International relations, National security | Asia, South Asia

26 March 2018

India’s foreign policy elites are grappling with a wide array of strategic challenges as the country’s power rises, writes David Brewster.

As India rises as a major power its security sphere is expanding beyond South Asia. But it still remains uncertain about the extent and shape of its future security role. India’s decisions about this will be key to the shape of Australia’s future strategic environment.

India’s security sphere – where it identifies key security interests and seeks to play a security role – is a function of its interests, ambitions, capabilities and constraints.

India has long had great ambitions, but its ability to protect its interests has been constrained by its limited capabilities. Despite its huge population and many natural resources, India’s sclerotic economy meant that it had little ability to project power beyond South Asia.

More than two decades of strong economic growth is now expanding India’s interests, and its capabilities to protect those interests. Still, it remains a poor country and its future economic trajectory is far from assured.

Ideology both propels India into the region and constrains it. India’s elite see it as having a destiny to become a great power with global interests. As Prime Minister Narendra Modi commented, India now has the “unique opportunity” to position itself in a “leading role” globally.

More on this: India’s pivot to Southeast Asia

But many, from Mahatma Gandhi onwards, have also argued that India must exercise power in a moral way. In the decades after independence, this was expressed through the principles of non-alignment, which included refusing to enter into alignments and the promotion of non-violence, international cooperation and the primacy of the United Nations.

The force of these ideas is slowly fading. Narendra Modi has made significant efforts to promote India playing a more active security role in the manner of a ‘normal’ power. Both Modi and his predecessor, Manmohan Singh, have argued that India must act as a ‘net security provider to the region’.

But what is India’s region?

India is a ‘South Asian’ power and is increasingly taking a leading role in parts of the Indian Ocean. But it remains hesitant about assuming a security role in important areas such as the Persian Gulf and the South China Sea. Although New Delhi endorses the idea of the Indo-Pacific, there are still fears that India might be dragged into disputes far from its shores.

Even simple security agreements with the United States, such as arrangements to give logistical support to each other’s militaries, remain politically controversial in India.

South Asia is the core of India’s security sphere. India’s immediate neighbourhood presents major security challenges. Armed stand-offs with Pakistan and China keep most of India’s army on its borders. Other neighbours, such as Bangladesh and Nepal, have their own problems that directly impact India’s internal security.

While India’s neighbours have a very immediate security impact on it, contemporary security interests aren’t neatly defined by proximity. In fact, India’s external engagements operate unevenly and in ways that can transcend pure geography.

More on this: Soul-searching needed in the Indo-Pacific

India has sought to transcend its traditional strategic preoccupations in South Asia, including through ‘de-hyphenating’ itself from Pakistan and through showing greater generosity with other neighbours. But the challenges that India faces internally and on its borders mean that security demands in South Asia will be the overwhelming focus of India’s security efforts. India will always look first at its own doorstep.

Over the last decade, India has claimed a much-expanded area of strategic interest in the Indian Ocean region. The Indian Navy’s 2015 Maritime Security Strategy lists the country’s primary areas of maritime interest as covering most of the Indian Ocean. Many Indian leaders see this as India’s sphere of influence.

While India hotly denies any hegemonic designs, it does wish to be acknowledged by others as playing a leading role. As famous RAND Corporation analyst, George Tanham once described it, India’s self-perceived regional role is that of a ‘friendly policeman’ that seeks peace and stability for the entire Indian Ocean region. These sensitivities cause India to often move slowly and cautiously, and in practice underplay its strategic strengths. Usually, India’s actual security role falls short of its aspirations towards leadership of the entire region.

India has a naturally dominant maritime security role in the Bay of Bengal. This is a key defensive space for India against potential threats that may come through Southeast Asia. Control over the sea-lanes that enter the Malacca Strait can also provide strategic leverage over rivals. In recent years, India has reinforced its capabilities in the Bay of Bengal, including ‘rebalancing’ naval resources to India’s east coast and the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, near the Malacca Strait.

Nevertheless, India’s relations in the region are uneven, as countries such as Bangladesh and Sri Lanka try to hedge their bets through relationships with others powers, such as China.

More on this: India’s challenge to China

The southwest Indian Ocean is another area where India is building a leading role. Its security interests in this region include protecting its key trade routes around southern Africa and, potentially, denying those routes to others.

India is now building a military base in the Seychelles, near the northern end of the Mozambique Channel, and is considering another base on remote islands owned by Mauritius. These represent a major departure from Indian policy that long derided foreign military bases.

But it is not clear to what extent India’s future security sphere will include the northwest Indian Ocean and the Persian Gulf.

India has many interests in the Persian Gulf. It is vitally concerned with access to energy and the vulnerability of oil imports through the Strait of Hormuz. The Gulf Arab states are major economic partners and the home of more than seven million Indian nationals. Pakistan also has a big military presence in the Gulf.

These factors simultaneously make the Gulf an area of vital interest and constrain India’s security presence. For one thing, taking an active role in the region would be a big political risk for Delhi, not least because of the views of 180 million Indian Muslims.

India is developing closer security relationships with some smaller Gulf Arab States, but these remain tentative. Some see India and Iran as ‘natural’ strategic partners, although India will try to avoid taking sides in growing Sunni-Shia rivalries in the region. The recent deal to jointly develop Chabahar Port as a gateway to Central Asia may only be the first of many joint India-Iran projects in the region.

Despite its crucial security interests, India is not in a hurry to assume a major security role in the Gulf. US military predominance there provides stability at a low economic and political cost to India. But this will change if the United States draws down its defence resources in the Gulf, or that region becomes contested by China. Ultimately, that will be the true test of India’s willingness to assume the burdens that come with being a major power.

This article is based on the author’s chapter in the Oxford Handbook of India’s National Security (Oxford University Press, 2018).

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