lexicon, eventually replacing the term “Asia Pacific” and conflating (as intended) the Indian and Pacific Oceans. Having come into common usage, the Indo-Pacific has, however, retained in public perception a maritime or ocean-related connotation. This perception arises from the region’s history, geography, and economics, which bear the imprint of the oceans that have for millennia facilitated trade, transportation, and cultural intercourse, as well as foreign invasions.
In recent years, the perception of the Indo-Pacific as a maritime construct has been reinforced by the growing competition between powers including the US, China, India, and Japan, vying for influence. Since regional navies too have done their best to reinforce this perception, it was only appropriate that an army conclave should see an attempt at correcting this “maritime bias”. Unusually for the Indian political milieu, it fell to defence minister Rajnath Singh to undertake this endeavour.
“The Indo-Pacific region,” remarked the minister, in his inaugural address, “has emerged as a pivotal construct, in recent years, transforming from a primarily maritime concept into a comprehensive strategic framework”. Highlighting the “web of complex security challenges” that faced the Indo-Pacific, the minister invoked the full involvement of regional States “with all their organisations including their armies”.
The Indian Army chief, General Manoj Pande, too, drew attention to challenges other than those related to the maritime domain arising from security and humanitarian crises occurring on land. Without mentioning specific locations, he made a pointed reference to “territorial disputes over land masses”, and to “artificially created islands which housed military bases”. The co-host US Army General Randy George, while emphasising the “decisive role of land power”, highlighted the importance of cooperation amongst land forces as a critical component of the “collective response” that IPACC was expected to provide. Although mention of China was studiously avoided, the unseen presence of the expansionist/revisionist “dragon” would have loomed large over the conference, and with good reason.
Way back in 1904, English geographer Halford Mackinder had put forth the proposition that the 400-year era of sea power was over and the future of global power lay not in grand fleets dominating the global sea lanes, but in control of the vast land mass of “Eurasia”, which he called the “World Island”. Eurasia was then dominated by Imperial Russia, to be replaced by the erstwhile Soviet Union. Today, it is China that is integrating Asia with Europe through its terrestrial network of high-speed railways, energy pipelines and fibre optic cables.
Beijing’s grand strategy, which seeks a dominant economic, political, and military presence spanning the Indo-Pacific, is encapsulated in Xi Jinping’s prized Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), in which the “Belt” refers to Chinese ambitions on land, and the “Road” to its seaward component, the “Maritime Silk Road”. Implementation of BRI has led to a colossal investment in infrastructure and developmental projects across the Indo-Pacific, with implications for terrestrial connectivity, trade, and security.
Thus, while maritime security remains a major concern, the terrestrial implications of the Indo-Pacific construct are becoming increasingly important as the region faces new challenges, such as territorial disputes, non-traditional security threats and the climate crisis. The current advocacy of land power by Indo-Pacific armies is an echo of 20th century British strategist Julian Corbett’s caution that, “…it is almost impossible that a war can be decided by naval action alone… great issues between nations have always been decided by what your army can do against your enemy’s territory... or else by what the fleet enables your army to do.” That having been said, in the context of India’s security, there is a need to remain sharply focused on its unique geophysical location, with its attendant challenges and rewards.
In the Himalayas, where the Indian Army has been locked in an eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation with the People’s Liberation Army since 2020, the equation is tilted in China’s favour, given the latter’s superior infrastructure, lines of communications and indigenous military-industrial base. Should it come to a showdown, the best that India’s land and air forces can hope to achieve is a precarious stalemate.
At sea, on the other hand, India’s favourable maritime geography and China’s heavy dependence for energy and trade on the Indian Ocean sea lanes, constitute a huge vulnerability for the latter. It is against this background that maritime strategist Rear Admiral Raja Menon, in a recent article, recommends, somewhat bellicosely, holding out the threat of, “…turning the Malacca Straits into a killing ground for the Chinese”.
Thus, while endeavours to enhance cooperation and interoperability amongst the Indo-Pacific armies are to be welcomed, it must be acknowledged that “boots on the ground” will be deployed only for humanitarian and benign purposes, never for intra-regional conflicts. As for the Indian Army, it must recognise the versatility of maritime forces, and view accretions to our naval strength – whether nuclear attack submarines or aircraft carriers – not through a zero-sum prism, but as force-multipliers for its own endeavours on land.
Arun Prakash is a former Indian Navy chief. The views expressed are personal