Vice Admiral Premvir Das (retd)
External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar has spoken repeatedly of the Indo-Pacific. Both as the person in charge of our foreign policy and as a scholar of acknowledged strategic understanding, the minister has few equals and it will be useful to identify the four seminal points made in his articulations.
One, that the Indo-Pacific is yesterday’s reality, not of tomorrow;
Two, the environment is predominantly maritime;
Three, that India had to be a key player in the Indian Ocean Region and,
Four, that we had to bring our Indo-Pacific interests in sync with other like-minded countries.
At this same time, the Chief of Defence Staff has reportedly advocated the creation of a Maritime Theatre. Apparently, this structure will comprise the existing Eastern and Western Naval Commands of the Navy as also the tri-service Andaman and Nicobar Command.
The geographic space that this theatre will encompass is not known, nor its terms of reference, though maintenance of freedom of the seas, safe movement of commerce and humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HADR) are talked of in a generic sense.
No enemies have been identified but it is assumed that China and Pakistan would fall in that category. Neither of the two steps can be questioned. What can only be debated is how prepared India is to deal with them. Maritime power is not just about navies or what they can do but also permeates across our overseas trade, HADR and linkages with other littorals.
Clearly, none of these responsibilities can be assumed credibly unless there is capacity to deploy in the Indian Ocean Region and to be seen as a useful and reliable partner. This depends on a few factors, some variable and the others not amenable to change. The first of the latter is geography.
Landlocked countries are obviously non-starters in the business of maritime power. Even those with some coastline, should have easy access to open waters. Germany, France, Russia have all operated reasonably strong navies but without being able to establish credible power at sea.
Two centuries ago, France was defeated decisively by the British both in the Battles of Trafalgar and Nile despite its superiority in numbers of ships.