Part One: Will India finally stop disappointing everyone?
Part Two: We really must talk about Narendra
Part Three: A world power in waiting
The Strategic Outlook
The geopolitical history of modern India is about as complex and turbulent as any experienced by European states in the 19th and 20th centuries. It begins with the collapse of the British Empire and Britain’s withdrawal from South Asia, followed by the violent partition of the sub-continent, a persistent adversarial relationship between India and Pakistan, with the two countries fighting four wars in 50 years mostly over the disputed territory of Kashmir, one of which produced the independent state of Bangladesh, a hostility with China across the great wall of the Himalayas, a strategic relationship with the USSR which left India “on the wrong side of history” when the Soviet empire fell apart, and a slow and cautious realignment with the United States and the West since the Cold War ended.
Over the last 25 years, India’s outlook on the world has taken on additional colouration, notably a concern for economic growth and the global competition for the resources which the Indian economy needs. In 1991, to keep pace with China, India enacted a Look East policy to strengthen its political and economic ties with Southeast Asia and beyond, i.e. in a region China has traditionally seen as falling within its sphere of influence.
China, of course, has also been on the move, in ways which pose a problem for India.
India’s military and political establishment both ardently believe that the rapid and large-scale expansion of Chinese military capabilities presents a direct threat to India and its ability to control its maritime sphere. As a result, India has been enhancing its own capabilities. For the time being, India’s military advantages over China are largely confined to the Indian Ocean and waters within the range of India’s air force. But India’s naval strength has been growing.
The Indian Navy has had its own aircraft carrier since 1961, and along with it the institutional knowledge of operating a carrier task force in blue water. India also has a sizeable fleet of 45 destroyers, frigates and corvettes; a growing fleet of amphibious vessels and landing craft to project power ashore; a dozen diesel-electric submarines; and a newly acquired (from Russia) Akula-class nuclear-powered attack submarine (INS Chakra). In 2011, the Indian Navy bolstered its ability to resupply vessels at sea with the acquisition of two Italian-built replenishment tankers.
India has long had a visceral fear of China, dating back at least to the thrashing India received in its brief violent war with China in 1962. Believing that China represents an existential threat, India first tested a “Peaceful Nuclear Explosive” in 1974 – with the help of technology gleaned from the heavy-water CIRUS research reactor supplied by Canada. The sanctions Canada imposed still rankle. Over the next 25 years, India continued to develop its nuclear weapons capability, while preaching the virtues of nuclear disarmament. In 1998, it detonated three devices simultaneously at its Pokhran test site in the northwestern state of Rajasthan about a hundred kilometers from the border with Pakistan. The fission device failed. Since then, India has moved forward with vigorous nuclear weapons and missile delivery programs. Five months after the Indian tests in 1998, Pakistan first tested its own nuclear weapons.
The causes of the 1962 war were many, including India providing asylum to the Dalai Lama after the collapse of the 1959 Tibetan uprising against Chinese Communist rule. But the precipitating factor was India placing outposts north of the contentious McMahon Line in the northeast designating the border between India and China. Advancing on two fronts a thousand kilometers apart, Chinese forces overwhelmed the Indians, captured all the territory that was strategically important to Beijing, and unilaterally declared a ceasefire which India was obliged to accept. In the east, the war left China in control of most of Arunachai Pradesh, but once hostilities ceased it evacuated the region and captured Indian POWs. In the west, China held on to the Aksai Chin region as it had before the war.
The Chinese claim to Aksai Chin has some basis in law, i.e. the McCartney-Macdonald Line drawn up by British civil servants in the 1890s placed Aksai Chin in China; the Indian claim is based on the Johnson Line, another boundary proposed by another group of British civil servants thirty years earlier which placed it in India (Kashmir). In any case, China is not likely ever to give up Aksai Chin in view of the region’s strategic importance, including to Beijing’s communications with and control over Xinjiang province. As part of their Western Development Strategy, the Chinese hope to build a road from Lhasa in Tibet down to Calcutta in West Bengal near the Indian Ocean.
China is eager to permanently delimit its border with India, the only part of its border not finalized other than a segment with North Korea in the region of the Mount Paetku volcano. In 2002, when border talks were re-started, the Chinese told the author they intended to offer the Indians a trade-off between Aksai Chin and Arunachai Pradesh; they didn’t much care about Arunachai Pradesh or a myriad of other minor issues the Indians were adamant about. But when the offer was tabled, the Indians in effect replied that both Aksai Chin and Arunachal Pradesh were theirs, as were the parts of Kashmir Azad which Pakistan had ceded to China in 1963.
At issue in a final settlement of the border is not only the boundary line itself but whether India truly accepts Chinese sovereignty over Tibet. India has formally accepted Chinese sovereignty, but the freedom it allows the Dalai Lama and the presence of a Tibetan government-in-exile in Dharamsala in the northern state of Himachal Pradesh have served to feed Chinese doubts. Conversely, a Tibetan state independent of China would undoubtedly have close links to India and provide New Delhi a major geostrategic advantage over China.
India-China relations demonstrate a good deal more rationality in other fields. Bilateral trade tops $100 billion and is growing in both directions, as is FDI. China’s foreign minister has already paid a visit and discussions went about as well as could be expected.
India has also been “Looking West.” Relations with Pakistan have gradually recovered since the “Kargil War” in 1999, but they were severely strained in 2008 when 10 members of the Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Taiba terrorist group attacked Mumbai, India’s most populous city and its financial and commercial capital, killing 173 and wounding 308. Pakistan’s response was slow, defensive, and judged to be wholly inadequate by New Delhi, which suspected Pakistan’s intelligence services of providing support to the terrorists. In contrast, India’s relations with Afghanistan have traditionally been very good, not least for the discomfort this causes Pakistan which lies between them. India has four consulates in Afghanistan, has been the largest provider of humanitarian assistance to Afghanistan of any of the countries in the region, and has been a major contributor to post-war reconstruction.
In some ways “blocked” by Pakistan and Afghanistan, India has also been trying to open new corridors to Iran, Central Asia and the Middle East. India forged an alliance with Iran in support of the Northern Alliance fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan. It is also helping Iran develop the port of Chabahar on the Gulf of Oman, the focus of Iran’s economic plans for the east of the country, including upgrading the connecting road and railway systems. Chabahar would compete with the port of Gwadar being built by Pakistan with help from the Chinese. India and Iran have also reportedly discussed laying a gas pipeline between them along the floor of the Arabian Sea.
Foreign Policy Under Modi
Modi has matched a strong beginning in domestic policy with one in foreign policy. On his first day in office, May 27, he met with the leaders of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) including a 50-minute meeting with Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif of Pakistan. Inviting the SAARC leaders to India for his inauguration was a public relations masterstroke for Modi, leaving no doubt as to the importance he attaches to his own neighbourhood. Some have credited the move to the Washington-based public relations firm, ATCO Worldwide, which Modi has retained to spin his personal history with the Western media. Another of the firm’s clients has been the Government of Canada.
In the short term, Modi’s foreign policy is likely to continue to place a priority on relations with South Asia and China, other priorities intruding only as necessary or dictated by the international agenda.
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- With Bangladesh, the major issues are water-sharing, refugee flows, border rectification, and safe havens for terrorists. The water-sharing dispute relates to the Ganges River (and its tributaries) which flows from India into Bangladesh. While an agreement was reached in 1996 over allocations for the use of water, Bangladesh alleges that the amount it was allocated is unjust and that India has been drawing excessive quantities jeopardizing the functioning of downstream ports and hydro-power generation. The current chief minister of the Indian state of West Bengal, however, remains adamantly opposed to any settlement; in 2011, she blocked a proposal by the Singh government for a fairer and more legally sustainable arrangement. Tribal politics in the “Seven Sisters” states of India which lie to the north and east of Bangladesh stand in the way of a proper resolution of the refugee situation. Modi’s task is complicated by the BJP historically having had its best relations with the Bangladesh Nationalist Party currently in opposition.
- Nepal, mountainous, landlocked, and strategically located between India and China, has been adjusting to the demise of the monarchy which ruled the country for 250 years and the effects of the decade-long civil war which followed. With the country still very unstable and Maoist influence on the rise, China has been making significant political and economic inroads, including plans to construct a railway from Lhasa in Tibet to Nepal’s capital of Kathmandu. In response, India has been working to try to restore the position of influence it once held in Kathmandu. In the past, the leading role was played by India’s foreign intelligence agency or RAW (Research and Analysis Wing) which pursued a self-destructive policy of meddling in Nepali domestic affairs. Modi’s visit in August and the extension of a $1 billion line of credit suggest New Delhi may have resolved on a less intrusive and more sensible approach to relations between the countries.
- The two principal issues bedevilling India’s relations with Pakistan remain the status of Jammu and Kashmir and the trials of the perpetrators of the Mumbai massacre, often referred to as India’s 26/11. Neither is amenable to a quick and easy solution. Both sides consider Kashmir’s geostrategic location so important as to disadvantage whichever side fails to hold on to what it has. Meanwhile, the India-administered Kashmir Valley remains restive (it is 95% Muslim) and in the cross-hairs of Muslim extremists in Pakistan. The Singh government had hoped to improve relations with Islamabad by offering to resolve longstanding disputes over two other border issues, one the maritime boundary line along Sir Creek leading to the Arabian Sea, the other India’s control of the Siachen Glacier in the Himalayas beyond the agreed Line of Control in Kashmir. These initiatives appear to have been scuttled by India’s Ministry of External Affairs on the grounds, the author was told, that “the Pakistanis are not to be trusted”. The reverse sentiment is shared by the Pakistani Army which scuttled Modi’s outreach to Pakistan’s Nawaz Sharif by perpetrating a series of incidents along the line of control, including the killing of an Indian soldier. India has since withdrawn its negotiating team.
- India’s relations with Sri Lanka have historically been friendly, but India played a thoroughly negative role in the 26-year long Sri Lankan civil war. RAW armed and trained the separatist LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) and helped set up LTTE camps in the Tamil-majority state of Tamil Nadu. In 1987, India and Sri Lanka signed an agreement intended to help resolve the civil war, but many Sri Lankans resented the influence India gained and the LTTE refused to abide by it. Before it was all over, Indian Army units were fighting battles against Sri Lankan insurgents and an LTTE suicide bomber had assassinated Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi on a visit to Tamil Nadu in 1991. Relations today are back on a more even keel with bilateral trade booming and India’s National Thermal Power Corporation entering a joint venture with the Ceylon Electricity Board to build a coal-powered thermal power plant in Sampur in eastern Sri Lanka. One problem area still to be addressed is a nasty fisheries dispute in the narrow (12-mile) Palk Strait which separates the two countries. Tamil Nadu fishermen, who had open season on fishing in Sri Lankan waters during the civil war, have continued to stray into Sri Lankan waters and been fired on by the Sri Lankan Navy with grievous loss of life.
Narendra Modi has spoken little about his foreign policy intentions. Traditionally, foreign policy is not much debated by the political parties at election time, in large part because they have believed domestic issues matter more – and garner more votes. Modi himself has repeatedly declared that a strong central government and a strong economy are the prerequisites for an effective foreign policy. “We have to put our house in order so that the world is attracted to us”. With three short months in office, the new prime minister appears so far to be following his own advice. Whether the world will wait for India is another matter.