State of the Union: Make ‘Indo-Pacific’ meaningful

The net upside for India would be transforming the ‘Indo-Pacific’ from an abstract into a strategic reality

The Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Demo-cratic Alliance government has been on an overdrive in international relations, with the Prime Minister travelling abroad every other fortnight. However, a conceptual clarity about India’s global vision over the medium term is absent, as the current administration marches beyond the 18-month mark. India’s foreign policy, and the strategic choices it makes, would be determined by its ability to manage relationships that are simultaneously complimentary and adversarial. These interactions are symbiotically intertwined with overlapping priorities, interests and conflicts concomitantly at play.

The issues on the table include both bilateral and multilateral conversations on the disconnect between the neo-liberal economic order and the urgent need to provide better quality of life to millions of people in the developing world, a consensual architecture to mitigate the toxic effects of climate change, restructuring of the institutions of global governance, balancing the fight against terror while preserving civil liberties and persevering towards the emergence of agreed rules of engagement in the virtual civilisation — the Internet.

Some of the basic premises that would need to be revisited include the traditional Westphalian template itself: What is India today and what part of India does foreign and strategic policy seek to serve? Should territorial limits alone define India or would it include its hydrocarbon interests in Africa, Latin America, Russia and West Asia? Does it also include the defence of the Indian diaspora — its wealth and resources included? Should it include the transnational corporate empires of Indian oligarchs? Will and should India be prepared to leverage its hard power to protect and preserve these interests? Who does India engage with in the world as nations alone do not affect India’s interests — non-state actors, rouge nations and private interests impact India too. Is it time to keep both the formal and the back channels open to them?

An example would be the Afghan Taliban or the Somali tribes that have elevated piracy to statecraft. Not in the same basket by any stretch but more central is the question of full diplomatic relations with Taiwan, either within or outside the “One China policy” and, finally, does India have both the institutional structures and the intellectual capacity to be able to absorb, assimilate and synthesise these different strains and weave them into a long view of the world from Delhi’s perch?

On the state side, till yesterday, the US and its allies wanted India to proscribe Iran and even arm-twisted India to bring it’s oil import from Iran below the 10 per cent threshold but today, after the nuclear deal between Iran and the West, they may want a greater Indian engagement with Iran — which would also be in India’s interest — to offset the Chinese from gaining an upper hand. China has demonstrated its capacity to influence both totalitarian regimes and democratic states by virtually colonising large parts of Africa over the past two decades. Similarly would the India-China and, by extension, the emerging economies’ bonhomie be evident at the climate change conference in Paris, despite the continuing territorial disputes and the resultant chill in Sino-Indian interaction? These are realpolitik realities that would need to be surmounted by India if it wants to evolve from a big player in the little league to, conceivably, a budding player in the big league.

On a related note, are there any medium-term strategic opportunities that India can leverage? Just two grand sweeps, one towards the East and the other towards the West would suffice. As India looks towards the East, it does so from its roost at the head of the Indian Ocean, straddling the sea lanes of commerce as they traverse from the choke points of the Strait of Hormuz right up to the Malacca Strait. In years to come, this station at the head of the Indian Ocean is going to become all the more germane as the $46 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor comes into play. This corridor of highways, railways and pipelines, primarily to transport oil and gas from the port of Gwadar in Baluchistan to the city of Kashgar in Xinjiang province in northwestern China, would enable China to surmount it’s “Malacca dilemma”.

This could, in turn, lead to increased assertiveness by China in the South China Sea, as it would seek to act on its historical claims. It would make the littoral states of the South China Sea — Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam, Philippines and Taiwan — justifiably more jittery than they are today. There lies an opportunity to draw all these states into a loose coalition, notwithstanding their individual economic linkages with China or India. For whatever the one belt one road (OBOR) may be worth, all the minerals and other resources extracted by the Chinese through sweetheart deals in Africa and other parts of the world cannot go right up from Gwadar to Kashgar. Most of them would still have to traverse the Indian Ocean, Andaman Sea and the Bay of Bengal. India’s airbase in Campbell Bay is just 240 km from the mouth of the Malacca Strait. It can come into play to counterbalance Chinese intentions in the South China Sea.

The net upside for India would be transforming the concept “Indo-Pacific” from an abstract Indian fantasy into a strategic and economic reality. Coupled with American presence in the western Pacific and it’s hub and spoke security relationships all the way from Japan down to Australia, this coalition would be germane to keep the global commons open and stable across the Indian and Pacific Oceans, whose conjunction is the South China Sea. Thus, if leveraged properly, Pakistan’s economic big ticket opportunity can also be India’s windfall. This would be the perfect power dynamic to “act East” rather than just keep looking East. From the East, as India turns it’s gaze towards the West, it discerns tectonic forces of religious bigotry and chilling cruelty galloping across the region, erasing territorial boundaries. The inane attempt to reorder the Middle East order that emerged from the ashes of the Ottoman Empire has miscarried miserably. However, in this fiasco lies another opportunity for India. As the Al Qaeda, Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, Taliban and numerous other militant Islamists prepare for the final push from Turkey to Pakistan, it should automatically draw the democracies of Europe and India into a closer embrace.

Not only would closer security cooperation become an imperative, as the Paris massacre has once again demonstrated, but at a syncretic level too India is perhaps the only country where, for over a thousand years now, Islamic influence has been absorbed into its culture without fundamentally allowing it to alter the social ethos. The unique experience that India brings to the table is the interface between an aggressive Islam and Indian ethos of multiculturalism that has held the field down the ages. The former, despite the sword, was not allowed by the latter to substantially alter either the demographics or even the cultural moorings of the subcontinent. It created, through assimilation as opposed to a clash of civilisations, an enlightened version of Indian Islam that has existed cheek by jowl with other religious narratives for hundreds of years now.

This knowledge was one of the things that India offered to the United States after 9/11, i.e. to how to find an honorable accommodation with Islam over the long run, but the binary mindset of George Bush’s advisers failed to grasp it. This is the unique experiment that the Christian civilisation on the western frontiers of the Islamic spread would have to factor into its sociological strategy, as a supplement to tryouts with multiculturalism. Otherwise, the challenge of reining in religious revivalism and terrorism emanating from it may continue to bedevil liberal democracies for quite a few centuries to come. Since the US is the global outside balancer of power in every continent and the state of Israel has an existential stake reigning in militant Islamism, they are both natural allies in this struggle. India, therefore, would have to evolve its own version of exceptionalism to engage with the world as it consolidates itself internally. Therein lies the classical dilemma for policy wonks, while strategic opportunities are not open indefinitely juxtaposed to them are the realities of the Indian state, the most conspicuous being lack of institutional capacity to deal with the world and itself simultaneously.

The writer is a lawyer and a former Union minister. The views expressed are personal. Twitter handle @manishtewari

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( Source : deccan chronicle )
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