India as the global 'swing state': Its strategic choices for 2023

The Chinese threat looms large in so many areas - from the Himalayan front lines to cyber threats - specially its ability to use its extensive trade and technology clout to remind New Delhi of its limitations, along with of its nexus with Pakistan, will continue to demand considerable investments from India.

Updated Dec 30, 2022 | 07:22 PM IST

India’s lack of direct geographical connectivity with Central Asia is complicated by Pakistan's agenda in Afghanistan and the US led marginalisation of Iran.
Photo : iStock
India's major strategic challenges in 2023, would be to balance its ties with the US, as Washington continues to try and wean India away from its linkages with Russia and to remain prepared for any adventurism by the China-Pakistan nexus. And even though the US has tried hard to divide the world with its 'with us or against us' narrative on the Ukraine issue, India's nuanced foreign policy on the matter has left Washington - and its vocal votaries - perplexed. India is frankly too big now (economically) to fall into the shadow of any one country, more so, over a conflict in Europe, that has to be resolved by the Europeans (despite America's open support to Ukraine), never mind the oft-repeated message of Prime Minister Modi to message that this is not at era of war. For India, a more immediate threat is the China-Pak nexus.
The Chinese threat looms large in so many areas - from the Himalayan front lines to cyber threats - specially its ability to use its extensive trade and technology clout to remind New Delhi of its limitations, along with of its nexus with Pakistan, will continue to demand considerable investments from India. This would range from rapid building of infrastructure on the borders, greater military tech-capabilities - drones, air and missile power, satellites, etc. - to building India's manufacturing capabilities for electronics - cell phones, ACs, TV sets, etc..; in all of which India's dependence is over 90 percent on Chinese goods. This would prevent a Chinese embargo and blackmail in case India interferes with the succession of the Dalai Lama or takes the boundary scuffles into a limited military conflict.
An all out war would be disastrous for the economies of India and China, more so for India. Reading the tea leaves, following the recent assertions of President Xi Jinping - that the PLA should prepare to fight and win small wars - a conflict cannot be ruled out.
China has moved from the 'economy first' to a 'military focus' requires New Delhi to immediately adopt and new negotiation approach for the boundary issue. Despite China’s public assertions to address their boundary claims by talks, are contradicted by its latest intrusions in the Tawang area. Their signal is that more clashes will follow.
Thus, India must prepare for more boundary intrusions and confrontations, never mind the Chinese claims of talks and diplomacy as a solution to our disputes.
Earlier Sino-Indian agreements - of 1993, 1996 or 2005 - are 'passe' now, and so is the model of the negotiating only through the MEA’s diplomats- which is ironically a legacy of the Nehru era. Apart from the giving away of the one major strategic gain by our special forces after the Galwan clashes, with the capture of dominating heights of the Kailash ranges in August 2020, that stumped the Chinese as it was overlooking their major military
at Maldo, just our diplomatic negotiations that gave away the Haji Pir pass after the 1965 war, must tell a strong military presence in boundary negotiations is a must. The Chinese have that, so why not us? But this is not to suggest that our diplomats aren't capable. Their role in the 'Long Game' (as Ambassador Gokhale has explained in his book) is essential in many other areas. As for Pakistan, when talks begin next (under international pressure, as in the past) the presence of senior military officers will per force draw in Pakistan's generals, who call the shots on India. Talking to Pakistani diplomats is a time waster.
The other major strategic challenge for India is to balance its ties with Russia - that New Delhi has refused to abandon despites US led western pressure following the invasion of Ukraine - and to balance India's ties with Washington. The US, even now, needs India more than India needs the US (even though supporters of Indo-US ties will insist that its the other way around). India will have to balance the antagonistic big power relations particularly between US and Russia, as India's dependence on Russian military spares for 60% or more of its earlier Russian military inventory, now further enhanced the procurement of $5.43bn S-400 air defence systems, need for modernisation of naval frigates, the induction of nuclear-powered submarines, AK-202 assault rifle project, Very Short-Range Defence Systems, spares for Brahmos, R-27 air-to-air missiles and modernisation of An-32 transport aircraft fleet are cases in point. Nothing that the US has given, quite compares with these weapon systems.
Equally important is the sudden surge in India's imports of Russian oil and gas, just as China is gobbling up Russian
energy supplies and so has Europe (which wasn't restricted in importing Russian gas at least till December). India's
imports of Russian energy supplies has risen from 2% to 22% recently. That gives Delhi an alternative to oil and gas
from the Gulf region, which needs to supply European countries, that were hugely dependent on Russian energy
supplies, but are now seeking alternatives. And the more India trades with Russia, the more leverage it shall enjoy over Moscow, which will remain in
the docks for some time to come, because of its Ukraine misadventure. And in the event of the Sino-Indian boundary
issue turning into a serious military conflict, it is Russia that could wean China away from going beyond acceptable
levels, and not just the US and the other two QUAD countries (Japan and Australia).
Moreover, India has recently adopted an Arctic Strategy that meets with Russia's strategy for development of its
Far East region, as Mr. Modi’s speech at the Eastern Economic Forum on September 9, 2022 has indiacted, that
“India is keen to strengthen its partnership with Russia on Arctic issues. There is also immense potential for cooperation in the field of energy. Along with energy, India has also made significant investments in the Russian Far East in the areas of pharma and diamonds” PM had said. Thus, India has pledged a one billion dollars line of
credit for collaboration for the development of Russia's Far East.
Also, an expansion of bilateral trade to $30 billion US dollar by 2025, that will see energy imports, offshore drilling, infrastructure development of ports, railways, and airports, most importantly the operationalisation of Northern Sea Route and to enhance connectivity with India through Vladivostok-Chennai corridor on one side and through integrated waterways with INSTC, in which Iran's Chabahar port would be included. The most important decision is to make these routes Green Corridors by easing out trade barriers and custom rules adopting e- commerce model, as well as collaboration in ship building, supply and construction of polar vessels are major steps in Indo-Russian collaboration.
Even though, India has joined a new West Asian (Quad) – US, UAE, Israel and India, the grouping is essentially
aimed at economic cooperation, India’s main strategic interests in West Asia will revolve around energy security ,
as India still imports about the bulk of energy requirements from the West Asian countries. But India has needs to
balance its interests between Israel, Saudi Arabia and Iran and checkmate Pakistan’s anti-India agenda at the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), and thus, India's relation with Saudi Arabia, and other Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries has remains a significant strategic issue. Energy issues apart, India also needs to protect the interests of Indians in the Gulf region who are a significant source of foreign exchange funds being repatriated into India (of $40 billion dollars or more), and block the spread of Wahhabi ideology and radicalization of Indian diaspora.
And the import of fossil fuels apart, India’s lack of direct geographical connectivity with Central Asia is complicated
by Pakistan's agenda in Afghanistan and the US led marginalisation of Iran, with economic sanctions imposed on
Tehran by Washington. These geopolitical developments have dampened the prospects of better use of Chahbahar
port, Zaranj-Delaram axis, INSTC, energy corridors connecting Central Asia with South Asia or for that matter
implementation of Ashgabat trade agreement. Though the risk of Afghanistan becoming an epicentre of terrorism
can only harm Pakistan, and not have a direct bearing on India. This factor is often overstated by analysts who can
only visualise Pakistan using every terror outfit ( including the ISKP) based in Afghanistan to harass India, even though this idea defies my geographical imagination.
There are enough terrorist outfits sitting restlessly within Pakistan like the LeT, JeM, etc.. whose sole purpose is to be used by the Pakistan army against India, for cross- border terrorism. Sadly, India's much trumpeted diplomatic efforts to place Pakistan in the dock diplomatically, has plateaued out. It is clear that their absence of any major current day attack, and could be the silence before a storm. Here, will India needs US more than Russia, to keep the leash on Pakistan and its Generals, all of whom and their families are still deeply embedded with the US, more than with China.
Maroof Raza is a guest contributor. Views expressed are personal.
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