The Choice is Clear

India’s strategic dilemma in view of geopolitics and transforming statecraft

Pravin Sawhney

Let me start by making a dramatic statement which perhaps may come true. On 26 June 2018, the world lost the South China Sea to China when the Chinese President Xi Jinping told the US defence secretary James Mattis, “We will not lose one inch of territory passed down by our ancestors.”

Editor, FORCE Magazine, Pravin Sawhney speaking at the “International Conference on Global Peace Amidst War and Conflict” in Islamabad

With no hopes of compelling China to de-militarise South China Sea, the US has doubled its efforts to safeguard the freedom of the Sea Lanes of Communications across the two Oceans – the Western Pacific and the Indian Ocean. Especially when the enviable war-shipbuilding capabilities of China has matched up to its Maritime Silk Road needs which interestingly follow the same maritime route as the global commercial Sea Lanes of Communications. Moreover, China has managed friendly sea-ports in the Indian Ocean, which analysts believe, could over time be converted into its naval logistics nodes if not naval bases with provision for ship repairs.

This explains why the US recently called India its ‘true strategic partner’. Making no bones about the centrality of India to preserve the maritime status quo, the US secretary of state, Mike Pompeo during the recent two-plus-two dialogue (between foreign and defence ministers) in Delhi on September 6 said: “Our relationship with India is very important to our success in our Indo-Pacific strategy.”

There was nothing new in Pompeo’s statement. The US has been nudging India since the Nineties to take responsibility as the maritime and naval pivot in the Indian Ocean region. To make this happen, India needed to buy US arms for commonality of equipment, sign the four US’ foundation agreements for sharing of logistics, communications and data, plan missions by sharing naval doctrines, procedures and drills, and train together. In other words, without being a NATO member or a US ally, Indian and the US naval forces should train together to fight together.

What was new in the two-plus-two joint statement was the US’ unsaid urgency to achieve naval interoperability with India. Without India’s wholehearted participation in the US’ Indo-Pacific strategy, the Quadrilateral mechanism or any other combination of nations meant to check China would end up as mere talking points.

Besides the US and China, Russia has emerged as a serious, though low-key, player in the Indo-Pacific region. While fixated on being a military power in the Pacific, it appears to have positioned itself as the alternate source of arms and energy needs for smaller nations like Vietnam, Indonesia and the Philippines in the Indo-Pacific who are wary of getting sucked into the US-China geopolitics. For India, Russia is not only its biggest arms supplier and the only nation which has given it restricted technologies. Russia is India’s proven strategic partner.

In such turbulent geopolitics, India faced a strategic dilemma: should it strengthen its strategic ties with the United States by developing naval interoperability which Washington desires? Or should it abide by the April 2018 Wuhan understanding reached between India and China as a consequence of the Doklam crisis? I will discuss this dilemma and then conclude that perhaps a better path, which has not been considered by India, should be pursued. Needless to add, all views expressed are my own.

I believe that India should have two serious reservations about aligning itself with the US in the Indo-Pacific region. One, the US has never given India, let alone, high-end and dual-use technologies, even medium-level defence, space and civil-nuclear technologies. India has been seeking these technologies from the US since December 1984 when Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi signed the memorandum on technology during his US visit. India has got nothing worthwhile till date.

It should be noted that technology transfer and technology sharing are two entirely different issues. Technology transfer involves sharing of source codes so that the recipient nation can exploit and improve upon the given technologies to its needs. Technology sharing, on the other hand, is about sharing object codes so that the recipient nation can re-shape the algorithms minimally to its needs with the donor nation knowing what is being done. Since technology is power, no nation can be expected to give cutting-edge technologies to any other nation whatever the cost. But older and medium-level technologies could be sold, as Russia has done with India.

And two, despite being a Major Defence Partner, the US did not support India during the 2017 Doklam crisis with China. Except for a murmur from Japan, no nation stood up for India during the 73-day army face-off with China in the Himalayas. The inference for India from this episode should be that interoperability with the US in the Indo-Pacific would have implications for India on its disputed land border with China.

Yet, there are reasons why India would still progressively go ahead with the strategic and operational embrace of the US. India believes that being perceived as close to the US would help alleviate growing Chinese military pressure. It will also help India catapult to the elite club of nations with a possibility of joining the Nuclear Suppliers Group and maybe the high table at the United Nations Security Council.

High Commissioner of India to Pakistan, Ajay Bisaria with Pravin Sawhney

Moreover, by close partnership with the US, India could position itself as China’s rival in the Indo-Pacific. For example, statements by US secretary Condoleezza Rice in March 2005 that the US would help India become a major power, and by secretary Rex Tillerson in October 2017 that the US would partner with India in sub-continental connectivity projects as an alternate to the Belt and Road Initiative gladdened India. They tempted India to believe that it could be the counter-weight to China. This assumption, however, should be scrutinised which I would do subsequently in my talk.

Talking of Doklam, it was by itself a watershed event in understanding the conduct of future warfare. But more to the point, India was reluctant to face an escalation beyond the tactical encounter. This explains Prime Minister Narendra Modi seeking an informal summit with President Xi Jinping in April 2018 and the two concluding the Wuhan understanding. The Wuhan understanding is about undertaking connectivity projects under the agreed format of India, China and one neighbouring nation. For example, both sides agreed to explore possibilities of joint connectivity projects in Afghanistan. Presuming India’s acceptance, China offered the same format to Nepal as well. Nothing stops China from extending the Wuhan understanding to Maldives, Bangladesh, Myanmar and even Bhutan!

The Wuhan understanding has raised three issues:

  • One, it presupposes China as a South Asian power, something that India has been loath to accept. This was the reason why India had been resisting China’s membership in SAARC despite Pakistan’s attempts.
  • Two, China, with deeper pockets and better connectivity technology would, despite being an equal partner in the understanding, assume the leadership role. This would have geopolitical implications with smaller nations in India’s backyard tilting towards China.
  • And three, even before the ink dried on the Wuhan joint statement, the Chinese ambassador in India spoke about the possibility of a trilateral meeting between India, China and Pakistan in the future. What he did not say is that with China entrenched in South Asia, Beijing’s pressure on Delhi to make peace with Islamabad would increase.

Given all this, it is baffling why Prime Minister Modi agreed to the Wuhan understanding. Equally baffling is his informal summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Sochi on the heels of the Wuhan summit. He would surely have discussed his China meeting with his Russian interlocutor. What we know however is that, subsequent to Wuhan and Sochi, Prime Minister Modi surprised the audience by his tempered keynote address at the Shangri la Dialogue in Singapore on 1 June 2018. It was a balanced speech which sided with neither the US nor the Chinese perspective. While the speech was appreciated in China, it left the US wondering if India was serious about the interoperability to counter Chinese growing influence in the Indian Ocean. It seems that India had found the way out of the strategic dilemma that I spoke about. India would like to maintain a balanced perspective, something that a balancing power will do.

Yet, given its geography, young demographic profile and enormous potential, India should not be content being a balancing power. It should aspire to be a major power or geo-strategic player like the US, China and Russia. By definition, geo-strategic players are nations which have the capability, capacity and political will to influence events well beyond their geographic borders. This requires that India go back to the basic of geopolitics and statecraft. And this is the option that I had alluded to earlier.

Geopolitics, as the term denotes, is fundamentally about respecting one’s geography. To draw a military analogy, a military formation must secure its home base before it ventures out. Thus, India can only become a geo-strategic player if it makes peace with Pakistan and China, two neighbours with which it has disputed borders. What I say has already been said by your army chief. General Bajwa put it well when he said that nations prosper only when the region prospers. Nowhere does this truism hold better than in South Asia.

For example, since SAARC had not been successful because of hostility between India and Pakistan, the Modi government’s Act East policy which placed emphasis on connectivity, trade, manufacturing and security, decided to work through sub-regional and extra-regional grouping. Cases in point are the Bangladesh-Bhutan-India-Nepal (BBIN) matrix; the BIMSTEC which is the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation involving Bangladesh, India, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Bhutan and Nepal; the Indian Ocean Rim Association set-up in 1997; and increased trade and manufacturing with Japan and South Korea.

Despite all this, the results have been sub-optimal. This is why what the former Sri Lankan President Chandrika Kumaratunga said at the 2016 Raisina Dialogue in Delhi rings true. She said ‘the conflict between India and Pakistan has prevented South Asian integration for a long time. There have been disastrous consequences because of Indo-Pak mistrust. The need is for cooperating more than making security concerns an excuse for not cooperating.’ Kumaratunga was clearly speaking for other Asian countries too.

So, what is holding back the revival of SAARC? Once again Gen. Bajwa’s statement that security and prosperity of a nation are linked should be heeded. Even while sounding presumptuous, let me say that Pakistan’s traditional security on its eastern border with India is fully assured. Having studied regional defence for over four decades, both from inside the Indian Army and as a committed analyst, I believe that the Pakistan military matches the Indian military at both the strategic level and the operational level of war where outcomes are decided. The existence of the military line, first as the ceasefire line and then the Line of Control, is proof that both sides, even without nuclear weapons, were matched and remain matched at the operational level. This is why all talks that Pakistan or India would use nuclear weapons early in an escalation are mere western conjectures.

Having successfully achieved the war-fighting balance with India is one of the two commendable achievements of the Pakistan Army’s leadership. The other is having used military power as an essential component of Pakistan’s foreign policy since the 1998 nuclear tests. This has helped raise Pakistan’s geopolitical profile. Today, Pakistan is wooed by three geo-strategic players, namely, China, the United States and Russia who consider Pakistan an essential player in the turbulent geopolitics across Asia, Central Asian Republic and the Middle East. These geo-strategic players are vocal in calling for peace-talks between India and Pakistan.

We are perhaps witnessing yet another success of the Pakistan Army. In what has been rare in your history, your government and army leadership appear to be on the same page on foreign policy. This is evident from the fact that both Islamabad and Rawalpindi have reached out for comprehensive talks with India. Pakistan has sought talks on all outstanding issues including Kashmir. Since the Kashmir issue has not been placed before all others issues, it is both reasonable and pragmatic.

It is pragmatic because comprehensive talks on all issues include Confidence Building Measures (CBMs). On civilian CBMs, trade, transit and connectivity which would bring regional prosperity could be good talking points. Then there is plenty to cover in military CBMs, which need an engagement especially when both countries are venturing into new domains of war and deterrence. These could be covered under the 1999 Lahore Declaration’s memorandum of understanding.

Pakistan’s demand is reasonable too since wars have been fought over Kashmir and without a peaceful closure of this issue mutual distrust will not go away. It is high time that both sides sit across the table to discuss the future of undivided Kashmir. Once talks begin, there would be ample previous good work available on the issue to ensure that things do not start from scratch.

Then what is holding back these bilateral talks? India’s insistence that proxy war must stop first, and Pakistan’s firmness that there ought to be no pre-conditions. Let’s first consider India’s case. Any dispassionate observer of the sub-continent knows that India has borne the brunt of terrorism. Most of our major cities have been hit by acts of terrorism with the 26 November 2008 attacks in Mumbai being the most shocking of all. The question now is, whether India’s demand that cross-border terrorism should stop, a ruse to avoid talks with Pakistan on Kashmir?

We will never know the answer until India is tested on this. It is up to Pakistani leadership to do so by controlling infiltration on the military line. This is nothing new. Kasuri saab in his book, ‘Neither a Hawk nor a Dove’ has confirmed that during President Musharraf’s time when the back-channel bilateral talks were in progress, the Pakistani leadership gave instruction to leash terrorists from crossing into Jammu and Kashmir. This is easily doable since the Pakistan Army is firmly in control on its side of the military line. Since the two director general military operations have an institutionalised hotline, it should be possible to have total peace on the Line of Control for a defined period.

What is coming in the way of Pakistan doing this is its insistence that India take the first step as articulated by Prime Minister Imran Khan. To him, I would say that he consider the couplet by poet Ahmed Faraz

Agar Tumhari Ana ka hi hai Sawaal Toh Phir

Chalo, Main Haath Badhaata hoon…    Dosti ke Liye


Dealing with China is a different ballgame for India. China conducts its statecraft based on its existing core national strength. Beijing understands that effective diplomacy walks and talks on three legs of technology, economy and military prowess. Of these, technology is the pivot, without which neither economic nor military might would be possible.

This is one of the reasons for the trade war between the US and China. With more than 500 billion dollar trade deficit in favour of China, the real sticking point, according to the US, is the stealing of its commercial, military and dual-use technologies by Chinese state-owned companies. Beijing has been accused of robbing the US of its core strength in areas of micro-electronics, micro-electronic components and aerospace.

A full-blown trade war with EU and Japan joining with the US would be nightmarish for China. This might not affect Xi Jinping’s hold on power in China. But it is expected to slow down work on all the six corridors of the Belt and Road Initiative, the one trillion dollar programme focused on connectivity projects in developing nations. With this action, the US hopes to get a level playing field with China, especially in its Indo-Pacific development plans. For example, Pompeo had recently announced 113 million dollars in regional investments in technology, energy and infrastructure building, saying that it was down payment on future US commitment in the region. Thus, in all three indices of national power, there is a growing competition between the US and China at the global level.

So, where does India fit into all this? India has positioned itself as China’s rival at the regional level with the purpose of safeguarding its assumed clout in its neighbourhood. Thus, India through its ‘Neighbourhood First’ and ‘Act East and Think West’ policy which offers hardwire connectivity and security to smaller nations has come in direct competition with the Belt and Road Initiative.

This unequal competition is predicated on different geopolitical perspectives. India assesses itself as a pole in a multi-polar world and Asia. It believes that its growing economy, globally-recognised Soft Power, and support from the US are adequate for its elevated role. The reality is different. Without abundant technology and military power, India will find it difficult to meet the Chinese challenge. With time, the growing gap between Indian and Chinese national powers might become unbridgeable.

China, on the other hand, views itself as the most powerful nation in Asia which is pitted against the US for supremacy in Asia-Pacific. While the US has been a Pacific power since the Second World War, China believes that its geography and deep pockets provide the big heft against the US. This explains Xi’s call of Asia for Asians.

Moreover, India faces a big challenge from China on the disputed land border. On the one hand, China has no intention of resolving the border dispute. On the other hand, China is far better positioned politically, legally and militarily than India on the border. This is not all. India says that its disputed China border is 3,488km, while China insists that it is a mere 2,000km, along the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh. Thus, the disputed land border has emerged as India’s Achilles Heel.

Given this, India’s respectable option to release the Chinese pressure on the border is by seeking a cooperative or win-win solution with China. Since India is unwilling to consider the Belt and Road on grounds of its sovereignty concerns, there are many more connectivity projects where the two could work together. These have been discussed from time to time, but not much has happened because of the distrust between the two nations.

Perhaps, the way to mitigate the distrust between India and China is for India to first address all outstanding issues with Pakistan. I believe the key to India’s rise lies in making peace with Pakistan; the rest would follow.

(This is the talk the writer gave at a two-day ‘International Conference on Global Peace Amidst War and Conflict’ organised by Centre for Peace, Security and Developmental Studies in Islamabad last month)


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