In this article, Vice Admiral Shekhar Sinha, delves on the butter Vs guns debates and posits that in the current environment, a disruptive and denial strategy would best suit India’s interests. He is the former Commander in Chief Western Naval Command & former Chief of Integrated Defence Staff and at present, is Trustee, India Foundation.
Debates in strategic circles on the historically familiar tussle between butter and the gun are common amongst the intelligentsia of aspirational powers in order to best prioritise national goals. The political leadership has to invariably do a tight ropewalk in balancing the needs of development with that of security.
India’s economy has witnessed a remarkable growth over the last decade. However, the threats across her land borders also necessitated the need to upgrade the capability of her Armed Forces. Improved bilateral relations with the US offered the opportunity to India to induct platforms and systems with state of the art technology. This was buttressed by Chinese aggressive behaviour on the India-Tibet border and in the South China Sea (SCS). Chinese assertiveness in the SCS intensified post their rejection of the judgement by International Court of Justice in a case brought up by the Philippines on the issue of fishing rights and sovereignty over Scarborough Shoal and it began threatening US interests by challenging presence of USN ships in the SCS, on the pretext of her fictitious claim of sovereignty over 80% in the entire area.
With China converting most of the occupied islands and features into military outposts, it was evident that the CCP and its General Secretary, Xi Jinping, had concluded that China’s time had arrived to force the US out of the SCS, both militarily and economically. China’s Military Strategy Paper of 2015 was an open memorandum to the world that China’s Armed Forces, particularly the PLA Navy, will precede the arrival of her trade and commerce anywhere in the world. China asserted that it was important for her to protect the sea lanes of communication (SLOC) through which traversed her trade. Over the years China has strengthened her Navy and now the PLAN has more number of ships/submarines than the US navy.
The US on its part witnessed the economic coercion of smaller countries by China which was leading to debt trap and often equity swap leading to long term lease of defaulting country’s territory and ports which were of strategic importance. Establishment of a military base in Djibouti and a likely base in Gwadar are indicative of China’s desire.
China has near presence on all the choke points in the Indian Ocean. It is developing Malacca port, has presence in Djibouti which is in the middle of Gulf of Aden, and also has presence in Gwadar and possibly Jask in Iran in the Strait of Hormuz. This gives China the ability not only to monitor the traffic but also the opportunity to interdict. Additionally, the ports of Hambantota and Kyaukphyu in Myanmar could be hand twisted by China, given its ability to exercise economic coercion. It is but a matter of time when the Chinese navy will break out of second island chain and emerge in the IOR. China has already declared that trade will follow the flag and not the other way round. China has vulnerabilities in the IOR as 80% of its fossil fuel needs traverses over IOR and much of her food is imported. But it has an all weather friend in Pakistan, which has nearly become its autonomous region. China is arming Pakistan Armed Forces and indirectly supporting terror groups operating within that country.
For India, economic prosperity remains the key aim. While the Indian economy as of now is just a fifth of the Chinese economy, and while the Chinese military is many times larger than India’s, India has the advantage of geography and also of a very professional Armed Forces, which outdoes many of the advantages China has. While India is developing into the third largest economy in the world, China is at the cusp of replacing the USA as the largest global economy. India’s approach has been to be the ‘preferred security provider’ to the littorals in the IOR. But the development agenda rightly trumps the needs of the military, though allocations for the latter do cater for essential force requirements.
Therefore, we have to develop strategies which exploit the geographical advantages that we have. Our tacticians would have to take that approach till we become a much larger economy. While the ‘Atmanirbhar’ goal is taking its roots, imports should be limited for ‘must have’ assets. With those, our armed forces must be able to deny the adversary the space that it needs to operate in. This should be our overall strategy in all domains of warfare. Cyber and space assets should be developed many fold. With the given assets our next step should be to disrupt the advances that an adversary can make or it is making. These strategies will need all of government approach. The non kinetic assets should be strengthened in order to deny and disrupt the intentions of the adversary. Hard power should be our last option which must be capable of destroying the adversary’s assets and war waging potential. Our current security apparatuses would be ceased with this thought of process and that would be the right path: Strategy of Denial and Disruption.