Features | Politics | South Asia

An Interview With Lawrence Prabhakar

The Diplomat speaks with Lawrence Prabhakar, Professor of Political Science at India’s Madras Christian College, about Manmohan Singh’s recent trip to Washington, Indo-US ties and China’s growing maritime presence in the Indian Ocean.

By Madhav Nalapat for

The White House hosted its first official state dinner last week, for Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. What do you make of criticism that the Obama administration has tilted toward China and shown less interest than the Bush administration did in deepening ties with India?

Lawrence Prabhakar: I think one of the main points here is that the Obama statements in Beijing sent a discordant note through Delhi and the surrounding region. What was expected by the Indian government was that the Obama administration would fairly balance the interests of India, Japan and its allies, as well as those with China. But the kind of statements that came from Beijing in the joint communiqué of Obama and Hu Jintao turned out to be a little more tilted towards China.

The explanation among commentators here has been that the United States had to concede a lot of ground to China because of the current economic difficulties the US faces, and because of its reliance on China for putting pressure on Iran, the fiscal pressures it faces in balancing its deficit and bailing out its banks. This has been openly stated in New Delhi. So even though there were some hawkish elements that said the Singh team shouldn’t go to Washington DC with this new US tilt to China, moderation prevailed and Prime Minister Singh went. One of the positive things that came out of that has been the final shape that has been given to the Indo-US Civilian Nuclear agreement. But overall, New Delhi doesn’t seem satisfied with this tilt and it has the feeling that these moves will hamper its efforts as it tries to balance a rising and also potentially aggressive China.

What’s the perception in India on US engagement — is there any feeling there that the US sees India mainly as a counterweight to China?

Prabhakar: New Delhi and the strategic community here in India feel that the Bush years were good years for India — India always has high praise for the Bush administration’s policies. Not because we were a counterweight to China, but because the previous administration tried to empower India. But it seems that little has been done by the present administration in this regard, despite there having been a lot of hope and optimism generated at the start of the Obama administration.

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The second reason why Delhi is disillusioned is the $7.5 billion package that has been given to Pakistan. This package seems to be going to Pakistan without checks and strings attached. Yet the situation in Pakistan seems to deteriorate from day to day, and the pressures that are being placed on India over Kashmir and other parts of India — and also the China-Pakistan conundrum — are all reasons of concern for India. India feels that it’s at the forefront of, on the one hand, an Islamic jihadi slant that is coming from Pakistan, and on the other an aggressive China that is starting to probe India’s defences and test its readiness. So these issues are very troubling for New Delhi. This is perhaps one reason why India thought the United States would genuinely understand India’s concerns, being natural allies and democracies with converging interests. But that understanding seems to be missing in the present US administration.

On the issue of China — what do you make of recent tensions over the border between India and China? How serious are they?

Prabhakar: I think the tensions in the border area are very interesting. They’re basically the failure of the working group between India and China that has been meeting for 13 sessions — much has been wrangled over in terms of procedure, but not much has been achieved substantively. On the one side, the India-China economic relationship has bloomed, and today we find China is, along with the United States, India’s largest trading partner. At the same time, we find the political dimension hasn’t been so cordial and the two sides have many misgivings toward each other.

And this will be especially so as long as you have the border problems and the contentious claims China has over the Tawang District in Arunachal Pradesh, an area that China has been probing for quite some time. In addition, there have recently been tensions in some of the other border provinces. These are giving the impression that China, with its rising economic and military might, is set to test India’s mettle and whether it will respond forcefully, or go back to something like the debacle in 1962 when India beat a hasty retreat.

However, if you look at recent moves by India, it looks like India has pretty well reinforced its positions — there have been air force deployments there and it has strengthened its border infrastructure and sent troops to the border. So the Indian response to China’s provocations has been pretty forceful. The other thing that India faces here is that China-Pakistan collusion will go against it in many instances. And so the recent news that China gifted Pakistan with about 50 kilograms of highly enriched uranium, as well as its plans to provide fifth-generation airplanes for Pakistan’s air force, are all significant events that are actually sending signs that the convergence between China and Pakistan is strong and that India has to be very wary.

One of the criticisms by Indian defence policymakers toward China has been over its ‘String of Pearls’ strategy, where it has been increasing influence from the South China Sea through the Strait of Malacca and across the Indian Ocean. How much of a concern should this strategy be to India?

Prabhakar: The String of Pearls is a strategic conceptualization by a US Army War College officer who wrote about this idea, and it’s since gained popularity in US and Indian circles. The fact is that China is trying to build what could be called naval access facilities in the region. They are not called basing facilities — initially they are naval access facilities with a dual civilian-military purpose. In addition, the Chinese have been doing what we call build-operate-lease-transfer projects, with many official projects in Burma and Sri Lanka. The fact is that China and Sri Lanka enjoy enduring and durable relations, with the significant strides in ties demonstrated by the Chinese giving $2 billion to Sri Lanka in 2008 and also praising the Sri Lankan war effort against the Tamil Tigers.

So Hambantota in Sri Lanka is going to be what’s called a civilian port, with bunkering facilities. And being a natural port, it can basically host many of the Chinese ships that are coming all the way from the Persian Gulf carrying oil. At the same time, we also have the port of Gwadar in Pakistan. Gwadar is clearly going to be an important outpost because the Chinese have been investing millions of dollars, and today the Gwadar port is undergoing its second phase of development. China has also been probing into Marao in the Maldives and has been trying to help them there.

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So essentially what we see around the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea have been Chinese attempts to build up access facilities. These facilities have dual civilian-military uses and are basically infrastructure facilities that allow Chinese ships to have preferential access. They could possibly also be basing facilities if there was going to be a dedicated China Indian Ocean fleet, though we don’t see any evidence of that.

China is investing in the future in access facilities — much like mercantile powers like the United States and Britain once did. So this String of Pearls could be similar to the calling stations that Britain had in the 19th century. But they are not just about Chinese access — they also symbolize the kind of concrete friendship that China has with many of these South Asian nations.

In recent years the US, Australia and Japan have conducted joint naval operations and Japanese and India officials agreed last month to bolster defence ties. Do you see India’s future as involving deeper defence and security cooperation with Japan and Australia?

Prabhakar: I think with the geopolitical shifts taking place in the Asia-Pacific — including a rising China, with steady growth of its economic potential and the correlative strategic and military modernization — there could actually be a convergence of Japanese and Australian interests very much on the Indian side. This is because we find that India is a pivotal power in the Indian Ocean, and if Australia and Japan want to have to access the region to reach the energy hub of the Gulf in the Middle East, then India will be the only natural partner for them to engage with.

I think the United States under the Bush administration facilitated a lot of this strategic convergence between the United States and India, and India and Japan, and India and Australia. And then of course Malabar 07-02 was one of the very symbolic exercises that took place that involved the navies of the four nations in an exercise in the Bay of Bengal. And the annual US Malabar exercises have been growing in complexity as well as in the scope of operations. This naval interoperability has been symbolic of what is emerging to be a concert of naval powers in the region, which basically is looking to hedge against the possibility of an aggressive China that could come in the future.

So far, China has displayed a lot of restraint and has expressed it dissatisfaction as to why these powers have come together. But nonetheless, there’s increasing bilateral convergence between India and Australia and India and Japan with regard to how they should contend with the future of Chinese naval power in the region — both in the Pacific and Indian Oceans. The Indian navy is one of the most robust naval forces in the region and will continue to play a very important role in what I would call the benign, humanitarian operations there. At the same time, the Indian navy also has the capability for coercive and ‘compellant’ missions.

So there’ll be greater naval convergence between India and Japan and India and Australia — not only out of strategic convergence, but the growing economic ties between them. And I’d say that although there are some differences, the fundamentals between India and Japan and India and Australia are as good as those in the US-India relationship.