Remapping India’s geopolitics
C. RAJA MOHAN
THE rise of China and the emergence of India are reshaping the political geography of the world. As a neighbour of China, now second only to the United States in the global hierarchy, India feels the multiple consequences of Beijing’s rapidly growing comprehensive national power. Meanwhile, India has become the sixth largest economy in the world and is gaining considerable agency in influencing the world around it. Yet, the political class and the commentariat in Delhi has trouble adjusting their mental maps. Two new ideas about the physical space around us – the Indo-Pacific and Eurasia – are beginning to compel India to replace the old signposts in India’s strategic cartography.
President Donald Trump’s decision to use the term ‘Indo-Pacific’ to describe a region that is more commonly known at the ‘Asia Pacific’ during his extended tour of the region in November 2017 surprised many observers, including those in India. But the conception of the ‘Indo-Pacific’ has steadily gained traction in recent years amidst China’s rise, Beijing’s growing interests in the Indian Ocean and Delhi’s expanding footprint in the Pacific Ocean. Although its predecessors had used the phrase occasionally, the Trump administration has embraced it with some gusto. The essence of the change from Asia Pacific to the Indo-Pacific is the new emphasis on India’s role in shaping the regional order. According to Gen. H.R. McMaster, the term, Indo-Pacific ‘captures the importance of India’s rise’. As book ends to this vast littoral – ‘India to the West and America to the East’ – McMaster is betting that India and the United States will work to secure peace and prosperity in the region.
India’s enthusiasm for the Indo-Pacific stands in contrast to Delhi’s drift towards a Eurasian coalition in the aftermath of the Cold War. Afraid of the unipolar moment, Delhi warmed up to the Russian proposal for a strategic triangle with China and India. The RIC morphed eventually into the BRICS forum with the addition of Brazil and South Africa. India now finds itself in a very different place. Its relations with the US have significantly improved; its ties with China are heading South and its traditional partnership with Russia is in a stasis. Today India’s strategic troubles stem less from American power and a lot more from the growing imbalance with Beijing, China’s political assertiveness on bilateral disputes and its growing penetration into the subcontinent and the Indian Ocean, where Delhi claims primacy.
China’s economy today is nearly five times larger than that of India. It is also bigger than the economies of all other BRICS nations put together. Despite the growing discomfort with the forum, Delhi has no plans to walk out of BRICS; nor is Delhi prepared to put all its eggs in the American basket. It hopes to develop a path all of its own to navigate the new opportunities and challenges in the politics among old and new great powers. If the BRICS forum was about promoting multipolarity in the world, the Quad is about ensuring multipolarity in the Indo-Pacific. The success of any new Indian strategy will depend upon Delhi’s ability to strengthen its own independent profile and local partnerships in the Indo-Pacific and Eurasia. That in turn rests on Delhi’s better appreciation of the two geopolitical concepts – Indo-Pacific and Eurasia.
The idea of Indo-Pacific is not as new as it looks. Amidst the surge of geopolitical thinking at the turn of the 20th century, Alfred Thayer Mahan talked of the region stretching from Asia Minor to the Korean Peninsula emerging as a decisive theatre in global politics.1 The German strategist Karl Haushofer spoke of the Indo-Pacific space in the 1920s.2 The importance of this region during the Second World War was reflected in the Burma-China-India theatre where the British Raj, nationalist China and the United States joined forces to end the Japanese occupation of South East Asia.3 The inward orientation of China and India after the war saw the erosion of the concept of Indo-Pacific. If the two oceans as well as South and East Asia were increasingly seen as separate entities, the rise of China and the slower emergence of India inevitably restored the interconnections between the Pacific and the Indian Oceans as well as East and South Asia.
One of the earliest proponents of the case for putting India in the East Asian matrix came from Singapore. As the ASEAN prepared to launch the East Asia Summit in 2005, Singapore’s senior minister Goh Chok Tong argued that, ‘India’s rise compels us to look at our environment in new ways. It will be increasingly less tenable to regard South Asia and East Asia as distinct strategic theatres interacting only at the margins. Of course, US-China-Japan relations will still be important. But a new grand strategic triangle of US-China-India relations will be superimposed upon it, creating an environment of greater complexity.’4 Singapore extended strong support for admitting India as a founding member of the EAS.
If Singapore was quick to see the renewed relevance of India for the Asian security architecture, Japan embraced the concept wholeheartedly and articulated the concept of Indo-Pacific. Addressing the Indian Parliament in August 2007, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe talked about the ‘confluence of the two seas’. ‘The Pacific and the Indian Oceans are now bringing about a dynamic coupling as seas of freedom and of prosperity. A "broader Asia" that broke away geographical boundaries is now beginning to take on a distinct form. Our two countries have the ability – and the responsibility – to ensure that it broadens yet further and to nurture and enrich these seas.’5
After Abe, the Obama administration began to use the phrase occasionally. While some used the concept of ‘Indo-Pacific’ others began to use the term ‘Indo-Asia-Pacific’. But the essence of the idea was similar: that there was growing integration between the two oceans and that a rising India will have much to contribute to peace and prosperity in the region. Beyond the Indian factor, the framing of a space spanning the two oceans found quick resonance in two countries – Australia and Indonesia – whose location is at the intersection of the Indian and Pacific Oceans. The debate on the problems and prospects for the new geopolitical construct gathered much intellectual steam in the second decade of the 21st century. While there was much support, there was also much criticism especially from Beijing. The argument was that the Indo-Pacific was a ‘artificial super-region’ being constructed to isolate China.
There indeed was much hesitation in Delhi about embracing the idea of Indo-Pacific. While some saw the opportunity for India to expand its global footprint, others saw it as a likely attempt by the US to draw India into a containment ring against China. While Prime Minister Manmohan Singh occasionally used the term Indo-Pacific, not everyone in the government appeared convinced. If it was an ideological problem for some, others questioned the practical utility of the concept. The government of Narendra Modi, which took charge of the nation in May 2014, began to adopt the term ‘Indo-Pacific’, slowly but certainly. Under Modi, Delhi has also endorsed the conception of a ‘free and open Indo-Pacific’ articulated by Abe.
By the end of 2017, the US too was adopting the theme of free and open Indo-Pacific. In his speech during October 2017 the US Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson called for a hundred year partnership in the Indo-Pacific between the United States and an India that was ‘rising responsibly’. ‘The world’s centre of gravity is shifting to the heart of the Indo-Pacific. The US and India – with our shared goals of peace, security, freedom of navigation, and a free and open architecture – must serve as the eastern and western beacons of the Indo-Pacific. As the port and starboard lights between which the region can reach its greatest and best potential.’6 Tillerson was signalling that Washington has put the ‘Indo-Pacific’ firmly in the American lexicon.
The advocacy of the Indo-Pacific construct has been accompanied by a call for the creation of a coalition of Asian democracies. In his speech to the Indian Parliament in 2007, Abe argued that the ‘broader Asia’ formed by the strategic partnership between Japan and India, ‘will evolve into an immense network spanning the entirety of the Pacific Ocean, incorporating the United States of America and Australia. Open and transparent, this network will allow people, goods, capital, and knowledge to flow freely.’ The quad seemed to perish after just one round of consultations between senior officials of the four countries in the summer of 2007 amidst protests from China. In 2008, the newly elected Australian government led by Kevin Rudd publicly rejected the concept of the Asian quad.
That was not the end of the quad though. After he returned as the prime minister of Japan at the end of 2012, Abe sought to revive the quad. In article for the mass media, Abe confessed that he had significantly underestimated the pace and scope of China’s maritime rise when he addressed the Indian Parliament in 2007. Amidst China’s assertiveness in the East and South China Seas and its power projection into the Indian Ocean, Abe envisaged a strategy ‘whereby Australia, India, Japan, and the US state of Hawaii form a diamond to safeguard the maritime commons stretching from the Indian Ocean region to the western Pacific. I am prepared to invest, to the greatest possible extent, Japan’s capabilities in this security diamond.’ Abe certainly kept his word and stepped up maritime activism in the Indo-Pacific and pressed India, US and Australia to revive the quad. Although the Indian leaders across the political spectrum had special warmth for Abe, they seemed reluctant to revive the quad.
Amidst the deteriorating relationship with China through 2016-17 and persistent calls from Washington and Tokyo to resurrect the quad, Delhi appears to have made a fresh calculation on the pluses and minuses of joining the forum. After India gave the green light, senior officials from the four countries met on the margins of the November 2017 East Asia Summit in the Philippines. There were no dramatic outcomes from the meeting. That the four countries issued separate statements at the end of the meeting underlined that the construction of the quad is work in progress. The competing priorities and interests of the four partners and their separate stakes in a reasonable relationship with China are likely to complicate the construction of a coalition. There are also worries in Delhi, Tokyo and Canberra about the political direction of the US under Trump and the concerns about America’s isolationist turn. Nevertheless, Delhi’s readiness to explore the prospects for the quad mark an important moment in India’s great power relations.
While the Indo-Pacific construct has now become part of India’s strategic discourse, Eurasia does not yet figure in it. Like the Indo-Pacific, the concept of Eurasia is quite familiar to geographers. Marine biogeographers use the Indo-Pacific to describe the large stretch of tropical waters from the east coast of Africa to the Western Pacific that has many common features. For geologists, Eurasia refers to a tectonic plate that lies under much of what we know as Europe and Asia. But it is in the domain of politics that the terms Indo-Pacific and Eurasia acquire a baggage all of their own.
India is certainly not unaware of the concept of Eurasia. Those in Delhi dealing with Russian politics are certainly conscious of it. That awareness is reflected in the establishment of a Eurasia Division in India’s Ministry of External Affairs that deals with a significant part of the post-Soviet space. That Eurasia is in essence the post-Soviet space is quite close to the most common usage of the term. Scholars around the world have now come to accept ‘Eurasia’ as a broad description of the region comprising of Eastern Europe, Russia and Central Asia. Some others use the terms ‘Eurasia’ or ‘Central Eurasia’ to describe the non-European parts of the Soviet Union, including the territories of Central Asia and the Caucasus. This approximates more closely to the idea of ‘Inner Asia’ that was prevalent in the late 19th and early 20th century geopolitical discourse.
The idea of ‘Eurasia’ has a special nationalist resonance in Russia. Eurasia is supposed to represent a unique cultural, spiritual and geographic space that is neither East nor West but lies in between. For many in Russia, Eurasia invokes either the memories of the vast Russian empire or rekindles nostalgia for the Soviet Union.7 More recently, Russian President Vladimir Putin has talked about a ‘Greater Eurasia Project’. Unable to either re-integrate the former Soviet republics into Russia or integrate into the West, Putin is now seeks to reposition Russia as a swing state that can tilt the balance of power across the vast Eurasian lands stretching from Portugal to Korea and the Arctic to the Indian Ocean.8
Although Russia might be the geographic heart of Eurasia, it is China that appears poised to define the new geopolitics of this vast landmass. Its rapid economic growth and the massive accumulation of exportable capital have translated into an ambitious programme to develop trans-regional infrastructure across Eurasia. President Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative that aims to connect different parts of Eurasia through overland and maritime corridors is a potent symbol of the unfolding trend towards the integration of Europe and Asia.9
Beyond connectivity, China has become a major economic partner for most European countries. With growing economic interdependence has come unprecedented political influence in key capitals of Western Europe. Even as it sets its own terms for engagement with the European Union China is widely seen as undermining the EU by setting up a separate group (C-CEEC) to promote China’s Cooperation with sixteen Central and East European Countries.10
Equally significant has been China’s effort to cultivate the Central and East European countries. Beijing has launched a forum called C-CEEC that promotes cooperation between China and sixteen Central and East European Countries. It is more popularly known as ‘sixteen plus one’. That India has hardly shown any interest in this new forum underlines the problem it has in dealing with a changing Eurasia.
To be sure, China is not about to supplant America’s large military footprint, Russia’s political weight or European Union’s economic heft in Central Europe. But in exporting large amounts of capital for infrastructure development, drawing its economies eastward, and creating new political groupings, China has begun to undermine the western hubris and Russian self-regard in Central Europe. It also widens the strategic options for Central European states. Fed up with bullying from both Brussels and Moscow, the Central Europeans are quite happy to play ball with China. With a solid strategic partnership with Russia, growing political and economic influence in Central Asia as well as in Eastern and Western halves of Europe, China has emerged at a pivotal position in Eurasia.
The dramatic expansion of China’s reach and weight in the Indo-Pacific and Eurasia puts Delhi in a big bind. Delhi has put India back in play in the maritime world by accepting the Indo-Pacific idea and opening itself to the quad. But Delhi will find the going a lot tougher in Eurasia. Russia’s interest in the Eurasian coalition stemmed from a determination to keep the Russian partnership going after the collapse of the Soviet Union. It also was premised on the bet that India had much in common with China in international arena and that cooperation on global issues will help limit the conflict at the bilateral level. Both the premises are under stress now. India’s relations with Russia have stagnated and those with China have hit a new low. If you take arms sales out of the equation, there is little content to India’s partnership with Moscow. Meanwhile, Russia and China have drawn much closer and the divergence between the views of Delhi and Moscow on Pakistan and Afghanistan is growing. Russia and China, in turn, are deeply wary of India’s new warmth towards America. The renewed tensions between the US on the one hand, and Russia and China on the other, has added new complexity to India’s strategy in Eurasia.
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Delhi has tried quite hard to strengthen its position in Central Asian region. As one of the few non-Communist countries with access to the region during the Soviet era, India seemed well placed to establish a substantive partnership with the post-Soviet states. But the Great Himalayan barrier, post-Partition geography and the lack of resources and institutional capabilities have made it hard for India to develop connectivity with Central Asia. India has tried to find alternative routes into Afghanistan and Central Asia since Pakistan blocked Delhi’s access to the region. There has been some success in 2017 with the formal launch of the first phase of the Chabahar port in Iran. It will be a while though before Chabahar becomes a genuine gateway into inner Asia. India has also become a full member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization that brings the region together. The organization is dominated by China and Russia, and Delhi’s ability to influence it in the near term may be limited. It is China, which borders the region, that has gained most in Central Asia in the period after the Cold War. Beijing has also replaced Moscow as the key economic partner of Central Asia.
Further West in Eurasia, Delhi has established a strategic partnership with the European Union at the turn of the new millennium. But here again, Delhi has seemed incapable of taking full advantage of the political goodwill and a historic economic connection with the leading West European nations. If the European Union had its door open for India, Delhi appeared reluctant to walk through it. If the European Union seemed low on India’s priorities, Central Europe seemed to just fall off India’s political radar. India, which had much engagement with the region during the Cold War, thanks to the Soviet connection, does not seem too interested in reaching out and rebuilding the partnership under new political and economic conditions. Reconnecting to Europe will be an important step towards a more purposeful Indian engagement with Eurasia.
Delhi’s worldview traditionally defined in terms of an irreconcilable tension between ‘East and West’, ‘North and South’ or ‘Europe and Asia’ is becoming unsustainable as China’s Belt and Road Initiative begins to connect the Pacific with the Indian Ocean and breaks down the notion that Europe with Asia are different places. Meanwhile, as America turns inward under Trump, there are concerns about the credibility and sustainability of US alliances in Eurasia and the Indo-Pacific. Most countries including the traditional US allies and new partners like India will be compelled to hedge their bets and find ways to develop regional partnerships within Eurasia and the Indo-Pacific. The old metrics of foreign policy purity in Delhi – distance from the West and solidarity with the East – make no sense as Chinese expansion and American retrenchment reshape the political and economic geography of Eurasia and the Indo-Pacific.
1. Alfred Thayer Mahan, The Problem of Asia: Its Effect Upon International Politics (New York, 1900) republished by Transaction Publishers, London, 2003, p. 66.
2. See Francis P. Sempa, ‘Karl Haushoher and the Rise of the Monsoon Countries’, The Diplomat, 10 March 2015 available at https://thediplomat.com/2015/03/karl-haushofer-and-the-rise-of-the-monsoon-countries/
3. See, Christopher Bayly and Tim Harper, Forgotten Armies: Britain’s Asian Empire and the War with Japan. Penguin, London, 2005; see also Srinath Raghavan, India’s War: The Making of Modern South Asia, 1939-1945. Penguin, Delhi, 2016.
4. Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong, Keynote address at the launch of the Institute for South Asian Studies, Singapore, January 27, 2005; available at <http://www.nas.gov.sg/archives online/speeches/view-html?filename= 2005012701.htm>
5. PM Shinzo Abe, ‘Confluence of two seas’, address to the Indian Parliament, 22 January 2007, available at http://www.mofa.go.jp/ region/asia-paci/pmv0708/speech-2.html
6. US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, ‘Defining our relationship with India for the next century’, Washington DC, 18 October 2017; available at https://www.state.gov/ secretary/remarks/2017/10/274913.htm
7. For a comprehensive discussion, see Mark Bassin and Gonzalo Pozo, The Politics of Eurasianism. Rowman and Littlefield, London, 2017.
8. For a discussion, see Dmirtri Trenin, ‘Russia’s Evolving Grand Eurasia Strategy: Will it Work?’, 20 July 2017, Carnegie Moscow Center, available at < http://carnegie.ru/2017/07/20/russia-s-evolving-grand-eurasia-strategy-will-it-work-pub-71588>
9. See Nadege Rolland, China’s Eurasian Century?: Political and Strategic Implications of the Belt and Road Initiative. National Bureau of Asian Research, Seattle, 2017.
10. See Francois Godemont and Abigail Vasslier, China at the Gates: A New Power Audit of EU-China Relations. European Council on Foreign Relations, London, 2017; see also Lucrezia Poggetti, ‘China’s Charm Offensive in Eastern Europe Challenges EU Cohesion’, The Diplomat, 24 November 2017.