Economy is the key

Economy is the key


The US renaming its Pacific Command as Indo-Pacific seems to have warmed the cockles of many Indian hearts in the country’s strategic community. It is seen as a nod to the rising importance of India in world affairs. There is something naive and simplistic about this rose-tinted view of the world. Indian strategy wonks have never displayed a hard-nosed and hard-headed sense of realism. They have always appeared too anxious to be accepted into the big boys’ club led by the US.

It is not sufficiently recognised that the US is looking for a regional proxy player, and it finds India handy in the post-Cold War and post-9/11 world. The Americans are still at the old game of countering the influence of China. During the anti-communist period of the Cold War, it was Mao’s China that rankled its ideologues. Now, it is the post-Mao China with its economic and military muscle that bothers them.

The US national security strategy document released in December 2017 identifies five pillars of American security policy: Protect the American people, the homeland, and the American way of life; promote American prosperity; preserve peace through strength; advance American influence. In the ambit of the last pillar, the strategy is discussed in the regional context, and it is here that the Indo-Pacific is mooted and defined.

The Indo-Pacific is seen as stretching from the western shores of India to the western shores of the United States. While India is a part of this arc, it would not be right to assume that it is the pivot. There is the Asean, which includes Myanmar at one end and Vietnam at the other. Taiwan and the Philippines occupy a key position in the South China Sea region. And at the other end are South Korea, Japan, Australia and New Zealand.

In purely strategic and military terms, the Americans would like India to play a role in the maritime stretch between the Arabian Sea and the Straits of Malacca. A large part of the Indian Ocean to the west of India, up to the Horn of Africa, is not really seen as the Indian strategic domain because the US Fifth Fleet anchored in Qatar wants to play the watchdog this side. The Indian navy is, however, expected to fight pirates off the Somalian coast.

India’s primacy in South Asia should have been self-evident, but it is not. The primary concern of the US in South Asia is Pakistan, the “transnational terrorists and militants operating from within Pakistan”, and Pakistan’s “destabilising behaviour”. The most important American concern is the “prospect of an Indo-Pakistani military conflict that could lead to a nuclear exchange” which “remains a key concern requiring consistent diplomatic attention.”

Despite the negatives associated with Pakistan, Americans feel the compulsion to keep India-Pakistan tensions on an even keel because of the possession of nuclear weapons by the two states. India is thus hemmed in by Pakistan in South Asia and it is a marginal player in the Indo-Pacific Command region.

It is natural for Americans to see the world from their own narrow perspective, though it is wrapped in the language of idealism and ideology. India cannot derive much satisfaction from the American stand. India has economic stakes in the Asean but it has no strategic concerns in South China Sea. Economic cooperation with Vietnam is likely to lead to a skirmish with China, but it does not help India to confront China so far away from its shores. It is only when India becomes a dominant economic power in the Indo-Pacific that it will have to defend its economic interests through its military might, and that day is quite far away. It is not going to be a reality until at least 2030.

In economic terms, India has outgrown South Asia. It needs to free itself from the strategic binds of the region. This would mean that India should not be tied down to security irritants arising from Pakistan, either from the jihadists or the Pakistan army. Pakistan will continue to needle India on both counts. India’s strategic neighbourhood is not in East Asia but in West and Central Asia, and Pakistan will be isolated economically and militarily in the face of India’s expanded economic frontiers in these two theatres.

China’s use of the Gwadar port at the end of the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) could pose a challenge, the India-Iranian port of call at Chabahar will be a vital link to reach out to the Caspian Sea region. India and China will be competing for the same spheres of influence in the Asean and in South and Central Asia. India does not have anything to match China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

India needs an overarching strategic vision of its own, which is based on realistic assessments of the country’s economic and military capabilities and capacities in the next two decades. It should be grounded and sentiments of jingoistic pride should not colour the exercise. There is the clear option of India not wanting to extend its strategic neighbourhood. If it improves its economy and strengthens its military to defend its national boundaries, the world will wend its way to India because of the huge domestic market. The way to ensure that India is reckoned on the global stage is to attend to the domestic challenges of its economic well-being.

There are three things India will have to avoid. First, it should not be part of the American sphere of influence. Second, confrontation with China is unnecessary. Third, it should not obsess about Pakistan. There is no need to bend over backwards to achieve bonhomie with Islamabad. India should shut the door on Pakistan, de-hyphenate and build a vibrant market economy at home which will serve as a beacon to Asia and the world.

(The writer is a senior journalist based in New Delhi)