Time to shift focus to the maritime sphere - The Hindu - 01/10/2020

State of India’s continental strategy

India is a country that is traditionally obsessed with a continental approach to war and peace.
However, India might have reached a dead-end in terms of its grand strategic plans in the continental space.

China and Pakistan:

Given that reconciliation with its key adversaries (China and Pakistan) is unlikely and pursuing its ambitious territorial claims on the ground is almost impossible, India’s continental options seem restricted to holding operations to prevent further territorial loss.
China has begun to push the boundaries with India. The peaceful India-China Line of Actual Control in the northeast is now a thing of the past.
In the northwest, the Pakistan front has also been heating up. Ceasefire violations on the Line of Control (LoC) have spiked since last year as has the infiltration of terrorists across the LoC. The India-Pakistan contestation over Kashmir has become fiercer.
While the geopolitical collusion between Pakistan and China to contain and pressure India from both sides is not a new phenomenon, the intensity of the China-Pakistan containment strategy against India at the moment is unprecedented.
The extent and intent behind this collusion will determine the future of the high stakes game in the Himalayas for a long time to come.

Changes in Afghanistan:

The ongoing withdrawal of the United States from Afghanistan and the consequent reduction of India’s influence in Afghanistan, the return of the Taliban, with whom India has very little contact, could turn the geopolitical tide against India.
Also, the Taliban is no more an outcast, and with the withdrawal of forces of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization from Afghanistan, the geopolitical interests of Pakistan, China and Russia would broadly converge in the region.
The change of the geopolitical landscape in Afghanistan and the frictions in Iran-India relations will further dampen India’s ‘Mission Central Asia’.
In sum, this could signal the end of the road for India’s north-eastern and north-western geopolitical forays.

Way forward:

India needs to find a way out of this situation. One key part of the solution is to creatively deal with its continental dilemmas.

1) Deal with Pakistan:

Pressure from the Pakistan front could be eased by addressing the Kashmir question with Islamabad.
Creating a modicum of normalcy on the LoC by activating existing mechanisms such as the Director-General of Military Operations (DGMO) hotline is another way to deal with the Pakistan front.

2) Maritime Strategy:

Excessive focus on the continental sphere since Independence has not yielded great returns in terms of secure borders, healthy relations with its neighbours or deterrence stability.
India must shift its almost exclusive focus from the continental sphere to the maritime sphere.
While India seems stuck between Pakistan and China from a continental perspective, the country is located right at the centre of the Indo-Pacific geopolitical imagination, in the midst of the oceanic space spanning from the shores of Africa to that of the Americas.
India has already begun to think in this direction with the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) establishing a new division to deal with the Indo-Pacific in April 2019.
There is a need to fast-track the work in this direction to keep pace with the emerging realities and to make use of new opportunities.

Why should India focus on its Maritime Strategy?

There are several reasons why a maritime grand strategy would work to India’s advantage while still struggling with a continental dilemma.
Unlike in the continental sphere where India seems to be hemmed in by China-Pakistan collusion, the maritime sphere is wide open to India to undertake coalition building, rule setting, and other forms of strategic exploration.

Focus on Indo-Pacific:

While there is little any country can do to help India in its continental contestations, there is a growing great power interest in the maritime sphere, especially with the arrival of the concept of ‘Indo-Pacific’.
Great powers remain ever more interested in the maritime sphere.
The interest has grown substantially since the term Indo-Pacific was coined.
Germany recently released its Indo-Pacific guidelines following the example of France which brought out its Indo-Pacific strategy.
New Delhi must use its Indo-Pacific engagements to dissuade Beijing from salami-slicing Indian territory in the high Himalayas.
It would provide India a unique opportunity to enhance its influence and potentially checkmate the Chinese ambitions in the region.
Also, maritime space is a lot more important to China than engaging in opportunistic land grab attempts, owing to massive Chinese trade that happens via the oceanic routes and the complex geopolitics around the maritime chokepoints which can potentially disrupt that trade.
A revitalised Indian maritime grand strategy may or may not affect China’s activities in the Himalayas but will certainly provide India a lot more space for manoeuvre in the region.
India must ideate on the current and future maritime challenges, consolidate its military and non-military tools, engage its strategic partners, and publish a comprehensive vision document on the Indo-Pacific.
India must also consider appointing a special envoy for Indo-Pacific affairs.

Conclusion:

It is high time New Delhi shifted its almost exclusive focus from the continental space to the maritime space, stitching together a maritime grand strategy.
The MEA’s Indo-Pacific Division is a good beginning.
India’s decision in 2019 to elevate the Quad meetings among India, Japan, the United States and Australia to the ministerial level is also a step in the right direction.

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