Boost regional defence against China
Way back in 1994, the then prime minister P V Narasimha Rao formulated India’s ‘Look East’ policy. Its aim was to strengthen economic ties, increase trade and commerce between India and her eastern neighbours and provide greater market access to one another for mutual benefit. Several projects like the 3200 km long India-Myanmar-Thailand Trilateral Highway were taken up to accelerate the implementation of this policy. This particular project has taken an inordinately long time and is yet to be completed.
Nearly three and a half decades later today, the Look East policy of economic cooperation has taken another dimension: strategic cooperation to counter the growing threat from China. With this end in view prime minister Narendra Modi has already visited Bhutan, Nepal and Japan and is currently on a three-nation tour of Myanmar, Australia and Fiji. Meanwhile, president Pranab Mukherjee visited Vietnam for strengthening Indo-Vietnamese defence cooperation.
India’s lukewarm attitude to the junta-ruled Myanmar for long years gave a virtual walk over to the Chinese in Myanmar. This mistake was rectified during the later part of the UPA-II rule. India’s defence cooperation with Myanmar got a fillip last year when India offered it rocket launchers, patrol aircraft, etc. India is also stepping up its military aid to Myanmar to neutralise the deep strategic inroads that China has made in that country. Meanwhile, significant changes have taken place in Sino-Myanmar equations also. The days of bonhomie are over. The general impression about China in Myanmar today is becoming increasingly negative. For a number of reasons the Myanmarese believe China is solely concerned about the security of its own business interests rather than in Myanmar’s development
To give one example, in 2011, the two countries signed an MOU for a $20 billion project for building a high-speed rail network from Kunming, the capital of China’s neighbouring Yunnan Province, to the Bay of Bengal in southern Myanmar.
In July this year, the term of the three-year old MOU expired, without any work having started. A Myanmar railway official said the project had to be abandoned because of strong public opposition.
Next in importance for India from the strategic point of view is Vietnam. China’s unilateral claim of the whole of South China Sea has brought it into conflict particularly with India and Vietnam, besides Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines. India and Vietnam have inked deals for exploration of oil and gas from South China Sea, ignoring Peking’s threats. This has heightened tensions with China. Both sides are backing up their joint exploration exercises with defence cooperation as a corollary. Modi’s speech at East Asia Conference at Naypyidaw in presence of Chinese premier Li Keqiang that all concerned should abide by international maritime law in South China Sea is a stern message to Beijing that India will not be cowed down by threats.
Vietnam has realised the importance of increasing its naval strength. It is adding to its fleet six Russian Kilo class ultra-quiet or ‘stealth’ submarines. These are extremely sophisticated vessels that require skilled submariners to man them. Indo-Vietnam cooperation in this field has already started.
Vietnamese sailors are being trained in underwater warfare and submarine operations at the Indian Navy’s submarine school in the Eastern Naval Command. Both countries know this will raise the hostility of Beijing and its ally Pakistan. But they have decided to ignore it, suggesting further military cooperation between them with China in mind.
Seychelles, a country of 155 islands which is located in the western Indian Ocean on the sea route from India to South Africa, is of great strategic importance. More than half a century ago, admiral Hanks of the US Navy called it an ‘unsinkable aircraft carrier’ in the Indian Ocean. China has for long been trying to secure a naval base in Seychelles in pursuance of its policy of encirclement of India. Now India is befriending this small island nation. Very recently the chief of the Indian navy, admiral R K Dhowan, visited Seychelles and handed over the second India-made Fast Attack Craft (FAC).
The Conference of heads of governments of G20 countries at Brisbane has given the prime minister the opportunity to interact with the leaders of Australia, a key player in the regional security architecture. Maritime security cooperation is expected to figure prominently during the talks.
India’s ties with Australia took a new turn way back in 2008 when the then Australian foreign minister Stephen Smith said in his keynote address to the University of Australia that his country ‘sees India at the heart of this historic shift in political and economic influence.’ The years since then have seen a steadily developing mutual relationship.
In October 2011, a Joint Declaration on Security Cooperation was signed. Next year, the then Australian prime minister Julia Gillard visited India and conveyed her country’s decision to sell uranium to India. Early June 2013, the then Indian defence minister A K Antony visited Australia and discussed with his counterpart Stephen Smith the shared strategic and security interests including defence cooperation. In September 2014, the two countries signed in New Delhi, the civil nuclear cooperation agreement for uranium supply to India. They are now slated to hold their first bilateral naval exercise in 2015, yet another step in defence cooperation.