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Selected Writings by Dharmeratnam Sivaram (Taraki)

Tiger hunt: Delhi's changing faces

25 April 1999

The fall of the BJP government in India elicited typical responses in Sri Lanka last week. It also reflected the condition and character of the ethnic divide that persists in this country.

"The Tigers killed Sonia Gandhi's husband, therefore she would actively assist Colombo to crush them."

"George Fernandes is sympathetic to the LTTE and the Tamil cause. Take him out and everything would be fine. Even the state owned Observer gave vent to the anger about Fernandes in an editorial. This is one view.

On the other hand a report in the Hindustan Times says " Giving the general Tamil view, Mr. Kanamayilnathan, editor of Uthayan, the only Tamil daily of Jaffna, said: "Even if Ms Gandhi does not actively intervene as her husband did in 1987, she will go all out to support the Sri Lankan Government's military effort against the LTTE. She could go all out to curb Tiger activities in Tamil Nadu." Mr. Kanamayilanathan is convinced that in the absence of the LTTE, the Tamils would be crushed or their long standing demands ignored by the powers that be in Colombo." So goes the plebeian logic.

A certain geo-strategic naiveté in these matters is inevitable, and probably excusable, in this country, being a small island nation imbued with an 'idyll in the sun' mindset despite a long drawn ethnic conflict and two bloody revolts.

There are two inter-related questions that arise here.

Are the personal attitudes of Sonia and Fernandes the primary determinants of Delhi's policy on Sri Lanka and the war it is waging against the Tigers?

Is assisting or not assisting Colombo defeat the LTTE linked to who rules Delhi or is it ultimately a reflection of India's long term geo- strategic interests in the region?

Four years ago when George Fernandes was still small time actor in the Indian political scene, there emerged a view among some policy makers in Delhi that the LTTE episode had been unduly allowed to overshadow other long term geo-strategic issues in Sri Lanka relating to trade and security, the foundations for which had been laid in 1987. A senior policy planner put it succinctly at the time- "the Tigers are just an episode in the process of addressing India's legitimate geopolitical concerns in this part of the region."

And by this time the Indian external intelligence establishment was also inclined to feel that the LTTE was not a sufficient condition for setting Tamil Nadu off on the path of militant separatism.

A refocusing of India's strategic priorities in Sri Lanka has hence taken shape since then.

The main context of this refocusing (if we may call it so) is constituted by

a) The post-cold war readiness of the US to project its military power against regional powers and its naval power in the Indian Ocean region.

b) The potential and ambitions of the Chinese in the Indian Ocean in general and the Bay of Bengal in particular.

c) The military and political interests of Pakistan.

On Dec.21 1998 the Indian Parliament's standing committee on defence chaired by Sqn Ldr (Retd) Kamal Chaudhry strongly recommended that a review of Delhi's nuclear policy had become necessary in the face of the presence of sub-surface nuclear submarines (SSB) and sub-surface ballistic nuclear submarines (SSBN) of China and the United States in the Indian Ocean in which India has a vital stake.

The Committee had been informed by the Indian Ministry of Defence that "China's ability to extend its naval reach into the Bay of Bengal poses a serious threat to India's maritime interests.

Beijing's military relationship and export of military and nuclear technology to Pakistan and similar links with Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Myanmar are also required to be seen as potential threats to country's maritime interests.

"There is a growing body of Indian defence literature in recent times on the expansion of the Chinese Navy- PLAN (People's Liberation Army - Navy) in the Indian Ocean. One of the long standing concerns of Delhi has been the "maritime encircling of India by the Chinese"

The PLAN has ready access to the Bay of Bengal from its naval facilities on the southern tip of Myanmar. The PLA can also move several divisions in days to Karachi on the Karakoram highway to reach the Arabian Sea, India's western maritime zone. The link between the eastern and western sectors of the Indian Ocean for Plan is Sri Lanka. (For a general Indian defence view of the PLAN see 'China's Quest for Blue Waters' by M.V. Rappai, Research Fellow at the IDSA)

The Indian Navy would need to possess the ability to raise the costs of American military and naval intervention against India, especially in terms of its "counter proliferation" strategy, which includes the possibility of launching military strikes against India in order to deny its nuclear capacity—weapons, delivery systems, and assorted infrastructure. Therefore, the development of even limited "sea denial" capabilities against US military forces at sea could assist an attempt to deter an attack of this nature in the first place.

It is not surprising, therefore, that a recent (May 20, 1998) internal Indian Navy study, "Strategic Defence Review: The Maritime Dimension—A Naval Vision" states, "The Indian Navy must have sufficient maritime power not only to be able to defend and further India's maritime interests, but also to deter a military maritime challenge posed by any littoral nation, or combination of littoral nations of the Indian Ocean Region (IOR), and also to be able to significantly raise the threshold of intervention or coercion by extra-regional powers."(36 Conclusion)

It is quite clear that US naval doctrine in the near future will increasingly stress power projection and influence vis-a-vis littoral states, with the development and deployment of weapon systems designed especially for such purposes.

Therefore, in the event that Indian nuclear weapons are deployed, and international arms control agreements such as the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) not signed (by India), it is imperative that an adequate Indian naval "sea denial" capability be developed against USN forces (to attempt to deter US "counter- proliferation" strategy from the sea).

These missile attacks clearly demonstrate the ability of the US Navy (USN) to exercise military power against littoral states deep inland from the sea, as well as its capability in successfully maintaining the forward deployment of its forces far from their home bases in the US. These factors clearly constitute the critical trends in US naval policy in the Indian Ocean in the future.

Changing USN Doctrine since the end of the Cold War and the disintegration of the erstwhile Soviet Union, American naval doctrine has undergone a dramatic transformation. The focus on a global threat during the Cold War years has shifted to one of regional challenges and opportunities.

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