INDIAN OCEAN, NOT AFGHANISTAN, SHOULD BE INDIA’S FOCUS

The visit of Lt Gen. Mattis (retd), the US Defense Secretary (equivalent to our Raksha Mantri) had focused more on what India can do to support America’s agenda in Afghanistan, and not on another defence deal as many had predicted. Apparently the US wants the Modi Government’s regional strategy to be dovetailed into the new US strategy for Afghanistan in particular, and the Indian Ocean region in general. The challenge therefore for India is, ‘how to play it’s cards to get the benefits of what America brings on the table, but also retain its strategic autonomy?’

An assertion by the Indian defence minister that there would be ‘no Indian boots on the ground in Afghanistan,’ was apparently meant to address the concerns of those that do not want Indian troops to suffer the same fate of the Americans and their allies in Afghanistan, caught up as they are in an endless quagmire with nothing to show after a decade of intervention. But India has made substantial military contributions in that war torn land, by training Afghan soldiers and policemen, supplies of armed helicopters, etc. all adding to Pakistan’s annoyance.

More understated however was the fact that America also wishes to build up India as a strong counter to China’s growing footprint in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR). To that effect, what India is to get from the US — following Mr. Modi’s meeting President Trump — are 22 Guardian Predator Naval Reconnaissance Drones which are probably the most advanced military technology platform that US has offered to India, till date. This will certainly enhance the Indian navy’s surveillance capabilities in the Indian Ocean, and if armed as they can be, it would add an additional lethal punch. Pakistan is certainly worried, but so must Beijing be.

But for India, the one factor that it cannot ignore despite all the assurances of American support, is that India is a front line state facing the Chinese and has to remain prepared to battle the China-Pak nexus, over a two front war, if push comes to shove. Most observers are of the view that the Doklam standoff wasn’t the last along the Himalayas, where India is a front line state facing China. And while India enjoys, at least for now, a maritime edge over the Chinese in the Indian ocean and much superiority over Pakistan in the high seas, it must enhance its naval assets for further power projection in the IOR. This could work as a suitable counter to Chinese territorial ambitions in the Himalayas, and also in the Indo-Pak context, as Indian Navy can easily blockade the coastline of Pakistan in the event of a confrontation.

Therefore, India has to devise a strategy that could build in what America brings to the table but most importantly how far is India willing to go along with Washington’s game plan. America in reality is still unwilling to contest the Chinese aggressively, because of China’s massive economic engagements with the US. And despite Mr. Trump having named and shamed Pakistan in public — possibly the first time by a US President — America’s dependence on Pakistan could only increase if Mr. Trump’s new approach to Afghanistan to push in more troops and with willingness to stay, is to be implemented. In short, while Afghanistan will remain the immediate focus of the American administration, India should plan on winning over the Americans in Afghanistan, with its soft power and development initiatives, to draw in the powerful clout of the American Navy for a more binding commitment towards India in the IOR which not only is perhaps the largest maritime trade route in the world but holds the key to development in Asia and the future of any conflict between Asia’s two giants- China and India.

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Maroof Raza

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