Wednesday, February 01, 2006

The Rising

India is seen as emerging as a major power. In part this is because of its economic growth, but in part due to geopolitics. The article which appeared in The Hindustan Times on December 29, 2005 discusses these issues:

Condoleezza Rice, Wen Jiabao, Junichiro Koizumi’s visits, the signing of a Comprehensive Economic Cooperation agreement with Singapore, participation in the East Asia Summit and its active role in the WTO negotiations — all in 2005 — are perhaps the best indicator of the pivotal role that India has begun to play in the emerging Asian balance of power. The year gone by, and the one to come, have enormous significance for India because today it occupies a unique geopolitical position in Asia.

Located where it is, on the flanks of the Asean and the East Asian region, and those of the West and Central Asia, India is in a swing-zone from where its huge working age population, intellectual resources, manufacturing and agricultural potential and military power, can enable it to influence events in these regions.

There is a 19th century echo in the word ‘geopolitics’. Yet, it best describes the moves taking place on the chessboard of nations today. In the most basic sense, ‘geopolitics’ is about the correlation between geographical location and political power, and the division of the world into core and periphery areas. But in a more sophisticated sense, it is a palimpsest layered over by the resources a nation has, both physical and human, its demographic profile, its political system and its military power. Given its size, India is both a heartland and a maritime nation. In its north, there are vast land-locked states like Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, each the size of a large European nation. On the other hand, India’s political geography — primarily its unresolved conflict with Pakistan and its troubled North-east — makes it a maritime nation because most of its trade is seaborne and dependent on the security of sea lanes. The peninsula, adjacent the key oil sea lane flowing from the Persian Gulf to the Straits of Malacca, only serves to accentuate this.

India’s potential was always there, but it was locked up in a State that was a founder-member of the non-aligned movement, and whose economic policies verged on the autarkic, and some will argue, self-defeating. In 1990-91, the end of the Cold War and a domestic economic crisis compelled change. India practically abandoned the non-aligned movement, dismantled the licence-quota raj and opened itself to the East and West. Instead of traps and pitfalls, India found opportunities: its English-oriented education system yielded Business Process Outsourcing advantages; liberalisation unleashed economic growth, expanding domestic and export markets; and the 1998 nuclear weapons test signalled that it was not willing to be militarily consigned to a tier of second-ranking global States.

Since then the country followed a three-pronged approach. First, to reintegrate India into the world economy. Second, to ensure the integrity and security of the country. And, third, to further its political and economic interests in the Asian region and across the globe. In these endeavours, it is seeking to move the big geopolitical blocks — retain good ties with Russia, improve ties with China, build strategic coalitions with the US, the EU and Japan — with the expectation that the smaller ones will fall into place on their own.

In the process, India has emerged as a significant element in the emerging geopolitical equations that are sought to be rewritten in Asia as a consequence of the rise of China. India’s importance comes from the fact that it is No. 2, behind China, on virtually every measure of power. Had we been No. 1, everyone would be finding ways to check us. As No. 2 we are in a safe position of not being viewed as hegemonic (except in our limited South Asian region), and courted by big players like the US, Japan and the EU. Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of our current trajectory is the not-so-subtle declaration by the US that it is committed to helping India become a world power in the 21st century. The US decision to overturn its decades-old policy of denying India nuclear and space technologies is one outcome of this, as are the Japanese moves to sharply step up their engagement with India.

In orthodox balance-of-power theory, States choose to balance or bandwagon a hegemonic power. The choice before many of the smaller Asian powers is to bandwagon with rising China, or help balance it. As of now, with a bit of push from the US and Japan, they appear to be following the latter strategy — in classical terms, seeking a state of stability or parity between opposing forces. This was the principle that drove the post-Westphalian State system in Europe, which was based on the understanding that the only way to check power was by ensuring a balance or parity through diplomatic or military action.

But we must be careful not to transpose too much of the 19th century balance-of-power ideas on the situation of today. In a world where rivals like the US and China are each other’s biggest trade partners, and nuclear weapons maintain the balance of terror, competing States need to evolve ways of cooperating with each other and developing a vested interest in the other’s well-being. That is why it would be a serious mistake to see India as an element of some new strategic alliance system aimed at China. True, China’s continuing efforts to hobble India by providing nuclear and missile technology to Pakistan are not those of a friendly country. But big boys don’t cry. They get on with the game. And that is what India is doing in seeking to resolve its border dispute and to forge deeper economic links with China.

There was a time when geopolitical power was defined by simple arithmetic of adding the tanks, aircraft and warships, or counting the GDP numbers and natural resources. No longer. Nuclear weapons can, if used, trump any conventional measure of military strength. But the lesson of the Soviet collapse was that even nuclear weapons cannot get you too far. Russia’s present predicament, among other things, is its adverse demographic profile that limits the advantages of its enormous geographical spread and natural resources. As the example of Japan shows, economic might alone is not enough. Neither, for that matter, as the case of Saudi Arabia would reveal, control over strategic resources like oil.

Power today is a multifarious compound of economic strength, cultural vibrancy, diplomatic skills and, of course, military power. It is as much about location, as it is about an optimum mix of soft and hard power. In all these departments, India has something going for it, and hence the attention it is getting. But India’s role in this is not so much aimed at China, as towards peace and stability of the Asian region.

It is a well-known axiom that the strength of a gravitational force is proportional to the mass of a body. In the Asian context, there is just one country that can approach China in terms of its size, population, economic potential and military capacity, and that is India. The new geopolitics is not about revising the Cold War to contain rising China, but about the emergence of a body with sufficient gravitational force of its own. One that will offset the enormous pull, and consequent strains, that are being exerted on the world system by its rise.

No comments: