Which Way Will India Go?


You may have heard the saying that diplomacy is ‘war by other means’. In fact, the world is always at war to a greater or lesser degree, even if that war is just mercantile or diplomatic competition between rival powers.

To triumph in this contest, a competitor must persuade foreign countries — the more powerful the better of course — to join its side. This increases its economic, political and military clout. The less equal the balance of power between the persuader and those being persuaded, the more coercion can be involved — witness the US’s historic role in Latin America or the USSR’s in Eastern Europe.

Sometimes these relationships are virtually mandated, usually by geography and external political considerations. The growing closeness of China and Russia after their split of the 1960s is an instructive example. Here we have mutual strategic and stability interests mandated by geography — one country booming economically but lacking in advanced technology and the energy resources it needs, the other with defence technology to rival most, using its energy surfeit to recover its economic losses of the 1990s. It’s a match made in geostrategic heaven.

The other imperative driving these giants together is a shared animosity toward, and fear of, US expansion. Vladimir Putin’s recent remarks at the normally staid Munich summit are testament to the depth of his feeling on the subject.

Together, China and Russia hold huge amounts of foreign reserves (around US$1.5 trillion, more than any other country) with only half that figure in debt (about US$730 billion, less than Belgium), as well as world-class defence technology and massive manufacturing output. Their combined GDP is nominally the world’s third largest, and the second largest measured by Purchasing Power Parity. They are fast becoming a counterweight to the unipolar world enacted by the United States after the Cold War.

There is, however, another giant in the region — India. The rules of competition predict that the US would work hard to bring India, the most Western-leaning of the three ‘up-and-comers’, into its sphere of influence as a counterweight to the Sino-Russian duumvirate and this is broadly what the US is attempting.

Since 2000, the US has edged closer to India. Recently, we saw its willingness to deal with India’s violation of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty by signing an energy co-operation agreement (passed by US Congress on 9 December 2006), though some hurdles remain to be cleared. The two countries have also established defence links to the point of conducting joint air force exercises, a field in which India has historically been far closer to Russia.

On the other hand, India continues to build harmonious relations with China after the two fought a border war in the 1960s. Trade between the two multiplied sixfold between 2001 and 2006, and both have committed to doubling the current figure by 2010. Militarily, India is the world’s second-largest arms importer and Russia is still by far its number one supplier. The two are collaborating on the powerful BrahMos missile and India has gained a licence to manufacture Russia’s RD-33 Series 3 thrust-vectoring jet engines. In other words, the partnership forged in the Cold War continues.

Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh remarked in 2005 that, together, India and China ‘could reshape the world order’. His prediction could be coming true. India and China have teamed up to create a co-investment deal for energy assets in third-party countries that will make them difficult to outbid and could have major repercussions for the United States. Regionally, India is taking another important step by pursuing a gas pipeline agreement with Iran despite US pressure to boycott that country.

We can see that India is having a bet each way acting in its pragmatic national interest by pushing for deals it finds useful with the US in the short term, while pursuing long-term interests in its backyard. Even betting each way, though, there is a clear difference between the scale of India’s commitment to its neighbours and its commitment to the US and Western blocs.

This is because India’s strategic interests are most closely aligned with its region. To force it toward the West, external forces would need to be exceptionally strong. And as compelling as EU markets and US military power might be, they are no longer strong enough for India to ignore its local interests.

The geostrategic imperative of energy security is a huge influence on all three Asian giants, and all are dealing with a ‘backyard’ that they need to stabilise and keep stable. Their common separatist threats (Chechnya, Xinjiang and Kashmir) also create an incentive to work together.

For the foreseeable future, the US and India will probably continue their pas de deux, but we can expect the ties between the three Asian giants to continue firming as they discover they have more in common with each other than with other large powers. If border disputes between the three are put to bed we might see the emergence of a powerful Asian bloc that could coincide with the economic fall of the US, marking the most fundamental shift in international relations since the beginning of the Cold War.

Indian writer and commentator Pankaj Mishra spoke recently at Hong Kong’s International Literary Festival on the challenges of globalisation in nationalist South Asia. I took the opportunity to ask for his thoughts. Would the country continue to take partners where they were offered or would increasing assertiveness in foreign policy lead to the formation of a new strategic bloc, official or otherwise?

Even given the Iranian pipeline project and co-investment in energy with China, Mishra was unconvinced of the latter. India, he said, would continue its policy of the Cold War working with a range of countries to further its interests.

This must lead to one conclusion: given that energy security is the strategic issue of our time, and will continue to be for the foreseeable future, surely India realises that the countries that are best positioned to further its interests are in its own backyard. We might not see an Asian equivalent to NATO for some time, if ever, but we can expect increasing co-operation over energy from the three Asian giants.

How will the West respond?

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