Samudra Manthan: Sino-Indian Rivalry in the Indo-Pacific
Author: C. Raja Mohan
Price: Rs 895
C Raja Mohan's latest book on maritime strategy, Samudra Manthan, has broken new ground in using a familiar Indian fable to illuminate a contemporary reality. This is welcome since much of our foreign policy and security discourse to date, has been conducted in an idiom borrowed from distant shores. Of course, wherever such a template is used, there will inevitably follow an attempt to conflate current identities and events with those in the original myth. This may sometimes go beyond what the author himself might have had in mind.
Raja Mohan's objective in the book is to explore the dynamics of Sino-Indian maritime competition in the expanded threatre of the Indo-Pacific. The trajectory which this rivalry will take, the author argues, would be heavily influenced by the role of the United States, which continues to be the dominant power in the region. Although Raja Mohan has avoided positing a closer parallel with the Samudra Manthan myth, it is clear from the context that the Indians are the "devas", the Chinese, the "asuras" and the U.S. is the presiding deity, Vishnu, currently supportive of the Indians vis-à-vis the Chinese. The problem with this parallel is that it appears to preclude the possibility of India and China and perhaps the U.S. as well seeing their interests converge in upholding a maritime regime in the Indo-Pacific region which provides mutual reassurance.
Raja Mohan is right in drawing attention to the fact that both India and China have historically been oriented to the defence of their land frontiers. Their shift towards their maritime domain is of more recent origin, influenced by the fact that India was colonised and China semi-colonised, and oppressed by States deploying powerful ocean fleets. However, in this context one should acknowledge the very rich maritime history of Gujarat and the ancient southern kingdoms of peninsular India, which engaged in trade with distant Rome, Africa and with South-East Asia, China and even Japan. India has a crossroads culture precisely because it was the point of intersection of both caravan routes across Central Asia and maritime routes stretching both East and West from its peninsula. India's Look East policy today harks back to and seeks to recreate, in a contemporary context, the myriad links that connected the country, across the seas, with South-East Asia, China and North-East Asia. The spread of Buddhism in the region reflects that historical footprint. China's forays into the Indian Ocean, by contrast, were rare and episodic.
The emergence of the Indo-Pacific as a single maritime theatre is a major insight Raja Mohan offers in his book. We must consider the implications of the increasingly overlapping peripheries of India and China as their economic interests and their security capabilities expand outward from their shores. The Asia-Pacific region has become the fastest growing component of India's external economic relations. For China, the Indian Ocean has become the main thoroughfare for the delivery of its energy supplies as well as for its exports to the Gulf, Africa and Europe. Therefore, it is important to look at the interconnectedness of the Indian Ocean and the Pacific beyond the geographical link. Raja Mohan has done well to explore some of the implications of this development. However, one should not neglect some of the key differences between the Indian Ocean theatre and the Western Pacific. The latter comprises the Yellow Sea, the Taiwan Straits and the South China Sea. Unlike the Indian Ocean, there are lingering territorial disputes among the littoral states in each of these sub-theatres and lately these have become sharp and contentious. This could preoccupy China for some time to come, reducing it's out-reach into the Indian Ocean. There is perhaps more "manthan" or churning in the offing in the Western Pacific than in our own adjacent waters.
Raja Mohan ascribes a critical role to the U.S. in determining the eventual outcome of the Sino-Indian maritime rivalry. In this triangular relationship, he explores the possibility of China and the U.S. finding a modus vivendi which may leave India isolated. On the other hand, China could well turn the game by resolving the long-standing border dispute with India and thus enabling a more cooperative rather than competitive maritime relationship, thus diminishing the Vishnu-like role of the U.S. These are certainly interesting possibilities to ponder over. My own sense is that the triangular relationship which Raja Mohan focuses on may be missing out on a more complex landscape emerging in the Indo-Pacific region. Today this is home to several major powers, each deploying significant economic and military capabilities. Japan has a powerful military, including a modern naval fleet. Under Shintaro Abe, there is likely to be a further expansion in its naval forces. South Korea, too, is emerging as a state with formidable military capabilities. If account is taken of the growing military and naval strength of Indonesia, Australia and even the small island country of Singapore, then the triangle begins to look much more like a complex Rubik's cube. India's own growing security relationship with these other regional actors, particularly in the maritime field, will be a significant influence on Sino-Indian maritime rivalry. To put it in terms of the Samundra Manthan story, there are many potential "devas" that may join India in encouraging China to join a maritime architecture which is open, inclusive, transparent and balanced, meeting China's legitimate security concerns while reassuring others in the region as well. The turbulence which we see in the seas around us may best be becalmed by such a multilateral initiative than through a competitive military build-up.
Raja Mohan has skilfully analysed the different forces at work in our maritime domain. He has explored the historical setting as well as the political inclinations of the main stakeholders . I would venture to hope that Raja Mohan will bring us another offering which looks at the possible ways in which India could lead the way towards a more collaborative maritime future, using its own considerable naval capabilities and outreach as an effective lever or should I say, a modern Vasuki.
Former Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran is Chairman of the National Security Advisory Board
Indian Express, 16 March 2013