About the author:
Waseem Ishaque, Senior Fellow of Taihe Institute; Professor of International Relations, Director of China Study Centre, National University of Modern Languages (NUML), Islamabad, Pakistan
India’s Strategic Outlook
India is an ancient land and culture, a country of multiple colors and creeds thriving on the notion of “unity in diversity.” It has demonstrated marked success in knitting different religions under one identity as Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Buddhists, and Jains live in a reasonably cohesive manner amid differences and fault lines. The current political ethos and philosophy have the deep-rooted imprint of old Indian civilizational underpinnings. India today has acquired sophisticated technology, yet its centuries-old Hindu philosophy of “Kautilya” (the science of material gains) inspires its policies and strategies. However, despite global ambitions, there are certain contradictions in Indian power dynamics. India is producing many Ph.Ds and scientists but has the highest absolute number of illiterates. It has the world’s 3rd richest man,1 yet 25% of its population is living below the poverty line.2 Although its military strength is the 4th best in the world,3 it is Indian soft power, i.e., Indian films and Indian culture, that act as a vehicle for its introduction and projection to the outside world. Upon independence on 15 August, 1947, the nation-state was looking for its survival due to several issues related to internal cohesion, consolidation and coexistence, with a daunting task of settling down around 8 million refugees4 with a reasonable degree of employment and sense of belonging along with reintegration of over 560 princely states.5 India was not expected to survive as a democracy nor hold together as a single nation, but it has demonstrated marked success. The question then being asked was “Will India Survive?” Now, 75 years down the road, that fearful perception has been replaced by an impressive one, “Will India become a Great Power?” with rising stature and influence within South Asia and beyond.
India and South Asian Leadership
India is the largest country in South Asia in terms of population, geography, military, economy, and comprehensive national power. India assumes a very significant position in South Asia as it shares land or maritime borders with all the countries in the South Asian region, and therefore, assumes a pivotal link in the region. India’s economic prowess and military capabilities place her among the leading nations in South and Southeast Asia. For more than a decade, the Indian leadership is focusing on increasing comprehensive national power for a greater role in the region and beyond. The manifestation of Indian foreign policy over the last three decades demonstrates that India has successfully engaged with major powers i.e., the U.S. , China, and Russia through bilateral and multilateral forums and also the Asian region as a whole. The cardinal aspects of Indian aspirations can be summarized as: emerging as a global power with developed economic, technological, and military sophistication; dominating the Indian Ocean, and; seeking a permanent seat in the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). The former Indian Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh stated, “I am convinced that the 21st century will be an Indian Century. The world will once again look at us with regard and respect, not just for the economic progress we make, but for the democratic values we cherish and uphold and the principles of pluralism and inclusiveness we have come to represent which is India’s heritage.”6
In the backdrop of evolving regional and global settings, it may be mentioned that considerable transformation has taken place in India in the economic, political, and social arena in the last two decades. India, with her stable political system, large population, fast-developing economy and growing military hardware, is becoming increasingly assertive in regional as well as extra-regional contexts. A well-conceived and skillfully articulated diplomacy has elevated India as a favorable and responsible country that is considered relevant to both the East and the West.
India’s Great Power Ambitions
India is now one of the rapidly growing economies with remarkable achievements in the last decade. India has surpassed the United Kingdom (UK) and is ranked the 5th largest economy in the world.7 It is also a nuclear weapon state, having the 2nd largest standing army in the world,8 and ranks the 3rd in military expenditure.9 Despite fast industrial development, it continues to confront the challenges of poverty, corruption, illiteracy, weak governance, and insufficient public health facilities, to name a few. India is now a strategic partner of the U.S. and its ambitions of going global have acquired new dimensions. It seeks to be a permanent member of the UNSC to yield considerable global influence and become a regional hegemon in the short to medium term with global ambitions in the long term. Indian accomplishments of the last two decades have led to the formation of a pervasive self-perception among the Indian leadership, that their country is destined for “greatness.” India’s rise was triggered by the post-Cold War international environment in 1991. After the dismemberment of the Soviet Union, a major change in foreign and economic policies of India was witnessed. Since 1991, India has opened its doors to foreign trade and investment, privatized on a massive scale, and promoted competitiveness within India’s private sectors. India improved its bilateral relations with major powers including the U.S., Japan, China, and the European Union (EU). Economic interests led to its membership in regional organizations like ASEAN, the SCO, BRICS and SAARC. Former Indian President Abdul Kalam stated that “I have three visions for India: my first vision is that of freedom, my second vision is development, and my third vision is that India must stand up to the world, because I believe that only strength respects strength.”10 He further added “we need to realize and unleash our potential as a nation, build an economy based on technological leadership, a balanced growth model where rural and urban should co-exist and thrive together.”11 His emphasis was that military and economic power should be developed proportionally and both should complement each other for enabling India to take a leading role in regional and global affairs. At the turn of the millennium, ‘liberalization, privatization and globalization related economic reforms surged, with a growth rate at around 7% in 2003-2004, which has been steadily maintained since then.12 Popular slogans of “shining India” and “incredible India” were coined and projected to make the world believe in Indian accomplishments and consider rising Indian stature for an enhanced role in global governance.
India’s “Act East” and “Neighborhood First” Policy
Many Indian strategists believe that South Asia and the Indian Ocean rim belong to its near abroad, and therefore, India assumes sovereign rights of influence in its periphery. On the other hand, India’s geographical location provides it with an advantageous position for its regional aspirations as India shares land or maritime borders with all the South Asian countries and beyond. South Asia is very important from geopolitical considerations in the Indo-Pacific, due to important sea lines of communication (SLOC), maritime potentials and being home to around two billion people with the most dynamic and fast-growing economies.13 India also considers China as a competitor for regional dominance. Therefore, despite its benign and cooperative outlook, India is not losing any opportunity to compete with China. There is another self-fulfilling perception generated by Indian policymakers that China is bulwarking its maritime assets around the Indian peninsula to counter India and expanding its own sphere of influence in South Asia and the Indian Ocean Region (IOR). Another factor is geopolitics surrounding the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), where India is towing the western line of propagating a “string of pearls” in terms of the development of ports in the Chinese periphery aimed at drawing Western attention in her favor. In the context of neighborhood influence, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has promulgated a “neighborhood first policy”14 to demonstrate a benign posture to attract regional countries into her sphere of influence. Take Indian economic initiatives in Nepal for instance. The infrastructure development projects, electricity projects, and hydropower projects are some of the developments of the recent past. In Bangladesh, India has invested over US$8 billion in different projects15 and Sri Lanka has been provided with an emergency immediate bailout package to avoid total collapse.16 Development of coastal infrastructure and enhancing maritime cooperation have been accorded priority by India with Sri Lanka and the Maldives. India is also capitalizing on its historical and cultural links to South Asian countries by emphasizing “common heritage and shared values.” India’s global vision is based on shaping a new international order. Shyam Saran, the former Foreign Secretary, said in May 2006 that India’s global vision calls for a new international order, and that in the foreseeable future, the international landscape would be influenced by major powers (the U.S., the EU, China, and Russia). He further said that India is emerging as a major power not only because of its political, military, and economic strength, but also because of its capacity to tackle regional crisis.
Today, India’s standing in South Asia is very significant, which puts enormous geo-strategic and geo-economic obligations. The post-pandemic economic problems have impacted South Asia as well, the most spectacular case being Sri Lanka, which has been driven into bankruptcy, where India has emerged as an economic savior. Even though Pakistan’s declining economic indicators, growing energy crisis, internal political strife, and devastating floods have added challenges for South Asia, the political transformations in Nepal, the Maldives and Sri Lanka have brought more pro-India leadership, and Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wazed remains firm in her support for India. This reversal has partly occurred because of domestic political developments. The Maldives’ government of Abdulla Yameen was defeated in the 2018 elections, and a similar fate befell Nepalese Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli three years later. Nepal and India virtually share an economy, with one in five Nepali citizens working in India. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s “neighborhood first policy” aims to further consolidate India’s South Asian dominance, creating a conducive environment for assuming regional and global leadership. The presence of other South Asian leaders at his inaugural ceremony amply highlights the growing Indian desire for re-engagement with the South Asian region. India under Prime Minister Modi did shine for a while, and its position as a leader in South Asia seemed to be accepted by other South Asian countries, barring Pakistan. However, there is a great realization even in Pakistan to maintain positive relations with India without compromising on core national interests.
Soon after taking office, Prime Minister Modi adopted regional approach towards diplomatic engagement and the first country he visited was what India considered its protectorate, Bhutan, and the second was Nepal. In fact, Modi visited Nepal twice in 2014, and Nepal-India relations were at a historic high at one point. The Modi government is trying to create more tangible grounds for smaller neighbors to automatically look towards India, and the most important aspect is strengthening connectivity, trade and investment with Bangladesh and Nepal. This includes road and rail corridors, power grids and smart passes for container traffic. Indian firms are also encouraged to invest in these countries, while the tangible success is limited, however, on a positive trajectory. India has been forthcoming in helping Sri Lanka by providing emergency relief packages by shipping fuel, food, fertilizer, and medicine to prevent its collapse. The former Nepalese Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal met with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in July. Bangladesh’s leader visited India in early September and agreed to start negotiations for a bilateral trade agreement and consider arms purchases from India. In the overall construct, India has demonstrated skillful diplomacy in engaging with its South Asian neighbors and has handled trivial issues to a manageable level, which has provided great leverage and diplomatic space to India.
Indian Charm Diplomacy in South Asia
Indian foreign policy is influenced by the re-discovery of the soft power approach in the South Asian context. The significant consideration towards this policy change is that the overt use of hard power coupled with coercive diplomacy could not pay the desired dividends. The failed experience of withdrawal of the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) from Sri Lanka in 1990 resulted in the assassination of Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, and the escalating tensions with Pakistan demonstrated the limitations of hard power. Therefore, India had to undo its negative image of a regional hegemon to a cooperative partner and improve relations with neighboring countries with a benign outlook and soft power. The growing Chinese cooperative engagement with South Asian countries generated anxiety in Indian policy circles, which was perceived as infringing the Indian sphere of influence. In the last decade or so, China has embraced the South Asian states with unwavering diplomatic support to Sri Lanka in international forums, large financial assistance, and investments in infrastructure development such as Hambantota in Sri Lanka and Gwadar Port in Pakistan, and with the establishment of Confucius Centers across the region. To counter Chinese engagement, India has over the years included more soft power elements in its regional strategy, which contain a benign foreign policy, promotion of economic interdependence and strong cultural cooperation. By emphasizing the principles of “non-interference” and “cooperative engagement” in its relations with smaller neighbors, India has demonstrated to alleviate any fears of hegemonic ambitions.
Indian Multilateral and Bilateral Diplomacy
To be able to achieve its domestic, regional, and global ambitions, India has diversified its diplomacy to new levels. India has successfully entered regional and international organizations, which testify to Indian rising stature as these organizations embrace Indian engagement. While keeping its core national interests supreme and respecting others’ sensitivities, India has redefined its foreign policy of prudence and constructive engagement.Indian ambitions of a permanent seat at UNSC, membership/observer status in G-20, G-7, BRICS, ASEAN, the SCO, SAARC, OIC, and APEC validate India’s growing footprints in the region and beyond. At the bilateral level, Indo-US strategic partnership, Indo-US nuclear deal, and Indian entry into US Indo-Pacific strategy and Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QUAD) provide significant evidence of India-U.S. relations and ambitions. Another significant development is the “ This alliance resulted in the institution of the U.S.-Japan-India Strategic Dialogue in 2011, which reiterated support for enhanced Indian role at the global level. A Pentagon report titled “Sustaining U.S. Global Leadership: Priorities for Century Defense” states that “The United States is also investing in a long-term strategic partnership with India to support its ability to serve as a regional economic anchor and provider of security in the broader Indian Ocean region. India’s standing as the world’s largest democracy with secular values makes it a natural ally for democracies including the United States, Japan, and others.” India-Russia strategic partnership spread over several decades has promoted interests of the two countries in the past and will continue to promote the same in the future as well. India has renewed its focus on engagement in the Middle East and special types of relations with Iran, Afghanistan, and Central Asian states for an expanded economic and security role. The Indian economic development assistance of approximately US$3 billion in Afghanistan17 during the pre-Taliban era and reported Indian diplomatic engagement with the Taliban government in Afghanistan highlight the significance of Indian preferences. Despite differences with China on border issues, the trajectory of bilateral relations is witnessing upward trends. The leaderships on both sides are aware of the benefits of interdependence and constructive engagement and realize their obligations in the evolving strategic milieu. Today the bilateral trade between India and China has crossed US$125 billion18 and is increasing every year.
Indian Regional Ambitions in the Context of China Containment
The Indian motivations to become part of the U.S.-led alliance in the Indo-Pacific emanates from the key concept, which underlines “strengthening ties with the Indo-Pacific powers, especially with the U.S., Japan, Australia, Indonesia and Vietnam.” Such a venture is aimed at getting India closer to US alliance umbrella for the containment of China. Another important aspect is to improve India’s capability to conduct military operations in the Indian Ocean. Japan and Australia have been proactive in this regard. Japan has increased its defense cooperation with both Australia and India, while Australia has increased its defense cooperation with Japan, India, and South Korea. In addition, like the United States, all of these countries incline to prefer both bilateral relationships and multilateral forums. The United States has been at the forefront in posturing multilateral defense cooperation with and among these countries, (Japan, South Korea, Australia, the Philippines, and Thailand), in which other selected countries such as India and Indonesia have been invited to participate. Indian strategists recognize that China is reliant on the sea lines of communication (SLOC) that pass through the Indian Ocean, where due to its proximity, India enjoys an advantageous position. The upgrade of naval bases in Andaman and Nicobar Islands and Lakshadweep fits into the Indian strategy of domination of the SLOC. India considers the four-nation alliance QUAD as yet another strategic opportunity provided by the U.S. for an enhanced Indian role, which aptly fits in the China containment policy, and India has willingly embraced it. It is assumed that other nations of the QUAD and Indo-Pacific region may have their primary interests in the Pacific Ocean, and India is considered a linchpin in fulfilling a greater role in both the Indian Ocean and the Pacific Ocean. Indian strategists consider the Indo-Pacific as a new theater of opportunity to raise India’s profile regionally and globally. India, on the one hand, is therefore embarking on an ambitious and dubious plan of engaging at diplomatic and military levels with the countries of the Indo-Pacific and the U.S.-led initiative aimed at containment of China, while on the other hand is cooperating with China to draw economic benefits as well. In fact, India is projecting itself as a balancing actor between the U.S. and China for enhancing relevance and stature.
Growing Indian Influence: A Challenge or an Opportunity
For dispassionate analyses of growing Indian influence in South Asia and beyond, it is imperative to understand Indian cultural transformation and foreign policy orientation, creating great power ambitions in Indian strategic calculus. There are core traits of Indian strategic culture that have persisted since independence despite shifts in Indian strategic, foreign and security policies during and after the Cold War. Presently, India is at a pivotal moment in its history. The extraordinary changes of the last two decades are fundamentally transforming the Indian economy and society. The foundations of Indian success will, therefore, depend on its strategic and developmental orientation. Indian core strategic objectives focus on effective diplomacy and economic engagement.19 India aspires to become an indispensable power in the littorals of the Indian Ocean and Southwest Pacific,20 which would enable India to increase its footprint in global governance, where the quest for a permanent seat at UNSC is crucial. Constructive engagement with Asia is a key concern for Indian foreign policy on the premise that Asia hosts dynamic potential economies; intensifying economic engagement with these countries remains vital to Indian interests and is the key to Indian “Look East Policy.” Strategic rivalries extending from the East China Sea to the Indian Ocean involving global stakes, where India can assume the role of balancer and great powers’ competition with China would create an opportunity for India to offset Chinese strategic footprints by way of maritime competition in the Indian Ocean region. India has demonstrated paradoxical foreign and trade policy towards China where, on one hand, India has developed more constructive relations with improved diplomacy and bilateral trade; on the other hand, it is pushing more aggressive policies against China by accepting a pivotal role in US Indo-Pacific strategy and QUAD alliance detrimental to China’s core national interests. Indian presence in BRICS, ASEAN, the SCO, and other regional initiatives are welcomed developments. However, Indo-U.S. collaborations directed against China are not considered beneficial for enduring relations. It can therefore be summed up that India is trying to strike a careful balance between cooperation and competition, economic and political interests, and bilateral and regional contexts with China.
Countervailing Strategy for Re-balancing Indian Influence
We are living in the era of globalization and interdependence, where cooperative and constructive engagements out of a zero-sum game are the new norms of interstate relations, while realist notions provide incentives to the countries aspiring to enhance their areas of influence and dominations involving power politics, usually in terms of zero-sum. More specifically, in the West Asian, South Asian, and Southeast Asian contexts, the great powers’ competition is at play in one way or the other. Therefore, India has assumed a central role in US policy circles for South and Southeast Asia as amply highlighted in US National Security Strategy, the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework, US National Defense Strategy, and QUAD. India has willingly embraced the U.S.-led partnership initiatives, which not only provide diplomatic space to India, but also render India a regional power. The Indian influence in South Asia has been prompted by two exceptional circumstances: one in Sri Lanka and the other in Pakistan, where many analysts, especially Western writers, have attributed economic difficulties of these countries to China’s investment and perceived debt burden, contrary to the facts and ground realities. Secondly, since President Trump’s time in office, the U.S. has overtly embarked upon the cold war mentality of negative competition against China, where India has been granted a greater regional role. Another factor is that receding Chinese visibility in South Asia has also provided an incentive for India to capitalize on its neighborhood policy through soft power and cultural invasion. Against this backdrop, the following is suggested.
The Indian aspirations have been exemplified with empirical evidence since its independence and there is no denying the fact that India aspires to become a regional hegemon in the short to medium term with global ambitions in the long term. In the last two decades, India’s foreign policy has been manifested in a more benign way through cooperative engagement professing common cultural heritage, as well as the same regional and civilizational values. In fact, Indian soft power has provided the desired leverage and impetus to Indian regional accomplishments. However, despite geopolitical considerations, great power competition, and Indian regional ambitions, the space exists for wider Chinese engagement with South Asia and beyond, where perception management and more robust engagement with regional countries shall open many avenues of cooperation.
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17. Nirupama Subramanian, “What Are India’s Investments in Afghanistan?,” The Indian Express, July 16, 2021, https://indianexpress.com/article/explained/explained-indias-afghan-investment-7406795/.
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20. C. Raja Mohan, “India’s Strategic Future,” Foreign Policy, November 4, 2012, https://foreignpolicy.com/2010/11/04/indias-strategic-future-2/.
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