That so much is happening so fast in India’s strategic sphere seems an understatement. The year 2021 witnessed an acceleration of certain trends that had been underway for over a decade. Amidst the swirling clouds of geopolitical frictions at global, regional, and domestic levels fear fuelled by uncertainty emerges as the preponderant emotion. Hope continues to fight for survival and looks to be losing ground. Distrust tarnishes most relationships.
Taking stock of the big picture from an Indian perspective appears to be an arduous task. Yet, as 2022 approaches, an annual stocktaking — albeit limited to the state of India’s relationships with some important entities — should provide us with a view of the strategic setting.
The year for building partnerships
At the global level, relationships characterised by the power struggle between the US and China continue to gain momentum. This year witnessed the formation of new associations and a heightened propensity to seek out strategic partners. China-Russia strategic cooperation aimed at balancing the US and its allies is countervailed by the attempts of the Joe Biden administration to reinvigorate the frayed alliance system of the Donald Trump era. China continues to demonstrate an impressive pace in its capability to develop assorted instruments of power and deploy them in the practice of statecraft. Progress in material strength is showcased to assert authority and push the narrative that China is not only a peer competitor of the US but would surpass it in due course as well.
The chaotic withdrawal of the US from Afghanistan in August 2021 strengthened the narrative that America is no longer a dependable power willing to fight to protect its friends. China’s external relations are driven by the spirit of historical revisionism to reclaim the imagined greatness of the past, which includes territorial and maritime spaces like Taiwan, Senkaku, South China Sea, and the Himalayan region.
Unlike the US, China is proclaiming that it is willing to use force — if its attempts at peaceful resolutions of its territorial claims are unsuccessful. All of China’s claims are linked to the middle and smaller powers with which it has established strong and advantageous economic relations. China in Asia and Russia in Eastern Europe have joined the US in the practice of economic coercion under the shadow of armed intimidation. Both methods involve contestation for control of technology as seen in the arms race, and global contestation to dominate the Internet and space.
China’s aggressive moves against India, Japan, Taiwan, and the smaller nations of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) have resulted in the convergence of their interests with those of the US, which is seeking to prevent the growth of China’s influence in Asia as part of the global power struggle. Capitalising on distrust, China’s cocktail of economic weaponization and armed coercion is intended to produce the psychological impact of helplessness that may be expected to result in capitulation. Both forms of coercion are often angled to exploit the grey zones where deniability, bending of international norms and leveraging ungoverned spaces are feasible. China’s operational design seeks to exploit the US’s image of its unwillingness to fight for others.
India has all its fingers dipped
India is the primary contestant in the Himalayas and an involved party in the Indo-Pacific region. China’s aggression in Ladakh and its continued intransigence to restore the territorial status quo have provoked India to shift its weight towards the US. The resurrection of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QUAD) is a testimony to this fact. India has made it clear that it will not be a part of any military alliance but would instead prefer to sit in a common tent, depending on the issues at stake. Therefore, it maintains memberships in cross-cutting groups such as BRICS (Brazil, Russian, India, China, and South Africa), the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), the RIC (Russia, India, China) Forum, the QUAD and carries out military exercises inter alia with the US, Russia, Japan, Australia, Singapore, and Vietnam.
As its power struggle with the US deepens, containing India to the sub-continent in order to delay its rise has gained salience for China. From an Indian perspective, the aggression on the northern border is in furtherance of China’s containment strategy, which is expected to curtail its resources to develop its capacity as a maritime power. This is also coupled with China’s attempts at enhancing its influence in India’s strategic neighbourhood. These attempts continued in 2021 and have gained wider ground in Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Bhutan, Nepal, and several African countries.
Pakistan’s role as its proxy has carried on unabated. The assent of the Taliban to power in Afghanistan is certainly catastrophic in humanitarian terms for the Afghan people, but Pakistan may find that its machinations have gained for it only a pyrrhic victory. A possibility is playing out in refugee flows and increased terrorism in Pakistan’s domestic politics. There is also the potential for boosting the salience of terrorism as its preferred foreign policy tool against India. This could test the latter’s military capability alongside looming Chinese threats in the Himalayas.
No more a ‘fence-sitter’
India-Russian relations have shown somewhat unexpected resilience in the face of the headwinds produced by the China-US struggle. The recent visit of Russian President Vladimir Putin to India and the slew of agreements in diverse sectors are clearly encouraging developments. The survival of the S-400 air defence deal despite opposition from the US is also emblematic. India has, in addition, achieved some degree of success in enhancing cooperation with Japan, the European Union (EU), the UK, Israel, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Vietnam, Indonesia, and Singapore. Improving cooperation with Iran remains a work in progress. In essence, India has partly shed its image of a fence-sitter.
However, even as its countervailing efforts have met with mixed successes, more challenges have been added to India’s geopolitical plate. Such efforts have to be founded on the strengthening of India’s power potential that requires internal unity, strategic planning, and coordinated execution. It also cannot be achieved without greater engagement with the rest of the world.
Focus on what matters, not historical rifts
As 2021 comes to a close, it is apparent that internal disunity is growing and has surfaced as a threat that can no longer be ignored in India’s management of its strategic affairs. The emergence of religion as the ideological horse to gain political power has ignited historic rifts. These are issues that modern India has been struggling to suppress in order to focus on what really matters to its citizens — poverty, illiteracy, and ill health.
The ideological zeal of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has been steadily pulling the train of Hindu majoritarianism and in the process, achieved remarkable electoral successes. The BJP has consolidated its political power at the Centre and in various states. But socio-economic progress has been waylaid by majoritarian political mobilisation.
Three incidents from the last two weeks are symptomatic of India’s political parties and mainstream media remaining silent to blatant and unlawful acts that violate constitutional and communal propriety. Two of them took place in Punjab where reported acts of sacrilege resulted in lynching in two cases. Both were met with political condemnation of the sacrilege. But on lynching, there was silence across the board and police inaction. Another incident happened in Haridwar, where a three-day ‘Dharam Sansad’, organised by Hindu extremists, made explicit calls to take up arms against Muslims. Once again, it was met with silence across political parties, police coldness, and media indifference.
If India’s political parties are so blinded by electoral calculations and are unwilling to act against assaults on the nation’s social cohesion, the threat to India’s internal unity is indeed grave. India cannot afford to alienate its religious minorities, as it will be giving way to exploitation by its adversaries due to its toxic communal soil.
India’s economic growth — the primary driver of socio-economic progress — is under stress from endogenous and exogenous sources including climate change and environmental pollution. Governance is challenged by large-scale unemployment and economic disparities. Centralisation of power and the loss of independence of most constitutional organs of the State have weakened the institutional checks and balances systems that preserve the rule of law. Instead, a ‘rule by law’ has become the signature tab of governance. Layered with the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, India’s internal dynamics are taking a beating in its ability to cope with the challenges and squatting on its strategic panorama.
It is imperative that the political class recognises the enemy within ourselves. It is high time they woke up and accepted these harsh realities and never lose hope for constructive change.
Lt Gen (Dr) Prakash Menon (retd.) is Director, Strategic Studies Programme, Takshashila Institution; former Military Adviser, National Security Council Secretariat. He tweets @prakashmenon51. Views are personal.
(Edited by Humra Laeeq)