Thursday, June 27, 2013

Foreign Policy under the new Chinese Leaders: India needs to be Wary

Amb PP Shukla (Joint Director, VIF) 

The new Chinese leaders have been active in foreign affairs almost immediately after taking over their new offices in March this year. Premier Li Keqiang visited India, Pakistan, Switzerland and Germany as part of his first outing. President Xi Jinping visited Russia on his first foreign visit, as well as several African countries, including South Africa for the BRICS Summit; more recently, he visited several South and Central American countries before going for an informal summit – the first such – with President Obama in California in the inappropriately-named Rancho Mirage. 

There are several aspects in these travels that should be of special interest to India. To anticipate the analysis, what seems to be on Chinese minds is that they need to work on the US and India in order to prevent the “rebalance” in American policy towards the Asia-Pacific from taking firm hold, and to keep countries like India out of such a strategic arrangement in any case.

To begin with the India end – it was much touted in the Chinese media and official comment as the first visit abroad of the new Premier – an indication of the importance they attach to India. This is fair enough as far as it goes, but we in India need to parse this without getting emotional. The real importance is in the context of the US pivot, and the need to keep India out of any kind of alignment with this unfolding strategy. The US archives make frequent reference to the Indian leaders’ weakness for flattery [and the need to play on this], and it would not escape the Chinese that this is indeed an approach worth trying. 

Premier Li’s visit itself yielded mixed results. There was the positive side in the reference to the need to fix the trade deficit and to ensure greater transparency on the exploitation of common rivers. Both are genuine causes of concern for India, and these need to be addressed with despatch. Positive too, were the references to building the BCIM [Bangladesh, China, India, Myanmar – alphabetical rather than geographical order] corridor for connectivity, and support for India’s aspirations for a greater role in the UN, including the Security Council. This is not quite the support for India’s permanent membership of the Security Council that we seek, but this is as far as the Chinese will go. 

Nonetheless, there was usually a catch in all of this, and the details were spelt out in the Premier’s speech at the Indian Council of World Affairs (ICWA), where he was freer to spell out China’s own thinking. On trade, for instance, there was the catch that Indian products needed to be competitive; on the boundary issue, there is to be another agreement [the so-called Border Defence Cooperation Agreement] before a final settlement, and this is aimed, from the Chinese side, to freeze the current infrastructure in the border areas. The joint statement released while Li was still in India, contains no reference to such an additional agreement, and rightly so. The two agreements of 1993 and 1996 are adequate for the purpose, and this is hinted at in the joint document too. The real requirement is only that they should be acted upon. This is not happening, and China is the violator. However, Li’s speech suggests that we have not heard the last of this proposal.

The joint statement itself also contained two contradictory formulations: on the one hand, it enjoined on both countries the need to be sensitive to each other’s core concerns, while on the other, there was the reference to each country being free to pursue its relations with other countries. These are, of course, not necessarily contradictory, but both countries’ leaders were to bring out the contradictions within days – Li in Pakistan, Singh in Japan.

The real aim of the visit was made clear by Li in his speech at the ICWA – the passage setting it out is worth quoting in full. 

“No country can choose its neighbors, and a distant relative may not be as helpful as a near neighbour. China and India should not seek cooperation from afar with a ready partner at hand.” 

The hint is plain enough: India cannot hope to use America in its face-off with China. The truth is that it is not true, and we should know this better than most. Pakistan has successfully used America for its purposes in the region – against India. And that is not the only thing wrong with this assertion; as shown below, in the discussion on President’s Xi’s visit to California, China is itself seriously seeking cooperation with the US. Clearly, the intent is that India should not seek the support of the “distant relative”, and should avoid the rebalancing being offered by the US.

During his stay, Premier Li laid emphasis on the need for trust between India and China. This thought was spelt out clearly by Foreign Minister Wang when he said that “the establishment and enhancing of strategic mutual trust is a key to the future trend of China-India relations.” Nobody can quarrel with this, but it does reflect a curious disregard of the ground reality – just a few weeks prior to the visit, there had been a tense stand-off in Depsang in Ladakh, and trust was the last thing that either side showed. 

In fact, there is less to fixing the trust issue than many people think. All it takes is for China to share its perception of where the Line of Actual Control [LAC] runs. This is a formal undertaking made in 1996, in the Agreement on Confidence Building Measures along the LAC, and signed by then-President Jiang Zemin and then-Prime Minister Deve Gowda. In the seventeen years since then, there has been no move from the Chinese side to clarify its perception of the LAC. The Depsang incident brought out once again, not for the first time, the importance of an agreed perception of the LAC. Short of this, talk is cheap.

On the contrary, there has been some regression. For years, it has been the Chinese position that the western sector to be discussed with India begins at the Karakoram Pass, a position they adopted in 1960, at the officials’ talks launched after Zhou Enlai’s visit to India in April of that year. Since then, they signed the border agreement with Pakistan, in 1963, thus effectively closing off any meaningful talks on that portion of the border. Of late, they have also been advancing the position that the common border is only 2000 km long, thus effectively closing out the entire border between J&K and Tibet. It is these substantive issues that are undermining trust. And mere statements, however sincerely delivered, cannot overcome the trust deficit.

Li went on to Pakistan where the substance and tone of his statements gave additional grounds for a second hard look at Chinese approaches to the region. From the Indian perspective, the most negative formulation is the following excerpt from the joint statement issued after the visit: 

“The two sides agree to continue encouraging relevant countries in the region to resolve their differences through consultations and negotiations in accordance with relevant principles of UN Charter.”

In using this formulation, the Chinese agreed to something they know is unacceptable to India, one of the “relevant countries” at whom this formulation is aimed. Moreover, it is something that both India and Pakistan have effectively dropped from their bilateral discussion since the Lahore Declaration of 1999.

There were also references to Pakistan being a bridge between China on the one part, and South, Central, and West Asia on the other. Maritime cooperation is also reflected in the communiqué, though there is a general formulation to safeguarding the security of the sea-lanes. And there was a bland reference to Afghanistan. All of these are also touched upon in the India-China document - nothing that one could take exception to in this, but these can have implications for India, depending on how they are implemented.

Prime Minister Singh visited Japan a few days later, and it was clear that the quality of the relationship was entirely different from that between India and China. It went beyond the references to democracy and the rule of law, or even the maritime dimension, where India and Japan stated their agreed positions. The closer understanding was reflected in the formulations used on defence cooperation, Afghanistan, terrorism, the international technology control regimes, and even North Korea. The joint statement made it clear that India and Japan were in almost complete agreement on all these issues in a way that neither was with China. A comment from the Chinese press highlights this: 

“The financial assistance offered by Japan is nothing compared to the strategic complementarities struck by India and Japan during Singh's Japan visit.”

It was clear that the Chinese were quite rattled by this kind of understanding between the two Asian democracies, and this was reflected in the media projection on the visit. Japan is clearly beyond the pale for China, and therefore the focus was on India: there was advice for India not to be swayed by anti-China considerations in the Global Times, which suggested, in a cartoon accompanying one of the commentaries, that even in combination, India and Japan were no match for China.

This was the backdrop to the visit of President Xi Jinping to the US. This was the first such informal summit between the American and Chinese leaders. As a result, there were no formal speeches or joint communiqués. Instead, there were only some brief remarks to the press. Even these, though, gave some idea of what the Chinese had in mind: Xi hinted at the need to revive the notion of a G2. His remarks throughout the visit had one leitmotif, that the US and China had a special role to play in global affairs and that both countries should try and build a new type of relations, which would avoid the historical pattern of a clash between an established and a rising power.

The message was given sharper focus during the joint press conference of the two leaders on 8 June. It came in answer to a question addressed to President Xi from China Central TV, so we know it was an anticipated question. It asked about whether there had been any discussion on the proposal made by Xi about building a new type of great power relations. An excerpt from the reply given by Xi will illustrate the point being made:

“And that is to say the two sides must work together to build a new model of major country relationship based on mutual respect and win-win cooperation for the benefit of the Chinese and American peoples, and people elsewhere in the world. 

“The international community looks to China and the United States to deliver this. When China and the United States work together, we can be an anchor for world stability and the propeller of world peace.” [Emphasis added

The message is unmistakable: there should be no military confrontation between the US and China, and the two can cooperate to play the role of anchor for stability and peace. The rebalancing is again the heart of the message, though it is dressed in different language.

What emerges from this brief survey of early Chinese foreign policy activity is that the new leaders are making an effort to address their principal security concern – the US pivot and the danger that India [and Japan] will be drawn into this arrangement. They do not harbour much hope from Japan, indeed, (they) seem to be clear that Japan will have to be confronted, especially under the current LDP Government. However, they hope to influence India and the US, which is why they were both the early targets of attention. 

President Obama gave a guarded response to the remarks made by President Xi, but it is worth noting that he did not endorse any of the notions put forward. Instead, he concentrated on the nitty-gritty of the relationship, and this could be interpreted to mean that he was equally non-committal in the private conversations. The only point worth noting in this context is that Xi repeatedly said that both leaders agreed on what he was proposing, and his was not contradicted by Obama.

These, then, appear to be the early moves by the new Chinese leaders, and it is important for India to understand them and evaluate them carefully. It would appear that, in substantive terms, there was little that was new in the offers made by Premier Li. Our response has been similarly restrained. The Americans have not shown their hand, but the kind of actions they have been taking provide some indication of where they are going. They have stepped up their military presence in Australia, and are increasing their presence in Guam. They are forging ahead with the Trans-Pacific Partnership, into which they have included Japan, but not China [or India – we need to ponder over this]. 

Moltke the Elder remarked once that no military plan survives first contact with the enemy. The same is true of international relations. Obama began with his own notion of G2, and of dialogue with Iran, but both these fell away as reality took hold. The same may happen with the new charm offensive of the Chinese leaders. It is important for India to keep a close eye on the emerging contours of their policy, and especially to watch out for the nature of the evolving US-China relationship.

Remembering the Dreaded Emergency: Lesson for Future of Indian Democracy

Dr. A Surya Prakash, Distinguished Fellow, VIF

June 25 marks the 38th anniversary of the dreaded Emergency that turned a vibrant Indian democracy into a dictatorship. It was imposed by the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in 1975 to gain absolute power after she was found guilty of corrupt electoral practice by the Allahabad High Court. Unwilling to accept the judicial verdict, Ms Gandhi got a pliant President to issue a proclamation under Article 352 of the Constitution to impose an “internal emergency”. The emergency, which lasted 19 months, constituted the darkest hour for India’s democracy. The Constitution was mutilated, parliament was reduced to a rubber stamp and the media was gagged. Even the judiciary failed to stand up to the tyrannical regime. As a result, the people of India lost their basic freedoms and came face to face with fascism. Democracy was restored after the defeat of the Congress Party in the March, 1977 Lok Sabha election.

Here is a brief account of how it all started and what the Indira Gandhi government did to Parliament, the Media, the Judiciary and more importantly, to the basic freedoms of the people. The political crisis that led to the imposition of the emergency began on June 12, 1975 when Justice Jagmohanlal Sinha of Allahabad High Court held Prime Minister Indira Gandhi guilty of corrupt practice in the Lok Sabha election of 1971. The judge held her election to parliament as void and barred her from contesting elections for six years. On a request by Indira Gandhi’s lawyer, the judge stayed his own order for 20 days to enable her to go in appeal.

Indira Gandhi’s lawyers filed an appeal in the Supreme Court. Justice V.R.Krishna Iyer, passed orders on this petition on June 24, but the interregnum was used by the Congress Party to stage a series of rent-a-crowd-rallies in support of Indira Gandhi outside her residence. The biggest rally was held on June 20 and for this the Delhi administration and the Delhi Police commandeered 1700 buses and the railways ran special trains from far and near. Since all buses were forcibly requisitioned for the rally, citizens of Delhi had to do without public transport that day.

Indira Gandhi had hoped that the Supreme Court would provide her relief but that was not to be. Justice Iyer granted a “conditional stay” of Justice Sinha’s decision. He barred Indira Gandhi from participating in debates or voting in Parliament and referred the matter to a larger Bench of the Court.

Meanwhile, the opposition parties got together to press for Indira Gandhi’s resignation in the light of the Allahabad High Court judgement. Justice Iyer’s order, prohibiting the Prime Minister from voting in parliament or participating in debates, had made her position even more untenable, they said and demanded that she must quit office forthwith. They held a massive rally in the Ramlila grounds on June 25, which was addressed by the Sardovaya leader and freedom fighter Jayaprakash Narayan, who was leading the movement to cleanse politics, and a host of other leaders. The Prime Minister, they said, was moving towards dictatorship and fascism. On the other hand, Indira Gandhi’s son, Sanjay Gandhi and many of her friends and political associates were pushing her towards a confrontation and were even suggesting measures that could wreck the Constitution. Siddhartha Shankar Ray and several others came up with suggestions which had the same effect – snuffing out democracy. Every member of the Prime Minister’s household appeared to be gravitating towards the same idea – crush political opponents and cling to power at any cost.

In the months preceding the Allahabad High Court judgement, Sanjay Gandhi had emerged as an extra-constitutional authority and people in government and the Congress Party were seen cringing and crawling before this new centre of power. When he found Congressmen and officials at his feet, Sanjay “summoned” Chief Ministers to the Prime Minister’s residence and began preparing lists of opposition politicians who, in his view, deserved to be put away. As congressmen vied with each other to produce hired crowds before her house, Indira Gandhi called S.S.Ray and told him the country needed “a shock treatment”. Ray said she could give India the shock treatment by imposing an “internal emergency” under Article 352 of the Constitution.

Thereafter, Indira Gandhi, accompanied by Ray, went to the President and asked him to impose an internal emergency under Article 352. She said there was no time to call a meeting of the Union Cabinet to discuss the proposal. On her return from the President’s House, she sent a letter to the President accompanied by a proclamation. President Fakruddin Ali Ahmed, who was a rubber stamp President, signed on the dotted line. The rules governing conduct of business in government prohibit a Prime Minister from taking unilateral decisions in matters such as these. It is mandatory that this be placed before the Cabinet. But the President lacked the moral fibre to protect the Constitution. As a result, he meekly succumbed and signed the Emergency proclamation.

Once the deed was done, India Gandhi’s household got out the lists and the police forces across the country were directed to arrest leaders of opposition parties. Jayaprakash Narayan, Morarji Desai, Atal Behari Vajpayee, Lal Krishna Advani, Madhu Dandavate, S.N.Mishra, Subramanian Swamy and a host of other leaders were arrested and sent to jails in Delhi, Bangalore and other places. Next, on Sanjay Gandhi’s orders electricity was cut off on New Delhi’s Fleet Street – Bahadurshah Zafar Marg, to prevent publication of newspapers next morning.

Having thus succeeded so effortlessly in wrecking the Constitutional scheme, Indira Gandhi summoned the Union Cabinet at 6 a.m on June 26 to “inform” it of her decision to impose an internal emergency under Article 352. The Cabinet capitulated and without discussion gave post-facto ratification to this decision. Soon thereafter, the Home Ministry imposed censorship on the media and prohibited newspapers from publishing news about detentions. A Chief Censor was appointed to keep a close watch of newspapers and journalists.

Once this infrastructure for dictatorship had been laid, other things followed. On June 27, 1975 the President issued an order suspending citizens’ right to move the courts for enforcement of fundamental rights guaranteed under Article 14 ( equality before law and equal protection of the law), Article 21 ( no deprivation of life and liberty except by procedure established by law), Article 22 ( no detention without being informed of the grounds for it). With the passage of this order, citizens lost their fundamental right to life and liberty. Later during the emergency, the President passed yet another order suspending the right of citizens to move court for enforcement of freedoms under Article 19.

Armed with these draconian powers, the government went about arresting politicians, journalists, academics and persons from other walks of life who opposed the Emergency.

Most of them were locked up under the dreaded Maintenance of Internal Security Act (MISA) with officials fabricating charges. MISA itself was amended to prohibit courts from applying the principles of “natural justice” in MISA detention cases. Even more extraordinary was the amendment which said disclosure of grounds of detention were not necessary, that the grounds were ‘confidential” and should not be communicated to the detenues or the courts and to bar representations against detention.

Meanwhile sycophancy reached the zenith. Dev Kant Barooah, President of the Congress Party declared “ Indira is India, India is Indira”.

One of the most ugly features of the Emergency was forcible sterilisation of the population and cleaning up of cities on Sanjay Gandhi’s order. In order to achieve quick results, Indira Gandhi assigned sterilization targets to all Chief Ministers, who in turn passed on targets to all government servants including teachers and policemen. The police went about target achievement in the only way they know. They surrounded villages, nabbed all males a la municipal squads which trap street dogs, and carted them off to the nearest primary health centers to be vasectomised. When villagers resisted, the police opened fire killing and injuring many protestors. Villages largely inhabited by Muslims were specially targeted because the government believed this community was against population control. Similar atrocities were perpetrated in the name of cleaning –up Delhi. Backed by a strong police force, municipal officials in Delhi swooped on residents of Turkman Gate and other areas and bulldozed hundreds of homes. Dozens of citizens lost their lives in the riots that broke out in the area.

A word about the conduct of different organs of the State. Parliament buckled under pressure and passed some of the most atrocious constitutional amendments including the 42 Amendment which stuck a big blow against the foundations of democracy. The speeches made by Congress MPs during these debates constitute the most shameful acts of sycophancy. The Supreme Court did not cover itself in glory either. Tragically, this institution too failed to stand up for the fundamental rights of citizens. The most glaring example of its capitulation to the ruling establishment was its infamous judgement in A.D.M.Jabalpur Vs Shiv Kant Shukla delivered on April 28, 1976 in which it declared that in view of the presidential order suspending fundamental rights, no citizen had the right to approach a court to safeguard his right to life and liberty. Barring honourable exceptions, the media, which came under harsh censorship on a daily basis, buckled under government pressure. The conduct of the bureaucracy was pathetic. Most bureaucrats succumbed to pressure and meekly complied with all illegal orders and caused endless misery to common people.

Democracy was restored after the defeat of the Congress Party in the March, 1977 Lok Sabha election. The first act of the Janata Party government that succeeded Indira Gandhi’s dictatorial regime was to restore democracy and remove the fascist amendments made to the Constitution. The cleaning up was done via the 44 Amendments and changes in many other laws that had been mutilated during the Emergency.

We must remember the Emergency and all the horrors that were inflicted in its name, if we want to prevent such tyranny hereafter. This is a story that must be told and retold so that citizens understand the value of democracy and fundamental rights and remain eternally vigilant to safeguard these freedoms. And the 25th of June is a befitting occasion to do that every year.

New Iranian President: West, India Need to Wait and Watch

Kanwal Sibal, Dean, Centre for International Relations and Diplomacy, VIF

Hassan Rowhani’s election as President of Iran on June 14 is unlikely to materially change the dynamics of the conflict between Iran and the western powers. The “reformists” in Iran who have backed Rowhani want improved handling of Iran’s diplomacy though not at the cost of yielding on principles.

On the nuclear issue and relations with the US, the Iranian positions have become entrenched over a period of fruitless negotiations and cumulation of mutual suspicions, with robust sanctions imposed by the US and Europe and military threats against the country, including by Israel, making the resolution of issues more complicated politically and procedurally.


The situation has become more tangled because of social and military convulsions in the Arab world leading to the emergence of conservative Muslim Brotherhood regimes in the north African littoral with extremist Salafist groups in tow. This has sharpened the confrontation between Iran and Saudi Arabia, anchored into a widening Shia-Sunni divide in this region as a whole, with Iran being accused of actively feeding Shia turbulence across the Arab world. Possibly even more than the West, the Gulf countries would wish to see the growing Iranian power curbed.

The Syrian issue has added to Iran-related anxieties. Iran is seen as Syria’s strongest regional supporter, with Syria also serving as its link to the Hezbollah in Lebanon. If the Sunni Arab world led by Qatar and Saudi Arabia would want the Alawite regime of President Assad to collapse so that Iranian influence in the region is diminished, Iran would want to retain its influence in the arc consisting of Iraq, Syria and Lebanon and thus remain a vital factor in regional politics.

Barring Turkey, which today seeks an Arab role as an Islamic country, contrary to its historical tilt towards Europe as a secular country, Iran sees itself as the region’s largest country demographically and geographically, with massive energy resources, a well educated and technologically skilled population and potentially the region’s biggest market, and therefore impossible to ignore.

With Shias now ruling in Iraq and Iran’s role in Afghanistan set to expand after the US withdrawal and India’s search for connectivity to Afghanistan through Chabahar for retaining its own influence there, and with Saudi Arabia and Qatar feeling threatened by Iranian power, the Iranians can well conclude that the overall situation is playing in their favour despite western attempts to squeeze their country economically through sanctions.

The Israeli factor is a huge obstacle in the way of any “balanced” resolution of the Iran-West conflict- one that cedes some strategic ground to Iran. Israel would want Iran’s nuclear capability- seen as an existential threat- to be completely eliminated. If concerns that Iran may use its nuclear weapons against Israel in some future scenario seem highly exaggerated, its fears that with its nuclear capability giving it immunity against any retaliation, Iran may provide more potent support to Hezbollah to stage attacks against Israel are less imaginary, as our own experience with Pakistan tell us. This explains why Israel backs the elimination of the secular Assad regime even if it is replaced by Sunni extremist groups, because for it the breaking of the Iran-Hezbollah link through the Alawite Assad regime would be paramount. Significantly, Israel and Qatar are together in this game.


The pro-Israel lobby in the US is working to ensure that President Obama maintains a coercive line towards Iran. In part to forestall any precipitate Israeli military action, Obama has imposed severe energy and financial sanctions on Iran- the latest on June 3 targeting the already heavily depreciated Rial and Iran’s automotive industry.

For reasons of domestic politics too, the White House seems currently unreceptive to any constructive move to begin untying the Iranian nuclear knot. Obama’s primary focus is on his domestic agenda for carrying through which he needs every vote that he can possibly muster in the House of Representatives. With the Israeli lobby in the Congress already contributing to systematically blocking his initiatives, Obama will not apparently take the risk to alienate it further by any overture towards Iran. John McCain’s hawkish position on Iran has made his position even more difficult.


Rowhani, who was the chief nuclear negotiator when Iran suspended uranium enrichment in 2003, is considered a moderate. His operational style being very different from that of his predecessor, he will avoid antagonizing the US unnecessarily. His election in the first round itself, without accusations of vote-rigging, gives him credibility. However, it is well understood that on key political and security issues, including the nuclear one, it is Ali Khamenei who has the last word. How much can Rowhani’s supposed moderation orient Iranian policies on various contentious issues in a positive direction remains questionable. He will also have to deal with the nuclear hardliners in the Revolutionary Guards Corps and the Qods Force.

During his electoral campaign, Rowhani had called for President Assad to remain in power till the scheduled 2014 elections. At his first press conference on June 17, he ruled out any suspension of uranium enrichment but mentioned his desire to make Iran’s nuclear activities more transparent in order to build international confidence. He reiterated that Iran would welcome direct negotiations with the US if the latter stopped attempting to meddle in Iran’s internal affairs and abandoned its “bullying attitude”. If the West was looking for “new thinking”, that is not discernible yet.

Rowhani, who has dealt with India before, should be a friendly interlocutor. Our relationship with Iran has suffered because of stringent western sanctions against Iran. Although we have handled fairly deftly our difficulties so far, the natural expansion of India-Iran ties will have to await a resolution of the Iran-West conflict.

Ignoring ICCR: Undermining India’s ‘Soft Diplomacy’

Dr. Anirban Ganguly, Research Fellow, VIF

India’s premier and oldest agency for furthering her soft power, the Indian Council for Cultural Relations (ICCR), is faced with an acute crisis of resources. The challenge is serious and yet it does not seem to have moved the powers that be. In terms of resource allocation, the ICCR, acknowledged as the ‘Government of India’s primary arm for projecting India’s soft power and earning goodwill’ has continued to stagnate.

In fact, trends reveal that the last active expansion phase for the ICCR was in 2009, when it had succeeded in opening seven new Indian Cultural Centres worldwide. Since then, successive Parliamentary Standing Committees have lamented the reduced and standstill allocation of funds to this principal agency for India’s cultural diplomacy. The ICCR was launched with the objective of developing into a main instrument for furthering India’s cultural power. The aim was to reactivate linkages with those civilisations and people who had once been open to and active in assimilating India’s culture and her traditions.

The ICCR was one of the first agencies to take off as early as 1950 with this lofty objective. Addressing its inaugural function on 9th April 1950, post-independent India’s first Prime Minister Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru had emphasised this pre-eminent cultural role when he said that he ‘always looked forward to furthering the cause of India’s cultural association, not only with the neighbouring countries to the East and West but with the wider world outside.’ For Nehru, this reaching out to the world culturally was crucial, it was essential if India was to again regain her cultural spaces across the globe and especially in her immediate vicinity, ‘it is not a question of merely wanting such cultural association or considering it good’ Nehru pointed out, ‘it is rather a question of the necessity of the situation which is bound to worsen if nothing is done to prevent it.’

To see an organisation, in which was reposed such high hopes and aims, languish because of lack funds is a stark reflection of our lack of resolve to evolve a cultural strategy for Indian diplomacy. The twentieth report of the Standing Committee on External Affairs Demand for Grants 2013-2014 paints an unflattering picture of the financial state of affairs of the ICCR. Against the budget demand of Rs.282.50 crore, only Rs.160 crore has been allocated to ICCR. The Indian Foreign Secretary in course of his testimony before the House Committee has accepted that due to this repeated shortfall over the years ‘many of the Cultural Centres abroad are facing problems … and even many programme [and] activities of ICCR are suffering.’

This cash crunch has hit the agency most in its international outreach and commitments. The ICCR has decided to become the partner institution in 2013 for the prestigious Europalia festival held in Belgium and supported by the Government of Belgium and a consortium of companies, museums and art institutions. The Europalia festival offers a great opportunity to show case one’s own culture and throws up possibilities of conceiving and launching collaborative ventures with other museums and cultural institutions in other countries in Europe. The occasion could have turned, if seriously supported by Government resources, into a unique opportunity for projecting India’s thriving and fascinating cultural power in the heart of Europe. An invitation to these could have been turned into a positive opportunity to forge lasting cultural ties with other leading cultural institutions. But the occasion and its possibilities are being squandered away because the ICCR ‘has received no additional budgetary support’ for its initiative in partnering the Festival. While the idea of seeking other sources of funding, mainly from corporate India, is gaining ground and the Committee itself has asked the External Affairs Ministry to look into such possibilities in the future, the Government of the day cannot abdicate its principal responsibility in furthering globally the essence of India’s culture. Such an abdication, if it happens, shall be a retrograde step for India’s cultural power and its global potential.

Understandably the Ministry has raised an alarm at what it terms a ‘drastic reduction in allocations.’ Until 2009, the ICCR was upbeat about its worldwide expansion activities. That year it opened seven new Indian Cultural Centres in Asia – in Kabul, Kathmandu, Bangkok, Tokyo, Dhaka, Kuala Lumpur and Abu Dhabi. The same year saw the earmarking of a building in Washington to house the Indian Cultural Centre. The Washington Cultural Centre is yet to take off and other Centres are facing the brunt of lack of resources.
Coming down to 2012-2013, the pace appears to have heavily slowed down and questions of even running the existing centres have cropped up. The Ministry, in its reply to the Committee, pointed to the uncertain future of India’s cultural wings abroad. Explaining the surplus expenditure incurred by the ICCR, the Ministry pointed out that, ‘Closing down these Cultural Centres, Chairs and Regional Offices would send a wrong signal to the outside world putting India in an embarrassing position. The excess expenditure was therefore unavoidable, thought it was minimized by reducing several activities ….’

The plans for reaching out to newer regions, particularly the Caribbean, Latin American and African countries seem to have been put on hold. Its entire national as well as global expansion programme has been subjected to availability of funds, the Ministry’s note to the Parliamentary Committee indicated as much: ‘ICCR has also directed to open new Indian Cultural Centres in Buenos Aires (Argentina), Santiago (Chile), Lagos (Nigeria) and Nairobi (Kenya). In addition, ICCR has also six new Centres in the pipeline which include Washington, Paris, Toronto, Sydney, Hanoi, Singapore. However, opening of these new Centres although already committed, would be subject to availability of funds.’ In effect it means that India’s attempt to develop a dynamic roadmap for the expansion and projection of her soft power will continuously remain hostage to the non-availability of resources. It is evident that there is a total lack of focus and will, when it comes to utilizing India’s vast cultural resources to further her global power objectives.

The Standing Committee noted with great concern the state of affairs and has recommended to the Ministry to ‘enhance budgetary allocation’ for the ICCR ‘in view of emerging contours of cultural diplomacy.’ The Committee also noted that it was ‘essential to expand the network of Indian Cultural Centres and establishment of chairs abroad’ but this appears to be a tough call with the drying up of resources. The Committee flagged the crisis when it further stated that ‘with the funds allocated to ICCR, they are not even able to manage the established Centres outside India, then how can they think about new centres?’ While there is endless talk and clichéd references to the potentials of India’s soft power and how Indian culture had once permeated the world and can do it once more, little serious collective effort seems have been made on the ground to save and energise institutions that are mandated for spreading and popularizing that soft power.

In the meantime, a cultural hegemonist looms large and grows in our neighbourhood, a country that is determined to push through globally its image, way of life and belief. Through its formidable chain of Confucius Institutes (CI), China is making entry into world academia and cultural institutions. As of 2012, there were more than 400 CIs in 108 countries and regions. It has also been estimated that more than 500 Confucius classrooms with more than 600,000 registered students function across the globe. 70 of the world’s top 200 universities have already opened their CIs. The Hanban’s stated global target is to have 1000 CIs in operation by 2020. It is not the case that India should replicate or compete with such efforts in its own way. The CIs, which in any case do not reflect the essential Confucian culture and directions of Chinese civilisation, have, of late, come under the scanner for their espionage objectives and subtly pushing forward the CPC’s political agenda. In fact, a number of universities in the West seem to be having second thoughts on allowing the entry of CIs in their campuses. China’s determined projection of its soft power and the huge resources that it has made available for the purpose – it has been accepted that funding has been a major reason for universities agreeing to tie up with the Chinese government in opening CIs – is an example of what we shall eventually be faced with in the future if our pace of cultural outreach and expansion slows down.

The Indian Cultural Centres, with their open cultural agendas and programmes can in the long run be a greater attraction than tightly controlled and propagandist CIs. A long term view of the role of India’s Cultural Centres abroad, a far reaching plan for their sustenance, functioning and popularisation, a proactive effort to enlist a vast array of support for these initiatives are what need to be looked at urgently if the ICCR is to be saved and its mandate salvaged, otherwise we risk losing the race for reactivating our civilisational and cultural linkages.

A celebrated Indian sociologist and historian, a scholar of the nationalist school, Benoy Kumar Sarkar (1887-1949) in his treatise on the ‘Beginning of Hindu Culture as World Power (A.D. 300-600)’ (Shanghai, 1916) had made an interesting point, when he said Hindus possessed a vibrant ‘world-sense’ which attracted a continuous stream of representatives from other civilisations. It was this unique ‘world-sense’ that was a distinguishing characteristic of Indian civilisation, argued Sarkar.

Ironically, we seem to be frittering away and blunting that sense today and remain oblivious to its long term implications.

State Funded Political Ad Campaigns or PSYWAR?

K G Suresh, Senior Fellow, VIF

The U.S. Department of Defense defines psychological warfare (PSYWAR) as. "The planned use of propaganda and other psychological actions having the primary purpose of influencing the opinions, emotions, attitudes, and behavior of hostile foreign groups in such a way as to support the achievement of national objectives."

Apart from enemy countries, PSYWAR has also been effectively used by despotic, totalitarian regimes and military dictatorships in several countries to mislead their own people and subvert their knowledge base, whether it be by the junta in Pakistan from time to time or the Communist regimes in China and erstwhile Soviet Union.

PSYWAR has been highly criticised, particularly, when used on the domestic front, as it seeks to misuse the tax payers’ own money to mislead him and project as true information that are contrary to facts and ground realities.

With barely a year to go for the General elections, television audiences and newspaper readers across India are being bombarded day in and day out with advertisements tom tomming the “achievements” of the UPA Government.

With an initial allocation of Rs 180 crore, the ad blitz 'Bharat Nirman' has been penned by veteran lyricist and ruling UPA nominated MP, Javed Akthar and filmed by Pradeep Sarkar of ‘Parineeta’ fame.

According to reports, the government has spent about Rs 16 crore to produce the television advertisements.. The theme song, a jingle titled ‘Meelon hum aa gaye, meelon hume jaana hai (We've come a long way, we have a long way to go)", has been sung by well-known singers Shaan and Sunidhi Chauhan. Composed as 45-90 second clips, the advertisements are being rolled out in three phases.

Recently, a finance ministry panel approved another Rs. 630 crore in the 12th Five Year Plan for the campaign. The Department of Advertising and Visual Publicity (DAVP), the Information and Broadcasting Ministry’s nodal advertising agency for various ministries, will get the lion’s share of the money for creating campaigns at district, state and national levels.

Notwithstanding sharp criticism from the opposition parties with regard to misuse of public funds for “political propaganda”, the Government maintains that the publicity is aimed at ensuring that the benefits of central government schemes reach the targeted people so that they actively participate in government programmes.
“The main theme of the campaign is dissemination of information about the government schemes”, claimed the proposal put before the finance ministry’s committee.

Besides, funds have also been allocated to the Press Information Bureau, which disseminates information related to government policies and programmes to the media, to highlight the “achievements” of the UPA government at the block level.

Indigenously built robots, a growing network of metro railways in big cities, easier access to higher education, and other schemes feature in these professionally crafted advertisements.

However, the inherent political bias becomes apparent even at a casual glance. For example, in the case of Delhi, the credit for the development of the metro rail is given to the Sheila Dikshit-led Congress government (though the proposal for the Metro rail was mooted by the BJP Government in Delhi led by Madan Lal Khurana (who also acquired the land and set up the Delhi Metro Rail Corporation), sanctioned by the Deve Gowda-led Government and the first trial run was inaugurated by then Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee of NDA).

Interestingly, in the case of Bangalore and Chennai, the ‘Bharat Nirman’ advertisement gives credit to the UPA government at the Centre.

Apart from Opposition parties, even civil society organisations and NGOs have expressed their reservations about some of the claims made in these advertisements.

For instance, Jeevika (Jeeta Vimukti Karnataka), an NGO which advocates the cause of bonded labourers in the State of Karnataka, has termed as shocking, ridiculous and misleading the claims of Bharat Nirman on the exploitative bonded labour system through its advertisement in the print media under the title “Thanks to MGNREGA, no bonded labour anymore.”

It seems the authorities of Bharat Nirman, a programme for rural infrastructure development being implemented by the Union government, are not aware of the facts or of how farm labourers have been converted into bonded labourers in different States, media reports quoted Kiran Kamal Prasad, State coordinator of Jeevika, as having stated.

He said the claims of Bharat Nirman that the job scheme had become an instrument of major social change made no meaning to these bonded labourers in the region.

The NGO described the claims on social change as “a joke on the hapless bonded labourers of Karnataka.”

Similarly, critics are pointing out that while making a broad generalisation about the youth, Congress leaders often tend to forget that it was the youth which formed core of the Anna Hazare campaign for the Lokpal, and the spontaneous protests at India Gate in the aftermath of Delhi gangrape case.

The campaign has also sparked off speculations as to why the Congress would initiate the campaign a year ahead of elections and whether the polls are actually closer. Incidentally, half of the money allocated for the campaign would be spent till March 2014, around the time the model code of conduct would come into force, as the current Lok Sabha’s term expires on May 31, 2014.

Smart tag lines and catchy slogans of political parties have often captured the imagination of the people, whether it be Jai Jawan Jai Kisan’’ of the Congress in the 1965 polls, Indira Gandhi’s “Congress Lao, Garibi Hatao’’ slogan in 1971, Janata Part’s ‘Indira Hatao, Desh Bachao’ in 1977, Congress party’s ‘Jab Tak Suraj Chand Rahega, Indira Tera Naam Rahega’ in 1984, ‘Raja Nahin Fakir Hain, Desh Ki Taqdeer Hain’ for V P Singh in 1989, BJP’s ‘Mandir Wahin Banayenge’ in 1989 and ‘ Abki Bari Atal Bihari’’ in 1996, UPA’s ‘Congress ka Haath, Aam Aadmi Ka Saath’, RJD’s ‘Jab Tak Rahega Samose mein Aaalu, Tab Tak Rahega Bihar mein Lalu’ in 2000, NDA’s ‘Pandrah Saal, Bura Haal’ in Bihar in 2005 or Bahujan Samaj Party’s social engineering slogan, "Haathi nahi ganesh hai, Brahma Vishnu Mahesh hai" in the 2007 Uttar Pradesh Assembly elections.

But there have been exceptions as well. In the 2007 Uttar Pradesh Assembly polls, people outrightly rejected the ruling Samajwadi Party's advertisement featuring Bollywood icon Amitabh Bachchan mouthing the ironical words, "UP mei dum hai kyunki jurm yahan kum hai", when crime and lawlessness had become the hall mark of the state. The Mulayam Singh Yadav-led party was decisively routed.

Almost a decade back came one of the most disastrous of such campaigns - NDA's Rs 100 crore 'India Shining' campaign. Creating hype was a different thing but if the creator himself starts believing in it, then the results are obvious. The super confident BJP cadres did not even bother to distribute voter slips at the booth level and thereby offered unexpected victory to the Congress party on a platter.

Party veteran L K Advani himself acknowledged later that the India Shining slogan was "inappropriate" for an election campaign. The advertisements, many felt, just did not take into account the social and economic realities and projected an utopian image of the country which just did not exist.

It is but natural that ominous comparisons are sought to be made between the two campaigns.

As was the case during the NDA regime, the Bharat Nirman campaign is being funded by the government, and not by the ruling coalition, at the tax payer's expense.

India Shining was touted as a marketing slogan aimed at hard-selling the optimism of an economy on the upswing, Bharat Nirman is being projected as an attempt to restore the feel good factor of the 9% growth story. If the NDA campaign, masterminded by key strategist late Pramod Mahajan, had hired a leading ad agency Grey Worldwide to design its campaign, the UPA has gone for big names from the Hindi film industry such as Javed Akhtar.

Notwithstanding the self-righteous assertions to the contrary by the ruling coalition, a closer look at both the ad campaigns reveals the similarity in theme and content, whether it be about the economic upsurge, price stability, free education, expansion in roads, telecom and other infrastructure et al. The only exception is the UPA’s ads on social conhesion, a packaging of its ‘secular’ card.

The timings of the two campaigns too have great similarities. While launching the India Shining campaign much ahead of the due dates for the Lok Sabha polls, NDA leaders maintained that it was primarily targeted to attract foreign investments. Subsequently, buoyed by the victories in some Assembly elections, the leadership advanced the polls by six months and as they say, the rest is history.

Ironically, during the ‘India Shining’ campaign, Congress party and other critics of the NDA had lambasted the Vajpayee Government for a “totally wasteful expenditure which could have been spent on developmental works’.

Forget ‘India Shining’, ahead of the 1996 Lok Sabha polls, the very same Congress party under the leadership of P V Narasimha Rao had launched a video campaign, “Congress sarkar ka yeh uphaar, paanch varshon ka sthir sarkaar” directed by none other than noted film maker Mani Ratnam.

Scores of such videos highlighting the party’s concern for the poor and the underprivileged were telecast not only on the then predominant Doordarshan but also some private channels and cable networks which were still at a nascent stage.

The outcome, 140 Parliament seats, was perhaps the lowest tally in the party’s history till then.

Refusing to learn from the past, the UPA Government is hoping that the people would get carried away by these feel good advertisements and forget about the endless instances of corruption, price rise, and national security concerns.

Undoubtedly, communication plays a key role in elections. It is important for political parties to convey to the people their achievements and their promises, about what they stand for. A sizeable section of the Indian population may be illiterate but they have proved time and again that they are not politically naive. Catchy slogans would have to be necessarily accompanied by visible changes at the ground level. Public perception is built not by television bytes or advertisement campaigns but by real experiences they encounter at the market place, the shops and the streets and in their dealings with the Government machinery at the grass root level.

Thanks to a free and independent media and a political aware citizenry, such psychological warfare based on half truths and misleading information have neither succeeded nor likely to succeed in the days to come.

Political messages cannot be packaged like soaps and tooth pastes nor can public relations or advertisement professionals replace the booth level communication between the voter and his or her representative. Other democracies including the United States have also witnessed massive advertisement campaigns ahead of elections but the political parties paid for them and not the Governments.

Writing in the Bloomberg Businessweek, Larry Popelka , founder and chief executive officer of GameChanger, an innovation consulting firm, says, “the problem is that in business and in politics, oversize ad budgets rarely work. In many cases, they actually have a negative effect, as they distract marketing teams from their real mission, which is to find creative and relevant ways to communicate their product’s benefits.”

Moreover, it has been established world wide that Brands that intrude too much on people’s time with messages they don’t care about are punished by the viewers and readers. A study by former Wharton School Professor Russell Ackoff showed that Anheuser-Busch (BUD) was actually able to increase Budweiser sales by reducing advertising for the brand because, at high spend levels, viewers were becoming annoyed by all the commercials.

According to Popelka, Consumers/voters are growing more sophisticated and paying more attention to the advertisers’ motives than ad content.

No wonder then that even major corporates have begun shifting ad dollars into charitable causes.

If Governments in India too pay heed and spend even half of their ad budgets on providing succour and relief to the needy, it would not only make a difference to the India story but also their political fortunes.

Reinforcing India’s Maritime Credentials: Need of the Hour

Chietigij Bajpaee, Visiting Fellow, VIF

‘The future of India will undoubtedly be decided on the sea’.1 This was stated by KM Panikkar, one of India’s first post-colonial strategic thinkers almost 70 years ago. These words were prophetic considering that 95 per cent of India’s total external trade is now conducted by sea, with over 70 per cent of the country’s oil imports transiting the maritime domain and 70 per cent of Indian hydrocarbons also emanating from offshore blocks.2 India’s maritime interests are also reflected in the plethora of threats facing the country emanating from the maritime domain, as reflected in the devastation inflicted by the 2004 Asian tsunami on India’s eastern coast, the Indian Navy’s participation in anti-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden and Indian Ocean and the terrorist attacks on Mumbai in November 2008 in which the attackers infiltrated the city through the country’s porous, poorly demarcated and disputed maritime borders.

Complementing this has been the country’s growing maritime capabilities, as reflected in India having the world’s fifth-largest navy with ambitions for the development of a 160-plus-ship navy, comprising three aircraft carrier battle groups by 2022.3 This is complemented by India’s growing maritime infrastructure, including a tri-services Andaman and Nicobar (Southern) command at the mouth of the Strait of Malacca, a base for unmanned aerial vehicles on the Lakshadweep islands, and the construction of a naval base in Karwar, Karnataka on the country’s western coast, which supplements the existing Eastern Command headquartered in Visakhapatnam, Andhra Pradesh and the Western Command in Mumbai. Reflecting the country’s growing maritime interests and capabilities, the Indian government has expressed lofty ambitions to establish “a brand new multi-dimensional Navy” with “reach and sustainability” from the north of the Arabian Sea to the South China Sea.4

Case study: India’s South China Sea interests

Case in point of India’s maritime credentials is the Indian Navy’s growing presence in the South China Sea. While not as vocal as the United States that declared the South China Sea disputes a “national interest” in 2010, India has nonetheless injected itself into the maritime territorial disputes in the East and South China Seas by echoing the US position of calling for a peaceful resolution to the disputes and maintaining the freedom of navigation in the region. India has also pursued deepening relations with several claimant states, notably Vietnam and Japan, as well as participating in offshore oil and gas exploration in disputed waters. For instance, India and Japan held their first bilateral naval exercises in June 2012 while the Indian Navy has also gained permanent berthing rights at Vietnam’s Na Thrang port as well as providing training to Vietnam in underwater warfare to support the country’s growing submarine capabilities.5

However, India’s presence in the South China Sea also demonstrates the deficiencies of its maritime strategy. India continues to be regarded as a contested player in the region. In being labelled as an “extra-territorial power” India has been shunned by some countries from playing a prominent role in the South China Sea. Notably, China, which maintains a preference for a bilateral, non-internationalised approach in resolving maritime territorial disputes, has demonstrated its displeasure to the growing Indian presence in the region. This was evidenced by reports in July 2011 that an Indian Navy vessel, the INS Airavat received alleged radio contact from the Chinese Navy demanding that the vessel depart from disputed waters in the South China Sea after completing a port call in Vietnam.6 This was followed by the less belligerent but nonetheless provocative gesture of an Indian naval vessel, the INS Shivalik, receiving a People Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) escort while on its way from the Philippines to South Korea in June 2012.7 Beijing has also opposed Vietnam granting exploration rights in offshore blocks located in disputed waters to Indian company ONGC Videsh.8

In this context, there are calls by some in India that it should tone down its presence in the region based on rationale that the country’s limited maritime capabilities do not yet warrant its lofty maritime ambitions; that India, as a continental power should remain focussed on its continental concerns, namely its land border disputes with Pakistan, China and Bangladesh and the plethora of insurgencies plaguing the country’s heartland and hinterland; and claims that an expanding Indian naval presence in China’s backyard would only serve to further antagonise China with whom India already maintains precarious relations.

Reinforcing India’s maritime credentials

However, there are several flaws in these arguments. First, India’s long-standing focus on its land borders does not undermine the validity of its growing maritime orientation. Alfred Thayer Mahan, a theorist of naval power noted six conditions in assessing the strength of naval power in modern nation-states; geographical position, physical conformation, extent of territory, population, national characteristics and governmental institutions. Panikkar supplemented this with scientific achievement and industrial strength, which is reflected in the presence of adequate maritime training institutions, a merchant navy, shipbuilding industry, naval air arm, a naval ministry, and rekindling public interest in the navy. Panikkar noted that ‘if India desires to be a naval power it is not sufficient to create a navy, however efficient and well-manned. It must create a naval tradition in the public, a sustained tradition in oceanic problems and a conviction that India’s future greatness lies on the sea’.9

To be sure, India has yet to completely fulfil these conditions. The army continues to receive the bulk of India’s defence budget and continental concerns rooted in land border disputes and internal insurgencies continue to dominate India’s strategic concerns. Nonetheless, the country is undergoing a maritime renaissance as evidenced by the growing size of its navy and the Indian economy’s growing dependence on overseas trade. This is complemented by India’s maritime infrastructure, including the country’s 13 major ports and 187 minor and intermediate ports that are scattered across the 7,517 km Indian coastline, as well as more than two dozen shipyards and 14,500 km of navigable inland waterways.

Beyond its material accomplishments, India has also rediscovered its long-standing naval traditions. This is reflected in the renewed interest of naval expeditions of the Chola Dynasty, which included Rajendra I conducting a mission to Srivijaya (present-day Indonesia) to protect trade with China and Rajendrachola Deva I (Parmeshwara) who named the island of Singapore (Singapura) in the 10th century AD.10 In this context, India (and for that matter China’s) on-going naval transformations have redefined the long-standing “sea-power versus land power” debate by challenging the notion that a state’s status as a continental or maritime power is permanent or static as India and China transition from the former to the latter or more realistically acquire the characteristics of both.

India as a Southeast Asian power

Second, with respect to the claim that India is not a Southeast Asia power, while continental India does not share a contiguous maritime border with the South China Sea, its maritime strategic interests in the region are well established, including the fact that almost 55 per cent of India's trade passes through the Strait of Malacca.11 The Indian Navy has also been involved in several high-profile maritime operations in the region since its first deployment to the South China Sea in 2000, including humanitarian assistance/ disaster relief (HADR), joint naval exercises, port calls and transit. Notably, the Indian Navy’s prominent role in relief operations following the Asian tsunami of 2004 and the cyclone that struck Myanmar (Burma) in 2008 have earned it the reputation of being ‘on the verge of possessing Asia’s only viable expeditionary naval force12 Joint naval exercises have also become a catalyst for maritime confidence-building, including multilateral operations such as the biennial Milan (that includes Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore since 1995), and Search and Rescue Operations (SAREX) (with Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia since 1997), and bilateral exercises such as the Singapore India Maritime Bilateral Exercises (SIMBEX) since 1993.

Furthermore, despite the absence of forward bases, the Indian Navy has been able to make port calls in Singapore, Vietnam and other countries. This has been complemented by the expansion of the Andaman and Nicobar (Southern) command with the establishment of deep-water maritime facilities in Campbell Bay (INS Baaz) in July 2012, which India’s Chief of Naval Staff has referred to as India’s “window into East and Southeast Asia”.13 India’s strategic interests in the South China Sea also emanate from sea’s importance as a vital transit route given the Indian Navy’s growing presence in the Western Pacific, as evidenced by its joint naval exercises with Japan and South Korea and import of oil and gas from Sakhalin in the Russian Far East.14 Finally, while India has not yet become reliant on hydrocarbon resources from the South China Sea, this is likely to change given India’s burgeoning relations with Vietnam.15

Moreover, the divide between the Southeast Asian and South Asian sub-regions may be regarded as an artificial one. The emergence of the ‘Indo-Pacific’ as a new geopolitical frame of reference and the concept of India’s ‘extended neighbourhood’ allude to the growing interdependence between these sub-regions fuelled by the growing importance of ‘maritime Asia’.16 Indian strategic analyst, Raja Mohan, goes further by arguing that ‘the perception that South and East Asia are two very different geopolitical entities…is of recent origin’ given that ‘India was very much part of the early expression and popularization of Asian identity’ when ‘South and Southeast Asia were not always seen as separate geopolitical entities’.17

For instance, India played a prominent role under the leadership of the country’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru in the region-building process of post-Colonial Asia, as noted by such initiatives as the New Delhi-hosted Asian Relations Conference in 1947 and Bandung Conference of 1955, as well as laying the groundwork for defining the rules of regional interaction through the ‘Five Principles of Peaceful Co-existence’. India’s presence in Southeast Asia can be traced to trading links stretching back two millennia to the Silk Road and Calicut emerging as a major trading port in South Asia while cultural and religious bonds date back to Emperor Asoka's spread of Buddhism beyond the sub-continent in the third century BC.

Furthermore, despite the reluctance of some countries, such as China to acknowledge India’s presence as a regional power, several countries have accepted India’s role as an increasingly important member of the regional architecture. Singapore’s founding father Lee Kuan Yew has noted for instance that “India would be a useful balance to China’s heft” given India’s role as a Asian power, which makes it a more acceptable counter-balance to China than a non-Asian power such as the United States.18 Aside from this, Indian membership in several regional initiatives – both established forums, such as the ASEAN Regional Forum, 
East Asian Summit, ASEAN Defense Ministers’ Meeting-Plus, ASEAN + 6 and its more recent manifestation, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, and more ad hoc initiatives such as the trilateral mechanisms with South Korea and Japan established in 2012 and with Japan and the United States established in 2011 – have cemented India’s role as a player in the Southeast Asian strategic landscape. As Scot notes, ‘in geographical terms, India is located outside the South China Sea, but in geopolitical and geoeconomic terms India now increasingly operates inside the South China Sea’.19

Negotiating from a position of strength

Third, the view that an Indian presence in the South China Sea could serve to undermine the Sino-Indian relationship is also based on the fallacious assumption that tensions in the continental and maritime domain are disconnected. The fact that China has placed all of its maritime and continental territorial disputes (including the Diaoyu/ Senkaku islands in the East China Sea, the Paracel and Spratly Islands in the South China Seas, and Aksai Chin and Arunachal Pradesh along the Sino-Indian border) under the single label of a “core interest” (hexin liyi) demonstrates that China itself does not accept the assumption of a continental/ maritime divide.

Moreover, India’s growing presence in China’s backyard in the East and South China Seas and improving relations with China’s traditional rivals, including Japan and Vietnam, offers New Delhi leverage in dealing with Beijing’s growing presence in India’s neighbourhood and “all weather friendship” with India’s historic rival, Pakistan. In fact, a stepped up Indian presence in the East Asian maritime domain may actually serve to raise the stakes for China to resolve bilateral tensions on mutually acceptable terms.

The Sino-Indian relationship has tended to be unbalanced with Indian strategic thinkers giving far more credence to China than the other way round. China has historically regarded India as a ‘mid-level priority ranking’ country with no great sense of strategic relevance.20 This trend is being exasperated by the balance of power tilting in China’s favour with its economy now being more than three times that of India, which has translated into the growing asymmetry of material capabilities in the bilateral relationship. This has granted Beijing greater confidence and leverage in pushing India to resolve the territorial dispute on its own terms.21 This contrasts with China’s earlier offers to resolve the territorial dispute with India on more amicable terms during a period of greater parity in China and India’s material capabilities; until the mid-1980s both countries’ GDP and per capita incomes were similar.22

The most recent evidence of China’s increasingly aggressive posturing on the territorial dispute was an incursion by Chinese troops 19km across the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in the Daulat Beg Oldi sector of Eastern Ladakh in mid-April, during which the soldiers maintained a presence in the disputed territory for almost 20 days.23 This incident occurred days before the first overseas visit of China’s premier Lee Keqiang and in the aftermath of other incidents that have served to fuel bilateral tensions over the territorial dispute; 
These include China issuing stapled visas to Indian nationals from Jammu and Kashmir and Arunachal Pradesh and refusing to admit military and civilian government officials from both states; 24 China seeking to block an Asian Development Bank loan to India in 2009 as it included a package for Arunachal Pradesh, which China claims as ‘South Tibet’;25 Beijing stepping up infrastructure projects in Gilgit-Baltistan in Pakistan-administered Kashmir;26 and issuing new e-passports that show the disputed territories as part of China.27

In this context, New Delhi’s stepped up presence in China’s strategic backyard in East Asia will serve to bring India and China into more direct contact, prompting China to grant more weight to India in its strategic thinking. The fact that India’s improving relations with the United States over the last decade have served as a ‘wake-up’ call for China to accelerate the pace of rapprochement with India demonstrates that if India seeks to improve relations with China, it will need to do so from a position of strength.

Matching China’s maritime interests

Finally, India’s maritime presence in South China Sea has implications beyond accessing offshore energy resources and ensuring the safe passage of its vessels through the chokepoint of the Strait of Malacca. India’s interests in the maritime domain of East Asia are also linked to broader interests associated with maintaining the freedom of navigation and ensuring that the maritime ‘global commons’ are governed by the rule of law. India also needs to ensure adherence to the concept of ‘open regionalism’ that takes account of the views of extra-territorial, non-claimant stakeholders that have an interest in the peaceful resolution of maritime territorial disputes. In this context, India needs all parties, particularly China, to recognise that the era of seeking bilateral local solutions has passed. In doing so, present-day India’s position on the maritime domain echoes that of its previous role in the pre-colonial period. As Panikkar notes, ‘the period of Hindu supremacy in the Ocean was one of complete freedom of trade and navigation’.28

Additionally, China’s increasingly assertive position over territorial disputes in the South and East China Seas, including its ambiguous and expansive claims to the ‘nine-dash line’, offers a harbinger to China’s potential behaviour in the Indian Ocean. This is especially true if China elevates the protection of sea-lines of communication to a “core interest” (hexin liyi) on par with its sovereignty interests of resolving maritime and continental territorial disputes, reunification with Taiwan and developmental objectives. As a recent Washington Post article noted, China is developing a strategy of ‘using the seas as the stage on which to prove itself as Asia’s dominant power’.29 Whether or not this is the case, this perception has prompted some members of India’s ‘strategic elite’ to view China’s nascent naval presence in the Indian Ocean with suspicion, including the PLA Navy’s anti-piracy operations in the Indian Ocean. Reports in April that Chinese submarines were picked up by Indian sonar operating in the Indian Ocean demonstrates the potential for the Indian Ocean Region to emerge as a new theatre of competition between China and India.30 This strengthens the case for India to be engaged on the South China Sea to clearly articulate its commitment to maintaining the freedom of navigation and preventing a repeat of China’s South China Sea behaviour in the Indian Ocean. As Scott notes, ‘India may find that it is unable to block Chinese entry in the Indian Ocean, but can counter-pressure by going into China’s own maritime backyard of the South China Sea’.31

Envisioning an expanded Chinese presence in the Indian Ocean is no longer a matter of speculation. To be sure, the hype surrounding the launch of China’s first aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, in 2011 may have been exaggerated given its modest size, the country’s lack of carrier experience and the absence of a full carrier battle group to support its operations. Nonetheless, the fact that China is in the process of developing two more indigenously developed carriers, (with ambitions for 4-6 carriers, as well as nuclear-powered vessels) demonstrates China’s ambitions to project naval power beyond its immediate sub-region.32 Similarly, while some 36 countries maintain submarines in their navies, China and India are two of only six countries with a nuclear submarine capability, which points toward a growing interest in power projection beyond their littoral regions.

Apart from what is known about China’s naval modernization, a recent report by the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission has noted that more often than not, the international community has underestimated the pace of China’s military modernization.33 This is illustrated with the examples of the Yuan-class diesel electric submarine that was launched in 2004, the development of the Dongfeng-21D anti-ship ballistic missile in 2010, and the test flight of the prototype of China’s fifth generation stealth fighter, the J-20 in 2011, all of which caught followers of China’s military modernization by surprise. This alludes to the possibility that the PLA Navy’s ability to project power into the Indian Ocean is likely to proceed faster than anticipated.

Finally, China’s expanding maritime security interests have also manifested in shifts to its maritime doctrine, including a move beyond “near-coast defense” towards “near-seas active defence” and increasingly into the realm of “far-sea operations”. 34 This has demonstrated China’s growing interest in projecting power beyond its traditional spheres of interest around the first and second “island chains”. 35 Surprisingly, despite China’s weakened position following the Second World War and its civil war, Panikkar was aware of China’s future naval ambitions, noting that ‘it is hardly to be imagined that China will in future neglect her naval interests’.36 Remarkably, taking note of China’s potential to operate naval bases from Hainan, Panikkar referred China’s thrust southwards as part of a ‘naval policy of a resurgent China’.37 This alludes to China’s present-day efforts to alleviate its so-called ‘Malacca Dilemma’ through projecting power into the South China Sea and Indian Ocean.

Reinventing the regional architecture

The changing nature of the maritime security domain in Asia comes amid the wider strategic development of renewed US engagement with the “Indo-Pacific region”. 38 However, the United States is as much ‘re-balancing’ within the region as it is ‘pivoting’ towards the region.39 The United States is experiencing an ‘East of Suez’ moment in its foreign policy, as its reduces its global military footprint amid the operational fatigue of two consecutive land wars and pressures of fiscal austerity. While the country has pledged to protect freedom of navigation, it has not been as forthright with respect to coming to the defence of its allies. As such, the “re-balance” or “pivot” towards Asia is as much about reiterating the US commitment to the region as it is about burden-sharing through getting its regional allies to adopt a more active position on regional security.

This demonstrates the growing complexity of the emerging regional security architecture in Asia as the US-led ‘hub and spokes’ bilateral alliance model is replaced by a ‘spokes-to-spokes’ multilateral security system.40 The most notable evidence of this has been Japan’s increasingly pro-active role in forging bilateral and multilateral regional security partnerships, such as Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s proposal for a ‘security diamond’ comprising Japan, the United States, Australia and India, which would ‘safeguard the maritime commons stretching from the Indian Ocean to the western Pacific’.41 Like Japan, India also needs to step up its regional maritime role as the United States’ position as the region’s “sea-based balancer”, is gradually eroded.

This trend is exasperated by pressures on the current regional architecture, which is led by mid-ranking powers such as the states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). This was most visibly manifested by the inability of ASEAN to issue a joint communiqué at its ministerial meeting in July 2012 due to disagreement between member states over the issue of maritime territorial disputes with China. 42 Furthermore, regional norms of interaction with an emphasis on minimal institutionalisation and non-confrontation have had a limited role in restraining competitive naval developments.43 For instance, both the 2011 guidelines and 2002 declaration on the ‘Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea’ have failed to quell the war of words and sporadic skirmishes in the South China Sea amid the absence of a legally binding code of conduct.44

This demonstrates the need for a new regional architecture led by the region’s major powers. In this context, India’s National Security Advisor Shiv Shankar Menon has proposed a ‘Maritime Concert’ in which the region’s major maritime powers would have collective responsibility to protect the maritime ‘global commons’. 45 The fact that China, India and Japan have been coordinating their anti-piracy patrols in the Indian Ocean within the framework of the Shared Awareness and Deconfliction (SHADE) mechanism demonstrates that such maritime cooperation is possible.


Panikkar’s recognition of the importance of the maritime domain to India’s strategic interests was insightful given that it came at a time when India was still a fledgling nation-state struggling with maintaining its cohesion in the aftermath of a bitter and bloody independence struggle, which included the horrors of partition, a stalemate over the status of Kashmir and incipient separatist movements, which all pointed towards continental rather than maritime threats to India’s national interests. Furthermore, despite Nehru’s economic path of socialism and self-sufficiency, Panikkar foresaw that India’s ‘prosperity is dependent almost exclusively on sea trade’.46

More generally, Panikkar’s reference to the growing strategic importance of the maritime domain predated the nations of Asia emerging as major trading powers with their economic growth contingent on seaborne trade. It also came before the rivalries between the independent nation-states of Asia increasingly shifted from the continental to maritime domain, as reflected in the contrast between the land wars that dominated Asia during the Cold War – the Korean War (1950-53), Sino-Indian War (1962), Vietnam War (1968-75), Sino-Russian border conflict (1969) and Sino-Vietnamese border conflict (1979)) – and the plethora of maritime territorial disputes that have flared up in the post-Cold War period – including the Diaoyu/ Senkaku islands between China (and Taiwan) and Japan; and China (and Taiwan’s) claim to the “nine-dash line” around the South China Sea, which conflicts with Vietnam’s claim to the Paracel Islands and the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, and Brunei’s claim to portions of the Spratly Islands. This has been supplemented by more localised territorial disputes with a maritime component such the Northern Limit Line between North and South Korea; the Dokdo/ Takeshima islets between South Korea and Japan; the Southern Kuriles/ Northern Territories between Russia and Japan; the Suyan/ Leodo Reef between China and South Korea; the Reed/ Recto Bank and the Scarborough Shoal/ Huangyan Island between the Philippines and China; and the Natuna Islands between Indonesia and China. Panikkar’s views also foreshadowed the renewal of transnational security threats facing the maritime ‘global commons’ such as maritime piracy, which has plagued the Indian Ocean from the Horn of Africa and Strait of Malacca and the latent threat of maritime terrorism, as manifested in the sophisticated maritime capabilities of the Liberation Tigers of the Tamil Eelam (LTTE).

Looking ahead, the US quest for energy independence fuelled by the shale gas revolution within the country and more general efficiency gains across OECD countries could serve to reduce the United States’ strategic interests in Asia, paving the way for a reduction of its naval presence in the region. In 2011 the United States imported 2.5 million barrels per day (bpd) of oil from the Middle East, accounting for 26% of its global imports, which is projected to fall to 100,000 million bpd or 3% of its oil imports by 2035.47 In this context the maritime domain is likely to emerge as an increasingly active theatre of inter-state rivalries amid concerns of a strategic void created by a more ‘hands-off’ approach by the United States in the region, as well as the growing interest of major regional powers to protect their burgeoning seaborne trade, access offshore energy resources, and project power amid ambitions of ‘Great Power’ status.

For India, its relevance in the East Asian strategic landscape will be determined by its behaviour in the Asian maritime domain. As such, an Indian naval presence in the South China Sea is not merely prudent but also pivotal for sustaining India’s ‘Look East’ policy. If India is a marginal player in the maritime domain, it will also be a marginal player in Asian regional architecture. Panikkar noted thus, ‘India’s future is closely bound up with the strength she is able to develop gradually as a naval power’ and issued words of warning that ‘without a well considered and effective naval policy, India’s position in the world will be weak.’48 It is wise that we heed these words of warning from India’s first strategic thinker.


  1. KM Panikkar, India and Indian Ocean: An Essay on the influence of Sea Power on Indian History, (London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd, 1951) p.15.
  2. Shashank Joshi, “China and India: Awkward Ascents,” Orbis, (Fall 2011), p.566.
  3. “Indian Navy Chief Admiral Sureesh Mehta Spells Out Vision 2022,” India Defence, August 10, 2008. Available at
  4. C. Raja Mohan, Samudra Manthan: Sino-Indian Rivalry in the Indo-Pacific, (Washington, DC: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2012), p.59.
  5. Indrani Bagchi, “India looks east to Vietnam, Myanmar,” Times of India, October 8, 2011.
  6. Ben Bland and Girja Shivakumar, “China confronts Indian navy vessel,” Financial Times, August 31, 2011.
  7. Ananth Krishna, “In South China Sea a Surprise Chinese Escort for Indian Ships,” The Hindu, June 14, 2012; “The Indian Navy in the South China Sea: Beijing’s Unwelcome Escort,” Indian Express, June 14, 2012.
  8. The Hanoist, “Great Game in the South China Sea,” Asia Times, April 17, 2012; Greg Torode, “Russia’s gas deal set to irk Beijing,” South China Morning Post.
  9. Panikkar, 1951, p.99.
  10. Iskander Rehman, IDSA Issue Brief: An Ocean at the Intersection of two emerging maritime narratives, July 11, 2011; Walter C. Ladwig III “Delhi's Pacific Ambition: Naval Power, “Look East,” and India's Emerging Influence in the Asia-Pacific” Asian Security, 5:2, 2009.
  11. Scott, 2013, p.55.
  12. Walter C. Ladwig III, ‘Delhi's Pacific Ambition: Naval Power, “Look East,” and India's Emerging Influence in the Asia-Pacific’, Asian Security, 5:2, (2009), pp.87-113.
  13. Nirmal Verma, CNS address on the occasion of commissioning of INS Baaz, July 31, 2012,
  14. Walter Ladwig, “Delhi’s Pacific Ambition: Naval Power, ‘Look East,’ and India’s Emerging Influence in the Asia Pacific,” Asian Security Vol. 5, No. 2 (June 2009), pp. 87–113.
  15. In a joint exploration and export and production sharing agreement concluded between India’s ONGC Videsh and PetroVietnam in 2006, India gained access to blocks 127 and 128 in the Phu Kahn basin. It subsequently relinquished it interests in block 127 in 2010 based on uneconomic returns though it began exploration activities in block 128 in September 2011. The same year a consortium of Indian companies and PetroVietnam obtained approval to purchase British Petroleum’s stake in the Nam Con Son basin. China has challenged India’s exploration activities in the disputed waters, as demonstrated by China National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC) offering tenders for 19 offshore blocks, including block 128 where India has a stake, in May 2012. – Scott, 2013, pp.62-3.
  16. C. Raja Mohan, 2012, p.212.
  17. C. Raja Mohan, 2012, p.91.
  18. Lee Kuan Yew, “Lee Kuan Yew Reflects,” Time, December 12, 2005, http://www.time. com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1137705,00.html.
  19. David Scott, “India’s Role in the South China Sea: Geopolitics and Geoeconomics in Play,” India Review, Vol. 12, No. 2, 2013, p.51.
  20. This position has gradually eroded as a result of ‘disruptive technologies’ (such as ballistic missiles and cyber warfare) that have reduced the strategic “space” between both states – Andrew Scobell, ‘“Cult of Defence” and “Great Power dreams”: The influence of strategic culture on China’s relationship with India,” in Michael Chambers, (ed.), South Asia in 2020: Future Strategic Balances and Alliances (Carlisle, PA: Strategic Studies Institute, Army War College), p.347.
  21. The Line of Actual Control (LAC) distinguishing the Indian and Chinese sides of the border remains undemarcated with no mutual agreement on the exact alignments of the border. India claims 38,000 square km of territory in Aksai Chin that is held by China, as well as 5,180 square km of territory in the Shaksgam Valley that Pakistan handed over to China in 1963. Meanwhile, China claims 90,000 km of Arunachal Pradesh. Bilateral discussions under the special representatives’ framework since 2003 have made little progress in resolving the territorial dispute. For a detailed background of the 1962 Sino-Indian border war see: Srinath Raghavan, “The Disputed India–China Boundary 1948–1960” and “China, 1961-62,” in War and Peace in Modern India, (London: Palgrave Macmillan: 2010).
  22. China has made several offers to resolve the border dispute through a territorial swap. For instance, Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai made such an offer during his 1960 visit to India. In 1979, Deng Xiaoping made a similar offer for a “package solution” to India during Indian Foreign Minister Vajpayee’s visit to Beijing. On both occasions India’s reluctance to equate the two sectors led to a lack of progress. A third opportunity emerged in April 2005 with the conclusion of the “Political Parameters and Guiding Principles” Agreement. – Zorawar Daulat Singh, “Understanding the standoff in Ladakh,” The Tribune, April 26, 2013; Mohan Guruswamy, “India-China war delayed by technology,” Asia Times, May 7, 2013.
  23. Rahul Singh, “China ends Ladakh standoff, troops pull back,” Hindustan Times, May 5, 2013.
  24. Indrani Bagchi “China denies via to top general in charge of J&K,” Times of India, August 27, 2010; Altar Hussain, “Stapled paper visa stops Arunachal shooter from flying to China,” Economic Times, April 17, 2010; “Row over China Kashmir visa move,” BBC News, Oct. 1, 2009.
  25. Pranab Dhal Samanta, “India-China face-off worsens over ADB loan for Arunachal, Bank doesn’t help,” Indian Express, May 15, 2009.
  26. “India objects to Chinese activities in POK,” Times of India, October 14, 2009.
  27. Shubhajut Roy, “India, China in passport, map row again,” November 24, 2012, The Indian Express.
  28. Panikkar, 1951, p.35.
  29. Chico Harlan, “In Asia’s waters, an assertive China means long-lasting disputes,” The Washington Post, June 7, 2013.
  30. Zorawar Daulet Singh, “China strategy: Mackinder versus Mahan,” The Tribune, April 26, 2013.
  31. Scott, 2013, p.54.
  32. Minnie Chan, “Navy on course for nuclear carriers,” South China Morning Post, February 23, 2013; Geoffrey Till, 2012, p.138; Xu Tianran, “Carrier conducts second trial,” Global Times, November 30, 2011.
  33. Amy Chang, Indigenous Weapons Development in China’s Military Modernization, US-China Economic and Security Review Commission Staff Research Report, April 5, 2012.
  34. Nan Li, “The Evolution of China’s Naval Strategy and Capabilities: From “Near Coast” and “Near Seas” to “Far Seas”” Asian Security, Vol. 5 no. 2 2009, pp. 144-169.
  35. The first island-chain refers to a line through the Kurile Islands, Japan, the Ryukyu Islands, Taiwan, the Philippines, and Indonesia. The second island-chain extends to Guam and Indonesia, including the Bonins, Marianas and the Carolines encompassing an area of 1,800 nautical miles from China’s coast. At present Chinese naval vessels must pass through one of the 16 straits and channels to transcend the first island-chain, of which 11 are under Japanese control - Aki Nakai, Occasional Papers on Asia: China’s Naval Modernisation: Reflections on a Symposium, Boston University Center for the Study of Asia, February 2011, p.8.
  36. Panikkar, 1951, p.85.
  37. Panikkar, 1951, p.86.
  38. Hillary Clinton, “America’s Pacific Century,” Foreign Policy, November 2011.
  39. Christian Le Miere, “Rebalancing the burden in East Asia,” Survival, Vol. 5, No. 2, April-May 2013, p. 32.
  40. Le Miere, April-May 2013, p. 34.
  41. Le Miere, April-May 2013, p. 35-37; Shinzo Abe, “Asia’s Democratic Security Diamond,” December 27, 2012, available at
  42. Amitav Acharya, “The end of ASEAN centrality?” Asia Times, 8 August 2012,, accessed 9 August 2012.
  43. This includes ASEAN’s Treaty of Amity and Cooperation (TAC), also known as the ‘ASEAN Way’, which has become a perquisite to gain membership to ASEAN-led regional initiatives, such as the East Asia Summit. The TAC centres around six principles; 1) Mutual respect for the independence, sovereignty, and territorial integrity of all nations, 2) settlements of differences and disputes by peaceful means, 3) the right of every state to lead its national existence free from external interference, subversion and coercion, 4) non-interference in the internal affairs of one another, and 6) the renunciation of the threat and use of force – Thayer, in Telis, Tanner and Keough, p.314; Gillian Goh, “The ASEAN Way: Non-intervention and ASEAN’s role in conflict management.” Stanford Journal of East Asian Affairs, Vol. 1, No. 1, Spring 2003.
  44. Greg Torode, “China, ASEAN agree on guidelines over claims,” South China Morning Post, July 21, 2011; Ian Storey, “ASEAN and the South China Sea: Movement in Lieu of Progress,” China Brief, Volume: 12 Issue: 9, April 26, 2012.
  45. Shiv Shankar Menon, ‘The Evolving Balance of Power in Asia,’ Paper presented to IISS Global Strategic Review: The New Geopolitics, 13 September 2009.
  46. Panikkar, 1951, p.86.
  47. Toh Han Shih, “Beijing ‘to increase reliance on Middle East oil’” South China Morning Post, June 10, 2013.
  48. Panikkar, 1951, p.92.