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India Does Do Grand Strategy

Winter 2013 Features

India Does Do Grand Strategy

India Does Go Grand StrategyOn three key fronts – relations with Pakistan, China and the US – the neoliberal school is in the ascendant

India has been described as a major power without strategic thinking. This, of course, is not true. But how does India – one of the future possible great powers of this century – operate in the world? Contrary to the view that India lumbers along without any great reflection, calculation and direction, successive governments in New Delhi have adopted an increasingly ‘neoliberal’ course, avoiding the temptation of lapsing back into pure ‘Nehruvianism’ or pursuing a potentially dangerous hyper-realism. This is clear enough from the way in which India has dealt with its three greatest strategic interlocutors: Pakistan, China and the US.

India has a very lively strategic debate between three major schools of thought – Nehruvians (followers of India’s first prime minister), neoliberals and hyper-realists. After the Cold War, Indian strategists took aim primarily at the reigning grand strategic orthodoxy – Nehruvianism. Some 20 years later, Nehruvianism no longer rules the strategic landscape with the imperiousness it enjoyed from 1947 to 1989. Indeed, it is being supplanted by a new orthodoxy – neoliberalism. To make sense of what India has been doing in the world since 1989, one has to understand how India’s neoliberals think, and how they differ from members of the other two schools.

Nehruvian grand strategy is premissed on the view that relations between states depend on the nature of communication and contact between governments and peoples. The Nehruvian formula is a simple one: the greater the degree of communication and contact, the fewer the misunderstandings and misperceptions, and the greater the chances of stability, cooperation and peace. The inherent community of interests between states and societies is disclosed and made apparent by transparency and interaction. In short, Nehruvians are classic internationalists who place their bets on diplomacy and transnational understanding.

India’s hyper-realists are at the opposite end of the grand strategic spectrum. For them, the verities of Thucydides, Machiavelli, Hobbes, Morgenthau and, to be sure, the Indian classics of statecraft, including the Arthashastra, are immutable across time and geographical space. States need to look after themselves in a dangerous world, and power, force and war are the essence of international relations. Security comes from strength – military strength, in particular – a balance of power is the basis for international order, and all the rest is strategic illusion. In other words, no amount of communication and contact between states and societies can overcome the dangers of an international anarchy.

Neoliberals base their view of grand strategy on the primacy of economics in international relations. In an ever-globalizing world, trade, investment flows and technology are the keys to economic growth, internal social and political resilience, as well as relative national power. Grand strategy in such a world must be built around a robust free market economy that is receptive to open trade, the flow of capital, and the diffusion of technology. In dealing with other countries, a state must look to the impact of its policies on trade, investment and access to technology. Neoliberals argue that economic rationality encourages grand strategy pragmatism, and that governments must constantly be attentive to the economic costs and benefits of policy choices.

Any grand strategic disposition must have a macro-historical view of the world – in respect of where the world is at the present, how it got to where it did, and where it is going. Of course, Nehruvians, hyper-realists and neoliberals differ on this macro-history. Nehruvians see the globalizing world as the latest stage of a rampant, ugly capitalism. Hyper-realists, on the other hand, regard the world as timeless: the relations of states are always more or less the same, in every historical epoch and in every geographical theatre, and are marked by competition and contention between the great powers. Globalization benefits some powers and hurts others. For these hyper-realists, all great powers are imperialists. Neoliberals, for their part, accept that the present era is a global capitalist era par excellence, and that capitalism is the basis for human prosperity and emancipation – if only states would recognize and work with the power of the market. Imperialism in the classical sense is therefore over, and it is folly to use the term in an era of globalization, since even the imperial powers cannot altogether control their economic destinies. Bref, Nehruvians are suspicious of capitalism, hyper-realists are ambivalent toward it, and neoliberals are enthusiastic capitalist ‘roadsters.’

Nehruvians, hyper-realists and neoliberals differ significantly over India’s policies toward Pakistan, China and the US. Nehruvians see Pakistan and China as ‘brother enemies’ – that is, as fellow Asians with whom there has been a terrible mix-up. On this logic, communication and contact, relentless diplomatic negotiations, and a correct appreciation of the historical context are the ways to end these largely fraternal quarrels. The US, on the other hand, is an imperialist power that must be held at bay and brought around to more progressive policies and stances. In a world where capitalism is rampant, and where the Western powers still rule the world, Pakistan and China are potential allies in a coalition of resistance that also includes the non-aligned nations and enlightened Europeans.

Hyper-realists take a quite different view. For them, Pakistan and, even more so China, are the main antagonists. Pakistan is fading as a strategic threat, as it increasingly falls behind India economically. But China is rising to great power status, and like all great powers is manifestly imperialist in its ambitions. For hyper-realists, India must pivot to take account of China. In a world where China’s rise is seemingly unstoppable, the US is a possible ally. But given the US’s frailties and its physical distance from Asia, India must possess sufficient military strength to hold its own against China. Since the US will first and foremost look to its own security, and will eventually leave Asia to its own devices, India must build a coalition of resistance against China – with Japan, South Korea, Vietnam and others in Southeast Asia.

Neoliberals differ with both Nehruvians and hyper-realists. For them, as for the hyper-realists, Pakistan is a secondary threat, and negotiation and compromise with Islamabad is a rational policy. On the other hand, globalization has made China a colossus – one that will soon rival and most likely overtake the US in real economic terms. The US held the key to India’s entry into a globalized world after the Cold War. It was also a quasi-ally against Islamic extremism and terrorism, a mediator with Pakistan, and a potential check to Chinese power.

The US remains a strategic prop against Pakistan, China, and Islamic extremism and terrorism. India’s policies toward Pakistan, China and the US must, in the end, be based on a correct reading of world history. Contemporary history suggests that national power and security depend on high levels of economic growth. Until India attains self-sustaining growth in the way that China did from the late 1970s onward, it will remain a second-rank and vulnerable power. Economic growth and economic instruments in diplomacy are vital. India must find a way to manage its quarrels such that these do not impede its growth prospects, and New Delhi must use economic linkages as a tool of conflict management. Negotiating with others without economic strength is futile, just as the use and threat of force against competitors, particularly China, is infeasible when China is India’s largest trading partner. Neoliberals thus conclude that India should follow Deng Xiaoping’s dictum of keeping a low profile and not giving offence in international relations when one is relatively weak and dependent.

The ideas of the three Indian schools are today dispersed, if unevenly, across India’s strategic community – among officials and politicians, in the armed forces and intelligence agencies, within think tanks and the media, and in the general public. In recent years, however, the neoliberals have steadily gained ground, such that India is today in a Nehruvian-neoliberal transition, with neoliberalism increasingly in the ascendant. Government policies are not exclusively neoliberal, but neoliberalism does describe the commanding heights of Indian grand strategy, if not every turn and nuance.

India’s Pakistan policies certainly bear the marks of both Nehruvianism and neoliberalism. Since the 1990s, despite the scourge of cross-border terrorism (and despite the early 2013 Kashmir clash), New Delhi has maintained communication and contact with Pakistan. The six-plus-two formula with Pakistan dates back to the mid-1990s. The dialogue focusses on Kashmir and security, but also on trade, river waters, the smaller territorial disputes (Sir Creek, Siachen), and normalization (visas, tourism, culture, sports). From the early 2000s, India has engaged in both public and secret diplomacy over Kashmir – to the point of near agreement back in 2008. Most importantly, New Delhi has emphasized economic engagement – particularly trade. The insistence on trade may have finally paid off when Pakistan announced last year that it would give India most favoured nation status and reduce the number of goods that could not be traded between the two countries. For its part, New Delhi has quietly encouraged its border states to develop better relations with their Pakistani neighbours. Indian pragmatism was also evident after the Mumbai terrorist attacks in 2008: New Delhi refused to be provoked into a confrontation with Islamabad (unlike in 2001 when, after the attack on the Indian Parliament, India mobilized all of its forces along the Pakistan border). Instead, India has insisted that, in spite of terrorism, it will continue to talk to Pakistan, and to push the process of bilateral trade and normalization.

India’s China policy also clearly bears the imprint of the Nehruvian-neoliberal approach. Here again, while there have been ups and downs in the relationship, India’s broad approach has been consistent. In 1988, India dropped its insistence that a more fully normalized relationship must await resolution of the border conflict. With the end of the Cold War, New Delhi deepened the relationship, broadening it to encompass four pillars: border negotiations, confidence building, summits and trade. The border negotiations, begun in 1981, were continued – even intensified – as more senior officials on both sides took charge. By 2005, the two governments had agreed on the protocols and principles that would form the basis for a final agreement. In 1993 and 1996, the two countries signed into existence a series of confidence-building measures in order to stabilize the line of control. Summits and foreign ministers’ meetings between the two sides increased in frequency – bilaterally, as well as in various regional settings, including the ASEAN Regional Forum, the East Asia Summit, the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), BRICS, the G20 and the UN. The two sides have made common cause on climate change, global economic reforms, and intervention in the Arab world, where their interests have more or less coincided. Of the four pillars, it is trade and investment that has shown the greatest dynamism: bilateral trade grew from a mere US $200 million annually in the middle 1990s to nearly US $75 billion in 2011, and is slated to easily exceed US $100 billion by 2015. China is already India’s biggest trading partner; New Delhi now wants Chinese investment, particularly in infrastructure, transport and alternative energy – areas in which China leads in global terms. Above all, India has refused to be provoked by Chinese actions or statements, and in the manner of Deng Xiaoping, has kept its head down and literally got on with business. Put differently, India is pulling a China on China.

India’s relations with the US have been transformed since the end of the Cold War and, ironically, particularly after the nuclear tests of 1998. While India will not sign up as a formal ally of the US, it now sees the US as a strategic asset – in South Asia, in the rest of Asia, and indeed globally (particularly in relation to Islamic extremism and terrorism). After 50 years of suspicion and worry about the US’s policies toward South Asia – and Pakistan specifically – New Delhi today views Washington’s influence in Islamabad and the region as a huge benefit. Having for years hoped that the US would largely withdraw from Asia, its current anxiety is that the US might actually do so, thereby allowing China to dominate the continent. Globally, the US was the great imperialist. In India’s new thinking, America’s fight against extremism and terrorism is crucial to India’s security – even if India considers the last Iraq war and some of the US’s methods questionable, even counterproductive. India has been pragmatic and business-like with the US over the past 15 years – from the nuclear dialogue begun in the immediate aftermath of its 1998 tests, to the India-US nuclear deal a decade later, and also increasing military cooperation (exercises, dialogues, intelligence sharing, arms purchases, technology co-development, and military support during the first Gulf war and after 9/11). The economic relationship has flowered, even though there are concerns on the US side about India’s lack of openness to trade and investment. While China remains India’s biggest trade partner, the US is one of India’s biggest investors. Indian positions on various global issues are certainly in tension with US preferences – on Palestine, on Iran, on intervention in Libya and Syria, on humanitarian intervention generally, on climate change, and on the Doha round of trade talks. Still, the two sides continue to see each other as strategic partners. In sum, India no longer regards the US as an imperial power; rather, the US has become a de facto ‘natural ally’ – so natural in terms of parallel interests that it need not be a formal ally.

What of achievements? What has India’s Nehruvianism-transitioning-to-neoliberalism achieved? First, India’s relations with Pakistan have scarcely ever been more stable. The steep reduction in violence in Kashmir and the perceptible decrease in cross-border incursions are at least in part due to the policy of pragmatic engagement with Pakistan. The two militaries continue to be watchful of each other, but since the confrontation of 2001-2002, they have returned to normal peacetime positions and deployments. While the six-plus-two formula has not produced any breakthroughs on the big issues, it has led to two significant changes: a more sensible visa regime between the two countries, and steadily increasing trade. The effects of these changes will only be known in the long-term, but they will surely enlarge the constituencies within Pakistan for better relations and more rational policy. Indeed, there has already been an evolution in Pakistani attitudes: Pakistan’s own internal troubles, but also India’s policies of restraint and engagement, have led to far more moderate Pakistani public opinion on the Kashmir dispute and on overall relations with India than at any time since the 1970s.

Second, with Beijing, New Delhi has made greater progress toward stability and resolution of the basic disputes. While there are latent tensions – over Tibet, the border, increases in military deployments, China’s Indian Ocean and India’s South China Sea presence – the relationship has never been better in terms of the tone of pronouncements, the bonhomie at official meetings, and the exchange of information and goods. Concretely, India has achieved several things. The 2005 agreement laid out the broad contours of a final agreement on the border conflict. The two sides have exchanged maps on the so-called middle sector of the border as well. They have instituted a bilateral strategic dialogue, allowing them over time to develop a better sense of each other’s security concerns and policies. China has gradually taken a more neutral stance on the Kashmir dispute. It has also begun to affirm India’s much greater international status: Beijing has stated that the UN must be reformed, and that India will necessarily play a greater role in international affairs. While this evidently falls short of endorsing India for a permanent seat on the UN Security Council, it is moving China in that direction. A long-term worry for India is the diversion of China’s southern rivers, which curl around into northeastern India, to its northern provinces. The Chinese leadership has been made aware of Indian concerns, and China has shared some information on river water matters with India. Beijing has publicly refuted the notion that it seeks to divert the rivers.

Third, setting aside its ideological view of the US, New Delhi has helped to bring Washington around to a more positive view of Indian power. Clearly, this has been helped by the rise of China and the opening of the Indian economy after 1991. Not only does the US take a more positive view of India’s role in international politics, but it is also far more tolerant than it was during the Cold War of India’s desire for strategic autonomy on global and regional issues. Washington’s investments in Indian power include the nuclear deal and arms sales, as well as high-technology cooperation in various fields – including nanotechnology and bio-pharmaceuticals. Diplomatically, the Americans have leaned on Pakistan (though India would like Washington to do more), endorsed India’s candidacy for a permanent seat on the Security Council, and urged India to play a bigger role in East and Southeast Asia.

India’s grand strategic shift from a deeply rooted Nehruvianism to an increasingly neoliberal posture is apparent in both ideational and policy changes since the late 1980s. Contrary to the view held by many Indians and foreigners in respect of India’s security, the country has proceeded consistently along a more pragmatic path, has adjusted to the post-Cold War environment, and has successfully engaged its most important interlocutors. Of course, a neoliberal grand strategy has not solved all of India’s security problems, and has not resolved the long-enduring quarrels with Pakistan and China. However, it has stabilized relations and set in motion trends that could soften the rough edges around those quarrels, leading to eventual resolution. And it stands to reason that an India that is more secure and confident in respect of Pakistan, China and the US will be in a position to play a bigger role in global governance and international security. India’s neoliberal grand strategy may therefore in the end serve not only the national interest, but also more cosmopolitan purposes.


Kanti Bajpai is Professor and Vice Dean (Research) at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore.

(Illustration: Christian Northeast)

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