TOPICS : Footsteps heard at sea

Jim Bencivenga

For the first time in decades last Thursday, Kashmiris from India and Pakistani-controlled Kashmir took steps towards each other across a 220-foot-long bridge rebuilt in the last two weeks. The bridge, now called the Peace Bridge, was destroyed 50 years ago in a battle during the first of three wars fought between these rivals. History will record that American and Chinese admirals took special note of those footsteps. Normalised bus service, albeit involving a mere 59 passengers, signals a highly symbolic “warming trend between Delhi and Islamabad,” reports The Christian Science Monitor. For military planners around the globe, the significance of any long-term easing of tensions between Pakistan and India lies in allowing India to shift a greater proportion of its defence budget to the pursuit of a more assertive maritime strategy.

Considering that India is half-circled by the Bay of Bengal and the Indian Ocean that is a virtual gateway for all trade between the East and West, the policy shift may well herald a muscle-flexing exercise vis-à-vis other nations. It is then little wonder that signs of an increased Indian naval presence on the seas surrounding Asia, echoed from the Straits of Formosa, to the Sea of Japan, all the way to Pearl Harbor. Naval build-ups don’t happen overnight. They take decades. Nations marshal industrial, military and political might. Currently, the US rules the world oceans. Its carriers and nuclear submarines can, as Alfred Thayer Mahan counselled President Theodore Roosevelt more than a century ago, drive any foreign navy, like a “fugitive” from the seas. But, like ocean tides, naval strength constantly rises and falls. Such is the case with China. While the American military is consumed with wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, global terrorism, and the threat of nuclear proliferation in North Korea and Iran, China is presenting a new and strategically different security concern to America in the western Pacific, as well as to Japan and Taiwan, Pentagon and military officials say.

A decade ago, American military planners dismissed the threat of a Chinese attack against Taiwan as a 100-mile infantry swim. The Pentagon now believes that China has purchased or built enough amphibious assault ships, submarines, fighter jets and short-range missiles to pose an immediate threat to Taiwan. In the worst case in a Taiwan crisis, Pentagon officials say that any delay in American aircraft carriers reaching the island would mean that the US would initially depend on fighter jets and bombers based on Guam and Okinawa, while Chinese forces could use their amphibious ships to go back and forth across the narrow Taiwan Strait. Naval strength and victory at sea proved pivotal factors in the advancement of Europe and America. Which kind of navy India develops is still an open book, writes Thomas P M Barnett of the US Naval War College. But clearly, for India to achieve a world-class navy, its leaders have to move beyond viewing the fleet as a supplemental tool in New Delhi’s long-standing rivalries with its neighbours, toward an expansive security vision that takes into account the nation’s global economic status as an emerging information-technology superpower. — The Christian Science Monitor