India: 21st-century sea power
MARK COLVIN: China is not the only rising superpower in Australia's region, though it is the one that gets the most attention. But India is coming up fast on the rails, not just as an economic power but a military one too.
The arms watchdog SIPRI (Stockholm International Peace Research Institute) this year named India as the world's biggest weapons importer. Another report forecasts that India will spend about $80 billion on military modernisation programs by 2015.
And the country has plans to spend $45 billion over 20 years on sea power, 103 new warships, including destroyers and nuclear submarines.
David Brewster, of the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at the ANU (Australian National University), has written a new book called 'India as an Asia Pacific Power'. I asked him why India needed this expanded navy.
DAVID BREWSTER: The reality is that they're not under any specific threat of attack along their coastline. But they do see the need to be able to project power through their navy in an area right from Somalia to Singapore and beyond. And they've actually defined that as their area of strategic interest - from Somalia to Singapore and beyond.
MARK COLVIN: So when they have a navy of several hundred ships, what are they going to do with it?
DAVID BREWSTER: Well it's the ability to act as the regional constable or policemen. So if there is a problem in some small island state or some smaller country in the region, instability, they can go in and sort it out and keep the peace. Just like the Americans do all over the world. And just like the Australians do on a much smaller scale in our own area in the South Pacific.
MARK COLVIN: In a sense that makes them an imperial power eventually. What do the smaller nations in the area think of them - of that?
DAVID BREWSTER: Yeah well you could certainly express it in those terms. Luckily for India that they've been quite cautious and benign through much of their history and really haven't exerted much military power beyond South Asia.
So, beyond South Asia most countries are relatively comfortable with seeing an Indian warship coming into harbour. Whereas countries would be less comfortable in seeing a Chinese warship floating around, for example.
MARK COLVIN: So India and China are the two big rising powers, there's clearly a lot of potential for friction there.
DAVID BREWSTER: Yeah, and it is a complicated relationship because they are also - have a hugely expanding trading relationship and economic relationship. So there's a lot of cooperation going on one hand, but there's also a lot of friction on the other hand.
MARK COLVIN: And they have been to war with each other at least once before, in 1962.
DAVID BREWSTER: That's' right. And that's when the Indian army was absolutely humiliated and defeated by the Chinese. And that humiliation still rankles in New Delhi and there are many in New Delhi who want to see that righted, that wrong righted.
But more immediately is the Chinese support for Pakistan and the fact that the Chinese proliferated nuclear weapons to Pakistan some 10, or more like 20 year ago and effectively armed their longstanding enemy.
MARK COLVIN: It sounds like a fairly lethal cocktail, possibly, further down the track?
DAVID BREWSTER: It is, although I think most in New Delhi and Beijing are very careful to keep the competition and rivalry within certain bounds. So they will make shows of things, but don't - they're careful not to overstep the mark.
MARK COLVIN: But further down the track, as I say, when each country will have several hundred ships afloat, it could get pretty dangerous?
DAVID BREWSTER: Certainly, and also very complicated. Because it's not India versus China it's really a three or four way match, because there's the United States there. And certainly over the coming years the biggest area of competition will be between China and the United States. India is much smaller but obviously growing very, very fast.
MARK COLVIN: Is it in that light that we should see President Obama's recent announcement, when he was here, of the troop rotations through northern Australia?
DAVID BREWSTER: It's certainly part of it. The United States is making great efforts to bring all of its Asia-Pacific allies much closer. Not just Australia but all of its allies. And it's also trying to gradually bring India into that sphere, at the same time as encouraging closer relationships between India and Australia, and Japan and India.
MARK COLVIN: But is Kevin Rudd sensible to do what he's doing, to argue for a closer triangular India-Australia-US relationship? Is it worth the danger of annoying Beijing?
DAVID BREWSTER: Well I think that decision's already been taken when the Government allowed the US troops into Darwin. Certainly in 2007 Australia backed away from a relationship between the United States, India, Japan and Australia. We backed away then. And that was probably a mistake, and that
MARK COLVIN: That was because there was a danger that that four-party arrangement would have made China feel completely encircled in this region?
DAVID BREWSTER: That's what the claim was, but in fact all of those involved, including the United States, Japan and India and Australia got cold feet about it. But now the positions have hardened because China has been showing quite assertive behaviour towards all of its neighbours. So now I think there's a much greater consensus that there should be multilateral cooperation among the democracies around China.
MARK COLVIN: Some strategic thinkers are making comparisons with the early 20th century in Europe with the rise of Germany. When big power relationships shift to this degree, there's always dangers aren't there?
DAVID BREWSTER: Absolutely. And that's - there's very clear analogies there. In Europe there was the rising power of Germany that was butting up against the great world power of Britain. And there were, you know, a lot of other things happening.
So that's certainly a very easy analogy to make, but the hope is that we learnt our lesson from what happened there and we can create structures that bring China gradually into the international community in a measured way.
MARK COLVIN: David Brewster of the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at the ANU. His new book is 'India as an Asia Pacific Power'.
Krinvanto Vishwam Aryam
(Make this World Noble)