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Changing World Strategic Landscape and India

Ambassador Virendra Gupta was Deputy Director at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi from 2006-07.
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  • October 31, 2006

    It may have seemed ironic that Russia, the erstwhile archenemy of western military alliance was hosting, in St Petersburg earlier this year, the summit meeting of G-8, the epitome of western riches and power. But it was truly reflective of the spirit of our times. For India, which was invited along with China and some others as outreach countries, it was an opportunity to share the big stage. A closer look at the dynamics in evidence at the G-8 would suggest that the world strategic landscape is constantly evolving and it would be useful for us to reflect on where exactly are we headed.

    With the demise of cold war, we are moving towards multi-polarity even though USA might prolong its unipolar reign somewhat. But how many poles exactly would the emergent world order stabilize with? We are in an extremely dynamic world where an increasing number of countries and regional groupings are capable of seriously impacting on the global affairs. Where do we draw the line? USA and China are obviously two most powerful countries today. European Union, despite its lack of homogeneity and contradictions after the entry of central and eastern European states is a fairly dominant entity particularly if one were to look at its economic leverages. Japan, being the second largest economy, has an obvious place on the high table. Russia's resurgence under President Putin with rising oil revenues already stands confirmed and the west which was seen rushing into writing its obituary just a few years back may have to face some degree of embarrassment on that front. World has also begun to take notice of India because of its sustained high growth rates and leadership role in the human resources area particularly in the IT and other high technology sectors. Is that all: six big powers; six poles? But, do we leave out Brazil, which is the largest country in the South American continent. What about the Arab and the Moslem world, which is even clamouring for a permanent seat in the expanded Security Council? And, are we to remain permanently dismissive towards Africa? South Africa, which along with India and Brazil has already made the South-South cooperation a reality both in political and economic arena, definitely wants to be counted in. To assign a finite number to power centres in the world of tomorrow appears irrational and an attempt to fit the present day complex realities into an anachronistic framework.

    Truth is that the classical balance of power theories of the last two centuries appear too simplistic and can no longer adequately explain the current dynamism in inter- state relations. Problem lies in our mindset. We are always seeking to interpret the future trends in terms of frameworks known to us - on the basis of our past experience. We generally relate the balance of power to the cold war context and also the manner in which opposing groups of countries were ranged against each other in the 19th and pre-war 20th century. Cold war was characterized by division of the world into two hostile camps led by USA and Soviet Union competing for ideological supremacy and dominance. The fact that a large number of countries including India were subscribing to the non-aligned movement in rejection of this division did not really disturb that balance since these countries did not enjoy much military significance in the scheme of things. Rising German power had also led to creation of some kind of balance of power in the early twentieth century. However, the first attempt at establishing a balance of power in Europe was the Congress of Vienna in 1814 after the Napoleonic wars had devastated the continent. It represented willingness on the part of major powers to develop an 'equilibrium of forces' amongst them in order to dampen competition. There were two opposing camps: liberal camp comprising of England and France; and, conservative camp consisting of Russia, Prussia and Austria. But there was constant collaboration and 'inter-penetration' between the two camps. This arrangement lasted for nearly four decades.

    The present day world hardly appears to be comparable to either of the above two models. It rather seems to be a throwback to the eighteenth century Europe, which was characterized by 'unregulated competition' except that we no longer have the luxury of an ever-expanding pie. The world is also far more dispersed today unlike those days when all the power was concentrated in Europe. Today we have a far bigger stage; far too many players. Indeed, our world is beginning to resemble an amorphous, rounded structure where lines of division into distinct competing groups and areas of influence are getting blurred. In that sense we are far more unstructured today as compared to the situation obtaining during the cold war. Are we headed for a truly non-aligned world?

    Communication revolution has dramatically transformed our world. As individuals we are no longer restricted to the confines of our geographical frontiers - the whole world is our stage! The resulting phenomenon of globalisation has led to the growth of political liberalism and transfusion of cultures around the world. There has been manifold increase in the volume of international commerce, which is solely driven by the considerations of profits and growth. The mammoth trans-national corporations whose operations straddle different nooks and corners of the globe are mainly concerned with ensuring adequate returns for their shareholders. They cannot have any narrow national loyalties since the ownership patterns are fairly spread out. Commercial considerations have begun to play an increasingly important role in how countries relate to one another. It is, for instance, not uncommon for Heads of States or Governments to take large business delegations with them on their overseas official trips and to make strong sales pitch at the highest levels on issues of pressing concern. Business interests, on the other hand, have also begun to seriously impact on the making of foreign policies of powerful countries. Thus for example, after the nuclear tests by India in May 1998 there was a sharp negative reaction by the American government causing the Indo-US official relations to hit the rock bottom but, thanks to powerful business lobbies in both the countries, these relations were back to normal in less than two years.

    There is also increasing spotlight on the issues of governance, human rights and the quality of life of the general public. In these circumstances, states may be unwilling to accept any self-imposed restraints on relations with one another. All these factors have impelled states to increasingly adopt broad based multi-vectoral approaches in managing their relations with others with the sole aim of optimising the benefits of such engagements. Pragmatic considerations rather than ideological predilections are driving the foreign policies of countries. In these circumstances attempt by any country to apply a rigid 'for or against' construct in defining its relationship with others is obviously somewhat anachronistic.

    Opportunities for cooperation amongst states have not only risen manifold but there is also evidence of a growing recognition worldwide that cooperation is indeed imperative to effectively deal with emerging non-traditional security threats in diverse areas ranging from terrorism and organized crime to environmental degradation and spread of diseases. Countries could deal with traditional military threats by augmenting their own defence capabilities and in that sense response tactics had to be mainly developed on the basis of national priorities and resources but the new non-conventional threats can not be effectively tackled without concerted collective action globally or at least on a regional basis, as our experience in the current global war against terrorism shows. Al Qaeda operates a global network of terrorist organizations and no nation, howsoever powerful, can deal with it single-handedly. Maritime security issues are also forcing the countries to come together in a manner not seen earlier. Today if we appear better prepared for safeguarding Malacca Straits, that has only been possible due to conviction amongst littoral states as regards the need to strengthen regional and multi-lateral defence cooperation instrumentalities.

    Emergence of powerful non-state actors with extensive global networks has completely altered our security scenario and threat perception. Military threats have retreated into the background yielding space to threats from these non-traditional sources. This has quite obviously impacted on the relevance of military power even though there may still be some inveterate hardliners unwilling to accept this changing reality. Henry Kissinger was quite prophetic when he wrote in his famous book titled Diplomacy many years ago that "power has become more diffuse and the issues to which military force is relevant have diminished." It follows from this that there may not be much point in countries equipping their armies with heavy tanks or for that matter in maintaining large infantry manpower when the possibility of conventional wars itself has declined. Scarce and finite resources should rather be channelled into preparing them better to deal with low intensity campaigns being waged all over the world and the threats which virtually all the countries face from terrorists both within and outside.

    It would be naive to dismiss the emerging picture as liberal idealism or mere idle talk. We may perhaps still be in the throes of transition - 'the period of gestation' for the emerging world order, but there is pressing need for us to develop a new construct to fully comprehend the evolving landscape and to synchronize our policies with the changing times.

    When we look at the scenario in East Asia, there are China and India both of which are rising powers with high-sustained growth rates. There are other big powers - Japan with its large economic power has considerable military potential, and USA which still has a lot of interest in the region. There are bound to be other players as well. The recent nuclear test by North Korea is bound to give rise to lot of anxiety in the region and could unleash an altogether new security dynamics, resulting in possible new military build up which would have destabilizing impact on the region and beyond. Korean test is also yet another example of the failure of the non-proliferation regime and underscores the need to proceed earnestly with the agreed goal of nuclear disarmament, which is complete elimination of Nuclear Weapons. Nothing short of it would be able to provide international community credible security guarantees on the nuclear front.

    In keeping with the emerging construct in international relations, as outlined above, India is seeking to develop close relations with each of the major powers in the East Asian region - in a manner that its relationship with one country does not impinge negatively upon its relationship with the others. Thus, for instance, India has been developing closer relations with the US in the recent months as evidenced by the proposed civil nuclear cooperation deal, significance of which extends far beyond the energy cooperation. While this is generally welcome in India, there is also at the same time , a broad agreement that India should not get drawn into any grand strategy that America might have for containing China. There is recognition that India's interest would be best served by developing strategic partnership with both China and US as well as the other major powers, simultaneously, on an equal footing in a mutually non-exclusively manner with self-confidence becoming of a big power.

    As far as China is concerned India is seeking to develop a cooperative framework of bilateral relationship. From India's standpoint, however China is most important. By working together in a cooperative framework, both countries can contribute significantly towards creating a better and more conducive environment for growth of trade and investment leading to better quality of life for the people in the region. Other countries would also benefit from the positive synergies. Tensions on the other hand would impact adversely on the fortunes of both India and China as well as other countries of the region. While it is only natural for India and China to have some competition and even rivalry but care would need to be taken by both of them to ensure that that does not degenerate into conflict and confrontation. India on its part has taken necessary steps to normalize relations with China through initiatives to develop trade, investment and people-to-people linkages, despite unresolved border dispute, which has led to a huge bilateral trade turnover expected to cross US $ 20 billion mark shortly. Incidentally, India has also suggested the same approach to Pakistan, its other neighbour, which requires removing the spotlight from the tricky issues and focusing rather on confidence building exercise through extensive people-to people linkages. But, Pakistan continues to harp on the necessity for a solution of Kashmir before moving forward with normalization of relations with India in any meaningful and sincere manner. That 'all or nothing' approach is hardly practical. India has also shown sensitivity to Chinese concerns on critical issues of Taiwan and Tibet. China on its part also needs to show accommodation to Indian sensitivities in our neighbourhood and to play a supportive role for realization of India's legitimate aspirations to join UNSC as a permanent member. It is important that both countries do everything necessary to build greater trust and cooperation for the sake of prosperity and development in the East Asia region.