STRING OF PEARLS: NOOSE OR NECKLACE? INDIA’S NEED FOR AN INTEGRATED NEIGHBOURHOOD PLAN

by Editorial

Short of a miracle, the situation on the Line of Actual control (LAC) or border with China is unlikely to change in the coming months. India can continue to repose its faith in the Armed Forces defending the integrity and sovereignty of the country despite the harsh winters or the inhospitable terrain. However, the Chinese actions on the LAC, growing China-Pakistan nexus, coupled with the growing Chinese influence in the neighbourhood have brought in new challenges necessitating a fresh look at India’s future strategy. India shares land borders with seven countries and water borders with four – Sri Lanka, Maldives, Thailand and Indonesia. In a future war with China or Pakistan or a two front war, land and sea will be intrinsically linked. India has to leverage its strengths and weaknesses of one with the other. Hence an integrated land and maritime strategy coupled with a neighbourhood plan is imperative for India. For this to succeed, China, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Maldives and Myanmar have to be seen as one integrated block, each having an effect on the other.

China’s policy of encircling India to contain it—euphemistically referred to as the “String of Pearls “doctrine—has over the last few years moved from a “threat in being” to an actual threat. In typical Chinese fashion they have gone about it quietly but firmly, tightening the noose over the past many years The Chinese intention has been to develop a network of military and commercial facilities along its sea lines of communication which extend from the Chinese mainland to Port Sudan in the Horn of Africa running through several maritime chokepoints including Strait of Malacca as well as other strategic maritime centres of Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Maldives and Somalia. The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) and now its macro form of Belt and Road initiative (BRI) under which China will construct various land and maritime trade routes are also seen as a part of China’s larger military ambition. China has long realized the importance of maritime muscle to protect its economic interest in Indian Ocean and elsewhere and has been steadily working on it.

The Indian Ocean is a critical link in global trade routes, with 80 percent of global seaborne trade passing through it. Also eighty percent of China’s oil imports pass through the Strait of Malacca. This narrow waterway is a perfect choke point. India’s natural position in the Indian Ocean, with capabilities in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands at the mouth of the strait, would allow its Navy to cut it off in the event of a crisis or war. But increasingly China may be able to, quite literally, get around this. China has set up bases in the littoral Indian Ocean Region (IOR) nations including Sri Lanka, Pakistan and Djibouti and have invested heavily in few countries both on the East and West coast of Africa. Besides creating bases, over the years China has taken numerous steps to establish its supremacy in the sea and is building PLA (N) into a formidable force at a furious pace, investing in more aircraft carriers, destroyers and frigates, modern ships, maritime reconnaissance aircraft, and submarines and so on. There is a huge force asymmetry and the gap is just widening. In just about 4-5 years China will show its flag in the Indian Ocean.

Sri Lanka is India’s nearest neighbour and very relevant for India’s maritime strategy. Though India has had robust relations with Sri Lanka for centuries, China has planted its feet in Sri Lankan soil as well with huge investments in infrastructure projects. Sri Lanka, forced into a debt trap has handed over Hambantota Port on a 99 year lease to China causing great concern to India. Recently Sri Lanka has been slowing down projects with India and Japan. Maldives is again another country which is strategically important for India. The relations are on an even keel after 2018 elections, when Ibrahim Mohamed Solih was elected President. India has taken a number of initiatives to bring Maldives closer, trying to ensure that changes in political dispensation does not change the relationship again. Myanmar is also strategically very important for India and shares land and maritime border with India. Chinese initiative of Belt and Road has invested heavily in Port Kyaukpyu and pipeline which will pump oil and gas to China. The importance of Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Maldives and Myanmar in India’s maritime strategy cannot be overemphasized.

China and Pakistan grouped together will form the core of the plan. Pakistan-China collusion will remain the biggest worry for India in the foreseeable future. China has plans to invest billions of dollars in the economic corridor and in the Belt initiative in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (PoK) and Gilgit-Baltistan (GB). As part of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) numerous deals involving billions of dollars have been signed. The Gwadar Port developed by China as part of CPEC will be used not only to assist Pakistan Navy but also to launch offensive against India in case of a Sino-Indian conflict. All this coupled with Chinese interest in Aksai chin has changed the complexion of relationship between China and Pakistan. It is no more one-sided—equally China also needs Pakistan. For this, China will continue to keep Ladakh as a pressure point while Pakistan will continue with its proxy war to keep India internally tied down.

Militarily, it is time to look at China and Pakistan together and the need is to have an integrated plan to include land and maritime strategy and the necessary air capability to meet both challenges. The success in building our military strength will lie in our ability to assess the priority of land, air and naval forces and use of disruptive technology in an increasingly hostile neighbourhood. India needs a three aircraft carrier Navy to ensure sea control in our area of interest in the IOR, besides building up our sea denial capability. Control of Malacca straits will have a stranglehold on energy routes to China. It is well within India’s grasp either singly or in concert with other countries. This will send a powerful signal to China. India has to firm up its land and sea strategy to deal with the changed scenario. Timely and effective use of its airpower as part of the overall strategy will certainly be vital.

While building the military strength will take time, India has to take its gloves off and adopt a continuous, focused, graded approach which includes kinetic and non kinetic measures. Pakistan and China will continue with their nefarious designs to destabilise India immaterial of the present crisis being resolved or not. If this nexus is broken or kept under stress it will keep both countries under check – that will be a game changer for India. India has to make it difficult for China to operate at will in POK and GB and other areas. For this India will have to transport the war away from border to areas where it will hurt the countries. Otherwise we will be falling into militarization of the entire border with both the countries which has long term implications.

India has been keeping away from internal issues of both countries and has been reactive so far. Both China and Pakistan have taken advantage of this and have continuously targeted India in international forums, besides stirring up trouble internally in multiple ways. It is time to change. Both China and Pakistan have enough internal and external issues which must be exploited. The key to success will lie in selection of areas/issues to focus on for maximizing the dividends.

Sri Lanka, Myanmar and Maldives are vital to our national strategic interest. China has exploited all the neighbouring countries by promising huge investments and slowly and steadily drawing them into a debt trap leading to loss of sovereignty and strategic freedom. The realization is setting in and India can step in and provide an alternate model. While India will not have the financial muscle to match China, it must use military diplomacy, proximity, close historic and traditional ties of many years, soft power ,trade, health, disaster relief, helping countries in the neighbourhood in the fight against Covid pandemic, sharing of technology and so on to ensure our vital national interests are protected. This needs a consolidated multidirectional, integrated neighbourhood plan. The plan should look at China and Pakistan together as one block: Building a combined land and maritime strategy with extensive use of non kinetic measures to break China –Pakistan nexus while simultaneously building a close relationship with other neighbouring countries. Only then can the “String of Pearls” be converted from a life-threatening noose into a value –enhancing adornment.

A paratrooper who had served in Ladakh at various levels, Major General P. RajagopalAVSM,VSM (Retired), has also commanded the division in Eastern Ladakh.

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