India Stops Hedging, Backs American Naval Strategy

India’s defense minister effectively throws his nation’s lot in with the United States.

India's defense minister Arackaparambil Kurien Antony and Admiral Nirmal Kumar Verma, chief of Naval Staff, watch a military exercise in the Bay of Bengal, February 9 (Varghese Jacob)
India’s defense minister Arackaparambil Kurien Antony and Admiral Nirmal Kumar Verma, chief of Naval Staff, watch a military exercise in the Bay of Bengal, February 9 (Varghese Jacob)

Most dull speeches are ignored but a few mask statements of such enormity that their importance is lost.

In that context, Indian defense minister Arackaparambil Kurien Antony’s words at the Shangri La 2012 summit were borderline genius.

Unlike in previous centuries, maritime freedoms cannot be the exclusive prerogative of a few. Large parts of the common seas cannot be declared exclusive to any one country or group. We must find the balance between the rights of nations and the freedoms of the world community in the maritime domain. Like individual freedoms, the fullness of maritime freedoms can be realized only when all states, big and small, are willing to abide by universally agreed laws and principles.

The sheer innocuousness of these statements mask their potency in the Indian context. The basic summary was that India stopped hedging and threw in its lot with America. There have been many indicators of this growing closeness — significant arms purchases, large-scale naval exercises with Australia, Japan, Singapore and the United States. The problem is India has always been sheepish about these contacts having been mercilessly pilloried at home for either perceived loss of sovereignty or ganging up on a fellow developing country.

Foreign policy is seldom about common sense or rationality but rather far more dependent on entrenched interest groups and dogmas and so conveying the impression of continuity is paramount. As a result, rhetoric that nations use are critically important to the conduct of their foreign policies, serving as both traps and catalysts.

Much of India’s political and international relations academia that churn out bureaucrats and diplomats have a pronounced far-left tilt. Consequently, they are steeped in India’s freedom struggle driven anticolonialism, inutile eccentricities like “nonalignment” and naiveté like the “nuclear global zero.” As a result, the perception management associated with a U-turn was never going to be an easy task yet that is what Antony pulled off.

The ingenuity of the defense minister’s speech lies not just in how it enunciated this policy shift but rather how it laid down rhetorical action traps for entrenched constituencies back home.

“Previous centuries” is a reference to the centuries of colonial subjugation that India endured, still a very powerful intellectual and political catalyst in terms of a whole host of issues and polices. The brilliance here was that instead of directing it at European powers and the “new European imperialist” (America), it was directed at China.

The oceans in this case are again symbolically powerful in the Indian context since land invaders were integrated into Indian society but naval invaders (Britain) were not. As a result, in this one sentence Antony conveyed both the cultural alienness of the Chinese world view while in effect labeling it a colonizer.

Effectively therefore the communists who act as China’s “B team” in India could not protest the speech since it would undermine the central tenet of their ideology.

Equally important was the target of “colonization” and denial of maritime freedoms implicit in this speech — specifically the Philippines and Vietnam. This was critical in squelching the academic and political uproar the speech should have caused in Delhi.

Vietnam is one of those curious cases that transcends the toxic polarization of Indian politics. Being the first country to militarily defeat a European power (the French at Điện Biên Phủ) and the kick out the Americans makes it a cause celebre for nationalist, communist and anticolonialist alike. Being both a socialist sister and a fellow nonaligned country reinforces the bond obliging India to stick up for the “little fellas” that the Nonaligned Movement was meant for. At one shot all the interests groups that stood in the way of closer alignment with the United States were neutralized in a single sentence.

Linking “individual freedoms” to the “rights of states big and small” was another masterstroke since it effectively bridged what India has harped on with what America holds sacred, in addition to the rule of law.

This is, of course, just one statement by a defense minister and it remains to be seen if it becomes the template of Indian policy. But it is a powerful logic that naysayers in India will find extremely hard to undermine.