Defining Indian interests
Ever since Halford Mackinder published his Russia containment strategy disguised as a grand theory in 1904, the Eurasian heartland has been perceived...
Ironically, as Mackinder was writing his paper, the heartland power, czarist Russia, was in its death throes – Japan’s 1904-1905 naval victories in the Pacific had removed all illusions about Russia’s status as a first-rate power. Yet, within three decades, a revolutionary and industrialising Russia was emerging as a potential superpower. Stalin’s crushing, albeit costly, annihilation of Hitler’s Third Reich established the Soviet Union as the second global pole. China’s own revolution, inspired and financed by Stalin’s Russia, produced the first major consolidation of the Eurasian heartland.
Led by America, the West initiated a sustained grand strategy of countering this new force in world politics. Nicholas Spykman offered a theoretical precursor to this strategy in his 1942 book, ‘America’s Strategy in World Politics,’ which argued for America to project its strategic influence on the “Rimland” regions around the Soviet periphery.
Middle powers like India located on the Eurasian rim, however, reacted differently and consciously chose an approach that sought to maintain friendly and constructive ties with both these formidable blocs.
Indeed, this notion of sustaining a balance between the Atlantic and Eurasian worlds became an ingrained feature of Indian thinking and foreign policy practice. How should India view the contemporary alignment of Russia and China? First, the US policies have played an important part in driving Russia away from the West. But China’s new post-Den-gist identity as a great power seeking to improve its own bargaining equation with the US is also a factor in Beijing’s outreach to Moscow. As Gilbert Rozman of Princeton University perceptively notes, “Moscow and Beijing have disagreements about the future order they envision for their regions. But they agree that the geopolitical order of the East should be in opposition to that of the West.”
But when it comes to global issues like cyber security or managing the Iranian nuclear issue or ensuring stability in Eurasia and the Asia Pacific, Russia and China are increasingly coordinating their actions. For example, it was recently announced that Russia and China will hold joint maritime exercises in the Mediterranean in 2015 underscoring the evolving global dimensions of their strategic partnership.
Unlike the US, India has absolutely no problem with a stronger Russia, and, a Moscow buttressing its non-European identities and roles (Eurasian, Asian). A Moscow-Beijing alignment, however, does pose some challenges – although not nearly as serious as this development is for America’s global position. What are the implications of this global triangular development for India?
While India shares some values with the West, such as a commitment to democracy and a liberal vision of a rule-based system, it finds that many Western norms on global governance and managing international security often contradict that liberal vision. A challenge to Western predominance, and, certainly against its most unilateralist impulses, is not unwelcomed by the Indian strategic elite.
At the regional level, the rise of China is producing a variety of challenges. For example, China’s evolving role beyond its core focus on East Asia is bringing new forms of China-Indian strategic interactions, especially in states that overlap the peripheries of India and China. The foreign policies of Vietnam and Sri Lanka exemplify this. Both these States have lived under Chinese and Indian power for most of their existence and are seeking opportunities to make new friends.
Globally, India is facing an interdependent world but with the Atlantic and Eurasian great powers intensifying their competition over many issues and regions. Dmitry Trenin argues that the “US-Russian crisis” will spill over into a struggle waged “in the realms of geo-economics, information, culture, and cyberspace”. The US and China are also competing to shape the future of an East Asian order, but with Moscow and Beijing coordinating and backing up each other’s core interests, the US ability to divide the Eurasian world has become severely constrained. Rather than focus on defining Indian interests clearly and sensibly, the contemporary discourse around Indian foreign policy typically revolves around challenging the meta-vision – by posing absurd questions such as ‘will India swing West or East?’ This is the wrong analytical level to advance a debate on India’s foreign policy. Only after Indian interests are defined, can India pursue and defend these. As a territorial status quo power, India’s future challenge is managing its stalemates with China and Pakistan, and, exercising political will, if opportunities for genuine border settlements arise.
On the maritime commons, India has common interests with big trading nations such as the US and China, who all seek security of shipping lanes, even as India simultaneously seeks to shape the geopolitics on its own maritime frontiers, which are in proximity to international sea lines of communication. On energy security, India seeks to leverage Western technological advantages when it comes to tapping non-conventional hydrocarbons but also has more durable interests with the energy rich powers such as Russia, Iran and Saudi Arabia.
Although the accompanying rhetoric is still measured by Cold War standards, world politics is at an inflexion point where the fierce competition between the Atlantic and Eurasian worlds could fuel more global instability. The competition is a manifestation of a post-unipolar power transition with the great powers disagreeing on both the path towards a new equilibrium or what should be the normative design of a future world order. India needs a more sophisticated worldview and domestic conversation on global and regional affairs, and, the skill and poise to work constructively with a variety of great powers who appear unlikely to get along with each other for the foreseeable future.