India and the commons: Nehru’s logic, Kautilya’s grammar?
Alfred Thayer Mahan depicted the sea as a “great common,” a medium through which commerce and military force could flow freely.1 His contemporary Sir Julian Corbett portrayed the oceans as a thoroughfare, an element critical to national life. More recently, Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Barry Posen projected the concept of the commons skyward, to incorporate the skies, space, and even cyberspace.2 How will emerging powers approach these expanses, which lie beyond the jurisdiction of any nation-state? The Asian seas today are witnessing an intriguing historical anomaly – the concurrent rise of two indigenous maritime powers against the backdrop of US dominion over the global commons. Animated by the Thucydidean motives of fear, honor, and interest, China and India are the main catalysts transforming the Asian regional order. Their aspirations to world power status and, above all, their mutual quest for energy security have impelled these two continental powers to reorient their gaze, at least in part, from landward to seaward. Their mental maps of Asia have come to encompass nearby – and not-so-nearby – waters. Chinese and Indian maritime interests result from impressive economic growth, the desire of more affluent citizenries for consumer goods, and domestic industry’s attendant hunger for energy resources. The imperative to achieve economic development, satisfying the demands of populaces grown weary of poverty and covetous of national dignity, imparts a sense of urgency to strategy-making efforts in Beijing and New Delhi. This is especially true given the prospect for zero-sum competition in maritime Asia, where the same sea lanes serve users in leading economic powers – all of them jealous of national prosperity. Japan and South Korea come to mind, not to mention Taiwan and the Southeast Asian states. The simultaneous entry of two new heavyweights into the nautical arena may set worrisome trends in motion. As we have seen in the foregoing chapters, some strategists in both capitals speak and write in terms that seem to foreshadow Sino-Indian rivalry. Since commercial shipping must traverse the same Indian Ocean sea routes to reach Indian and Chinese ports (again, leaving aside Japan, South Korea, and the many other economic players in Asia), each side fears that the other will hold the bodies of water stretching from the Persian Gulf to the South China Sea hostage in times of crisis or conflict.3 Such insecurities
spawned naval competition in the past, most prominently during Europe’s imperial era, when the great powers depended on a common nautical space. Coincidentally, questions over the durability of US primacy on the high seas have cast doubt on the US Navy’s ability to continue acting as a stabilizing force. The US damper on competition and conflict in maritime Asia suddenly appears less reliable, just as the decline of Great Britain’s Royal Navy ushered in a transitional phase with the rise of German, Japanese, and American sea power. London managed this transition successfully in the cases of the United States and (for a time) Imperial Japan, but came to blows with Imperial German sea power during World War I. In short, rivalry or strife can ensue among new seafaring contenders absent a dominant, largely benevolent sea power to discourage it. Whether the United States will fare better in this regard than the British Empire remains to be determined. In maritime Asia, it seems, everything old is new again. The Indian Ocean has taken on greater prominence amid this mercurial strategic context. Discourses on Indian Ocean affairs have exhibited a curious myopia, however. Recent commentary has focused in large part on future Chinese naval ambitions in the Indian Ocean and on how the United States might respond to a Chinese naval presence. For many analysts, in other words, the novelty of the Indian Ocean arises not from what coastal South Asian states might do but from likely encounters between two extraregional powers in South Asia. Such a narrow analytical approach assumes that the region will remain an inert object, perpetually susceptible to outside manipulation. More importantly, it overlooks India, the dominant regional power. New Delhi evinces the desire and, increasingly, boasts the means to have its own say in regional affairs. Indeed, it wants the leading say. To omit India’s potential, an important intervening variable in regional politics, risks seriously misjudging the future of the Indian Ocean. We hope this book answers the need to bring India more fully into the strategic picture as a participant in – an arbiter of, if New Delhi gets its way – South Asia’s maritime future. To add depth to the existing literature, we close by examining the triangular dynamics among India, China, and the United States. That Chinese and Indian nautical capabilities remain largely conjectural for the moment rules out definite forecasts of potential outcomes, let alone concrete policy or strategic prescriptions. Alternative futures are another matter. We chose the Monroe Doctrine as a proxy for Indian maritime strategy, teasing out domestic and international factors likely to mold New Delhi’s approach to seagoing affairs. A survey of basic factors propelling the maritime triptych toward cooperation, competition, or indifference hints at how New Delhi, Beijing, and Washington can take charge of their own destiny, actively working to forestall rivalry among themselves while shaping the maritime environment in favor of seaborne collaboration. In short, a “strategic triangle” is taking form in maritime South Asia, of which the prospects for Indian sea power constitute a key element. While no one has rigorously defined this international-relations metaphor, scholars typically use it to convey a strategic confluence of interests among three nation-states. We
employ the term fairly loosely, using it to describe a pattern of cooperation and competition among India, China, and the United States. Indian Ocean stability will hinge largely on how India manages its maritime rise. On the one hand, if New Delhi fails to a create a robust presence in regional waterways, India will essentially be forced to surrender its interests in regional waters. US and Chinese interactions will play out in the ensuing strategic vacuum, consonant with analysts’ assumptions that South Asia will remain a plaything for outsiders. On the other hand, suppose India does fulfill its dream of a powerful navy, coast guard, and merchant marine. If powerful Indian naval forces are one day used to exclude extraregional powers from the Indian Ocean, the region will almost certainly become an arena for naval competition, or even a trial of arms. Either of these undesirable outcomes will flow in part from how India views its own maritime prerogatives and threat environment, and how Washington and Beijing weigh the probabilities of India’s nautical success or failure. How do Indian maritime specialists see things? For retired Indian Navy chief Adm. Rakesh Chopra, seven “emerging ‘Global Trends and Challenges,’ ” many of them mutually exclusive, “could influence India’s security equations.” Specifically:
• US as domineering hegemon. A “strongly unilateralist long-term US posture” might drive the European Union away from its longstanding alliance with the United States, prompting “new coalitions to challenge the unipolar world and oppose US power and domination.” Such a scenario would represent the belated fulfillment of international-relations theorists’ maxim that hegemonic powers prompt the coalescence of balancing coalitions.