India’s Strategic Future

Why India needs to move from "strategic autonomy" to strategic cooperation with the United States.


Unlike in Washington, where governments are noisy in articulating their worldviews, for the permanent bureaucracy that runs New Delhi’s foreign policy, silence is golden. But Delhi’s reluctance to articulate a grand strategy does not necessarily mean it does not have one. Since India embraced globalization at the turn of the 1990s, many of its traditional strategic objectives have evolved, and the pace of that evolution has gathered momentum as India’s economic growth has accelerated in recent years.

Yet the United States remains unclear about its potential ally’s goals and objectives. Despite significant advances in Indo-U.S. relations during George W. Bush’s presidency and bipartisan agreement in Washington to support India’s rise, Barack Obama’s administration has found it hard to make big strategic advances. U.S. officials dealing with Afghanistan and Pakistan seem to find India — and particularly its reluctance to offer concessions on Kashmir that might presumably encourage Pakistan to cooperate more thoroughly in Afghanistan — part of the problem. American negotiators on climate change and trade find the notorious prickliness of the old non aligned India alive and well. And the Pentagon is frustrated in its efforts to build a partnership with a New Delhi that resists cooperation on U.S. terms. But American strategists should take heart: If Washington can be patient, endure an extended courtship, and above all take a longer-term view of the relationship with Delhi, it will find much to like about India’s foreign policy.

The problem for India’s top strategists is not that they don’t seek a grand bargain with the United States. It is about negotiating equitable terms. It is also about bringing along a political elite and bureaucracy that are adapting too slowly to the new imperatives of a stronger partnership with Washington. But make no mistake: Engagement with the United States has been the Indian establishment’s highest foreign-policy priority over the last decade and a half.

India’s grand strategy has four broad objectives. In all four areas, strategic cooperation with the United States is critical.

India’s first objective is to pacify the northwestern part of the subcontinent, or the AfPak region, as it is known in Washington. All of India’s great empire-states  throughout the last 2,500 years, from the Mauryans to the British Raj, have had trouble controlling these turbulent lands across the Indus River that frame the subcontinent’s western frontier.

Indeed, ever since Alexander the Great and his army first arrived on the banks of the Indus, most foreign forces and alien ideologies have come to what is now India through the northwestern route. In the past, India managed to absorb the invaders and modify their ideologies. All it needed was sufficient time. But weakened by the subcontinent’s partition in 1947 and faced with U.S. and Chinese support for Pakistan during the Cold War, India has had little time and space to manage the conflict with its troublesome sibling to the northwest.

American commentators often discount the threat that Pakistan’s military poses to India. Indian strategists don’t have that luxury. Armed with nuclear weapons and allied with radical Islam, the Pakistani Army remains extremely dangerous — a situation compounded by America’s current dependence on Islamabad to pursue its objectives in Afghanistan and in the tribal areas across the border.

The challenge for India is not just about managing its differences with U.S. policies in Afghanistan and Pakistan. New Delhi has no choice but to work with Washington to stabilize its northwest. That in turn involves encouraging the United States to think very differently about Pakistan and its relations with Afghanistan and India. And that demands getting the United States to pressure the Pakistani Army to end its promotion of extremism in Afghanistan and India.

Both New Delhi and Washington want to move the AfPak region toward political moderation, economic modernization, and regional integration. Neither can achieve these objectives on their own. But they have so far failed to have an honest discussion about how to move forward together, let alone begin coordinating their policies.

India’s second objective is to become an indispensable power in the littorals of the Indian Ocean and southwestern Pacific. For nearly two centuries until partition, the British Raj was the source of stability and the main provider of security in these regions. But after independence in 1947, India chose an inward economic orientation and focused on the global mobilization of the Third World during the Cold War. Not surprisingly, India resented the dominance of the Anglo-American powers in its strategic backyard.

As the power of a rising China today radiates across the subcontinent, the Indian Ocean, and the western Pacific, balancing Beijing has become an urgent matter — especially given the relative decline of the United States. In the past, India balanced Beijing through a de facto alliance with the Soviet Union. Today, it needs a strategic partnership with the United States to ensure that China’s rise will continue to be peaceful. With Washington yet to make up its mind on how best to deal with Beijing, India has no option but to hedge against growing Chinese power as well as the dangers of a potential Sino-American condominium. This necessarily involves nuanced bilateral economic and political engagement with China, albeit with eyes wide open.

Meanwhile, New Delhi’s focus is on China’s neighbors. India is holding on to its old partnership with Moscow, stepping up its economic and security cooperation with Japan, South Korea, and Mongolia, and raising its economic and strategic profile in Southeast Asia and Australasia.

India’s third objective is to increase its weight in global governance and eventually emerge as a "rule-maker" in the international system. In that sense, India’s civil nuclear initiative with the Bush administration was as much about producing electric power as it was about redefining India’s position in the global nonproliferation regime. But U.S. support for India’s bid to become a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council has been elusive. The United States, instead, wants to test whether India is a "responsible stakeholder" in the negotiations on issues ranging from climate change to international trade. From India’s perspective, these American benchmarks have tended to be self-serving and defined by the latest intellectual fashion in Washington. India is prepared to engage on these issues and participate more fully in global decision-making bodies on the basis of its own enlightened self-interest, but is not prepared to take tests from anyone.

India’s fourth objective is to strengthen the factors that are critical for becoming a credible power on the regional and global stages. This involves sustaining its current high economic growth rate, consolidating its advantages in knowledge industries, providing education and skills to its younger population, and modernizing its armed forces and security agencies. On all these fronts, India needs deeper and more open cooperation with the United States through the integration of their advanced technology sectors, trade liberalization, opening the Indian education system to American universities and community colleges, U.S. investments in the Indian defense industry, and American expertise to upgrade Indian intelligence gathering and processing. New Delhi is already engaged with Washington on all these fronts, but the results remain way below potential.

Most of all, the United States needs to recognize that it is dealing with a new India. For too long, India saw itself as a weak, developing country unwilling to unlearn its anti-colonial grievances. Only in recent years has India begun to inch away from its previous focus on  the chimera of "strategic autonomy" to emphasize its own role in shaping the regional and global environments.

In the past, India’s internal identity as a liberal democracy was in tension with its external image as the leader of the global south against the West. A rising India — with its robust democracy, thriving entrepreneurial capitalism, and expanding global interests — is bound to acquire a new identity as a champion of liberal international order.

What remains to be seen is whether the Obama administration can seize this moment. Obama has certainly talked the talk, but it is not clear whether his administration is ready to walk the walk to accommodate India’s rise. That might require a leap into the unknown — a historic revision of the international hierarchy of power — that so far, the United States has been unwilling or unable to take.

C. Raja Mohan is the director of the National University of Singapore’s Institute of South Asian Studies and a former member of India’s National Security Advisory Board. Twitter: @MohanCRaja

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