Recent developments in the Maldives and Sri Lanka suggest a need for a re-examination of India’s relations with its neighbours. Some political pundits have expressed concern about China’s build-up on the Tibetan plateau, its plans to build numerous dams on the Brahmaputra and takeover of the management of Gwadar, a commercial port in Pakistan. China’s growing defence expenditures ($119 billion in 2013) — three times that of India’s $40 billion (2013-14) — have allowed it to extend its naval presence into the Indian Ocean, making it imperative for us to use our limited resources more efficiently.
Military and political strategy are generally intertwined, and sometimes buried inside a commercial one. The world respects power. India’s growth acceleration in the 1980s and 1990s created the conditions for a greater role in global politics, but it was Pokhran II that catapulted India onto the world stage. China’s military might, focused mission and astute diplomacy have been successful in resolving many border issues and fostering strategic economic relations with its immediate neighbours.
China’s strategic skills are reflected in high economic growth rates for over three decades and a persistent surplus in its current account during the past decade. Consequently, China holds nearly one-third of global international reserves, mainly built in the last seven years. It is now attempting to internationalise its currency. It is the success of its diplomacy that the argument with the US on China’s exchange rate was fought on the latter’s behalf by American academics and China experts, often aided ably by Chinese students. With China’s economic size (not economic power) now almost equal to that of the US, it is confident enough to copy the US’ ‘Ugly American’ style of assertive, abrasive and at times even arrogant and overpowering behaviour.
In contrast, India has not been successful in making strategic inroads into other countries. Pakistan was successful in convincing western analysts (the Ayatollahs of non-proliferation) that all its proliferation activities were a response to and justified by India’s 1974 nuclear explosive test and its 1998 nuclear weapons test, while India was subjected to repeated attempts at nuclear blackmail and the use of terrorism as an instrument of State policy. The difference of opinion between political parties and regions seems disruptive and gives the appearance of a lack of strategy, vision and objectivity.
We need to develop a vision for our country for the next few decades, build and analyse scenarios for the type of competition that we could face in and around the Indian Ocean littoral and develop a strategy for dealing with this competition. For this we need dedicated think-tanks focused on geo-economics and geopolitics. To bring about a modicum of national political cohesiveness in diplomatic strategy a body like the Inter State Council or the Planning Commission, may serve as a useful platform to iron out ideological differences as an alternative to public bickering and infighting. Finally, we probably need to build a cadre of diplomats who have the skills to meet the requirements of a country that is projected to become a great power around 2025 and a superpower around 2035.
To preserve and enrich our independence, non-aligned nature and traditional relationships with our neighbours, we will need skilful strategy, astute diplomacy, and a long-term vision. Soft Speech and Strong Stick — 4S’s — could be the answer. And for that, a strong military and skilled diplomatic corps is a necessity.
Charan Singh is RBI Chair Professor, IIM, Bangalore; Arvind Virmani is a former executive director of the IMF
The views expressed by the authors are personal