India’s Geostrategic Problems and Opportunities in the 21st Century
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Issue Book Excerpts: India\'s Strategic Problems | Date : 26 Oct , 2015

An equidistant map of the world centered on Delhi. Showing true bearings and distance from Delhi. Scale 1 : 45 5 00 000, Projection: Lambert Azimuthal Equidistant (Oblique Aspect), Origin: Delhi, Latitude 28°35’N, Longitude 77°13’E. Read off the value on the graduated circle to get the true bearing to the nearest degree, of well known places radially from Delhi. Examples: True bearings from Delhi to San Francisco, Tokyo, Cape Town and Moscow are 015°, 065°, 226°, and 325°, respectively. Excerpted from: Transition to Guardianship: The Indian Navy 1991-2000

India’s strategic problems took shape in past centuries and Indian history reveals two recurring patterns.

First, foreign powers will not leave India alone and they have the tools to keep Indian power and influence in check, and to keep its leaders on the defensive in strategic and economic affairs. India’s debilitated strategic situation is the result of recurring and successful foreign interventions – by European colonisers after the ascendency of the Mughals, and following India’s independence – by Pakistan, USA and China.

Secondly, Nehru’s confused reading of the international situation after 1947 and his self-serving and selective diplomatic orientation, and the neglect of India’s defence machinery and military preparations facilitated foreign interventions in the absence of a push back towards these countries. That is, the ‘made by Pakistan, USA and China’ problems were exacerbated by Nehru’s and Congress party’s diplomatic and strategic orientation that ignored the necessity of developing Indian strength to develop India’s place in the Asian balance of power; in other words, India’s strategic problems are in part foreign made and in part made in India.

The challenge for the Modi government is to break the cycle of foreign interventions – and the mindset that seeks expansionism without impunity into Indian core interest areas, and to replace the cycle of Indian defensiveness and reactivity with a confidence and willingness to question the policies of the intervening states and to project Indian influence within the South Asian region and various parts of Asia. This is the centre of gravity where Indian diplomatic and military initiatives have the potential for breakthroughs and a potential to achieve multiplier effects in trilateral and regional relations.

The Modi government faces immense challenges to reform Indian governance practices, to break the cycle of poverty, to promote national economic and social development, and to form a robust national security capacity that can withstand the test of crises in a nasty strategic neighbourhood. While the challenges are immense, there are also opportunities to develop India’s position as an important contributor for a stable balance of power in Asia. Indian governmental and academic practitioners must be clear that Nehruvian diplomatic prescription to reform the world order and to seek world peace by preaching harmony is not an option any longer.

The alternative to a balance of power is an imperial system and in the present world setting China is the only candidate or an aspirant for an imperial role in Asia. But China’s neighbours including India are not willing to accept this option. My assumption is that despite China’s rapid rise its rise as Asia’s foremost power is not inevitable, nor is it desirable given its imperial record and the expansionist tendencies of its current leadership. So the choice for Indian practitioners is either to continue to exist in an unstable balance of power with Pakistan, China and Pakistan as the sources of instability in the region or to take measures to form policies which stabilise the Asian balance. This is the first choice which faces the practitioners.

India’s second choice is to decide whether it wishes to be seen as a pacifist country without political, economic and military muscle – as a status quo country which is the co-equal of Pakistan in the region or whether it seeks to be a status quo power where its soft and hard power has a reach beyond its borders and it has the capacity to impact the calculations of foreign powers. This book favours India’s development as a strong status quo power in Asia.

The third choice concerns language and style. Will India continue to mask its actions in the form of nonalignment, world peace and strategic autonomy or will it discard the Congress party/ Nehruvian slogans in favour of actions that demonstrate a close link between Indian values and national interests?

This book favours the assertion of a new style and diplomatic language and preliminary signs are that the Modi government – particularly the prime minister and the foreign minister, have adopted a forthright style. Language and style are important tools which reveal the thought processes of the Indian leaders and as well they have an impact on foreign leaders who are looking for signs of new initiatives.

If the aim is to secure India’s place as a contributor to the making of a stable balance of power in Asia, a cool headed, not sentimental, analysis of the international situation is necessary. The world system now is in turmoil. On India’s west, the Middle East is practically ungovernable; with a moral and a military void in the region, the rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and armed militias along with the Taliban and Al Qaeda means that the system of states with elements of humanitarian and international law and UN norms is under severe strain and a way has to be found to seal India’s borders from expansionist Jihadi influence in the Kashmir and the border region.

This is a doable aim given that the fence in the LoC is effective in curbing infiltration. But at the same time a new diplomatic strategy towards Pakistan is needed. Under Congress party India was seeking a negotiated solution after the Simla agreement ( 1972) but as a previous chapter indicates it is not in the interest of Pakistani elites – military as well as civilian – to settle with India short of the surrender of the Kashmir valley to Pakistan. Various measures – bilateral diplomatic negotiations and Track II diplomacy have failed because the interest of the stakeholders is to keep the talks going and keep their stake in the process.

The NGOs and Track II participants are like IAEA. The record shows that often they are not able to find conclusive evidence of a violation or compliance because – to take a cynical view – if a UN agency was able to reach a definitive conclusion, it would be out of business! So would the NGOs and Track II players. If the Indo-Pakistan border is sealed effectively a choice is to maintain normal diplomatic contact but not to negotiate on Kashmir and terrorism issues which have the prospect of low or nil returns from the Pakistani, American and the Chinese sides vis-à-vis India.

On India’s north and east, China’s capabilities and military pressures and public rhetoric has grown to act with impunity in northern Kashmir, to challenge India’s position in Arunachal Pradesh, and to expand China’s sphere of geopolitical operation in the Himalayan zone, among India’s South Asian neighbours, in the South China Sea and in the Indian Ocean. India’s eastern region and the Indian Ocean is fast emerging as an area of naval and political competition, and maritime security is important for commercial and strategic reasons for USA, Japan, India and Southeast Asian nations.

In one sense the domestic context favours reform of India’s diplomatic and military strategy. With a majority government India is rid of the debilitating effect of a coalition government which made foreign policy and military strategy according to the dictates of a core group led by UPA 1 and 2 rather than core national interests. Major powers have core strategic interests but India has had a core group whose deliberations subordinated policy making to bargaining among alliance partners. Consensus building is a fine and a necessary element in a democracy but if it leads to policy paralysis and a lack of accountability by the coalition members then surely the system needs reform. Another major contextual change is that the Indian electorate rejected the Nehruvian baggage by electing a government which had declared its intention to end J&K’s special status in the Indian Union and which put Pakistan and China on notice about their support of terrorism and their expansionist tendencies.

But on another respect the international context remains unchanged. Pakistan is an obvious enemy because of its promotion of Jihad in Kashmir and in parts of India since the 1980s. It has expanded its military pressure and intervention in India and by forming its terror oriented links in Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. Today the Pakistan military establishment is the state and it has moved from its earlier position as the state within the state.

The distinction between elected civilians in Pakistan and the ISI/ military establishment is no longer relevant in Pakistan’s approach to India. Furthermore, as its military, commercial and diplomatic ties with China have grown in depth and width the Sino-Pakistan axis is a permanent element in the subcontinent’s landscape. China on the other hand is both a rival and a partner with India. It has heightened its rivalry with India because it has expanded its commercial and military presence in the vital Gilgit-Baltistan area and its intrusions into the undemarcated Ladakh border continue.

As well it has sharpened its claim to Arunachal Pradesh calling it South Tibet. While it continues to maintain political links with the Indian government its dual policy – to maintain its commitment to tranquility and peace on the LoC and border, and to keep the military pressure by its frequent intrusions – makes it half a strategic partner and half a rival. To maintain the balance in China’s policy it is incumbent on the Indian government to continuously upgrade its military positions in the Himalayan region and show its capacity for an offensive defence policy in a contingency.

The assumption is that India is alone in its rivalry with China in the Himalayan zone because the US government has avoided taking a position on the border issue because a shift from its policy of calculated ambiguity would strain Washington’s relations with China.

The Obama administration has veered away from its earlier moral support to the Dalai Lama, and the US government has never accepted the Indian view of Indian territorial unity and sovereignty; both Kashmir and the Sino-India border areas are considered disputed territories.

On the other hand Washington accepts the idea of one China with the caveat that its disagreements with Taiwan and territories in the South China Sea and in East Asia must be settled by peaceful negotiations. American calculated ambiguity in relation to the claims of Japan and SE Asia states which China disputes has its uses because of their alliance ties with the USA.

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India does not have a similar protection. Furthermore, the US argues that China ought not to take unilateral action and the US for instance accepts that the disputed islands (Senkaku) has been under Japan’s administrative control. If the operative norm is that possession is 9/10th of the law would it be logical for Washington to accept India’s ‘administrative control’ over Ladakh and Arunachal Pradesh as the basis of Sino-Indian relations in the border areas?

There is no sign of such a gesture by Washington to Delhi. China’s dual policy makes it a temporary friend of India in commercial affairs and a long term rival in strategic and international diplomatic affairs where China exerts a shadowy influence in undermining India’s credibility in regional and international level multilateral issues. When it does cooperate with India on an issue like climate change, this is a low cost cooperation which is negated by the more significant cooperation with Pakistan in the nuclear and missile area which seeks to degrade India’s military capability.

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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Ashok Kapur

Professor Emeritus, Department of Political Science University of Waterloo, Ontario, Canada

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3 thoughts on “India’s Geostrategic Problems and Opportunities in the 21st Century

  1. This is all century old kind of Analysis and the suggestions are not suitable for 21st century. In the past Indian rulers (Kings) had never thought of improving the fire power of the Army using gun powder. Only King understood the importance of fire power was Sree Padmanabhadasa Sree Uthradom Thirunal Marthanda Varma Maharaja after the Battle of Colachel. He was the only Indian King to beat the European armed force at the 1741 Battle of Colachel against the Dutch.. He used the services of Dutch commander Eustachius de Lannoy to manufacture guns and admonitions. .He then adopted a European mode of discipline in his army and expanded the Venad domain into adjoining regions. After Independence Nehru give any importance to Army. But 1962 war against China was an eye opener. After words every effort was made to modernize the Army. Like Marthanda Varma Maharaja, Smt. Indira Gandhi had done the maximum to modernize the Army. Her decision to develop rockets and missiles are well planned far sighted vision and a great contribution to the nation. I was always writing Tanks, Warships, Frigates , Air Craft carrier, submarines and fighter planes are only weapon carrying vehicles. Where as missile is weapon can be fired from any where. To day we are super power in missile technology and its avionic. Our space ISRO is one of the best in the world. Indian Regional Navigation Satellite System (IRNSS) is expected to be operational next year. China is not going to attack us. We are not afraid of China. No Chines ships carrying oil from Gulf country will reach Chinese port if we impose Naval blockade in Indian Ocean. Our missiles can reach Chinese cities and can cause considerable damage. We have nuclear submarines which can fire missiles underneath the sea. We are not afraid of China any more . USA is afraid of Chine. At any time China will recapture Taiwan. Russia’s intervention in the Middle is to test the new weapons developed by them. No USA warships and Aircraft carriers will be able to escape from supercavitating torpedoes. So let us not carried away by media. Our PM is a follower of Nishkam Karma (sanskrit IAST : niṣkāmakarma), self-less or desireless action, is an action performed without any expectation of fruits or results. Moreover he is getting suggestions from the general people.. He is working out a solution for the Kashmir without any more Human loss in both the sides because he is a follow over of Lokah Samastah Sukhino Bhavantu. We are a military power/ nuclear power and number four in the world.

    • There is a correction that needs to be made. Indians invented gunpowder before the Chinese. Most of Indian history is only being clarified now. To think that Indian rulers (most of whom were virtuous) did not care about the firepower of their military (which they did improve by employed gunpowder) is sheer leftist falsehood. Indians have been reading unrevised false history (this includes concealing one part and twisting the other or both either way). Part of what you’ve been saying (regarding gunpowder) is false. The texts (local accounts) in the Sutras and the accounts in Malwa and other regions along with foreign accounts say that gunpowder was discovered in India and was employed significantly. This backward belief of ”losing” is completely fake and even criminal. India has in fact won most of the military conflicts with foreigners without which India would have not remained (just to let you know the British shattered it into 592 pieces and the Indians did the opposite by not unifying but re-unified most of it and not the other way around). The correct narrative is now being told and it is the false and censored narratives that are being rectified. Bharath did invent gunpowder to the point where a separate minister for munitions had to be appointed to see to it that the stockpiles of gunpowder do not run out (in Ancient India).

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