A new Cold War. A renewed global power struggle is underway. In the backdrop of an existing international liberal order that is inexorably weakened by several factors—not the least of which is the coronavirus pandemic. The truth remains. The theatres of shifting geopolitical sands are in an era of radical redefinitions and realignments, which Bruno Macaes, Secretary of State for European Affairs in Portugal, eloquently dissects in his most recent book, “Geopolitics for the End Time”. While one is compelled to speak about the future, it is crucial to study history. For history, repeats itself time and again. “It has no students but intends to teach everyone.” The prolific words of Antonio Gramsci have significance for anyone who undertakes to study the future. Independent India’s foreign policy, according to Shivshankar Menon who has penned a book entitled, “India and Asian Geopolitics: The Past, Present” writes that India has gone through three geopolitical phases and their transitions.
From 1947 to the 1960s, a bipolar Cold War world; from the early 1960s to the mid-1980s, rapid changes in its neighbourhood such as China falling out with the Soviets and moving to the U.S. side; and the post-Cold War world when the U.S. emerged as the sole superpower in the unipolar world order. Its quest for strategic autonomy is grounded in this sui generis nature of India’s condition. India is, as it was, grappling with itself. To this end, let us also recollect the prolific words of Sir Salman Rushdie who in Midnight’s Children wrote, ‘no people whose words for “yesterday” is the same as thor word for “tomorrow” can be said to have a firm grip on the time”. In addition, Dr Tharror adds, “India is, in the context of history and cultural heritage, a highly developed one in an advance state of decay”. There is, in other words, a timelessness to what constitutes being Indian, observes, Dr Arpana Pandey, in her seminal work, From Chanakya to Modi: The Evolution of India’s Foreign Policy.
Foreign policy, like any other policy, involves choice. A balancing act is bad enough – for it is easy to fall off the high wire during the geopolitical winds. In The India Way, S. Jaishankar, the External Affairs Minister, blames “legacy issues” for India’s current China problem. Another argument by foreign policy writers is that Nehru did nothing when China took Tibet, bringing Chinese forces to the Indian border for the first time in history. In the 21st Century, a US-led international order is its twilight. This system was anchored in financial imperialism through dollar-dependence, a petro-dollar market and via strategic military dominance. It was Jamie Dimon, Chief Executive Officer of JPMorgan Chase who cautioned by glossing the geography of the Asian peninsula in an attempt to juxtapose it to the United States of America with the attempt to underscore the Asian anxiety. In an ‘age of anxiety’ as globalisation enabled progress in the economy and living conditions it also created inequality and deprivation along with benefitting radical groups making the world less safe. India’s contemporary grand strategic problems – the rise of China, the decline of the United States (US), the era of populism and the impact of deglobalisation. Therefore, to study India and its geopolitical tensions requires conceptual clarity, historical detail and policy-relevant analysis.
Realists argue that India is attempting to “reclaim” or expand its “sphere of influence” in the Indian subcontinent. It is creating rhetoric around the integrated creation of Akhand Bharat. However, an obligation also rests on principles of peace as enshrined in the UN Charter, Bandung Principles asserted by Asian and African states as protection against imperialism, as remarked by Prof. Anthony Anghie a leading TWAIL Scholar. When war is not on the door, a principled argument reflects positively. It also echoes alignment and complicity to international law Constitutional vision. Famous International Law Professor at Oxford and regular attorney for states in the International Court of Justice, Vaughn Lowe in his account on an Introduction to International Law observes, justifications for actions are cited in history and international law is used as a rebuttal of historical claims. Russia, against Ukraine, is similar to Beijing against India. Historical claims on territory, ethnic linkages have stirred conflict since the conception of the modern state system. Putin claims the same with the perception of Ukraine trying to join NATO. Russian military action would go against the respect for territorial integrity and sovereignty for which India frequently advocates. It is worth reiterating the question: what principles or core value objectives does India’s foreign policy have? Is there logical coherence in what it says on one issue and on the position it takes on another?
Silently siding with Putin’s imperial nostalgia, Narendra Modi’s “balanced posturing” and silent endorsement of the Russian president may hurt India’s credentials as a democratic republic and affect its partnership with liberal democracies across the world. A principled, moral outlook in India’s foreign policy – one founded on a charter of liberal inclusive principles – and its international law commitments must anchor the government to take a more lucid stand against Russia’s unwarranted invasion of Ukraine.
Now, after Russian President Vladimir Putin’s extraordinary statement that Ukraine has no independent status except as a part of Russia, India’s accommodative stance has stood out amid a chorus of condemnation. Most countries have stressed the importance of respecting sovereignty, a concept that is vital to India in the context of Jammu and Kashmir. There is of course no denying that India wants Russian armaments and geopolitical support. But there is no sign of a quid pro quo having been agreed by the other side. Rather, a high-powered Pakistani delegation is in Moscow right now, cementing the Russo-Pak relationship for which China is the vital link.
Russia is one of India’s largest arms suppliers and a key strategically. More than half of India’s arms imports between 2016-2020 were from Russia. As Sadanand Dhume argued in the Wall Street Journal: “Many Indian foreign-policy elites also view what’s officially called the country’s ‘special and privileged strategic partnership’ with Russia as a totem of Indian strategic autonomy. India shares Russia’s goal of a multipolar world. It is a member of the Russian- and Chinese-dominated Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, and of BRICS, a loose grouping of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa.”
The Western response to Russia’s unwarranted aggression in Ukraine has drawn critical sanctions that will inhibit any nation (including India) from doing business with Russia and potentially diversify Russia-India ties. This also comes at a time when Washington is considering a waiver for India from sanctions under CAATSA, the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act. Appeasing Russia at the UNSC now has further weakened India’s case if, or when, the issue comes up there again. A reference to sovereignty ought to have been made. Even Putin best understands the language of strength.
The global dominance war is just one part of a rich tapestry. In Asia, one spots a common thread- the concept of a 'civilisation state'. “Always remember China is a civilisation and not nation state”. Ram Madhav, an influential leader of India's ruling BJP said, “From now on Asia will rule the world, and that changes everything because in Asia we have civilisations and not nation-states”. This was repudiation on a granular level of the global liberal philosophy, which, as Macaes writes, was once taken seriously everywhere and subscribed to even by the independence movements in the so-called Third World countries. “Defenders of civilisation state say that the search for universality is over, and all of us must accept that we speak only for ourselves and our society,” he writes.
The focus for India should be principally about interacting, influencing and being influenced by Asia; this is a ‘broader’ Asia—both a vast continental landmass and an even larger maritime universe. It is, moreover, geography in which outside powers—Europe, the US, Russia—are key players integral to its geopolitics. In Menon’s telling, this Asia always was connected to wider geographies and is now more connected than ever before. India’s own story is inseparable from this ‘broader Asia’ and is ‘most successful’ only when most connected to it. To this it is important to acknowledge, a foreign policy is often seen as a reaction to external changes, motivated by domestic political considerations or driven by the personality of the decision-makers.
Implicit in India’s quest for strategic autonomy is its preference for a multipolar world and the desirability of multipolarity over bipolarity and hegemony in the global system. For any state aspiring to be a great power in a heavily contested space of international politics, multipolarity provides for greater influence and manoeuvrability. It also necessitates that New Delhi remains ambivalent on firm alliances with any of the other great powers in the system, instead opting for “shifting balances and alliances of convenience.” Lastly, India’s recourse to the ensuing US-China competition in the Indo-Pacific is neither to unequivocally support US primacy nor to confront China alone but to work towards a regional balance of power that could help sustain a multipolar, multiverse Asian order.
What Ken Waltz famously described in his book, Man, State and War, is three levels of foreign policy analysis. Menon does not discount these factors but argues that a set of state characteristics – geography, demography, history and economics – helps decision-makers to make sense of its geopolitical environment and act to preserve its interests and values. Understanding the constant character of these long-term drivers of Indian foreign policy helps decode the “strong continuity in foreign and security policies of successive (Indian) governments.” If decisions of the state made by its political decision-makers are “raw material of history”, it is often very difficult to decode the motivations and rationale behind such decisions. Even when data abound, particularly with the recent opening up of the archives, making sense of foreign and national security policy requires a conceptual framework that cannot be filled by the over-deterministic discourse of the Western international relations theory or eclectic formulations of ancient wisdom contained in Kautilya’s Arthasastra. India and Asian Geopolitics fill this void.
India should ensure a safe, prosperous and dignified life to every Indian with an opportunity to realise their potential as the citizens are the future of the country. As a result, considering harmonious cooperation among major powers requires India to get to its roots. Further, the narrow, intolerant and diminishing vision born from fear and polarisation should be negated to focus on rededicating to the vision of national self-confidence and ambition which is progressive and respects all citizens and has a universal appeal. In the current geopolitical scenario, Asia is central to world security and prosperity with territorial claims, rising power, naval build-ups along increased contestation in maritime space. This shows rapid and possible power shifts in the world. This book is thus timely and insightful and gives a clear understanding of the geopolitical structure of Asia from the past till the present day. History is a map and successfully provides a structured chronological map of the transforming Indian foreign policy with special emphasis on its neighbourhood from an Indian perspective.