Asia, and more specifically India, has emerged as a critical theater in a new era of great power competition. The contest between a U.S.-led alliance on one side and Russia and China on the other is reshaping India's grand strategy for becoming a world power. The world's second most populous country, which sees itself as one of humankind's great civilization-states, hopes to be secure and prosperous and one day spread its influence into all corners of the world. But recent conflict with China in the disputed Doklam area of Bhutan and with Pakistan in Kashmir has brought New Delhi's choices into sharp focus. And these conflicts are raising questions about the evolution of India's game plan in this fast-changing world.
Stratfor's 2018 Second-Quarter Forecast notes that the competition between India and China will continue to play out and that the India-Pakistan rivalry will be further strained over Kashmir. This will lead India to forge a closer security partnership with the United States.
Empires, Colonialism and Partition
Geography and history have greatly influenced India's strategy and geopolitical objectives. India has long been recognized as one of the major centers of human civilization. Its size as a subcontinent, giant population and extensive diversity have given it a distinct identity in world history. However, it was rarely unified politically, except for in three periods: the Maurya, Gupta and Mughal dynasties, which each lasted roughly one to three centuries.The last of these was followed by British colonial rule, which lasted for nearly 200 years and introduced India to European norms and practices.
The arrival of European modernity led to two great ruptures in Indian history: colonialism and nationalism. Colonialism, which embodied many racist and exploitative practices, also laid the foundations of a modern nation-state. And nationalism motivated the Indian freedom struggle for a sovereign republic, with nonviolent mass resistance as its philosophy under the leadership of Mohandas Gandhi, known most prominently as Mahatma Gandhi.
Indian nationalists under Gandhi envisioned a pluralist India, but they were challenged by Muslim nationalism led by Muhammad Ali Jinnah, demanding self-determination on the basis of religious identity. Differences between Indian and Muslim nationalists could not be bridged, and the gap led in 1947 to the partition of British India into two independent nation-states: India and Pakistan. In 1971 a third nation-state was born on the subcontinent when Bangladesh split off from Pakistan.
Ever since independence in 1947, India has had three geopolitical objectives. Two are common to all nation-states: security and prosperity. India must physically protect the country and its 1.3 billion citizens. The South Asian nation also aims to lift many of those people out of poverty and to create a modern, wealthy society.
The third objective, however, is unique to a massive and ancient nation such as India. Acutely self-aware of its present and past, India seeks to create a world order that reflects the vitality of its civilization. In this sense, Indian aspirations parallel those of China, Europe and the United States.
Meeting these objectives requires a grand strategy, which is the way that a nation puts its resources to use in military, political, economic and other arenas to achieve its national goals. But ever since independence from Britain, constraints on resources have hampered India's highly ambitious objectives and its grand strategy. Given its beginnings as a poor and fragile post-colonial state, India had to start with basics. For the first few decades after independence, its grand strategy rested on four pillars: unity and territorial integrity, regional primacy, economic self-reliance, and non-alignment.
This strategy has evolved over time as domestic and international conditions have changed. Economic self-reliance was discarded for global integration, and non-alignment morphed into the more flexible doctrine of strategic autonomy, with a pronounced tilt toward the United States. However, both of these pillars are likely to come under pressure in the future. But unity and territorial integrity and regional primacy will persist as key elements of the strategy.
Holding it Together
India was a state before it became a nation — a situation common to many nationalist projects. Independence left India with a relatively thin government overseeing an enormously diverse population with six religions and 22 major and hundreds of minor languages. Therefore, independent India saw unity and territorial integrity as the most fundamental and essential pillar of its strategy. The challenge was particularly acute because of the wounds of partition, which had left a trail of mass slaughter in an enormous population exchange with Pakistan.
India first set out to rapidly amalgamate hundreds of monarchies left over from the British Empire. Most were small and joined voluntarily; those that did not, such as Hyderabad, were annexed. In 1961, Portuguese-ruled Goa came under Indian control. And claims by India and Pakistan on another monarchy, called Kashmir, eventually led to three wars between the two.
Unifying hundreds of millions of Indians into an overarching national identity was more challenging. India's deep commitment to democracy, federalism and pluralism was fundamentally an idealist project inspired by the freedom movement. But it was also a pragmatic approach for ensuring unification by granting its citizens participation, local control and wide latitude in expressing their cultural identities.
Defying the many predictions of its imminent demise, India has succeeded remarkably well in maintaining its unity and defeating the few secessionist challenges that have arisen. The overwhelming majority of Indians see no contradictions between their local and national identities. This was by no means an inevitable outcome; it came about because of the inclusive nature of the freedom movement and India's federal constitution. However, intermittent Hindu-Muslim tension, violence in Kashmir and insurgencies in its central forests and the northeast indicate that the unification of the homeland is incomplete.
Securing the Backyard
All great powers seek their own sphere of influence. Historically, it has been difficult for an aspiring state to become a true great power with an unfriendly or hostile backyard. India strives for regional primacy to ensure a ring of security around the country. But, fundamentally, regional primacy is also about the drive for a sphere of influence encompassing the subcontinent and the region around the Indian Ocean.
India has reacted badly to unfriendly great powers intruding in its backyard, especially when they have struck alliances with neighbors. Previously, this great power was the United States, when it formed an alliance with Pakistan during the Cold War. In recent times, the intruder has been China.
India has been largely unsuccessful in its quest for regional primacy. Though its cultural influence is strong throughout the region, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh have historically maneuvered between India and an external power, most recently China. And Pakistan, a nuclear-armed power, is allied with Beijing, ruling out any possibility of bringing it into India's sphere. Only the smaller states of Bhutan, Nepal, Maldives, Mauritius and the Seychelles have been under India's shadow for a considerable time. But Nepal has been moving of late to triangulate between India and China, and the Maldives recently made a strategic U-turn with India watching on helplessly.
In the years after independence, India's embrace of economic self-reliance initially led to some successes. Economic growth, at essentially zero for a century during colonial rule, picked up, and an industrial base was created. However, growth sputtered from the mid-1960s onward when the government doubled down on its infamous "license raj" — the high tariffs and excruciating red tape and bureaucratic control over the economy.
Reform began slowly in the 1980s but accelerated after 1991. In the years since, India has integrated substantially with global markets in key areas, has reduced tariffs to relatively low levels and has created export-driven global successes in information technology, automobiles, biotech, pharmaceuticals and select engineering goods. The post-reform gross domestic product has grown nearly fivefold to $2.4 trillion in over 25 years. The ratio of trade to GDP, a measure of global integration, has risen from about 15 percent in 1990 to peak at 56 percent in 2012. Renewable energy has expanded rapidly, as well, and the Indian diaspora, particularly in the United States, has helped kick off a startup culture back home.
However, the government has failed to create the needed jobs and to build adequate infrastructure. Agricultural distress is severe, water resources are stressed, and climate change is a gathering threat. Millions of Indian households remain undereducated, unelectrified and unhealthy. The expected dividend from having a youthful population is looking more like a demographic disaster. And many Indian businesses are seeing few gains from free trade agreements. All this is putting pressure on the country's commitment to the global-integration strategy.
A Reluctance Toward Alliances
From its inception in 1947, India saw the Cold War as a detriment to regional peace and its development. The principle of non-alignment helped carve out a third way in international politics. It was partly fueled by the idealism of the freedom movement. But lacking economic or military heft, New Delhi also saw non-alignment as a grand strategic play to enhance its influence across Asia and Africa. Anti-colonialism, nuclear disarmament and economic justice became the norm in Indian discourse.
However, the sobering reality of the Cold War caught up with India. When the dust had settled after three wars between 1962 and 1971 — one with China and two with Pakistan — India had effectively abandoned non-alignment and tilted toward the Soviet Union. In 1974, it conducted its first nuclear test, and weaponized sometime in the 1980s.
The winding down of the Cold War opened up a path for a strategic reversal, and a largely realist India now supports a flexible doctrine of strategic autonomy. It has increasingly tilted toward the United States, and that inclination is reflected in a sharp increase in defense deals, military exercises and expressions of common interests in the Indo-Pacific. But India continues to reject formal alliances and opposes foreign military bases on its soil.
And strategic autonomy is not without constraints. First, India has mostly failed to develop an indigenous defense industry, meaning that it must rely on foreign powers to equip its military. Russia remains its largest defense partner, but the United States, Israel and France are also key suppliers. Second, the shift to global economic integration has resulted in deep interdependence with other major powers.
Three Core Relationships
In the decade ahead, India's grand strategy must contend with three key countries: Pakistan, China and the United States. These relationships are also tied to the evolving global order.
Despite having many cultural commonalities, India's relationship with Pakistan is highly adversarial and has tremendously destructive potential. The roots of the hostility go back to colonial politics. The clash is not just over territory but also over ideology and increasingly over religion. Despite occasional bursts of progress toward a settlement, a vicious zero-sum game has come to characterize this cold war-like rivalry.
Though nuclear deterrence is a powerful damper on escalation, paradoxically it also lets Pakistan use its unconventional warfare to aid militancy in Kashmir and conduct lethal attacks, such as in Mumbai in 2008. India has generally failed to deter Pakistan in this area, and the resultant frustration is leading to more assertive tactics by New Delhi. These in turn have lowered the Pakistani threshold for nuclear use. A new crisis is extremely likely within a decade, and a major conflict entirely plausible.
For centuries, India and China lacked a history of conflict due to the near-impassable Himalayan barrier. But since their 1962 war, they have been strategic competitors. Overall, their rivalry is marked more by balancing games and minimally by hot conflict. China understands that India is the only nation with the population and size that could potentially challenge it in the long term. It worries about future Indian interdiction of vital energy supplies in the sea lanes of the Indian Ocean, suspects that India intends to create unrest in Tibet and is wary of greater Indo-U.S. security ties.
New Delhi on the other hand sees China as an aggressive power bent on encirclement through penetration into India's intended sphere of influence. It perceives long-standing Chinese nuclear, missile and economic assistance to Pakistan, especially with the $62 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, as a major strategic challenge. China has been mostly neutral in past India-Pakistan conflicts, but it may not be so the next time. Unresolved territorial disputes and incursions on its border are two other major issues. And, last but not least, a Chinese economy five times the size of India's represents a power differential that rankles.
India's four grand strategic pillars provide an unambiguous recipe on Pakistan — co-opt when possible and balance or contain if not — though the results have been decidedly mixed. However, on China the grand strategy itself leads to ambiguities. India's power is perhaps sufficient to deter China and protect the homeland, but it is insufficient for anything more. Containing China is impossible; balancing it on India's terms is extremely difficult. Engagement carries risks too. It's tricky to seek and accept membership in the Chinese-led Shanghai Cooperation Organization but block full Chinese membership in the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation.
India's global integration strategy too doesn't provide ready answers on China, which has become an economic behemoth. Such a strategy requires that a capital-starved India attract Chinese investment and work with Beijing's gigantic Belt and Road Initiative where it can. But fears of Chinese encirclement militate against such a compromise, and India also has to be careful to not provoke excessive Chinese opposition to its global goals.
Thus, India finds itself in an unenviable position on China. For now, it will likely muster all the friends it can, with the United States and Japan as key partners. The "Quad" — a counter to the Belt and Road Initiative being considered by Australia, the United States, India and Japan — is only an idea so far, but it has the potential to gel. Strategic ties with Vietnam and Taiwan also have a bright future. In the medium term, India's joint focus with its partners will primarily be on maritime and power projection activities in the region of the Indian Ocean.
Naval acquisitions spending, currently at 25 percent of India's defense acquisitions budget, is likely to increase, but overall defense spending is hamstrung by modest tax revenues. Therefore, the South China Sea will remain an overstretch. The Bay of Bengal, northern and coastal Myanmar and East Africa are more plausible as future arenas for Indo-Chinese friction, as are Bhutan, Sri Lanka, Nepal and Bangladesh. However, New Delhi will likely try to separate its security competition with Beijing from areas of mutual convergence.
The United States
Meeting the Chinese-Pakistani challenge would logically require an ally with sufficient heft. Enter the United States. If the United States were simply another great power rivaling China, India and the United States would have few problems consummating their security ties. But matters are not so simple. The United States is still the sole superpower with interests across the globe. China is the only potential rival to the United States, but they are in the most consequential bilateral economic relationship in history. This means U.S. priorities do not entirely coincide with Indian interests.
India's global integration strategy too doesn't provide ready answers on China, which has become an economic behemoth.
U.S. and Indian views do converge on the stability of the Indian Ocean region and the Indo-Pacific. But Washington has important interests in Pakistan and is hostile to Iran. The United States is also facing a coordinated global challenge from China and Russia.
However, India has deep defense ties with Russia, which, though drifting of late, will likely persist for the foreseeable future. And it needs Iran for energy and connectivity projects. New Delhi also occasionally gets anxious about an imagined grand global bargain between Washington and Beijing that sacrifices Indian concerns.
All these factors limit the formation of a comprehensive Indo-U.S. alliance. Any such alliance, however informal, also implies that India will have to accept a junior role. It will find it difficult to do so. But, as China rises, India's strategic autonomy doctrine is under steadily increasing pressure. Much will depend on the future trajectory of the U.S.-China relationship.
Home and the World
India's grand strategy also has global objectives. While emerging as a global power is a distant dream, India still has sufficient influence to try to seek a better distribution of power in global institutions of trade, security, development, finance and climate action. India will deepen its participation in coalitions — the SCO, the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, the India-Brazil-South Africa Dialogue Forum and the BRICS group, which also includes Brazil, Russia, China and South Africa — and other organizations to counter this institutional disadvantage. Brazil will be an important partner in these efforts. and India will also have to engage with China.
India will also place greater stress on its soft power, which is considerable, in order to lend legitimacy to its grand strategy. Afghanistan has been a success story in this regard. And the updated version of non-alignment's push for influence will be reflected in initiatives such as the International Solar Alliance, scholarships to India’s quality universities and greater development aid and disaster relief. But ambitious infrastructure initiatives such as the Asia-Africa Growth Corridor are capital-constrained and unlikely to gain much traction.
In the end, grand strategy, which relies on using its available resources to pursue national objectives, can only take India so far. Until India finds the elusive formula to achieve much greater prosperity, it will fall short in achieving its goals. Moreover, it has to do this while maintaining its unity, which in turn depends on the survival of its pluralist traditions. Ultimately, the journey to becoming a great power begins at home.