May 24, 2007


By Dr. Subhash Kapila

Introductory Observations

The Cold War never ended in East Asia even with the dissolution of the Former Soviet Union at the commencement of the 1990s. The Cold War continued in East Asia; the only difference being that in the strategic and threat perceptions of the United States and its major alliance partner in East Asia, namely Japan, the Former Soviet Union stood replaced by China as the major threat.

In the first decade of the 21st century, the Cold War still persists in East Asia with the policy establishments and think tanks in the United States and Japan pre-occupied with serious deliberations on how to cope with a rising, powerful and assertive China.

The defining feature of East Asia’s strategic geometry has remained a constant with the exception of China. The United States has remained the predominant military power in East Asia since 1945 and may continue for another two decades. The United States crafted a web of bi-lateral security alliances in East Asia with countries like Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and Philippines as part of its security architecture in East Asia.

China as a weak economic and military power was during the Cold War in a military alliance with the Former Soviet Union. In the 1970s and first part of the 1980s it was induced by the United States to become an American “quasi-strategic ally” against the Soviet Union. During the continuing Cold War in East Asia underway, China as a rising power today is once again in a solid strategic partnership with a resurgent Russia. Both today seem to challenge the existing strategic status quo in East Asia.

Since East Asia’s strategic landscape in the 21st century will be essentially determined by the inter-se relationships of the United States and China, it would be pertinent to remember the “swing strategy” of both China and the United States in East Asia.

East Asia, till recently, essentially comprised of the Pacific littoral of mainland Asia and the island nations of Japan, Taiwan and the Philippines. More strategically, and less economically and politically, the ASEAN countries were incorporated in the definition of East Asia. In April 2005, the ASEAN Foreign Ministers invited India, Australia and New Zealand to attend the First East Asia summit. East Asia in its extended definition now includes these three countries also.

East Asia today, presents a picture of churning “strategic geometries” where variable equations are being attempted to be crafted as part of the ongoing Cold War. The United States, Russia and China as the key players are busy with their ‘set-squares’ trying to put their respective templates on the East Asian strategic chess-board.

Russia and China have come up with their Shanghai Cooperation Organization which encompasses a major portion of the Asian Pacific littoral and extends deeply into Central Asia and includes India, Pakistan and Iran as observer states which would turn into full membership.

At the other end of the strategic spectrum, to balance the above in East Asia, the United States is attempting to add additional strategic pillars to its existing security edifice of bilateral security alliances in East Asia. In the last year or so, an increasing resonance that has emerged from United States and Japanese policy establishment and think-tanks is the imperative of an “East Asian Trilateral (USA, Japan and India) an “East Asian Quadrilateral” (USA, Japan, India and Australia) and the “Axis of Democracies” with India, of course, prominently in the pack.

The Indian policy establishment may feel very flattered by all this strategic attention and strategic wooing, but the moot question is whether India has the strategic, military and political pre-requisites of power to become a major player in East Asia.

This author feels otherwise and would therefore like to analyze the subject under the following heads:
India’s Ambiguity on East Asia’s Strategic Geometries
India’s Strategic and Military Limitations in Playing a Major Strategic Role in East Asia
India’s Political Limitations in Indulging in East Asia Strategic Geometries

India’s Ambiguity on East Asia’s Strategic Geometries

India has officially not recorded its formal views in declaratory terms on the East Asian strategic geometries as being propounded by the United States and Japan. It has however, though, responded positively to greater engagement and cooperation with USA, Japan and Australia. It has become fashionable for the Indian policy establishment to term every engagement with all and sundry nations as “strategic partnership” and this presumably also applies to its responses to the current inducements to be part of the proposed strategic geometries being propounded.

Hints on these strategic geometries in East Asia seem to have been thrown by at least one Senior Indian Cabinet Minister and some officials that India at some stage would have to participate in such strategic geometries.

India’s policy penchant for ambiguity in the strategic sphere is well known by now. In fact there exists a difference in perceptions and nuances of what India perceives as “strategic partnership” to what USA, Japan and Australia perceive. In relation to Japan this stands covered in this Authors paper “Japan-India Strategic Cooperation: Differing Nuances?” ( dated 18.01.2007)

India’s ambiguities on East Asia strategic geometries, in addition to the above, can be said to arise from the following factors. (1) India still not fully assured and not having implicit trust in a United States – India strategic partnership (2) India unwilling to be part of an East Asian strategy of containment of China (3) India’s political predilection to follow “soft power” approaches as opposed to “hard power” approaches (4) India’s Congress Government’s coalition compulsions, in that with the Leftist as the major coalition partner, they will not allow India to work against China’s strategic interests.

More importantly, East Asia today presents an extremely complex strategic landscape to India’s strategic analysts and others in the region and so also the constancy of United States strategic intentions in East Asia, in terms of emerging East Asia regionalism which seeks to exclude the United States.

Singapore’s Senior Minister, Mr. Goh Chok Tong had aptly reflected on the above at an Asia Security Conference in Bangkok in 2005, that the situation is “still plastic, in a malleable stage, its final form subject to political decisions and strategic choices.”

More importantly, Mr. Goh made the following observations on USA: “Will United States play the game? This unfortunately is not to be taken for granted. The United States attitude towards East Asia regionalism and regional diplomacy more generally has been ambivalent. I sense that some in Washington still ask whether the game is worth the candle.”

Further, assuming that there was no complexity in the East Asian strategic picture and that India had firm intentions to become a major strategic player in East Asia, would India today have the strategic, military and political prerequisites and capabilities to play that role? The answer is negative and hence an appraisal of the limitations that exist.

India’s Strategic and Military Limitations in Playing a Major Strategic Role in East Asia

India is geographically far away from the strategic center of gravity in East Asia. It shares a long land border with only one East Asian country, namely China. For playing any major strategic role in East Asia, India needs to have substantive “force projection” capabilities in terms of the Indian Navy and the Indian Air Force. More significantly, India’s strategic assets should give her range coverage to the farthest confines of East Asia which means Inter-Continental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs).

India’s present nuclear weapons and missile arsenal do not provide any credible power-punch to play an effective role in East Asia. India would reach that stage only when it catches up with China in these two fields.

The Indian Navy must not be induced to exaggerate its operational capabilities by the effective role it played in the South and South East Asian Tsunami disaster relief. The Indian Navy has yet to form a dedicated Indian Ocean Fleet for the Indian Ocean Region extending to South Africa and Australia. If India is to play an effective role in East Asia strategic geometries it would require yet another East Asia Fleet on station in the region. In sum, two additional Naval Fleets based on Aircraft Carrier Groups will be required. At the present rate of defense allocations to the Indian Navy it would take more than 20 years to acquire the requisite capabilities.

The Indian Air Force, due to India’s domestic political compulsions, stands handicapped for the last couple of years by a serious deficiency of 136 combat aircraft in its frontline squadrons. For any extended role in East Asia, the Indian Air Force would have to acquire strategic bombers and strategic surveillance aircraft additionally. Unless these acquisitions are put on a fast-track, it would take years to build up this capability.

In view of India’s glaring strategic and military limitations in relation to East Asia strategic geometries, one is tempted to ask the question as to what are the strategic roles the United States and Japan are seeking of India by involving it in their strategic “Trilaterals, “Quadrilaterals” and “Axis of Democracies”?

Is it only related to India’s extended geographical contiguity with China and India’s sizeable Indian Army being applied against China in some future contingency on behalf of the proposed strategic groupings?

India’s Political Limitations in Indulging in East Asia Strategic Geometries

India’s political limitations in national security management, higher direction of war and lack of political will to use power stands amply analyzed in this Author’s book. “India’s Defence Polices and Strategic Thought: A Comparative Analysis”. Nothing has changed since.

India’s political leadership across the political spectrum has shirked from exercising hard choices in relation to strategic and military choices. Indulging in East Asia strategic geometries would call for hard strategic choices. Other than rhetoric, no encouraging indicators exist that could induce confidence that India is ready to play the ‘balance of power’ politics and is also ready to follow the ‘Realism’ school of political theory in the exercise of its diplomacy and hard strategic choices.

By historical and political conditioning the present generation of India’s political leadership has not prepared and equipped itself by education, learning or inclination to grasp matters strategic and military.

Nothing is more strikingly painful in India’s measuring-up to be a global key player, if not a global power, is Indian political leadership’s lack of will to use power and the national power attributes. India’s lack of will to use its national power is painfully evident in South Asia, in its approaches to terrorism and the proxy war unleashed against it. India’s appeasement polices in facing them is reflective of its political leadership looking for escapist options when faced with hard decisions. If India has allowed its image in South Asia as a regional power to be eroded, how can it aspire to participate in East Asia’s strategic geometries?

Concluding Observations

India-at-large would have immense pride if its political leadership by enlarged and extended strategic engagement could place India as a major strategic player globally, which includes East Asia.

India is presently not strategically, militarily or politically equipped to play a major role in the strategic geometries of East Asia, and would be well advised to avoid a strategic over-reach till it builds up her strategic capabilities which can be respected in East Asia.

Presently, India can only end up as a Grade-B follower in East Asia strategic geometries. It cannot hope to be a major and equitable player of the strategic game on the East Asian strategic chessboard.

The present fawning on India of the United States and Japan to participate in East Asia strategic geometries, despite India’s strategic limitations, can only be read as use of India more for political and strategic signaling to the other side.

Finally, no strategic advantages accrue to India in the furtherance of India’s national security interests by partaking in East Asia strategic geometries.

(The author is an International Relations and Strategic Affairs analyst. He is the Consultant, Strategic Affairs with South Asia Analysis Group.

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