The Curzonian imprint on Indian foreign policy

Published on Jun 12, 2021 07:22 PM IST
Lord Curzon’s conceptualisation of India’s neighbourhood and emphasis on frontiers and integration is still relevant and can serve as a template for both India and India-US partnership
Curzon recognised that India’s security depends upon its ability to exercise influence over a geopolitical space beyond its own shores. He also recognised that India’s main landward attention must be directed to its frontiers. And he understood that building influence in neighbouring spaces required India to offer an attractive commercial and strategic alternative to the charms of its rivals (Getty Images)
Curzon recognised that India’s security depends upon its ability to exercise influence over a geopolitical space beyond its own shores. He also recognised that India’s main landward attention must be directed to its frontiers. And he understood that building influence in neighbouring spaces required India to offer an attractive commercial and strategic alternative to the charms of its rivals (Getty Images)
ByA Wess Mitchell

How should India deal with a rising China? Some Americans see the answer in an eventual United States (US)-India alliance. But while India’s leaders have jettisoned the non-aligned tradition, they are committed to a quest for a distinctively Indian strategy, rooted in India’s own experiences and outlook.

In this quest, Indians are likely to find inspiration, not from Jawaharlal Nehru or the writings of ancient or medieval rulers, but from Lord Curzon of Kedleston, India’s 27th, and perhaps most prolific, viceroy.

More than any other figure from India’s recent history, Curzon grappled with the geopolitical complexities of the Indian subcontinent and its neighbourhood. That he did so as a foreigner makes these insights no less “Indian”—for the substrate of his reflections was not nationality or ideology, but geography and the permanent interests that it produces for any power looking at the gameboard from India’s position.

Three tenets of Curzon’s thinking seem especially relevant for India as it finds itself confronted with an aggressive China.

First, Curzon recognised that India’s security depends upon its ability to exercise influence over a defined geopolitical space beyond India’s own shores. He identified this space as extending from the Gulf of Aden in the West to the Strait of Malacca in the East. Whereas the Mughals tended to see India as an extension of the geopolitics of Central Asia, Curzon understood that India’s security and greatness were intimately tied to the maritime routes and chokepoints connecting it to Europe and the Far East. Lose control of these, and India would be hostage to its strongest landward neighbour.

Second, Curzon recognised that India’s main landward attention must be directed to its frontiers — namely, to the task of maintaining viable buffer states in adjacent regions. For Curzon, the frontier was “the razor’s edge on which hang suspended the modern issues of war and peace”. In his time, the Russian Empire bore down on Persia and Afghanistan to the north while France pushed westward from Siam into Burma. Keeping these spaces in friendly hands helped alleviate the direct military pressure on India’s home provinces and obviated the need for frontier fortifications and large standing armies.

Third, Curzon understood that building influence in these neighbouring spaces required India to offer an attractive commercial and strategic alternative to the charms of its rivals. While tending to oppose the expansion of formal empire, Curzon nevertheless saw that India needed to compete vigorously for positive influence in these regions. This required an active rather than passive policy aimed at the integration of neighbouring states into the Indian economy and infrastructure.

All three components of the Curzonian template are well suited to India today.

Looking at the map from New Delhi’s perspective, the area that matters most is precisely the space, from Aden to Singapore, which Curzon identified as India’s natural orbis terrarum. Should India fail to prevent China from becoming the dominant power in this space, its role as a global power will be curtailed; should India stretch its ambitions much beyond this region, it is likely to find itself overextended.

Also, as in Curzon’s time, it is the small and often unstable States rimming this area that must be the focal points of Indian diplomacy. China is playing hardball in these places, using money and pressure to pull clients into its orbit. To an even greater extent than in the 19th century, India’s security is intimately linked to its ability to offer these States a viable alternative to this rival influence, anchored in economic integration to India and those favourable to it, such as the US and the Asia-Pacific democracies.

Curzon’s vision is also relevant for US-India relations. While some in Washington pine for India to become more active in the region that matters most for the US (the Western Pacific), in reality, what would benefit America most is an India that is capable of consistently projecting power and influence in its own, home region. This would entail a combination of localised naval and littoral land strength and deep politico-economic relations with the smaller nearby States — many of which India will be much more effective at organising than the US would be.

Put differently, what Washington should want is also the thing that is naturally desirable and attainable from the perspective of its strategic interests — a confident, “Curzonian” India that devotes its energies to stabilising its own surroundings in what is one of the world’s crucible geopolitical zones.

In the words of the Indian strategist C Raja Mohan, himself a Curzon admirer, cooperation between the US and India could “reconstitute in the 21st century the ‘India Center’ that organised peace and stability in much of the Eastern Hemisphere during the 19th and early 20th centuries.”

This suggests a very different template for the strategic relationship with India than other American alliances — a sui generis partnership aimed at enabling India to achieve its full potential in its own environs. That doesn’t imply passivity for Washington; to the contrary, US policymakers need to devote more energy to defining the potential for this relationship, including where necessary by developing novel frameworks in which it can prosper.

That could include creating a legal category that would allow for technology-sharing and deepening of defence ties without “major non-NATO ally” status (which India does not perfectly fit). It could include waiving US sanctions for certain Indian military and commercial activities that runs afoul of US sanctions on, say, Moscow but is necessary for activating New Delhi’s resistance to Beijing. And it could include coordinating regional aid, investment incentives, and political priorities in places such as Myanmar or even deferring to India’s lead when a more prominent US role would be counterproductive.

But making the most of the US-Indian relationship to thwart China’s advance is not a one-way street; it will also require India to continue taking on greater burden and risks than it became accustomed to in the Cold War and its immediate aftermath.

Curzon always believed such a day would come, when a confident, self-governing India would become a major source of stability in its own region and the wider world.

If anything, his vision is more relevant for an independent India that is motivated to act on its own, unalloyed self-interests. America and India both stand to gain from India’s realisation of that vision.

A Wess Mitchell is a former US assistant secretary of state and a principal and co-founder, The Marathon Initiative, a Washington DC based think-tank dedicated to studying great power competition

The views expressed are personal

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