Former Foreign Secretary Shiv Shankar Menon, on Friday, dismissed the view that China plans to encircle India through military bases in the Indian Ocean, saying the 'string of pearls' is a "pretty ineffective murder weapon".
"There are no Chinese bases in the Indian Ocean today, despite talk of the 'string of pearls, which by the way is a pretty ineffective murder weapon as any Cluedo aficionado will tell you," Menon said during a lecture organised by the National Maritime Foundation in New Delhi.However, the former foreign secretary said there was extensive Chinese port development activities in Myanmar, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Pakistan and an active weapons supply programme to these countries.
"The question is whether and to what extent this improved access and infrastructure will translate into basing arrangements and political influence in future," Menon said speaking on 'Maritime Imperatives of India's Foreign Policy'.
Menon said the strategic discourse and debate in think tanks of both India and China, unfortunately, centred around the rivalry between the two Asian giants. "This is especially true of strategists in India and China themselves, though not of their governments. The terms in which the argument is presented are limited and would be self-fulfilling predictions, were the governments to act upon them. Nor are they based on an examination of objective interests of the states concerned," he said.
Menon said China had interests in the Indian Ocean mainly due to her energy security interests, just as it was for India and Japan. "For China, as for India and Japan, her energy security is intimately linked to keeping the sea lanes open in the Indian Ocean," he said, adding the threats to energy flow came not from major powers such as India, US, China or Japan all of whom have a shared interest in keeping these sea lanes working.
"The immediate threats come from local instability and problems in the choke points and certain littorals, particularly the Straits of Hormuz and the Horn of Africa," he said. However, he discounted the simple application of military force to solve these threats "just as the piracy off the Horn of Africa cannot be."
"This is a test of wisdom and is where China and other states can choose to be part of the solution rather than of the problem", the former foreign secretary said. Menon suggested these major powers begin discussing collective security arrangements for a maritime system to minimise the risks of inter-state conflict and neutralising threats from pirates, smugglers, terrorists and proliferators.
Menon said India's concerns in the north-west Indian Ocean and China's vulnerabilities in the north-east Indian Ocean could not be solved by military means alone. "The issue is not limited just to the Indian Ocean, but indeed is once of security of these flows in areas and seas which affect the choke points," he said. The collective arrangements, the former foreign secretary said, should deal with transnational issues such as piracy, crime and natural disasters.
"Now that Asian states and powers have evolved the capabilities and demonstrated the will to deal with these questions, it is time that a structured discussion among them and the major littorals took place," Menon added. Referring to international strategic thinker Robert Kaplan's suggestion that US act as "sea-based balancer" or "honest broker" between India and China in the Indian Ocean, Menon said it was a "cheaper and easier" option to leave the two powers being balanced rather than allowing themselves to remain the objects of someone else's policy.
He also suggested that there be "a real concert" of Asian powers, including the US, which has a major maritime presence and interests in Asia, to deal with issues of maritime security in all of Asia's oceans. "This would be a major cooperative endeavour and a test of Asian statesmanship," he added.