India is situated in one of the most important locations in the world: in between East Asia, Central Asia, and the Middle East. This, together with India’s strong economy and large population, means that India is primed to be the pivotal country for Asian security.
Nobody understood this better than Lord George Curzon, the erstwhile British viceroy of India. In 1909, he wrote:
It is obvious…that India, must, under modern conditions, be the greatest power in the Asiatic Continent, and therefore, it may be added, in the world. The central position of India, its magnificent resources, its teeming multitude of men, its great trading harbors, its reserve of military strength, supplying an army always in a high state of efficiency and capable of being hurled at a moment’s notice upon any given point either of Asia and Africa — all these are assets of precious values.
Every word that Curzon wrote a century ago holds true today. As the British-run Indian Empire, India was the primary political and military force in Asia and the Indian Ocean basin for much of the 19th and early 20th centuries. British-led Indian forces garrisoned Aden and Singapore, fought in Afghanistan, Iraq, and China, and patrolled the high seas from Zanzibar to Hong Kong.
However, after the partition and independence of India in 1947, India’s role as pivot for security in Asia slipped away for two reasons: ideological and geopolitical.
Ideologically, the Indian leadership under its first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, rejected the power politics that they saw reminiscent of a bygone, imperialistic era. Nonetheless, by envisioning a major role for India in the non-aligned movement, Nehru did not reject the concept of India as a major player in world affairs. His daughter, Indira Gandhi, was less idealistic, but most of her attention focused on domestic issues and, when it did come to power politics, on South Asia. But, as events have proven since, history is far from over, and India has since begun to rediscover the vitality of having a security strategy.
Geopolitically, independent India found itself in a very different situation than British India, despite occupying most of the same territory. First, economically, it was weaker and no longer backed by a global financial empire. Its limited resources, moreover, were channeled mostly into development and domestic spending rather than an international security apparatus. Second, India had no need initially to maintain the same posture as the British geopolitically. Most British bases and colonies in Africa and the Middle East were acquired to protect the route between Britain and India, something which was no longer relevant after 1947. Additionally, after World War II, the United States replaced Britain as the primary guarantor of freedom of navigation and security on the oceans. India thus had no great incentive to replace Britain as the main power in the Indian Ocean.
Third, the chief security and geopolitical threat for India after independence was Pakistan, on its northwest frontier. Not only did Pakistan’s emergence cut India off from a direct land route to the Middle East and Central Asia, it focused most of India’s attention on regional geopolitics. Together with the border dispute with China, India’s attention was taken up mostly by its neighboring countries, and was unable to look at a grander strategy.
The end of the Cold War, the decline of the non-alignment ideology, and a changing security situation in both the Middle East (political instability and the rise of terrorism) and in East Asia (the rise of China) have changed the Indian calculus. Furthermore, the rise of India to great power or near-great power status due to increased economic growth, nuclear weapon capacity, and military spending changed the way that Indian leaders, both left and right, viewed the world. If India wants to be a security pivot for Asia again, it needs to roll back the ideological and geopolitical reasons that caused it to stop being a security pivot in the first place.
Ideologically, India for the most part has shed its aversion to power politics. It has actively engaged its neighbors and countries farther afield, such as Tajikistan, Iran, and Vietnam with security and economic proposals. But domestic politics continue to take up an inordinate amount of the attention of its political class. This is to be expected: India, a union of diverse cultures and peoples is almost a continent unto itself. Its political system further encourages an almost constant need to campaign, negotiate, and dispense largesse. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has managed to place foreign affairs at the top of India’s agenda, but the initiatives of one prime minister need further institutionalization if they are to be maintained for decades.
Geopolitically, India has begun to play a greater role in Asian affairs. In order to achieve a stronger position in Asia, India has to up its game in four realms:
First, and most importantly, India has to consolidate its regional position. As long as it is primarily focused on South Asia, especially Pakistan, but also combating inroads made by China into the region, it will be unable to look at the larger geopolitical and security picture. While India by its sheer size and location can probably remain the dominant power vis-a-vis China in regards to its smaller neighbors and retain influence in Afghanistan, it will have to find a way to deal with Pakistan. South Asia is the world’s least economically integrated region in the world and transportation links are weak. India can attempt two strategies for its region, which I shall loosely dub the “21st Century” and “19th century” strategies. The first strategy would be to pursue integration and cooperation. This would tie Pakistan to India more closely and negate its desire to block Indian land trade. The second strategy would be for India to encourage the disintegration of Pakistan into its component parts, each friendlier to India, something unlikely but becoming likelier as time goes by.
India’s regional position impacts the second factor that India should pursue: its naval capacities. India should fully leverage its oceanic position, because this is a sphere where it has the most to gain. Both terrain and geopolitics limit its ability to project major land forces outside of the subcontinent. India needs to focus more on its navy, with its army having the capacity to be primarily successful in a defensive or amphibious posture.
Third, even if India ought to focus on the sea, it should not neglect becoming a land force in its traditional peripheries, particularly in Central Asia and Afghanistan. While India will not be able to match the enormous influence China and Russia have in Central Asia, Delhi should still ensure that it has a seat at the table. In Afghanistan and Iran, however, India needs to make sure that it remains a major player. India has enormous leverage with Afghanistan that it has not yet fully used to its advantage.
Fourth, India must continue to engage countries all over Asia, both for the sake of concluding friendly bilateral diplomacy, and for the sake of positioning itself as an alternative to other powers in the region. It is behind China, Russia, and the United States as a power to be reckoned with in the great game of Asian geopolitics. However, it can continue to engage countries like Vietnam, Japan, Saudi Arabia, Israel, and others.
While India should focus on all four factors, it is likely to have the most success with the first two — consolidating its regional position and expanding its naval capacity. Because of its strong need, cultural ties, and the fact that it is the dominant power in South Asia, India can mold the subcontinent to its benefit over the next couple of decades. It also has the advantage of an enormous unfulfilled potential to become the Indian Ocean’s dominant naval power. It can expect some support and cooperation from the United States and little rivalry from anyone else, including China, which is still focused primarily on rivals in the Pacific Ocean. This approach may also aid in relations with the Middle East, where it has strong cultural and political ties.
India’s policy of being friendly with everyone has led to a security situation where it is the jack of all trades and master of none; this begs the questions whether it should focus on its strengths and matters of particular importance. Only then can it be in a position to become a security pivot in Asia in future years. Again, it remains to be seen if the larger role in international relations that Modi envisions for India can be institutionalized; however the narrower focus of regional dominance and naval security are likely to be pursued as a matter of course by any government.
This article has previously been published on the EastWest Institute Policy Innovation Blog.