In Defence of India’s Strategic Culture-Maritime Facets
A constant refrain amongst some Western strategists is that India does not have a strategic culture. Whilst our strategic culture may not be in sync with their thought process, we have been seized of the issue for a time period much longer than theirs, especially the Maritime Facets. The article goes on to detail how and why
In December of 2013, while addressing an International Relations convention at the JNU, the then-National Security Advisor (NSA), Mr Shiv Shankar Menon, said, “There have been those, like George Tanham, who deny that India has a strategic culture. My view is just as saying one is apolitical is, in and of itself, a political choice, saying that India has no strategic culture is only to say that it is different from the strategic cultures one is used to.”
“Sadly”, he added, “many Indians have picked up Tanham’s refrain saying that India has no strategic culture. I think what most of them mean is that they do not see the long term thinking and patient planning that is often (rightly or wrongly) ascribed to other cultures.”
The NSA was absolutely spot-on in his assessment.
A widely-accepted American definition of strategic culture is that it is a set of shared beliefs, assumptions, and modes of behavior, derived from common experiences and accepted narratives (both oral and written), that shape collective identity and relationships to other groups, and which determine appropriate ‘ends’ and ‘means’ for achieving security objectives.
India’s strategic culture does serve to identify or highlight general ‘drivers’ that differentiate Indian approaches to the outside world from those of other powers. However, the dominant characteristic of these drivers is that they remain only loosely indicative. In other words, they do not have a tightly-binding, predictive-relationship with India’s subsequent behaviour or its specific policies, much less with the actual outcomes of Indian diplomatic, military or security-related activity. To that extent, India’s strategic culture is quite different from the templated variety that evolved in Europe and, is evangelically propagated by contemporary USA. To properly identify the core continuities of Indian strategic culture requires an understanding of its historical underpinnings and a degree of scholarship that seems to have been beyond the capability of Mr George Tanham - the institutional weight of RAND’s generic research notwithstanding.
As Rodney Jones puts it, “India’s strategic culture is not monolithic, rather is mosaic-like, but as a composite is more distinct and coherent than that of most contemporary nation-states. This is due to its substantial continuity with the symbolism of pre-modern Indian state systems and threads of Hindu or Vedic civilization dating back several millennia….. Before one arrives at security ends and means, the content of what is ‘strategic’, and what is to be secured under the rubric of Indian security objectives’, must be recognized as based on metaphors of ‘Indian-ness’”
In its interaction with the outside world, India’s geostrategy has been consistent with the very contemporary definition provided by Senior Captain Xu Qi of China to the effect that “Geostrategy represents a country’s effort in the world arena to use geographic orientation and principles to pursue and safeguard its national interests”, where the prefix ‘geo’ refers to the country’s ‘strategic’ geography. ‘Strategic’ geography differs from ‘real’ geography in that when one superimposes a set of latitudes and longitudes upon a map (‘real’ geography) and concentrates one’s principal grand-strategy efforts within that area, then the area so-bounded defines one’s ‘strategic’ geography.
What Xu Qi implies is that every the geostrategy of every country is shaped by two broad considerations or factors. The first is its ‘geography’, which is a fixed factor. The second, ‘geographic orientation’, on the other hand, is a variable factor and connotes the geographically-driven relationships that a given country maintains or sustains with other nations. In a historical or long-term context, this is its ‘strategic culture’ and it is a function of scholarship, a deep study of history and the lessons borne out of historical experience in dealing with other geopolitical-entities, and, a clear understanding of the differences between ‘interests’, ‘threats’, and ‘risks’. For instance, a State with superior geographical orientation understands - both cognitively and intuitively- that ‘interests’ will need to be pursued, preserved, promoted and protected, irrespective of whether or not there is an active threat to them. When one or more interest is considered to be ‘core’ to the raison d’être - i.e, the very purpose-for-being of a given State or other geopolitical-entity - then such a State or geopolitical-entity will exert its utmost to its/their pursuit, preservation, promotion and protection against extant or potential challenges emanating from other States or geopolitical-entities. Towards this end, it will exert both the instruments of its foreign policy, namely, diplomacy and military power, along ‘dissuasive’, ‘deterrent’, ‘preventive’, ‘curative’, and, where necessary, ‘punitive’ trajectories. It is the felt-compulsion to move along these trajectories that might best explain ‘imperial’ designs and constructs and afford the rationale “for acquisitive or imperialist behavior [sic], i.e., for ‘objectives’ beyond security in the status quo sense”
If ‘interests’ then dictates geostrategy at the national level, and if ‘maritime interests’ dictate geostrategy within the maritime domain, the question to be asked of India (and of Mr Tanham, too!) is whether there is a clearly discernible ‘interest’ that has remained consistent over time and whose pursuit, preservation, promotion and protection, could demonstrate the application of one or more geostrategies by the kingdoms that constituted ancient and medieval India and by the republic that India became in 1950 after throwing off the European colonial yoke.
It is important to remember that it is the sheer size and geographical spread of undivided India that made numerous writers refer to it as a ‘sub-continent’. Indeed, if one were to superimpose the map of undivided India upon a map of the European Union, with both being depicted at the same scale, it would become clear that the area of the land mass of undivided India (3.287+882 = 4.169 sq km) is nearly as large as that of the 27 countries of the EU combined (4.423 sq km). Just as the history of the continent of Europe comprises complex and often violent interactions between a large number of kingdoms, dukedoms, duchies, principalities, without there being any real awareness that they were part of some larger geopolitical entity called Europe, so too, in the 2,000-odd years that elapsed since the break-up of the Mauryan Empire (322 BCE to 187 BCE), the kingdoms of what is now India engaged with one another without any real awareness that they were merely constituent parts of a larger geopolitical entity called India. So, what then was the consistent maritime interest that gave rise to a strategic continuum in the coastal kingdoms that eventually merged and morphed into the contemporary republic that is India?
The answer is ‘Maritime Trade’ and the Sea Lines of Communication (SLOCs) along which this seaborne trade was carried out, with the outboard and inboard ends of these SLOCs being defined by ports and harbours - the entrepots of ancient, medieval and modern India.
The late Professor Angus Maddison’s famous book, “The World Economy: A Millennial Perspective” shows the absolute dominance of India and China over global GDP right until the advent of colonialism.
As Prime Minister Modi, addressing the 2018 edition of the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) ‘Shangri La Dialogue’, put it, the “oceans had an important place in Indian thinking since pre-Vedic times. Thousands of years ago, the Indus Valley Civilisation as well as Indian peninsula had maritime trade. Oceans and Varuna - the Lord of all Waters - find a prominent place in the world’s oldest books: the Vedas. In the ancient Puranas, written thousands of years ago, the geographical definition of India is with reference to the seas: mRrjksa ;rleqnzL; meaning, the land that lies to the north of the seas.” Indeed, the earliest portrayal of an Indian ship is found on an Indus Valley seal from about 3000 BCE, while the world’s oldest
tidal-dock, which was built around 2300 BCE, in the heyday of the Harappan civilisation, is at Lothal, near the present-day port of Mangrol, Gujarat. Over the last seventy-one years of India’s Independence, the existence of several important Harappan estuarine-ports has been incontrovertibly established. These archaeological finds give a strongly maritime (albeit coastal, much like in the Mediterranean) aspect to the Indus civilization and demonstrate a brisk
sea-borne trade between the Indus people and the Sumerians as early as the late third and early second millenniums BCE. Likewise, recent archaeological excavations at Pattanam (a hinterland port and a multicultural settlement in the Ernakulum district of the southern Indian state of present-day Kerala) provide strong evidence that Kerala engaged in sea-trade with ports in West Asia and Eastern Europe from the second millennium BCE onwards. The march of time did little to diminish the intensity of the maritime activities of ancient India, as witness an Ajanta cave-painting replete with many ships, depicting the landing of Vijaya Simha in Sri Lanka (543 BCE).
The eastern coastal kingdoms of India were even more strongly maritime in their strategic outlook and culture- none more so than ancient Odisha, better known as Kalinga, which remained, for millennia, an outstanding manifestation of quintessentially ‘Indian’ maritime endeavour. Its long coast line was studded with a number of excellent ports and port-towns which are not only referred to in texts but are also well-corroborated by archaeological excavations and explorations. From here, ships regularly coasted to present-day Myanmar, and, using the Nicobar Islands as replenishment-stations, undertook open ocean voyages across the Bay of Bengal to ports in Indochina (present-day Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam), peninsular Malaysia, the Indonesian archipelago, and beyond, all the way to China. (The Chinese traveller, I-Tsing (635–713 CE), records that from Tamralipti (in present-day Odisha) to the Nicobar Islands involved a passage of 30 days, while it took another 20 days to proceed from Sri Vijaya to China). The multimodal transportation of goods was commonplace, and Vinaya and Jataka texts specifically mention that merchants of northern India routinely brought their cargo to Tamralipti for onward trade with Southeast Asian countries. Ships from Kalinga sailed southward, too, with their cargoes of fine cloth, silk and copper, to distant Sri Lanka, the eastern coast of Africa and ports abutting the Arabian Sea.
Oceanic maritime trade of this volume could not have been conducted without appropriate navigational skills and modern navigation owes much to medieval Indian astronomers such as Aryabhatta (476-550 CE) and Varahamihira (505-587 CE), who not only accurately mapped the positions of celestial bodies but also developed methods of computing a ship’s position from the stars. A crude forerunner of the modern magnetic compass called Matsyayantra was in widespread use at this time and monsoon winds were well known, recorded and regularly used for sea voyages on both seaboards of India. ‘Transhipment’ as well as the ‘multimodal transportation’ of goods, are Indian maritime features of considerable antiquity. Ships would sail along the coast of Martaban and Tavoy in Myanmar, from there the trade would be transhipped onto smaller vessels to reach the Menam Chao Phraya delta by way of Kanchanaburi and Ratchaburi.
Gaius PliniusSecundus, naturalist, philosopher, and naval and army commander of the early Roman Empire, generally known as Pliny the Elder, writing in Circa 77 CE, penned detailed accounts of Indian traders carrying away large quantity of gold from Rome, in payment for much sought exports such as precious stones, skins, clothes, spices, sandalwood, perfumes, herbs, and indigo.
In the peninsular kingdoms of medieval India, maritime acumen was in particularly striking evidence. The absence of a stable, enduring and monolithic political structure notwithstanding, the importance of external maritime trade was considered paramount. The Chola dynasty, which remained ascendant in South India for some 400 years between the 9th and 13th Centuries CE, was an established maritime power of significant proportions and greatly impacted the fortunes of Southeast Asia. The Cholas adopted a radical policy of outright annexation and within the space of a few decades, became one of the richest rulering dynasties of the subcontinent. This wealth enabled them to maintain a large army and navy, which enabled them to capture more wealth, and so on, in what they saw to be a ‘virtuous cycle’. The Pandyan Empire, like the Cholas whom they displaced, demonstrated considerable maritime prowess in maintaining trade links on both seaboards, once again conquering Sri Lanka in the mid-13th Century. However, their defeat by the armies of the Delhi Sultanate effectively ended the Pandyan Empire.
Thus, when the Portuguese, seeking to wrest control of the East Asian and Indian spice-trade from Venice, came to India (in 1498 CE), Indian ability to plan and execute mid-ocean military-maritime operations in support of trade had been allowed to languish for some 250 years.
Although it is inadequately studied, the naval Battle of Diu in 1509, in which an international fleet (comprising over a hundred ships of the Zamorin (Samuthiri) of Calicut, the Egyptian Mamluks, and the Sultan of Gujarat, with cannon and seamen supplied by the Doge of Venice) lost to less than a score of Portuguese ships, was one that was of seminal importance to India. With this battle, India immediately lost control over its littoral, and in short order, allowed European powers to move into the hinterland from a by-now uncontested littoral, which, in turn, led to the loss of India’s very independence for 300 long years.
This dismal result notwithstanding, ‘strategic culture’ per se is in clear and incontrovertible evidence through the many years before this violent climax off the coast of Diu. The run-up to the Battle of Diu incorporates the formation of a ‘Quad’, initiated by the Zamorin of Calicut. This was a far more focussed ‘Quad’ and, I dare say, a far more successful one than those that have been put together in our far-more contemporary times. This ‘original’ Quad was not about the aggressiveness of China, but about a rapacious Kingdom of Portugal. The Mamluks of Egypt concurred with the Zamorin’s request to provide a
well-armed and modern fleet with 1,500 fighting men under one of their most capable and experienced commanders, Amir Hussain. The Sultan of Gujarat offered Diu as a base and, in addition, the direct support of forces under the Governor of Gujarat, Malik Ayaz. The Venetians provided cannon, technical expertise, and, two warships. The Zamorin himself provided over a hundred armed-vessels, including a small number of ocean-capable ones equipped with cannon. As a symbol of strategic vision, this 16th Century ‘Quad’ was certainly a breath-taking success, even if its forces eventually failed to win the battle thanks to the usual mixture of bravery, cowardice, intrigue and caprice that is such a recurrent phenomenon in the history of warfare across the world.
What of contemporary India? India’s overseas merchandise trade is once again asserting its centrality as a maritime interest of the country, as the following table of the country’s Trade-to-GDP Ratio (a.k.a. the Openness Index) clearly brings-out:
With 90% by volume and some 77% by value of the country’s merchandise trade flowing over the seas, India is, to all intents and purposes, an island nation, and the preservation, promotion, pursuit and protection of her external trade is a major maritime security imperative. Consequently, nurturing the symbiotic relationship between ‘Flag’ and ‘Trade’ is a crucial facet of India’s maritime strategy. (The term ‘Flag’ represents the foreign-policy goals of a country — in particular, its security concerns). Commercial relations between importers in India and exporters in nations located abroad (or vice-versa) cannot be stove-piped and made distinct from the international relations that govern the nation states to which the importer and exporter respectively belong. In addition to the price and quantity of goods and services, importers and exporters must necessarily take account of the place of origin of these products and the political relationship between the importing and the exporting nation. This because both are motivated to manage their trade relations in ways that minimise risks of disruption of supply or the possibility of hurting friends or aiding foes.
It is clear from the foregoing review that trade has, for millennia, been — and remains — a dominant maritime interest of India. Contemporary India’s ability to merge maritime-trade with land-based trade is entirely reflective of India’s strategic acumen — itself a result of India’s strategic culture.
Before concluding this piece, it is appropriate to return once more to the theme of India’s strategic culture and its clear expression. It can hardly be denied that Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s vision of SAGAR (Security and Growth for All in the Region) is a clear and unambiguous articulation of India’s Grand Strategy, as are India’s Act East policy, and its Look West policy. Likewise, the Indian investment in Chabahar Port supports India’s ‘International North-South Transport Corridor’ (INSTC), which has been successful in establishing a multi-modal movement of trade from Mumbai to Iran and thence to Azerbaijan and through the Caspian Sea to Russia, to finally terminate at St Petersburg. But a far more significant manifestation of this strategic acumen is the East-West linkages that will spread from Baku — moving westward to Eastern Europe and eastward to the Central Asian Republics and Afghanistan. This will cut right into China’s attempted dominance of the ‘Belt’ part of the Belt-and-Road Initiative (BRI). Likewise, the Asia-Africa Growth Corridor (AAGC) will promote east-west maritime trade across a huge swath from Japan to the eastern shore of the African littoral. Already we have Indian private ports such as Essar setting-up terminals in East African countries such as Mozambique.
India’s strategic insights are sufficiently tuned — over a historical period stretching over many millennia — to recognise the enormous vulnerability of so-called Chinese bases. If one does not control the spaces around such ‘bases’ these are not bases at all, but simply ‘places’.
But that is a story for another day.