Located roughly at the fulcrum of the Indo-Pacific, close to Myanmar, Thailand and the Malacca Strait through which the bulk of the world’s oil and gas shipments pass, Andaman has been part of India’s history for a thousand years interspersed with colonial control in the pre-Independence era.
Tokyo: The Quadrilateral Alliance (Quad) of the United States, India, Japan and Australia forms the bulwark of a free and open Indo-Pacific. As evidence mounts of SARS-CoV-2 likely being a lab-escaped, gain-of-function researched coronavirus, calls to hold China accountable are rising, with the smouldering tensions in the US correlated with the election campaign likely to lead to withdrawal of sovereign immunities that China currently enjoys in US courts. Legislation is pending to amend Title 28 of the United States Code to permit US courts to have jurisdiction over cases seeking damages from China. The bill written by US Senator Josh Hawley, with vociferous support from US Senator Tom Cotton and many others, cites death, injury and economic harm due to China’s alleged deliberate concealment and distortion of information about the international public health emergency, and abuses committed against whistleblowers like Dr Li Wenliang. The mood of the US Congress is such that it is not unthinkable for this action to be taken, which would lead to compensatory and punitive damages running into the trillions of dollars potentially awarded by US Courts as much of the world joins with America’s vast legal establishment in lawsuits to sue China.
Meanwhile, perhaps as has happened multiple times in past decades, to divert attention from those mounting crises that the People’s Republic of China (PRC) faces, its People’s Liberation Army (PLA) appears to be lashing out on multiple fronts as well as instigating countries which are China’s satellites, to foment military and other threats to a plethora of nations with which China has territorial disputes, in some cases even 1,500 kilometres away as in the case of Indonesia’s Natunas Islands. China’s contorted claim is that the Natunas confer 200 nautical miles (370 kilometres radius) exclusive economic zone that overlap slightly into areas which China contends are “traditional Chinese fishing grounds”.
Now that China is about five times larger an economy than India’s despite both having been roughly similar around 1990, China’s elite political, bureaucratic and military class, ensconced comfortably in the Zhongnanhai (the Chinese Lutyens) seems to consider India a pushover, and the killing of 20 unarmed Indian officers and soldiers by PLA men using medieval spiked clubs in violation of Geneva Conventions appears to be just a beginning of this round. Just how many PLA soldiers were killed by Indian soldiers in self-defence and retaliation has not been revealed by China, but estimates from others range from 40 to over 100. PLA has now undertaken a limited cosmetic pullback in one sector of the vast border that it has been relentlessly encroaching on. The Lutyens Zone is easily lulled into soothing geopolitical lullabies, distracted with the belief that everyone loves India and therefore has endless choices pursuant to “non-alignment,” and hence the doubly ominous risks that India’s military has to confront.
QUAD AS STRONG DETERRENT AGAINST AGGRESSION
Having argued in these columns why the Quad must be invigorated to serve as a formidable deterrent against aggression to ensure lasting peace in the Indo-Pacific, I’m joining in the advocacy on why the Quad’s operations headquarters ought to be on the main Andaman Island. Located roughly at the fulcrum of the Indo-Pacific, close to Myanmar, Thailand and the Malacca Strait through which the bulk of the world’s oil and gas shipments pass, it has been part of India’s history for a thousand years interspersed with colonial control in the pre-Independence era. For India, it is a matter of pride that the first time India’s Tricolour national flag was raised on liberated soil anywhere was on Andaman, when Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose did so on 30 December 1943 after his ally, the Imperial Japanese Armed Forces, evicted the colonial British contingent from the island. Unlike some previous Indian governments, the current one officially reveres Netaji’s memory despite not having the gumption to release the remaining most secret files that will explain what happened in his last days and if they were, as is speculated, in the erstwhile USSR as Stalin’s “guest”. Indeed, the airstrip built by the Imperial Japanese armed forces still remains in use to this day on the Andamans. Thus, two members of the Quad, India and Japan, would favour having the Quad’s operations headquarters on Andaman, a point I have discerned from some at the highest levels of the Japanese and Indian governments. The US and Australia would naturally defer to India’s and Japan’s choice, when it is stated publicly, in a collegial gesture of solidarity.
The South Indian Chola empire’s Rajendra Chola I (1014-1042) used Andaman as a strategic naval base to launch an expedition to Sumatra, Indonesia. In the 17th century, Admiral Kanhoji Angre, naval chief of the Maratha Empire’s Chhatrapati (emperor) Shivaji Maharaj, had a base on Andaman and is credited with making it a part of India. Kanhoji was intensely disliked by European governments and trading companies for being a champion of Indian resistance, and his ships attacked British, Portuguese and Dutch vessels to deny them risk-free navigational rights over coastal shipping lanes. Kanhoji employed a multinational force of Marathas, people of East African descent, European refugees, and even a Jamaican in his navy.
Denmark, once a formidable colonial and trading power, occupied the Andaman islands in December 1755. It had previously even constructed the slave-trading Christiansborg castle in 1661 in Accra, Ghana. Thus, Denmark had settlements in Africa, the East Indies, and the West Indian islands of St. Thomas and St. Croix. In effect, Denmark aspired to be a “full-service” trading enterprise, from commodities like spices to human slaves. Because of the incidence of malaria, the Danes repeatedly abandoned Andaman from 1759 to 1784. During that period, between 1778 and 1784, Austria assumed that the Danes had left permanently and attempted to establish a colony there, even renaming as Theresia islands! Such was the rapacious European colonization around the world.
In 1789, the British set up a naval base on what is now called Port Blair. In 1858, after a period of abandonment due to disease, the British re-established a colony. Denmark sold its rights to the island to the British, thereby Andamans became part of British India in 1869.
In 1910, the Cellular Jail was completed and consisted of 698 cells designed for solitary confinement. Freedom fighters, including Veer Savarkar, imprisoned there referred to the island and the prison as Kala Pani or black water.
VIETNAM GAVE CHINA A ‘BLOODY NOSE’ IN 1979, AND PARALLELS
The general belief among some in the twitterati and chatterati is that China’s PLA is far too powerful a military for India to deal with and suggest quietly turning India into a tribute state to China. However, the experience of Vietnam-China is more relevant for formulating strategy.
It has taken decades to piece together just what happened in 1979 when China and Vietnam fought a deadly, costly border war. China was decisively defeated by a then-weakened Vietnam that had previously fought a cataclysmic war first with colonial France, and later the US since the 1940s. It was paramount leader Deng Xiaoping who ordered the attack on Vietnam, and because it failed, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) kept that history under wraps and prohibited research into what happened. Sounds familiar in the context of Covid-19?
The China-Vietnam relationship deteriorated soon after the Americans left amid disarray and chaotic scenes of helicopters taking off from the rooftop of the US embassy in Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City), widely remembered even today. Soon thereafter, victorious communist North Vietnamese started harassing the ethnic Chinese living in both North and South Vietnam, some of whom were its business community and others they accused of collaborating with the previous regime. Many of the “boat people”, who frantically fled in rickety boats onto the South China Sea in harrowing circumstances amid worldwide news attention, were indeed ethnic Chinese. Scholars opine that Deng was outraged that Vietnam, after having received about $20 billion in assistance from China over 20 years in the war with the US, was not behaving like a typical “rented” satellite nation. Deng and others in the leadership also saw Vietnam as a treacherous erstwhile ally that had “misbehaved” by partnering with USSR. A proposal by the General Staff of the PLA to use force in resolving border disputes with Vietnam evolved into a decision to launch a large-scale PLA invasion. Again, sounds familiar, even with the pattern of the 1962 and recent PLA attacks on India?
Other factors identified by scholars include that the military action was in the context of the post-Mao succession struggle; the perception in the information-deprived Chinese leadership being that the Vietnam-USSR strategic cooperation was a threat to Chinese security; and yes, as always, there have been territorial disputes that China has had with Vietnam; over 1,000 border clashes or “incidents” in the year prior, 1978; the September 1978 General Staff meeting in Beijing on “how to deal with our territory occupied by Vietnamese forces” (claims PRC makes similar to those against virtually every Indo-Pacific country, even little Bhutan); Vietnam’s military activities in Cambodia that was a Chinese satellite; belief of Deng and other leaders that Vietnam had to be “taught a lesson”; official propaganda-created animosity to Vietnam for “ingratitude”; desire expressed by Deng to Zbigniew Brzezinski that China not be perceived as soft to the USSR (and by extension to Vietnam); the context at the time was the desire for accelerated normalization of relations between China and the US (whose arch enemy at the time was the USSR then allied with Vietnam); it was a case of shadow-boxing between PRC and USSR with the military message to Vietnam meant to also be a lesson for the USSR; Deng claimed that PRC needed peace to develop through “four modernizations” and that PRC should not be menaced by USSR from the north and Vietnam from the south in a pincer movement; Deng took unnecessary offence at Vietnam’s claim that it was the “world’s third-strongest” military power after its victory over the US-South Vietnam combine; and most amazingly Deng wanted to sharpen the fighting capabilities of the PLA that had not fought a significantly large war for nearly 30 years since the Korean war and had been subjected to upheavals during the Cultural Revolution that made the loyalty of some senior officers suspect.
It remains unclear within the opaque leadership of the CCP as to who supported and who opposed the decision to attack Vietnam. Deng proposed attacks on Vietnamese border towns and the capture of border provincial capitals Lang Son and Cao Bang. The CCP Politburo decided to obliterate 3 to 5 Vietnamese divisions within 15-20 days of fierce fighting. Deng travelled to the US to sell his plan to attack Vietnam and also to seek US support in case the USSR intervened. Deng offered the US usage of the Chinese naval base at Yulin on Hainan Island, the most southern point of the PRC. On 28 January 1979, a few hours after Deng arrived in Washington DC, at a meeting with President Jimmy Carter, National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski and others, Deng spoke of the PRC’s decision to attack Vietnam—this was recorded in Brzezinski’s memoirs. Ever the pacifist, Carter sent Deng a hand-written note the next day requesting Deng for restraint and providing multiple reasons. However, when in a subsequent meeting Carter and Brzezinski requested China to have joint electronic monitoring stations in China’s Xinjiang area against the USSR since the US was losing its bases in Iran, Deng felt he had an opening and a deal was cemented in his mind—of acceding to the US request in exchange for tacit support and understanding by the US of PRC’s plan to attack Vietnam. On 11 February 1979, two days after returning to Beijing, the CCP Politburo met and Deng explained the goals and plan to attack Vietnam. Later the local military commands in Guangxi and Yunnan received orders to attack Vietnam. On 14 February, the CCP Central Committee claimed that it was a “self-defence counterattack”. Yet again, notice the pattern?
The CCP fixed the date of the attack as 17 February anticipating that the war would end before the rainy season began in April. They also did not want to attack too early in view of the USSR being able to cross frozen rivers on the China-USSR border. Nobody anticipated that the PLA’s military action would trigger continuous military confrontations on the border for nearly 12 long years. The PLA attack on Vietnam “to teach Vietnam a lesson” was also meant to erode Vietnam’s will to occupy Cambodia. Ironically, PRC’s attack on Vietnam enabled the murderous Khmer Rouge to escape total annihilation and sustained their resistance against Vietnamese occupation forces. Noteworthy is that Carter, the humanitarian, was not public about what Deng told him directly, and thereby inadvertently let off the hook the reprehensible Khmer Rouge in the process, that had killed nearly 2 million of their own people in the Cambodian genocide, almost 25% of their entire population.
Who else, apart from the Chinese, for instance the Russians, might know what the PLA is planning against India, and are they speaking to New Delhi “with forked tongue”? China took maximum advantage of the then peaking US-USSR conflict to achieve its own national goals. But PRC’s leadership had defined their own goals and were pursuing them relentlessly. Compare with how the Lutyens Zone approaches the requests of other important nations—is it another case of “never missing an opportunity to miss an opportunity”? If even a weakened Vietnam could fight off the PLA’s attack, surely India’s powerful armed forces can overcome PLA’s aggression too. India’s Army, Navy, Air Force only need the advanced weapons systems, and confusion-free political and intelligence leadership to enable them to do the needful.
WHAT INDIA CAN OFFER THAT NEITHER U.S. NOR JAPAN CAN
Capital-surplus Japan and leading tech investor the US have much to offer to the Quad, including advanced weapons systems and manufacturing capability. But each is roiled with self-doubt at this critical time. Much of the US appears to have become enmeshed in the “Black Lives Matter” campaign, in which many are finding out about the extent of their ancestors’ and founders’ involvement in the heinous practice of slavery that was common at the time of the founding of the nation. The immediate trigger for the campaign was a terrible incident of police violence that caused death caught on camera.
The capture or purchase and export of black Africans by ship to Europe can be traced back to Portuguese vessels since 1444, long before the US existed. The first slave and gold trading “castle” in West Africa was built at Elmina, Ghana, by the Portuguese in 1482. The major Atlantic slave trading nations, ordered by trade volume, were the Portuguese, British, Spanish, French, Dutch, and Danish. But people from every European nation participated actively.
In an example of the self-flagellation underway in the US, a prominent US Senator, who was also a Vice-Presidential candidate of a losing election campaign, even claimed on the Senate floor that slavery was an American invention. The reality is that the abhorrent enslavement of Sub-Saharan Africans by Libyans and Egyptians can be traced back to 8000 BC. The empires of Greece and Rome enslaved those they defeated in wars, of every race.
People in India today would be horrified to learn that Indian textiles were important items used by European slave traders to trade with African kings and local warlords for African captives sold as slaves. Caribbean rum was another item used in trading. I can still recall the anguish I felt as a youngster accompanying my late father on a tour of a Ghanaian castle’s dark, damp, dungeon with the single “door of no return” through which, hundreds of years before, slaves were led onto the beach and into ships, never to be able to return. Those dungeons constructed in “castles” that dotted the beautiful coast of West Africa, are a stark reminder of the de-humanizing capability of humans to one-another.
However, there is no annual worldwide commemoration of the havoc wrought by human depravity and greed of the slave traders and their accomplices, those who supplied and those who bought the slaves, and others who benefited from their unpaid labour. Indeed, every European nation that pontificates using post-World War institutions as if paragons of virtue, should introspect since it was the Europeans who organised, financed and profited from the Atlantic slave trade, and further, both North and South America and the Caribbean were immersed in that despicable, inhumane system as well. From available records, over a period of 400 years, we know that nearly 13 million slaves were shipped from Africa to the Americas. Over 2 million died of diseases on the way when transported in horrendous conditions, or soon after arrival in “seasoning camps”. Millions also died as a result of slave raids, wars and during transport to the coast for sale to European slave traders.
This may sound like abstract history—but an example of how it impacts on today is the shocking fact that the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee has not been able to process, and later confirm in the full Senate key US Ambassadorial appointments to serve in tension-affected regions like the Indo-Pacific, signalling disarray and deep divisions in the polity, even in the most urbane US Senate while routine business is thwarted by Covid-19. The looming election in November 2020 might be a factor, but it is worth remembering that Secretary of State John W. Foster, grandfather of another Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles, only had a term of six months, and later became an advisor to governments. And, in this case, it is nearly impossible to predict the outcome of the coming election.
During the Obama Presidency, the odd-couple personal friendship of President Barack Obama and the late US Senator Dr Tom Coburn, with whom Obama had serious policy differences, was often in the news and Coburn was frequently invited even for private functions to the White House. I remember Senator Coburn taking out from his coat pocket and showing me a long list of items on which he had placed a “hold” using the archaic rules of the Senate. While such tactics were regarded as “cute” in a previous era, they are taking deadly serious effects today, with the world looking askance at America’s democracy amid multiple near-existential crises for the core interests of the US and its friends. This is another indication why India and Japan need to step up considerably to ensure peace in the Indo-Pacific. Japan, however, currently has Constitutionally-imposed restrictions on what it can actually do abroad, despite having spent billions of dollars every year to build up a formidable arsenal of the latest American weapons, and Japanese precision manufacturing has been key in components production for those advanced systems.
India has neither the constitutional restrictions of Japan nor the self-doubt of the US after nearly continuous, multiple, costly and simultaneously inconclusive wars since its decisive victories in World War II in Europe and the Pacific 75 years ago. If anything, the romanticism-heavy and risk-assessment-lite strategy formulation of the Lutyens Zone is a fatal flaw.
Therefore, to keep the peace through strength, there is nothing like India’s powerful Army, Air Force and Navy, with weapons systems provided by the US and Japan on long-term lease as “Quad property” without financial foreign currency implications for India. Given India’s teeming hundreds of millions of young people who need work, every available capital resource should be dedicated to financial instruments to support their employment, social and economic development. Many in the Indian Finance Ministry are ultra-conservatives, notwithstanding expansive rhetoric, who are adamant that every penny of additional defence spending must be deducted from other government line-items, hence securing advanced equipment without having to pay endlessly is the need of the hour for an India whose economy has been devastated by Covid-19 and other catastrophes.
India provided military personnel to every UN peace-keeping mission without having been a permanent member of the Security Council or having even one significant specialized agency or arm of the UN headquartered in India. In a previous column I have stressed that the Quad ought not be regarded as merely a military alliance but should do much more in the realm of economic development. It is time therefore to create new structures in a Quad Plus (potentially including many more countries like Vietnam) for the post-Covid era that collectively can help provide national security and development well into this 21st century.
Dr Sunil Chacko holds degrees in medicine (Kerala), public health (Harvard) and an MBA (Columbia). He was Assistant Director of Harvard University’s Intl. Commission on Health Research, served in the Executive Office of the World Bank Group, and has been a faculty member in the US, Canada, Japan and India.