Asia, a cluster of 50 independent nations, is a crowded neighbourhood acting as the centre of gravity for both the world economy and global geopolitics. The continent is a tense corridor of heavily armed countries with traditional power politics and sensitive geopolitical flashpoints. The very region that was relegated during the Cold War now holds a rough 50 per cent stake in the global economy and world trade. India and China, the regional contenders, account for nearly 26 per cent of the world’s GDP and PPP(Purchasing Power Parity). The quest for regional primacy hinges on 2 major factors; the foreign policy route and geopolitical strategy adopted by its key players: India and China. India’s former Foreign Secretary and Ambassador, Ms Nirupama Rao, reiterates the need for India to address the “Dragon” in the room as tensions with its neighbour have increased significantly in the last year. “That template can no longer hold after Galwan”, said Ms Rao referring to the previous relationship equilibrium held by India for over 3 decades since the late 1980s. China centred its vision on accumulating hard and global economic power from the ’80s, a period when both countries were virtually at a level playing field. The meteoric rise of China at the global centre stage, as a potential superpower, has masked India’s political weight and economic preponderance. China’s route to being a global hegemon rests primarily on its ability to dominate its backyard; tighten its grip on Hong Kong and Taiwan, in addition to establishing a maritime presence in the South China Sea. The One Belt One Road initiative, Xi Jinping’s brainchild, is the next plausible step for China to achieve inter-continental connectivity. China is willing to spend trillions of dollars on this “Project of the Century” which spans three continents and touches 60 per cent of the world’s population. China’s Belt and Road Initiative is the most ambitious infrastructure project in modern history designed to re-route global trade. A section of foreign policy analysts, on one side of the political spectrum, consider the project as China’s Marshall Plan whereas the other side views it as an “economic debt trap”. On the question regarding the changing contours of the Asian geopolitical landscape, currently tilted towards the Dragon, India’s former NSA, Mr Shivshankar Menon and Ambassador Rao highlighted the balancing role that India ought to play in order to maintain a peaceful equilibrium. They pointed out the pivotal position occupied by India geographically in the Indian Peninsula which cements their influence in the region in addition to sheltering them from the constantly changing and fluid political arena. India has rightly been accorded the status of a “continental power” and is endowed by nature to be a natural maritime dominance. However, much more weightage has been given to its land frontiers, with waterways receiving less administrative attention. “
The rise of China saw a re-alignment of interests in the Indo-Pacific; a change in the definition of outward links with the rest of the world”, highlighted Mr Menon while referring to the formation of the QUAD alliance. The strategic nexus between India-Japan-Australia, led by the US, is now less hesitant and more overt of its opposition and hostility towards China. The QUAD alliance is meant to enhance regional security, protect key resilient supply chains and keep strategic sea routes in the Indo-Pacific free from external influence. “China sees QUAD as a serious power on her periphery”, said Mr Shivshankar Menon, and to quote Ms Nirupama Rao, “The Chinese are overtly dismissive of this alliance and are uneasy over the emergence of this body”. So, how exactly should India steer its foreign policy in the midst of such a complex geopolitical landscape? The answer lies in focusing on increased connectivity, building pragmatic relations and a foreign policy for the “multitude” while simultaneously looking at the larger picture. The two dignitaries reiterate the importance of “smart diplomacy” by leveraging the soft power that India possesses smartly; taking advantage of our shared history, common ancestry and similar culture. India has tremendous affinities in the subcontinent but needs to tread carefully in the way they use this cultural narrative, by respecting others’ identities and working them at the same time. With this, the potential for cultural preponderance is enormous. Circling back to China, the speakers talk of the huge leaps of progress made by the Chinese since the ’80s and their insecurity to see their own weight in the region. While the weakening political interaction within the bi-partisan USA and questions raised over the strength of its democratic structures have certainly given China a forward push, one cannot simply turn a blind eye towards some limitations that The Dragon faces. It has contained maritime geography and depends on the world supply chains for energy resources, an external market, even semiconductors. “China is powerful yet dependent and isolated, in a sense.” Its relevance stays intact till the time it controls its lifelines, like militarizing the South China Sea: critical for its future.
China’s track record of achieving a 10 per cent economic growth rate per year, for the last 3 decades, has slowed down. China’s “wolf warrior diplomacy” based on the narrative of Chinese nationalism makes it a tough shell to crack and endangers the very essence of diplomatic relations which require mutual give and take along with reasonable bargains. “CCP’s policies have made China seemingly non-negotiable and harder to settle with”, says Mr Menon. The Chinese take offence at things they won’t have taken seriously ten years ago. Nevertheless, as we are on the cusp of a fourth industrial revolution in the form of AI, the Chinese have burst upon the world’s seams in an unprecedented manner. The very contours of the world have changed. The US is determined to undermine and prevent the rise of China as an alternative.
“No hegemon shares power willingly or happily”, as rightly pointed out by Ambassador Rao. In relations with West Asia, particularly the Middle East, India needs to maintain cordial ties and tap into the export market as it relies heavily on the region for crude oil imports. India simply cannot ignore the Middle East. It needs to spread its footprints and parallel the increasing Chinese influence in the region, particularly through its investments in the Chabahar Port in Iran. However, the increasing political instability at home complemented by economic contraction and cultural regression have left little room for the administration to discuss or focus on external affairs. “We still have a major job of transformation to achieve at home. We have regressed. Too much to do at home”, said Mr Ravishankar Menon. In order to achieve deterrence with China, a stage we enjoyed till the ’80s, India needs a policy of “affirmative action”. Till then, it needs to maintain a peaceful periphery before restoring the same level of deterrence. Fraught relations on our frontiers have made it tougher to deal with some hostile neighbours.
The speakers concluded by emphasizing the need for India to formulate its global strategies looking at the larger picture in the frame. Subjects of administrative complexity like India’s foreign policy or the geopolitical issues that it faces goes beyond state formulae and alliances. The prevailing global order should dictate our closer alignment of interests with some countries. Our vision ahead boils down to three simple yet unanswered questions: Who are we? Where do we come from? and Where are we headed?
By Aaryan Gadhok
The Editorial is on the discussion hosted by Caucus on “India and the Asian Balance”, with Ambassador Shivshankar Menon and Ambassador Nirupama Rao.
Link to discussion: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xRvt-Q8aJHY