A Prime Minister to Remember written by Admiral Sushil Kumar (Konark Publications Pvt. Ltd)
Dealing with China: The Vajpayee Way
Warships have been conducting joint exercises with the Chinese Navy in the China Sea and goodwill visits by our Eastern Fleet to Chinese ports and the recent participation in their International Fleet Reviews (IFRs) at Qingdao has been a regular feature. This contrasting situation at the problematic land border as compared with the normal atmosphere on the maritime front has never been understood by India’s strategic planners and diplomatically too, it has been regarded as lopsided.
What has never been appreciated is that this asymmetrical situation has a lot to do with the geographical and strategic advantage that India has in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR). Sitting astride China’s energy lifeline has always given India the upper hand on the maritime front. It is well known that the modern world was reshaped through naval power and that India was actually colonised from seaward by superior naval forces. But India suffers from a continental mindset that is reminiscent of the Napoleonic era and in this strange psychological milieu, historical evidence hardly matters. So the maritime logic propounded for centuries, from Sun Tzu to Alfred Thayer Mahan, the American naval strategist, historian and theorist, is just a footnote—to be secure on land, one has to be strong at sea.
History also reminds us why the Greeks of antiquity and the emperors of ancient Rome went about building their Navies even though it was an era of continental wars. On the other hand, leaders like Alexander, Napoleon, and Hitler failed the test of sea power, as they never understood the purpose of a Navy. Prime Minister Vajpayee’s understanding of what a Navy is all about was triggered by what he had personally experienced during the Kargil war. Well before our Army and Air Force had swung into action to evict the intruders along the LOC, the Indian Navy had swiftly deployed and seized the initiative from seaward. With powerful task forces of the Indian Navy sitting astride her energy lifeline, Pakistan’s vulnerability lay exposed at sea. This strategic manoeuvre of the Indian Navy seemed to have left a strong impression on Prime Minister Vajpayee and in my personal view it was this experience of the Kargil war that had a bearing on the innovative approach that Prime Minister Vajpayee subsequently adopted in dealing with China. It was certainly a refreshing change from the demeaning manner in which India had been timidly dealing with China for decades. Our land-centric mindset scarred by the 1962 debacle and the defiant Chinese intrusions across the LAC, an inferiority complex had kept us feeling at a disadvantage. So obsessed were we with the LAC and the McMahon Line, that our geopolitical attention got riveted to the Himalayan border. This obsession turned into a mindset that was so land-centric that we simply failed to comprehend that India and China were also maritime neighbours with vital waterways that were of great strategic significance.
More significantly, what had never been realised by our strategic planners is that India always had a strategic advantage at sea and China was quite conscious of it.
China’s security concerns
From the turn of the century, it has been known that China’s rapid growth has come at a huge cost. Being the largest consumer of energy in the world can be a dubious distinction for a country like China, whose gigantic requirement of crude oil has almost entirely to be imported from overseas. It has to be brought in massive super tankers from the Gulf or the Mediterranean, thousands of miles away. This is China’s energy lifeline which has perforce to be routed via the Indian Ocean, where the Indian Navy exercises dominant sea control. The vulnerability of her energy lifeline has, therefore, drastically compounded China’s security concerns. China’s dependence on the sea for its crude oil supply has been a major concern for decades and her immediate neighbours in the China Sea have been feeling the direct brunt of her desperate exertions. But of greatest concern to China is its Silk Route through the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) where the Indian Navy has the upper hand. China has, therefore, been conscious that its Achilles’ heel lies precariously at sea in India’s backyard.
Though China and India are maritime neighbours, their Navies operate in vastly different oceanic zones. The Pacific Ocean is where the PLA Navy is busy countering operational challenges, while the Indian Ocean has always been deemed as India’s backyard. It is well known that China’s professed claims in the China Sea have been bitterly disputed by her maritime neighbours. More importantly, her hostility towards major maritime powers, including the US, stems from her disregard for the right to innocent passage in the China Sea, in terms set down by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).
India, on the other hand, has a geographical advantage in the Indian Ocean, with strategically located choke points such as the Straits of Malacca which is a vital waterway for China’s energy lifeline. With the Indian subcontinent positioned dominantly astride the sea lanes of communication, including China’s new Silk Route, it is not India but China that finds itself on the back foot. The very thought of the energy lifeline being severed by the Indian Navy could be China’s worst nightmare.
Vajpayee’s novel approach
It had become apparent to Prime Minister Vajpayee that this was an asymmetrical situation where India’s operational advantage at sea over China had considerable potential for diplomatic leverage. Unlike the landward frontier with China, where we find ourselves tactically disadvantaged, the situation at sea is entirely in our favour as India has an immense geographical and strategic domination in the IOR. Prime Minister Vajpayee accordingly realised that the time was opportune to consider a change of tack from the disheartening manner in which we had been dealing with China. Casting overboard the baggage of the past with its land-centric hangover, Prime Minister Vajpayee adopted a novel approach in dealing with China. In a manner of speaking, it was a ‘naval’ approach, where he gave an added fillip to building the Indian Navy’s strategic capability. It was during the Vajpayee era that a major emphasis was given to long-term strategic projects of the Indian Navy and significant among these was the induction of the powerful aircraft carrier battle group led by INS Vikramaditya. It has bolstered the Indian Navy’s combat capability and transformed the strategic landscape of the IOR. China has followed this development closely, as reports indicate that its very first aircraft carrier has yet to be inducted into operational service. It would be also aware that the Indian Navy’s expertise in operating aircraft carriers goes back to the 1960s. The need to operationally pool together the nuclear warfare resources of the Army, Navy, and Air Force was an important lesson that flowed out of the Kargil war of 1999. The Vajpayee government accordingly created the Strategic Forces Command (SFC) and in order to add muscle to India’s nuclear deterrent, a major thrust was given to the Indian Navy’s indigenous construction programme for SSBNs (ballistic missile submarines), and ICBMs (intercontinental ballistic missiles). This was a long term project, which began in the mid-1980s. The recent induction of India’s first ICBM-firing nuclear submarine, INS Arihant, with other more potent SSBNs to follow, has been a major achievement. The strident message that it conveys is unlikely to be lost on China.
The tri-service integration of the Indian armed forces was the centre of an unresolved debate for decades and it was on the recommendation of the Kargil Review Committee (KRC) of 1999 that the Vajpayee government gave its approval to commence the process. A significant step in this direction was the creation of the Andaman and Nicobar Command (ANC, which has further reinforced India’s maritime dominance in the Indian Ocean, since the Andaman and Nicobar Islands are strategically located at the mouth of the Malacca Straits, through which China’s energy lifeline passes.
Testing the waters
A Navy’s strategic role may require it to deploy to any part of the globe, where the interests of the nation so demand. Reach and endurance are accordingly important considerations for any blue water Navy. To gauge the long-range capability of our Navy, a naval headquarters’ operations team led by Admiral Suresh Bangara had coordinated a proposal with the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA). The plan was to deploy a task force of the Eastern Fleet comprising major surface combatants and submarines in the China Sea. This deployment was to be for an extended duration and included joint exercises with the Chinese Navy as well as a ceremonial visit to a major Chinese port. I was disappointed, though not surprised, when I learnt from the grapevine that the Indian embassy in Beijing was of the view that this show of strength by the Indian Navy may not go down well with the Chinese authorities. After bureaucratic discussions between the MEA and the Ministry of Defence (MoD) reached an impasse, I decided to raise the level and sought a meeting with Foreign Minister Jaswant Singh who advised us to discuss the matter with the Prime Minister. At the meeting, I briefly explained to the Prime Minister that the Chinese Navy deployed quite regularly in the Indian Ocean, which we consider to be our backyard. Prime Minister Vajpayee thought for a moment and unambiguously conveyed his decision, saying we were quite right and there was no reason why we should remain on the defensive. The decision of the government was conveyed to the Eastern Navy Command and soon after this, a task force with Fleet Commander Rear Admiral A.K. Singh flying his flag on INS Delhi, sailed for the China Sea. It conducted joint exercises and manoeuvres with the Chinese Navy and even weathered Typhoon Saomai during this extended sortie in the mid-China Sea. Finally, in the end of September 2000, this Eastern Fleet Task Force entered the port of Shanghai and was accorded a grand ceremonial reception with Navy-style gun salutes exchanged and guards of honour paraded.
Well before this task force returned to its home base at Vishakhapatnam, reports from the Indian embassy in Beijing arrived with a glowing account of this event. It had been widely covered by not only China’s national television network but the Western media had much to say about it as well. For the Indian Navy, this came as no surprise and is perhaps best summed up by a military acronym—SOP, Standard Operating Procedure. Since Navies worldwide operate in international waters, they have a professional understanding among themselves. But while Navies are conscious of their role and potential, it is the diplomats on either side of the border who really need to get attuned to the concept of naval operations. Understanding Chinese strategic culture has never been easy but more often than not, it is our own geostrategic perceptions about China which are flawed. This is largely because our blinkered view that land is of utmost importance when it comes to defence has given us a ‘continental’ mindset that only seems to consider China as a landward neighbour.
Prime Minister Vajpayee had an open mind and could comprehend the strategic advantage that India’s maritime dimension had to offer. This enabled him to approach the issue by dealing with China on equal terms. It was quite unlike the mortifying manner in which we have always been kowtowing to China. In contrast, it was Vajpayee who was never on the back foot.