Centres of Gravity of Indian Strategic Actions
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Issue Book Excerpts: India\'s Strategic Problems | Date : 31 Oct , 2015

By expanding its strategic footprint in Asia, and through this avenue in the world, Indian practitioners could dilute the ill-effects of past policies of China and America vis-à-vis India and negate as well the pernicious influences of Nehru and his legacy in Indian strategic affairs. The Government ought to be clear about the geostrategic targets of its actions and base them on Assessments of Threats, (T), Opportunities and Options (O) available and Potential Means (M) and the Situation at hand or as it is likely to develop (S). TOMS ought to be the standard way to approach the issues. The mantra should be to effectively engage the external environment to India’s advantage rather than to project moralistic and legalistic prescriptions. The aim should be to position/ reposition India in ways which increases her manoeuvrability in international relations. Two metrics are relevant.

1. That the other side is disabused from acting with impunity against India as it has in the past.

2. The other side pays attention to Indian security requirements and perceptions. NATO – ‘no action, talk only’ became the derisive characterisation of Indian diplomacy during the UPA rule; this method should be shunned as a form of Indian action because talk is cheap, it does not convey a credible commitment to the other side and it is neither a form of intervention against enemies nor an action to develop strategic partnerships.

What follows is a summary of the prevailing situation as it affects India –negatively if India follows the NATO playbook of the Nehruvian/ Congress party style, and positively if actions are taken to build India’s internal strength and diplomatic manoeuverability in the following categories of states: among non-Pakistani neighbours – Nepal, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Bhutan and Maldives; with Pakistan, China and the USA – the historical nemesis of Indian diplomacy and military strategy; and among a new set of diplomatic partners – Japan, Australia, Vietnam, Indonesia, South Korea and SE Asian nations.

In the first category the aim is to stabilise the regional neighbourhood by military measures, and to build confidence with non-Pakistani neighbours by personal and official diplomacy that fosters a sense of psychological security and trust among them by creating relations which are mutually beneficial and respectful. India has soft power in South and SE Asia because of cultural and historical links and memories but it becomes a bond if the links are pursued in a respectful and not a patronising manner and if it is employed along with measures to expand commercial and military ties.

In the second category the targets are the American and the Chinese mindsets and their approach to India. Controversies on policy issues are supposedly dealt with by experts and officials with ministerial direction but this task belongs to the realm of routine inter-state diplomacy. Without the existence of controversies officials and experts would be redundant and highly trained Indian officials are quite capable to find solutions to advance national interests. As well there is a background for the conduct of proactive Indian diplomacy. India already possesses immense soft power in America because of the presence of a large and influence Indo-American diaspora in America’s economic, technological, medical, cultural and political spheres. There is both breath and width in Indo-American interactions in the non-official and official spheres because of the hospitality which Americans have extended to Indian immigrants. But here the contrast with China is a sharp one because Sino-Indian interactions are limited to the official discourse which is mired in the border controversy and extensive interactions between Chinese and Indian peoples do not exist outside the governmental sphere as they do with Americans.

America and India share common political values as two democracies but it has been difficult to translate the democratic theme into convergent strategic interests. There are insurmountable challenges because American policy thus far has been to check India’s strategic rise despite the rhetoric, to maintain American levers of intervention vis-à-vis Indian targets, to seek commercial and political advantage in commercial and defence arrangements and generally to make India adopt the American commercial and strategic playbook. Until India gains counter-leverage against the US, the latter is unlikely to alter its basic approach to India – which is to look at India through the lens of Pakistan and China in strategic (including nuclear) affairs, and through the lens of corporate America in commercial bilateral relations.

Indian academic and governmental practitioners need to thoroughly investigate the proposition that there is nothing natural about Indo-American relations, and indeed the natural alignment is between USA, Pakistan and China because the three share a common aim, i.e. to check the rise of India as a regional hegemon that is outside their control. Efforts to develop transactional linkages between India and USA or between India and China imply an emphasis on opportunism rather than strategic principles, and this is a game of manoeuvers and counter-manoeuvres in controversial issues like the reform of WTO, agreement on climate change, terrorism, nuclear commerce, conditional military technology transfers to India. With Obama’s preoccupations in the Middle East and in internal politics, the remaining two years of the Obama presidency are unlikely to provide opportunities for a breakthrough.

However, there are two geostrategic centres of gravity where opportunities exist to form a trilateral India-Japan-US relationship. These opportunities arise because Obama is building his pivot towards Asia to check China’s expansionist tendencies and without naming China as the enemy India can play a role in joining in activities which stabilise the balance of power in the area south of China. Thus, the setting is driven by China’s rise and the pressure it creates to balance it, by Obama’s sense that pivoting is necessary and by India’s recognition that the northeast merits serious development to ensure that the loyalty of the locals remain tied to India and not to China. Development of India’s northeast was neglected by successive Indian governments and joint action with USA and Japan to form an economic corridor has a strategic fallout because the area touches China, Myanmar, Tibet and there are both economic and a political imperatives to develop the region and to harness the industrial and economic prowess of Japan and USA to build this corridor and to curtain Chinese activities in a region with porous borders and divided ethnic loyalties of the peoples in the area.

The second trilateral arena concerns the common interest of USA, India and Japan and other nations to maintain peace and tranquility in the sealanes in the Pacific and the Indian Oceans and to keep the South China seas safe for global commerce, and to resist unilateral measures by China to alter the status quo. Naval exercises between American, Indian and Japanese navies and political declarations are clear signs of their commitment to maintain the integrity of this vital maritime corridor. A related opportunity is to enlist the cooperation of Myanmar, Indonesia and Thailand to keep the region free of the domineering influence of any foreign power.

In sum, America is likely to remain pro-Pakistan in dealing with Pakistan and Afghanistan affairs. This means that it will stay ambivalent about J&K affairs and Sino-Indian border issues because it cannot take the strain of weakening its links with Pakistan by shifting from its traditional position on Kashmir and by taking India’s side on the question. Furthermore, because of America’s economic interdependence with China and China’s insistence that America respect its core interests with respect to her territorial sovereignty, it is unlikely to help India on her problems with China in the Himalayan areas. But America will cooperate with India in issues relating to her northeast development and in the Indian Ocean by forming a trilateral relationship with Japan and India.

Japan, the country long neglected by Nehru and the Congress party because of his fixation with China, Pakistan and the USA, has now emerged as a major potential strategic partner of India in both economic and strategic areas but this potential has to be cultivated to make it deep, wide and sustainable in the long run. Japan under Prime Minister Abe has amended its defence policy by a decision to expand Japan’s defence ties beyond the ‘areas surrounding Japan’, by a declaration and action to make India a major Asian partner and by a posture of pro-active pacifism. Japan has no territorial claims on India, it shares similar political values in favour of democracy, and both have a common interest in maritime security and in curbing China’s expansionist tendencies.

The recently announced (September 2014) US-Japan military guidelines encourage and accept Japan’s right to operate anywhere in the world in cooperation with America. The old guidelines limited US-Japan military cooperation in the ‘area surrounding Japan’ which practically meant the Sea of Japan, the Taiwan Straits and in the direction of Guam. The old guidelines were developed with North Korea as the primary threat to Japan but the new guidelines focus sharply on the China question along with the North Korean one. The former is likely to gain in importance because North Korea has begun the process to restore ties with South Korea and with Japan, and the Western dependence on Beijing’s mediatory role with North Korea has declined in importance because Beijing has not delivered any tangible result as a result of its declarations in the six nations nuclear talks.

However, with these changes in Japan’s external environment, Indian practitioners need to focus more on Japan and to take advantage of the opportunities because Japan has a vocal and divisive domestic debate on defence issues. Two lines of thinking now shape the internal debate. The first, reflecting the views of pro-US Japanese conservatives is to make Japan an effective US ally by increasing Japanese military capabilities and responsibilities and by changing the scope of her pacifism and diluting the limitations of Article 9 of the Constitution. The second line of thinking, which is now of growing importance in Japan reflects the theme of anti-clientalism.

This is a nuanced new element in Japanese politics where the argument is that the US-Japan alliance is still important, it remains the anchor of Japan’s security and regional peace but it is not sufficient to deal with grey zone conflicts such as a Chinese invasion in the Senkaku island by hundreds of fishing boats which is a form of military pressure but it is not a declaration of war by China against Japan or the US. With China economic and military rise, with Obama’s hesitant decision-making style and reluctance to fight and his priority to stay involved with the Chinese leaders despite their provocative actions, the new element in the debate, in the second view, is that Japan needs to reduce its dependence on American protection and guidance. This is a debate, taking the two camps in perspective, between the view that Japan should maintain its Western orientation, and on the other hand, the view is that Japan should take steps to build policies of pro-Asianism. India now fits into the latter camp in the Japanese debate and this opportunity should not be lost by proverbial Indian lethargy and business as usual attitude.

The discussion points to the rise of narrow windows of opportunities for Indian economic and strategic planners in the non-traditional areas of Indian economic and military security. But the importance of disruptive shadowy and insidious influences must not be ignored. Obama in particular remains a shadowy and negative influence in India’s recently nuclear deals with Australia and Canada, and his influence is a negative one in Indo-Japanese nuclear conversations. His administration seeks to impose conditions on nuclear trade between India and these countries which go beyond current norms.

The implementation of the 2008 Indo-US Civil Nuclear Agreement, a landmark in Indo-US relations, is stymied by American opposition to India’s nuclear liability law and by the concerns of giant American corporations – GE and Westinghouse – which define America’s playbook in Obama’s dealings with India on the question. Policy controversies can be dealt with by constructive inter-governmental negotiations but to do so there must be a cultural adjustment in the American approach which is to treat the Indo-US nuclear deal as a commercial rather than a strategic deal, and in the insistence that it is upto India to adjust its policies to meet American standards and expectations about intellectual property rights, about nuclear liability, about local manufacturing in defence contracts and about WTO among other contentious items.

The cultural revolution in American thinking requires a break of its historical expectation that a country like India (US client? Banana republic?) should expect to grant the sole superpower both commercial and political advantages. It is however upto a country like India to draw the line and adopt a strategy which says, ‘enough is enough’, and commerce should be tied to profit, not to profit and political advantage as in the days of the East India Company in India. As such Indian practitioners too need to have a cultural revolution along this line.

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The Himalayan zone will likely remain an area which is dominated by a frozen strategic conflict between China, Pakistan and India. China has the military advantage because Tibet’s geography offers a flat surface which facilitates military communications, and it has taken full advantage of Nehru’s peaceful co-existence approach to build its infrastructure while India ignored it on the Indian side. Even after the 1962 war experience Indian practitioners have been slow to strengthen border defences, and build a capacity to wage war in Ladakh and the northern Kashmir area and Arunachal Pradesh.

One should consider also the possibility of a growing instability in the Tibetan and Xinjiang provinces and one should be mindful that when the Soviet Union collapsed, it happened quickly because of ethnic and political differences between the Baltic and the Central Asian areas despite the overwhelming presence of the Soviet military, party and intelligence networks. Building economic and military options, building a process of flexible diplomatic positions and manoeuverability in a fluid and dangerous international environment, entering caveats into old and mostly redundant Nehruvian diplomatic poses, building strategic links with new partners in East and Southeast Asia, (and military suppliers in Scandinavian countries) and strengthening ties with reliable partners like Israel, Germany, France and the UK should form the hub of Indian diplomatic and strategic activity which could effectively deal with India’s traditional strategic problems.

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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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  1. Politicians in India are not in a position to understand Goe-politics and Geostratigic issues. The reason being their level of education and their rusticity. Indian politics does not look outwards it only looks inwards. Nehrus brand of Socialism kept India ensconded in a Khadi Curtain and his vision of India failed him and this Nation. Next is the class of Bureaucrats inhereted from the Bitish A very fine civil service gone astray. The Indian politician doesnt know a dogbone about geostrategy, Manohar Parrikar cannot be expected to know anything more than Goa. He perhaps wouldnt have know what the Indian Army was as a whole. The driving force behind them (politicians) is the Bureaucracy. The blame lies squarely on them for the dismal state of strategic affairs in India. Their maximum achievement has been to authorise hefty pay perks and position for themselves. The Indian Armed Forces have been left to decay Strategically. The American foreign policy factors their military prowess into it. Where do we stand? No where. Its a wake up call for us for we may have the International community clamouring over Kashmir ina few years from now. Kashmir is a raw nerve and could be used to twist us to fall in line.

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