How long will Ocean remain Indian?
India’s neglect of holistic strategic planning, intelligence, energy security, seapower and national security have again exposed our vulnerabilities, as shown by the following recent events:
* On February 7, a coup in the Maldives ousted at gunpoint the country’s first elected President, Mohamed Nasheed, after just three years in power.
* A study by the American Georgetown University recently said that China possibly possessed 3,000 nuclear weapons.
* Seychelles has offered to provide refuelling facilities to Chinese warships.
* After the NATO-inspired and aided violent regime change in oil-rich Libya, it appears now it’s the turn of oil and gas-rich Iran and its close ally, Syria.
* The apparent thaw in Indo-Pak relations, coming as it does against the backdrop of Pakistan’s problems with the United States and Afghanistan.
All these events have a bearing — direct or indirect — on India’s national security.
First Maldives. The coup represents, in part, the failure of Indian intelligence and diplomatic-military response. I visited the archipelago in 2005 as director-general, Indian Coast Guard, and interacted with the police and coast guard of that country who were worried about introduction of democracy in their country and the rise of Pakistani-inspired Islamic fundamentalism in Maldives. This archipelago of 1,191 islands has a population of four lakh (mostly Muslim), and its economy is totally dependent on tourism.
Some Islamic hardliners are opposed to the government’s tourism policy, that’s why liquor and pork are served at only about 180 segregated island resorts to skimpily clad, rich (mostly Western) foreigners who come to enjoy the beautiful sun and sea. These resorts do not employ locals, and all hotel services are rendered by foreigners (a mix of Europeans, Indians, Sri Lankans, Nepalese and Filipinos).
The indigenous Maldivian people live in about 300 segregated islands, including the capital Male, a small three-mile island. According to my sources, some Maldivians have joined terrorists in Kashmir, and that itself is a reason why a friendly, moderate government in Male would be in India’s interest. More so since, after 2030, the archipelago is expected to be submerged and Maldivians are expected to migrate to Kerala.
Second, China’s nuclear weapons. The recent American estimation of Chinese nuclear weapons, is far higher than the earlier media estimate of 240 nuclear weapons. Georgetown University’s study goes to show that India is clueless about the magnitude of Chinese nuclear arsenal, a pointer to India’s complete lack of intelligence on China. Which also means it’s time we reviewed our nuclear weapons stockpile and nuclear doctrine.
Thirdly, Seychelles’ offer to Chinese Navy warships to dock at its ports indicates a failure of Indian diplomacy and intelligence in its own backyard. With Chinese warships soon using the Gwadar port (funded and built by China for Pakistan), the Hambantota port (funded and built by China for Sri Lanka) and new sea terminals at the Chittagong port (funded and built again by China for Bangladesh), it’s only a matter of time before the Indian Ocean becomes a “Chinese lake”, with the Indian Navy losing even the slight technological edge (data link and lead in carrier borne naval aviation) that it has over its Chinese counterpart.
A handful of Indians (even fewer in the military and intelligence agencies) know Mandarin. There is an urgent need to teach Mandarin in our schools and to set up a “National China Institute” (NCI). Selected Indian diplomats and intelligence and military personnel should be trained at the proposed NCI.
This will provide the national leadership with credible intelligence and inputs on China’s economy, military and diplomatic endeavours so that India can protect its national interests in good time and not be perpetually surprised. It’s good that the Indian Naval Academy at Ezimala, Kerala, has now made it compulsory for its naval cadets to study either Chinese (Mandarin) or Arabic.
Fourth is the NATO-inspired “regime change”. There are dozens of autocratic regimes in the world, but the West is keen to see through regime change only in oil-rich nations like Libya and Iran. Syria, which has little oil, has also been selected for regime change, for geo-strategic reasons. It’s a Sunni majority (74 per cent) nation, where the rulers are from the 12 per cent Alawite (Shia) community.
The rulers of Syria are very friendly towards Iran (the world’s only Shia majority Muslim nation), and have good relations with Iraq and Lebanon. Regime change in Syria will be difficult because Syria’s only naval base (Tartous) hosts the Russian Navy, so Western navies will not get a friendly port for “regime change operations” like they did in Libya when the British Navy used Benghazi. Hence, President Assad may survive “regime change”. Since Iran (unlike North Korea and Pakistan) does not have nuclear weapons, it can only threaten to block the Strait of Hormuz.
Besides Iran’s February 15 disclosure of a fourth-generation nuclear centrifuge and enrichment of uranium to 20 per cent, and its oil embargo on six EU nations, along with the alleged February 13-14 attacks on Israeli diplomats, has greatly increased the possibility of an Israeli-American strike on Iran.
Any such action will result in a global economic disruption, with countries like India suffering the most, since our strategic oil reserves are about 30 days as against the accepted international norms of 180 days. Even if the US Navy uses force to keep the Strait of Hormuz open, the conflict would soon result in Western air and cruise missile strikes on Iranian ports, airfields, coastal missile batteries and other military installations, along with “nuclear weapon building facilities”.
This conflict will take weeks, the Strait of Hormuz will remain closed. That is why India needs to step up its oil and gas reserves, operationalise the Koodankulam civil nuclear reactors and have contingency plans to evacuate Indian expatriates from West Asia.
The writer, a vice-admiral, retired as Flag Officer Commanding-in-Chief of the Eastern Naval Command, Visakhapatnam