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India’s current geopolitical positioning

Mellisa Anthony Jones at English Wikipedia [CC BY 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

India will soon be heading for its next general elections. Prime Minister Modi was brought into power with the general elections of May 2014. His first term, thus, comes to an end in 2019 and the country, as the world’s largest democracy, will be getting prepared to one more giant election process. Modi’s fate will be decided by domestic politics, not policies in the field of external relations. Assessing domestic politics is reasonably possible only from inside India. We, in this column, have been observing India from outside and would therefore not qualify for a domestic perspective. We have been looking at PM Modi’s achievements and positioning in the world. Now, we wonder whether India’s electorate will also take some of that dimension into account when choosing the next government.

When dealing with the world, most countries see their relations with the USA, the global superpower, as an essential element in their strategic environment. In Asia, countries have, in addition, become aware that their relations with China have grown in strategic relevance. India, a giant population-wise, but not strategically, finds itself at the crossroads of these two centres of gravity. On the one hand, it is neighbouring the USA on open seas, and on the other hand, it shares with China a long common land border in the Himalayans. Furthermore, India is confronted at its Western borders with a hostile neighbour, Pakistan, which has enjoyed American and Chinese support for decades.

Since the turn of the century, the strategic landscape in Asia has been changing and India has got accustomed to the need of adapting to those changes. Choices of the past have been replaced by an approach closer to national interests. Where, in the past, ideological inclinations had been determining for India’s partnership with the late Soviet Union, the demise of the latter forced the Indian government to analyse afresh its interests in the world. The international community too has recognised the need to integrate India more actively in globalising world. The USA, starting with the initiative of President George W. Bush and continuing with Barack Obama, offered India a strategic partnership, ending, thus, the isolation in which India had been pushed because of launching its own nuclear armament. In the field of international trade and military procurement, the USA has partly replaced old dependencies on Soviet Union and Russia. In the wider field of regional power equations, the USA is betting on India for the development of the relatively new strategic concept of the Indo-Pacific as opposed to the geographic term of Asia Pacific. In this context, the USA is also revitalising the QUAD, the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (also known as the QSD) between the USA, India, Japan and Australia as a tool of the strategic concept of the Indo-Pacific.

The discussion is currently open whether the Quad is a well-meaning nucleus of a wider security structure for Asia, or just a strategic tool directed against hegemonic aspirations of China. The latter would put India into a dilemma. It runs the risk of being sucked into a potentially undesirable US-China confrontation, and at the same time it would also feel uneasy should the direct relationship US-China lead to a power-sharing arrangement between the two superpowers in Asia. India, on its part, is not seeking any confrontation with its giant neighbour to the North and competitor in Asia. That is the reason why India has taken up with China a maritime dialogue and avoids mentioning China in the context of the Quad. That was obvious at a recent conference in Singapore, where the US representative made clear how far the Quad had its motivation and raison d’être in the opposition against China’s expansionist moves, while the Indian representative did not even mention China. The explicit common ground of Quad partners and some other Asian countries is the concept of a “free and open Indo-Pacific”, meaning free and open maritime routes. India added to that wording the expectation that any international order should be “rules-based”, i.e. based on rules of public international law, excluding thus hegemonic aspirations of great powers.

India, while accepting a substantially closer cooperation with the US in the field of defence and military armament, has also signed substantial agreements with Russia for the supply of military hardware. The USA, who disliked that deal a lot, in the end accepted to give a waiver against its Russia sanctions. India had successfully argued not only that it would not accept limitations to its sovereignty, but also that it has a right to a threat perception of its own. Obviously, the USA and India fundamentally diverge on their assessment of the threats that come from Russia or, e.g. from Iran. India retains, thus, its freedom of diplomatic manoeuver and keeps its strategic options open.

Speaking of Iran, another target of US sanctions, India would have been compelled to pay a substantial price for the US sanctions against Iran’s oil exports. But in May of this year, after meeting Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, the Indian Foreign Minister made it clear that India will abide only by U.N.-imposed sanctions and not those imposed by individual countries. Probably adding to this point of principle the argument that trade in oil with Iran had a great economic importance for India, this made it possible for India to obtain concessions from the US in this field. And India is also in a position to carry on its Chabahar project, with which it is developing its own international transportation line. Possibly inspired by China’s Belt-and-Road initiative India does exactly the same by constructing a transportation corridor from the Iranian port of Chabahar through Iran up to Afghanistan and Central Asia and circumventing, thus, hostile Pakistan. In addition, it develops together with Russia the International North-South Transportation Corridor running through Iran, which is planned to replace some of sea-borne trade between Asia and Europe. This, too, cannot please the USA, but it has to be tolerated by the USA.

A final look at India’s permanent security trauma, Pakistan, shows a more recent strategic bargaining power. Both the US and China have been long-time supporters of Pakistan. And both discover now that supporting Pakistan entails a high price in terms of security. President Trump seems to be annoyed that heavy financial and military means have not changed anything in the threats posed by Islamic terrorists finding refuge in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, its long-time ally. China on its part perceives international Islamic terrorism as a source of influence on its domestic Muslim minority and therefore as a domestic threat. The US’ and China’s dilemma in the relationship with Pakistan might open new leverage for India in its strategic positioning among big powers of the world.

India may still not be in a position to impose its strategic interests globally, but its current Prime Minister at least manages successfully to keep options open on many sides in order to redefine in the future India’s position in the world.

That is the panoramic view on India’s strategic environment at the beginning of 2019. Unlike the panoramic view on a perennial mountain range like the Himalayans, the strategic panorama can change …

19th December 2018 / Philippe Welti

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