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History of strategic thinking on the Indo-Pacific

History of strategic thinking on the Indo-Pacific

SEA SECURITY: India does not have a tradition of strategic thinking. PTI



Vappala Balachandran

Ex-Special Secretary, Cabinet Secretariat

IN 1992, senior RAND analyst George Tanham touched a raw nerve in India by concluding that India did not have a tradition of strategic thinking throughout its history. His essay, prepared after a four-month visit to India was commissioned by the US Defence Department, during which he interviewed several top Indian security officials.

Tanham concluded that part of our problem was historical as Indian thinking was dominated by "ethnic, linguistic, religious, caste and internal regional rivalries over national concerns." Political unity did not exist despite cultural identity, except briefly during the Mauryan, Gupta or Moghul empires. The British never took Indians into confidence for their strategic designs. As a result, Indian military thinking developed as a reactive, land-oriented defensive strategy.

In 1945, veteran historian-diplomat Sardar KM Pannikar had said the same in his book "India and the Indian Ocean". He wrote this book on the eve of Independence, to guide our leaders into a diversified strategic thinking, citing the importance of seas in our future security architecture. Till the middle of the thirteenth century, the control of the Indian waters was entirely in Indian hands. Even the Arabs, "who succeeded to the supremacy of the sea, after the breakdown of Chola naval power, were only commercial navigators", did not pose any security threats.

"The unique glory of the Moghuls could not hide the fact that on the sea they were totally helpless, and Akbar himself had to suffer the humiliation of the trade of the Empire being interrupted, and the pilgrim traffic to Mecca harassed by the Portuguese on his coast." Aurangzeb realised this "only when the Sidis of Janjira offered their services against the growing Maratha power on the sea."

However, regional satraps, like Shivaji, Hyder Ali or Kerala princes, were aware of the importance of the sea. Ali concluded his 1782 treaty with the famous French admiral, Suffren. After Suffren departed in 1784, the British dominated the Indian Ocean till 1941, when Singapore fell.

Pannikar said that the use of the seas for area dominance was propagated by other thinkers like Admiral Alfred Thayer Mahan of America and German general-geographer-academic Haushofer, whose treatise "Geo Politik of the Pacific Ocean" was "a virtual textbook for Nippon's naval strategy."

How did a German professor's work become Japan's naval strategy? I had read about Professor Karl Haushofer in American journalist Agnes Smedley's 1943 book "Battle Hymn of China", wherein she had referred to her long dialogue with Mao Zedong on India in 1937 while she was staying in the Yenan (Yan'an) caves with him, Zhu De and others.

Smedley, a close associate of Lala Lajpat Rai in New York, was arrested in 1918 by American agencies under the Espionage Act for promoting Indian freedom activities. Upon release, she moved to Berlin, where she wrote two works on Indian history for Haushofer's "Institut fur Geopolitik", which came under some notoriety as the incubator of Adolf Hitler's ideas on "Blut und Boden" (Blood and Soil). However, Albrecht Haushofer, son of Karl Haushofer was executed by Hitler's SS on April 21, 1945, for being a part of the Kreisau Circle for plotting Hitler's assassination.

Karl Haushofer's ideas on the strategic importance of the Pacific Ocean had crystallised during his tenure as German military attaché in Japan during 1909-10. Haushofer stayed in India and Ceylon (Sri Lanka) for 10 weeks during his sojourns in this period which convinced him that the "Monsoon Countries" such as India, Ceylon and China had constituted a geopolitical unit. He also saw the events in the Indian Ocean rim as connected to the developments in China, Japan and the Pacific into an opportunity to throw out colonial rule to enable German influence over the region.

It is commonly understood that the term "Indo-Pacific" had originated from the late Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's speech at the Indian Parliament in 2007 ("Confluence of the Two Seas") and his later address in Kenya in 2016 ("Toward a Free and Open Indo-Pacific"). This had paved the way for America to recognise the importance of linking the two seas by renaming the US Pacific Command as the US Indo-Pacific Command in May 2018. "Foreign Policy" (July 30, 2021) gave credit to this renaming to Japanese official Satoshi Suzuki and his American counterpart Brian Hook to "bring India in from the cold of its nonaligned Cold War stance and focus on China."

However, Harvard scholar Hansong Li gives credit for this concept to Haushofer, as Pannikar wrote in 1945. Li, in his Cambridge University paper dated June 4, 2021, traces the origin of this "Indo-Pacific" concept from his 1924 paper "Building Blocks of Geopolitics, Geopolitics of Pan-Ideas, and German Cultural Politics in the Indo-Pacific Space." Haushofer envisaged Indo-Pacific as "an organic and integral space primed for political consciousness" based on oceanographic foundation "with novel evidence in marine sciences, ethnography, and philology, but also legitimated it as a social and political space."

This paper and his other works were widely translated into Japanese and circulated among security and academic circles and became cornerstones of Japan's strategy for Pacific and Indian Oceans before the World War II.

In Europe, events during the pre-Second World War days reveal that it was Haushofer's writings that linked Japan with Germany and Axis powers which led to the conclusion of the 1940 Berlin Tripartite Pact and secret agreements carving out zones of influence along longitude 70 degrees east in which India came under the Japanese area of influence. That map is still available on the archives.

A near century after Haushofer's "Indo-Pacific" thesis, one finds this area is still pivotal with the same players in action but in different roles. Haushofer's thesis did not help Germany due to checkmates by other powers, including the Soviet Union. In 2022, Germany is nowhere in sight as a military power in the Indo-Pacific Japan, which was the pillar Haushofer's thesis has aligned with the West. China, which Haushofer wanted to pit against the West, is now an energised power which keeps others guessing whether it would integrate Taiwan ahead of 2049 when the PRC completes a century.


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