Thursday, September 18, 2014

Handling Great Power Relations

The Asian security situation is slowly deteriorating, the consequence of both China's rise as well Washington's seeming fickleness that is sending its allies such as Japan looking for new allies in the region.  But its not just Japan that is feeling the effect of insecurity: Vietnam (where Indian President just completed a state visit) and Australia (whose Prime Minister Tony Abbot also was in Delhi recently) are also worried, as are others which have territorial disputes with China, such as the Philippines.  But China is taking efforts to prevent these Asian powers from coming together, primarily focusing on India and Australia.  That is smart and prudent strategy.  President Xi visit to India this week has to be seen in this light.

But from India's perspective, it has to be clear-eyed about how the game is played.  There is no reason to unnecessarily antagonize China by trying to create an Asian alliance against it, but neither should New Delhi let Beijing dictate how it plays the game.  In the long-term, India's strategic interests are not compatible with China.  Once this simple strategic truth is accepted, all else should fall into place. The reason why India's strategic interest are not compatible with China is because India, like other Asian and global powers, has no interest in seeing any one Asian power dominate the continent.  This becomes even more important if China's relative power continues to grow.  India, of course, has other serious disputes too with China, ranging for territorial issues to China's support for Pakistan. None of this means India should not talk to China or engage in trade or frequently exaggerate border incidents.  It does mean that India needs to both engage and balance.

President Xi's visit to India provided a good opportunity to write on some of these issues.  My essay was published in Economic Times, and reproduced below.

India needs to deftly deal with multiple strategic partners, and with China

Chinese President Xi Jinping's visit to India and Prime Minister Narendra Modi's visit to the US will cap a very busy three months for India's foreign policy. It has also been a heady period, with India being wooed by multiple strategic partners.

So, India faces a unique problem of plenty in strategic partners. This is a nice problem to have, but it's still a problem. While it is understandable that New Delhi might want to simply celebrate its newfound importance in the international arena, what it needs even more is clear and calculated longterm thinking to navigate this pitfall of opportunities.

To paraphrase the Athenian historian, philosopher and general Thucydides, China's rise and the fear this causes in Asia and elsewhere is at the root of India's importance. China's aggressiveness has frightened even the more powerful Asian powers such as Japan.

Over the medium term, concerns about China's rise and its attitude are worrying both smaller Asia-Pacific powers as well as the US. President Barack Obama's uneven and semi-isolationist foreign policy notwithstanding, the US would like a closer long-term strategic partnership with India to balance China's rise.

US defence secretary Chuck Hagel, during his visit to Delhi last month, broke new ground by offering co-development of advanced military technologies such as an electromagnetic catapult system for aircraft carriers.

The increasingly tense relationship between the West and Moscow and Moscow's warming ties with Beijing add an additional layer of strategic complexity for India.

Strategic vs Economic Gains

But a surfeit of suitors does not mean that they are all equally suitable. India has much to gain from all. But the calculus gets simplified when long-term strategic incompatibilities are also considered.

Between the US and Japan on the one hand, and China on the other, the potential for differences and danger is far greater with the latter. This does not obviate mutually beneficial cooperation with China, especially in the economic arena.

However, New Delhi should not let the economic tail wag the strategic dog. A strong and welcome new theme in India's foreign policy is a focus on the economic side of diplomacy. But it would be a mistake to assume that closer economic relations will minimise strategic challenges.

China has antagonised many of its neighbours and it has a strong incentive in ensuring that it does not do the same with India, which is why it is wooing New Delhi. But while it has offered economic benefits, there is little to indicate that its larger strategic objectives in Asia have changed, or that it sees India as anything but a hindrance to these objectives.

There is no change in China's efforts at balancing India through Pakistan, or undermining India in global multilateral agencies like the Nuclear Supplier's Group. New Delhi should not pick unnecessary fights with China. But neither should it ignore these strategic realities in building economic relations with Beijing.

Mutual Benefit

New Delhi should also work to minimise other hazards in dealing with India's new strategic importance. For one, it might be tempting to assume that because India has so many suitors, it needs to do little. India's foreign policy has repeatedly been let down by the hubris of assuming that others need us more than we need them.

Sensible policy should recognise that partnerships are about mutual benefit. While we have a lot to benefit, we need to be prepared to support others too. New Delhi has made a start in this direction by upgrading India's strategic partnership with Tokyo.

But it should make an effort to translate this into something meaningful. For example, India could consider multilateral military exercises, which the previous UPA government had all but eliminated because of fear of China's objections.

Dual-Headed Elephant

New Delhi also needs to avoid the easy temptations of non-alignment. Between the false choices of alignment and non-alignment lie a whole world of strategic choices that can generate greater security without being dragged into the disputes of other countries, the great bogey of Indian foreign policy.

India should take a leaf out of China's book: China partnered with the US against Moscow during the later Cold War and has now switched partners, effectively gaining both strategic partnership and flexibility. What New Delhi needs is that kind of strategic clarity and pragmatism.