The Curse of Geography


Brahma Chellaney, Open Magazine

Soon after visiting Russia, Prime Minister Narendra Modi undertook a US tour, the highlight of which was a spectacular public rally in Houston attended by 59,000 Indian-Americans, US President Donald Trump and a number of members of the US Congress. Now, shortly after Communist China turned 70, Modi is getting ready to host Chinese President Xi Jinping for an informal summit. Before long, Modi will also receive Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

These visits underline the complexity of India’s foreign-policy challenges and the imperative to advance the country’s interests at a time of greater geopolitical flux globally. The flux is being highlighted by several developments, including the US-China trade war, which is setting in motion a gradual “decoupling” of the world’s top two economies; the worsening relations between America’s main allies in East Asia, Japan and South Korea; Hong Kong’s defiant, pro-democracy movement; and the strengthening Sino-Pakistan strategic nexus. China, meanwhile, still pursues aggression in the South China Sea, as exemplified by its ongoing coercion against Vietnamese oil and gas activities within Vietnam’s own exclusive economic zone.

If Hong Kong’s mass movement loses to Chinese authoritarianism, the implications will not be limited to that city. Indeed, it could embolden Beijing’s designs against Taiwan and its territorial revisionism against India, Japan, Vietnam and others.

Against this backdrop, Modi’s foreign policy will likely continue to be guided by a non-doctrinaire vision. India, a founder leader of the nonaligned movement, now makes little mention of nonalignment. Shorn of ideology, Indian foreign policy has sought to revitalize the country’s economic and military security, while avoiding having to overtly choose one power over another as a dominant partner. India believes in friendship without dependence.

At the core of India’s foreign-policy and security challenges, however, is the reality that the country is located arguably in the world’s most troubled neighbourhood. India confronts a “tyranny of geography” — that is, serious external threats from virtually all directions. To some extent, it is a self-inflicted tyranny. India’s security concerns in the region partially stem from the failures of its past policies.

The increasingly unstable neighbourhood, however, is not of India’s making. The instability and volatility not only make it more difficult to promote regional cooperation and integration, but also heighten the spillover effects for India, threatening the country’s internal security.

Looking ahead, India can expect no respite in pressure from China, whose October 1 grand parade commemorating 70 years of Communist Party rule was a reminder that it has emerged as the world’s longest-surviving, strongest and largest autocracy. This is a country increasingly oriented to the primacy of the Communist Party. Indeed, attempts to bend reality to the illusions and disinformation that the state propagates risk turning China into a modern-day Potemkin state.

China’s occupation of Tibet in 1950-51 represented the most far-reaching geopolitical development for India’s security in modern history. It gave China borders with India, Bhutan and Nepal for the first time, and opened the path to a Sino-Pakistan strategic axis. The impact has been exacerbated by serial Indian blunders.

Today, Tibet remains at the centre of the India-China divide, fuelling territorial disputes, diplomatic tensions and riparian feuds. The more India has aligned its Tibet stance with China’s position, including recognizing that sprawling region as part of China, the more Beijing has upped the ante against New Delhi. Tellingly, Beijing began calling Arunachal Pradesh “South Tibet” only after the then Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee in 2003 formally recognized Tibet as part of China.

As Asia’s geographical hub, China is especially vulnerable to the same geopolitical game it plays against India or Japan — strategic containment. A grand strategy among other powers to manage a muscular China could aim to put discreet checks on the exercise of Chinese power by establishing counterbalancing coalitions around that country’s periphery. However, Trump, with his unilateralist and protectionist priorities, has still to provide strategic heft to his policy of a “free and open Indo-Pacific” — a concept authored by Abe.

With India’s vulnerability to terrorist attacks linked to its location next to the Afghanistan-Pakistan (“Af-Pak”) belt, the Indian government has little choice but to prepare for a long-term battle against the forces of Islamic extremism and terrorism. In fact, to India’s west, lies “an arc of crises stretching from Jordan to Pakistan”, to quote the title of one of the workshops at the 2008 World Policy Conference at Evian, France. Historically, invaders and plunderers came into the subcontinent from India’s west.

Pakistan’s present nexus with terrorist groups arose under two military dictators: Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, who died in a mysterious plane crash in 1988, and Pervez Musharraf, who fled overseas in 2008 under threat of impeachement and was subsequently charged with involvement in the assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto in 2007 — a milestone in Pakistan’s slide into chaos. Pakistan is now a classical example of a praetorian state where the military dominates the core political institutions and processes and calls the shots in strategic policies.

Pakistan’s military generals rarely trust their civilian proxies. Indeed, the army chief and the head of the rogue Inter-Services Intelligence agency accompanied Prime Minister Imran “Taliban” Khan when he visited Washington in July. Khan’s jihad-extolling, warmongering address to the United Nations General Assembly last month showed the depths to which the Pakistani state has sunk. In fact, this newest puppet of the Pakistani military has, in the name of Allah, publicly declared a jihad on India, including on what he calls a “fascist” Modi government.

India since independence has taken a cautious and reactive approach to strategic threats and challenges, despite facing repeated aggressions. Over the past three decades in particular, India’s external security environment has worsened and regional clout eroded. Yet the country has shied away from hard decisions.

An important break from this pattern was the Modi government’s decision in August to rejig the constitutional status of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) — an action that received Parliament’s imprimatur with overwhelming support. J&K’s special powers and privileges were revoked, Ladakh was carved out as a separate entity, and the misogynist Article 35A repealed — all in one fell swoop.

Three decades of a Pakistan-backed Islamist insurrection in the Kashmir Valley forced the government to change the status quo. Pakistan, carved out of India by the British as the first Islamic state of the post-colonial era, has emerged as the fountainhead of Islamic extremism and terrorism – or, as former US defence secretary James Mattis says in his new book, the world’s “most dangerous” country. A secular, democratic India can never allow an Islamic emirate in the Kashmir Valley because that would mean a second terrorism-exporting Pakistan on its borders.

Pakistan and China together hold 55 per cent of J&K but neither grants any autonomy to its portion of the region. Indeed, Beijing has never allowed foreign media into its J&K portion, which it has turned into a vast cantonment. Yet, Pakistan and China have hypocritically protested against New Delhi’s action in stripping the Indian part of J&K of its special constitutional powers.

Even if the Indian J&K’s special autonomous status had continued, India would still have faced the Sino-Pakistan pincer movement in that region. Indeed, the special status came to be seen by Pakistan and China as Indian acceptance that just the Indian portion of J&K is a disputed territory, thus encouraging the two partners to up the ante against New Delhi.

The plain fact is that India is uniquely wedged between two nuclear-armed allies that defy basic international norms. The China-Pakistan axis represents a dangerous combination of an ascendant communist power and an aggressive Islamist neighbour, with both staking claims to swathes of Indian-administered territory.

New Delhi may have managed reasonably well the international fallout from its J&K action, with only Turkey, Malaysia, Pakistan and China (the new Quad) openly slamming India for the move. India, however, continues to get bad international press, in part because the anti-elite Modi government has failed to grasp the importance of the media in the 21st century. The Prime Minister’s Office does not have even a spokesperson. Distortion of facts thus is allowed to go unchallenged.

Commentaries in the Western press have harped on alleged Indian repression and human-rights abuses in the Kashmir Valley, with some writers claiming to see the rise of an “authoritarian” India under Modi, as if the present Indian government has abridged fundamental rights of Indians or undermined judicial independence and press freedom. Such negative and damaging portrayal is beginning to take its toll on India’s international image. It is past time for the government to wake up to the vital importance of public relations and media handling.

Add to the picture the fact that India has become increasingly polarized and divided. Indians either love or loathe Modi.

A dynamic diplomacy and sound national security management need strong, bipartisan policies. But India’s British-style parliamentary democracy has fostered a fractious polity. Britain’s own Brexit mess highlights that the British-type parliamentary system is rife with serious inefficiencies. In India, building bipartisanship has long been tough but more so now due to greater political polarization and rancour.

Domestic critics, for example, claim that Modi has a presidential (or autocratic) style of governance. The truth, however, is that India since independence has been largely led by prime ministers who have acted more like presidents — from Jawaharlal Nehru and his daughter, Indira Gandhi, to Atal Bihari Vajpayee, the first Bharatiya Janata Party prime minister who made the country a nuclear-weapons state by overtly conducting nuclear tests. Only weak, fractious governments in India have been different.

MODI’S RETURN TO POWER in a landslide election victory earlier this year reflected the desire of Indians for a dynamic, assertive leadership that reinvents India as a more secure, confident and competitive country. In contrast to his first term, which failed to dispel India’s image as a soft state, Modi’s second term raises hope that India would not recoil from taking hard decisions. His government’s most pressing challenges relate to national security and economic growth.

At a time when the yawning power gap between India and China has widened, New Delhi has to avert a destabilizing military imbalance with Beijing. It also needs to more effectively tackle a scofflaw Pakistan. India must reinvigorate its foreign policy to reverse its waning influence in its own backyard, including in countries long symbiotically tied to it, such as Nepal and Sri Lanka.

More broadly, some see India as a key “swing state” in the emerging geopolitical order. India, however, is already swinging in one direction, thanks to China’s territorial revisionism and muscular foreign policy.

A multi-aligned India under Modi is tilting towards the other major democracies, as the Australia-India-Japan-US Quad grouping underscores. India is now a “major defence partner” of the US, with which it holds more military exercises than with any other country. The US has also emerged as India’s largest arms supplier.

As the Houston rally attested, the Cold War-era India-Russia camaraderie has been replaced by India-US bonhomie. It is highly unusual for an American president to take the stage at a foreign leader’s rally on American soil. But Trump shares with Modi a love for big audiences and theatrics.

Still, India can scarcely depend on an unpredictable Trump administration, whose transactional approach to foreign policy is troubling all US allies and strategic partners. Therefore, India is wisely shoring up its partnerships with all key players. In fact, Indian and American interests diverge in India’s own neighbourhood.

For example, despite last month’s collapse of a tentative US deal with the Afghan Taliban, Trump is courting Pakistan, even though it provides safe havens to the Taliban and is home to 25 United Nations-designated terrorist entities. A Kashmir mediation offer is a red rag to India. Yet Trump has repeatedly offered to mediate that conflict.

Meanwhile, Washington, not content with having emerged as the largest seller of arms to India, is seeking to lock New Delhi as its exclusive arms client by using the threat of sanctions to deter it from buying major Russian weapons, including the S-400 air defence system. Furthermore, US pressure has driven up India’s oil import bill by stopping it from buying crude at concessional rates from Iran or Venezuela. The US seeks to supplant Iran as a major oil supplier to India. But it has been selling India crude at a higher price than Iran.

Washington said recently that it is “highly gratified” by India’s full compliance with US sanctions against Iran. The soaring crude prices after the loss of nearly 6% of global oil output in recent drone strikes in Saudi Arabia, however, has served as a reminder to New Delhi of the costs of halting all Iranian oil imports. To punish New Delhi for abiding by US sanctions, Iran is threatening to replace India with China as the developer of its Chabahar port, a project that is central to an Indian transportation corridor to Afghanistan.

That Pakistan-bypassing corridor shows that India’s relationship with Iran is more than just about oil. US sanctions, however, are aiding China while undermining Indian interests. Under a new accord with Tehran, China will invest $280 billion in Iran’s oil, gas and petrochemical sectors, deploy at least 5,000 troops to protect its projects there, and import oil at discounted prices.

Against this background, India must carefully balance closer cooperation with major players in a way that advances its own economic and security interests. India, for example, relies on Russian spare parts for its Russian-made military hardware. More importantly, Russia has transferred to India offensive weapons that the US does not export, such as an aircraft carrier and a nuclear-powered submarine. So ties to Moscow remain important.

In fact, the China factor has always been central to India’s strategic ties with Moscow. In 1971, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi skillfully engineered Bangladesh’s independence from Pakistan by entering into a friendship treaty with Moscow. The treaty, with a mutual-security assistance clause, helped deter China from opening a second front against India. As the declassified Richard Nixon-Henry Kissinger transcripts attested, this duo sought to egg on China to attack India when Indian forces intervened to end the East Pakistan genocide (in which up to 3 million people were killed and nearly 400,000 women were raped, with almost 10 million fleeing to India).

Modi’s recent visit to Vladivostok underscored that Russia, with its strategic capabilities and vantage position in Eurasia, remains a key country for India’s geopolitical interests. Russia shares India’s objective for a stable power balance on a continent that China seeks to dominate.

Against this background, India will likely continue to chart an independent course. After all, cautious pragmatism drives Modi’s foreign policy. A multi-aligned India pursuing omnidirectional cooperation for mutual benefit with key players will be better positioned to advance its security and economic interests.

Regionally, with the tyranny of geography putting greater pressure on its external and internal security, India needs to develop more innovative approaches to diplomacy and national defence. Only through more vigorous defence and foreign policies can India hope to ameliorate its regional-security situation, freeing it to play a larger global role. Otherwise, it will continue to be weighed down by its region.

To be sure, India has been imbibing greater realism as its quixotic founding philosophy centred on non-violence assumes a largely rhetorical meaning. Yet India remains intrinsically reactive, instead of being proactive. The compulsions of electoral politics make it difficult for those in power to take a long-term view that does not confound tactics with strategy. Yet, without proactive diplomacy and national defence, India will continue to punch far below its weight.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and the author of nine books.

© Open Magazine, 2019.