MK. Narayanan’s spirited demand for “an Indian sphere of influence in the Indo-Pacific region” (something that was anathema to Jawaharlal Nehru) recalls the 1946 Cabinet Mission trying to persuade post-Independence India to accept responsibility for defending the “South-east Asia area”. The two are “connected integrally in their political, social and economic life” according to another percipient Keralan, K.M. Panikkar. If so, the most effective defence would be to back India’s “sword arm on the seas” (Narayanan’s term for the navy) with economic integration.
The West Bengal governor did not exclude that in his fourth Admiral A.K. Chatterjee Memorial Lecture organized by the Navy Foundation’s Calcutta chapter. He quoted Pranab Mukherjee on “sea-bound trade requir[ing] the assurance of a complex and well-developed maritime strategy”, and cited formidable trade and shipping statistics to stress the importance of navigable sea lanes. He admitted that “the Indian diaspora facilitates cooperation” with littoral countries and acknowledged that China’s interests are “driven primarily by economics and the need for new resources”. But the emphasis was on the sword arm. India’s strategic thinkers have generally downplayed the part that economics, especially of the coastal regions and diaspora, can play in safeguarding “core national security interests”.
The sighting of Chinese nuclear submarines in Indian waters almost while Narayanan was speaking further emphasized the military dimension. While the sword remains the obvious instrument of defence, there are hazards to making maritime security synonymous with only naval prowess. First, with Indian and Chinese defence budgets of $37.45 and $114.3 billion respectively, and heavy domestic developmental demands on scarce resources, there is no possibility of bridging the gap in the near future. Second, even if India somehow matches China’s ability to project power at sea, that alone will not counter the favourable response to China in all our neighbouring countries. Third, despite a lurking yearning for great power glory, India’s leaders are still trapped in the Nehruvian philosophy, which instinctively disapproves of anything that smacks of militarism or even secular dominance.
Hence the need to make the most of advantages that India does enjoy, such as goodwill, historical links, a maritime tradition, scientific and technological achievements, entrepreneurial skills and what Lee Kuan Yew called in 1966 a foreign policy conducted “on a basis of equality and not on the basis of power relations”. Manmohan Singh’s message at the third India-ASEAN business summit in 2004 recognized the importance of drawing on these assets to forge supplementary initiatives. Approvingly quoting Sinnappah Arasaratnam’s Maritime India in the Seventeenth Century, he recalled that India profited from the autonomy enjoyed by littoral states “with little interference from groups that would not have understood the needs and demands of the predominant activity of commerce”. He added that “mutually beneficial business links” between India’s coastal states and South-east Asia would lend meaning to the Look East policy and “eventually give shape to the idea of an Asian Century”. That promised a break with the rigidity that had, 11 years earlier, killed a pioneering initiative by P.K. Kunhalikutty, then Kerala’s industries minister.
Kerala boasts a glorious maritime history. Narayanan mentioned “the great sea exploits of Kunhali Marikyar, the fabled admiral of the Zamorin of Calicut”. Daniel Patrick Moynihan told a Congressional committee that Kerala supplied teak for King Solomon’s palace. According to legend, a Jewish girl played the flute to welcome Thomas the Apostle when he landed at Kerala’s Roman staging post of Muziris in AD 52 to found the world’s oldest Christian church. Refugees from Nebuchadnezzar’s sacking of Jerusalem founded the world’s first Jewish state in Cochin, centuries before Israel was a gleam in Chaim Weizmann’s eye.
Kunhalikutty was not boasting, therefore, when he went to Singapore in November 1993 with a brochure that claimed, “Setting up business in Kerala is an old European custom. Ask Vasco da Gama...” After talks with local leaders, he announced Kerala would be the first Indian state to station an official in Singapore “to woo investors throughout the ASEAN region”.
New Delhi scotched that brave proposal, probably feeling Trivandrum was getting above itself. Qin Guangrong, governor of China’s Yunnan province, who visited Calcutta in 2008 to develop trade and tourism with West Bengal, also drew a blank. Any attempt by Odisha to flesh out the Bali Yatra ritual of which Biju Patnaik was so proud would instantly be quashed. No latter-day Rajendra Chola would ever be allowed to cross the seas as he did in the 11th century to attack the Srivijaya kingdom in Sumatra and conquer the Malayan peninsula.
The regions understand how to manage the surrounding seas and lands but Delhi’s political blinkers and bureaucratic inertia will not allow the inspiration that shaped what George Coedes called the “Indianized States of South-east Asia” to flourish again. Yet, West Bengal showed over the Teesta waters, as Tamil Nadu did over Sri Lanka Tamils, that Delhi cannot prevent states from interesting themselves in foreign affairs. That interest need not be malign. It needs to be channelized. Several Australian and Canadian states have long pursued their commercial fortunes in foreign capitals, as Western Australia does in Bombay.
Manmohan Singh’s promise about coastal enterprise was a flash in the pan. Rajiv Gandhi’s vow when welcoming Bob Hawke 24 years earlier “to never again lose control over the approaches to India from the sea” was another. So was Admiral J.G. Nadkarni’s analysis the following year that the gains of a strong navy would be not in military “but in economic, technological and political terms”.
It has been one missed opportunity after another ever since Stafford Cripps looked ahead to a time when Delhi, not London, would have to insist on the arc from Suez to Singapore being respected as India’s defensive glacis. A second chance appeared in 1966 when Harold Wilson’s announcement of Britain’s disengagement east of Suez took Lee to Delhi to “sketch out a possible future role for India as guardian of South-east Asia,” as the Straits Times reported. Lee declared that as “the only possible Asian power that had the potential to stabilize the region against China”, India should “enforce a ‘Monroe Doctrine for Asia’”. Acutely aware of the economic underpinnings of all power, he offered India the vacated British military base as its commercial headquarters for South-east Asia.
Echoing his boss, Maurice Baker, Singapore’s first high commissioner to India and, as it happened, an Anglo-Indian, told the National Defence College that Sukarno’s attempts to rename the Indian Ocean the Indonesian Ocean violated India’s space. An Indian military presence to underwrite South-east Asia’s security would “be a great contribution to world peace” and “an indirect incentive for investment”. Baker lamented it was “merely wishful thinking to expect it.”
It need not be so now. Although Narayanan failed as National Security Adviser to persuade Delhi to appoint a Maritime Security Adviser, the grim picture he painted calls for a multi-pronged and multi-layered response. On the question of China, he might have mentioned the several visits that Zheng He, the 14th century Yongle (“Perpetually Jubilant”) emperor’s Muslim eunuch admiral, paid to Kerala leaving behind the giant cantilevered fishing nets Malayali fishermen call cheena vale.
Zheng He’s ships were huge, his fleets enormous, and his crews regular soldiers. They had recourse to arms on at least three occasions, including the defeat and capture of a defiant Ceylonese king. Such elaborate expeditions cannot have been only for exploration. Historians believe the Yongle emperor was projecting power to bring distant states within the Ming tributary system. The idea was to awe foreign potentates into submission, thus realizing Sunzi's ideal of winning without fighting.
History threatens to repeat itself with the People’s Liberation Army’s naval wing deploying state-of-the art nuclear submarines on a 10,000-mile deepwater run from Sanya in the South China Sea. Faced with that threat, India must remember its sword arm didn’t create Suvarnabhumi. Commercial enterprise did.