India’s Once & Future Sea Power

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India’s Once & Future Sea Power

Does India have a grand maritime narrative? Its navy will be disadvantaged if strategy is devised on the hoof.

It’s an honour when an éminence grise of Arun Prakash’s stature takes note of one’s work, even to gently criticize it. Adm. Prakash, a former Indian Navy chief of staff and present chairman of the National Maritime Foundation, takes to the pages of a Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars monograph to explain the ‘Rationale and Implications of India’s Growing Maritime Power.’ Prakash outlines two ‘flawed assumptions’ underlying mine and two colleagues’ recent book on Indian Naval Strategy in the 21st Century. In his words, we posit that

1.      ‘…a grand historical narrative is required to bolster support for a maritime build-up and strategy, and that if India does not have a ‘usable past,’ it should perhaps create one.’

2.      ‘…the shape and size of the Indian Navy represents the physical manifestation of society’s political and strategic culture, and that India’s national leadership is motivated by history and philosophical traditions, in its employment of military power.’

These ideas, says Prakash, reflect Western habits of mind and thus fit India uncomfortably. He nonetheless appears to agree with the first assumption, insisting that India is already the beneficiary of a compelling maritime narrative. And the admiral faults our second assumption for being too generous toward current Indian political leaders, whom he indicts for failing to think strategically and for neglecting their responsibility to oversee defence affairs. In effect, he says India meets our first—purportedly Western—standard while taking New Delhi to task for falling short of our second!

Let’s consider these topics in turn. The idea of a ‘usable past’ originated with historian Henry Steele Commager, who recounts how the American founding generation deliberately used history and culture to fuse a disparate collection of states and peoples into a unified republic. They retold the deeds of legendary figures such as George Washington and Benjamin Franklin while embedding ideals and stories from the founding era in cultural artefacts such as paintings, songs, and other artworks. They incorporated raw material from the historical archives into a sophisticated nation-building campaign. An American historical memory emerged from this cultural foundry.

Similarly, a nation’s leadership can use the historical record to capture the popular imagination while communicating how the nation should conduct its affairs on the high seas. A usable past helps leaders sculpt a maritime strategy that fits national traditions, explains what kind of navy the nation needs and how it should be used, and helps instil pride and élan within the sea services themselves. In short, a tradition of marine exploits helps political and military leaders marshal public and elite support for sea power. It’s doubtful that a nation with no tradition of seafaring—or with a nautical past like India’s, of which few records apparently remain—can invent a compelling narrative of past glory out of whole cloth. There was doubtless a golden age of Indian seafaring, but historians know little about it and can’t simply fabricate one. A usable past isn’t a made-up past. It must consist of more than fables to resonate with important audiences.

Adm. Prakash assures us that India already boasts a ‘grand maritime narrative’ that need not be ‘invented’ to reawaken ‘maritime consciousness among India’s youth’ or to impress ‘sceptical foreigners’ with Indian prowess on the wine-dark sea. Fine: what is it? The admiral gives no specifics, and his silence is telling. Indian mariners doubtless ruled the waves in South Asia, but—unfortunately—details about who they were and what they did remain scarce. Real historical events and real historical figures are the raw material for a compelling story. As long as Indian maritime history remains largely obscure, sea-power proponents will have a hard time telling India’s story well.

Despite his claims on behalf of a grand Indian narrative, Prakash concedes the challenges facing would-be architects of a usable past. He bemoans the ‘intellectual lethargy and reluctance on the part of India’s historians to investigate an esoteric field’ like maritime history. With little historical research to tap, he finds himself reduced to making a circumstantial case. Rather than produce documented facts, he infers India’s seagoing past from physical, social, and cultural evidence in Southeast Asia:

‘One need only spend a few days in Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, or Cambodia to be struck by the depth and breadth of permeation of these countries by Indian culture, languages, architecture, and even dietary habits. This could have taken place only over centuries of intense maritime interaction.’

There’s no disputing this. That Indian influence pervades Southeast Asia is inescapable for first-time visitors to the region. And yet, appeals to abstractions and generalities like culture, language, and cuisine don’t inspire, however much they may enlighten. The great age of Hindu seafaring ended in the 14th century, but the details are largely lost to history. By contrast, China has fashioned a usable past of its own and can put an attractive face on it: that of Ming Dynasty Adm. Zheng He, who cruised Southeast and South Asian waters six centuries ago in command of the world’s biggest, most advanced fleet. India lacks a seafarer from antiquity whose feats are well-documented and who can equal Zheng’s glamour and renown.

The best-known figures from Indian maritime history are Kunjali III, who scored several bracing tactical victories against the Portuguese Navy in the sixteenth century, and Kanhoji Angre, who fought against Britain’s Royal Navy in the eighteenth. Unlike Zheng He, however, they made their names in a losing cause. The Portuguese ultimately wrested command of the sea from them, going on to occupy key sites and chokepoints around the Indian Ocean basin—including on the subcontinent. Because of India’s eventual defeat and conquest at European hands, it will be hard for New Delhi to match Beijing’s triumphant, straightforward Zheng He narrative. Similarly, if Europeans had arrived in South Asian waters a few decades earlier and vanquished Zheng’s ‘treasure fleet,’ his voyages would constitute a poor parable about a confident, seafaring China. History spared Chinese spokesmen this fate.

In a sense, India finds itself in the same predicament as the United States in the 1880s or thereabouts. Whereas India’s nautical golden age took placing in the remote recesses of South Asian history, the United States had no maritime history at its founding. Much like contemporary Indians, Americans thought of their republic mainly as a continental power. The French Navy was the maritime arm of the Franco-American alliance during the War of American Independence. The United States’ most recent great-power naval war was the War of 1812, when British forces landed along the Chesapeake Bay and burned the White House. The US Navy had decayed into decrepitude by the 1870s. It wasn’t even the strongest fleet in the Americas. Chile famously thumbed its nose at US mediation efforts during the War of the Pacific (1879-1884). It could do so because its navy possessed modern battleships, while the US Navy was composed of rickety, outdated wooden vessels.

Thus, sea-power advocates like Theodore Roosevelt, Alfred Thayer Mahan, and Henry Cabot Lodge had little to work with. To inspire Americans, they could appeal to the Barbary Wars at the turn of the 18th century, a few single-ship actions from the War of Independence and the War of 1812, and a handful of inspiring figures such as John Paul Jones and Stephen Decatur. The United States’ usable maritime past remained sparse. Never, with the brief exception of its Civil War, had the United States commanded even the waters washing against its own coasts. Never had the US Navy confronted—still less defeated—enemy fleets in toe-to-toe battle. While Washington laid down the keels for a modern armoured fleet starting in 1883, it took the Spanish-American War of 1898 to embed sea power firmly in the American national consciousness. History finally supplied the United States with a usable maritime past by virtue of victories in the Caribbean Sea and at Manila Bay.

Like Adm. Prakash and his comrades today, Roosevelt, Mahan, and Lodge were fighting against history, and they could conjure up few allies from history. So much for simply manufacturing a usable past. Even Gavin Menzies started with raw material—with documented facts surrounding Zheng He’s voyages—before extrapolating from the facts to fanciful lengths, giving the ancient mariner credit for everything from discovering America to igniting the Italian Renaissance. Indian scholars and officialdom should rediscover what they can from bygone eras and conscript such long-ago heroes as they can find. But like fin de siècle Americans, they may have to largely make their own history—in effect writing an Indian maritime narrative from scratch. I don’t envy them this task.

Prakash’s second point seems to be that my co-authors and I project Clausewitzian assumptions onto India, in effect giving Indian statesmen too much credit for shaping maritime strategy. (For theorist Carl von Clausewitz, policy is in charge, permeating all aspects of military affairs except for routine administrative matters of little political or strategic consequence.) If so, we understate the internal barriers to Indian strategy-making and paint too rosy a picture of New Delhi’s nautical future. Prakash faults policymakers for inattention. He maintains that one subset of Indian politicians prefers metaphysics to supervising military affairs, while another is entirely consumed with day-to-day politics. Neither group has much patience with arcane military matters. As a result, ‘difficult decisions’ pertaining to national defence ‘have remained in limbo for decades.’

The Indian Navy has filled this civil-military vacuum as best it can. The leadership has built or imported hardware and drawn up doctrine and strategy documents, ‘mostly without the benefit of higher political direction.’ Essentially, the naval establishment is developing options for political leaders, hedging against future contingencies such as a robust Chinese naval presence in the Indian Ocean. If Prakash accurately depicts civil-military dysfunction in New Delhi, then India faces far sterner challenges than how to spin an appealing tale about its seagoing past.

History is typically unkind to nations where strategy drives policy, inverting the ideal Clausewitzian arrangement under which political leaders control all implements of national power. This could prove true of India, just as it did for Western countries like Imperial Germany and Eastern ones like imperial Japan.

If the political establishment is indeed detached from military affairs, then India finds itself at an intellectual disadvantage vis-à-vis competitors like China that suffer from no such disconnect. Political and military leaders would be wise to put their house in order now—lest some crisis compel New Delhi to improvise policy and strategy under extreme stress.


James Holmes is an associate professor of strategy at the US Naval War College and co-author of ‘Red Star over the Pacific’, an ‘Atlantic Monthly’ Best Book of 2010. The views voiced here are his alone.