India’s lack of strategic thinking is quite perturbing (and terrifying, frankly): it has always aspired to great power status, seeing itself as a moral power than a superpower, bringing some sense and perspective to the world of machtpolitik. By virtue of its size, it is a de facto regional power. New Delhi has also entangled itself in Great Power politics on issues such as nuclear proliferation and missile technology, and borders what is in all probability, a central node in the next cold war. India also neighbours an annoyingly hostile and fairly lethal state that was carved out of it at the moment of a historical ‘tryst with destiny.’ Despite such strong motivations, New Delhi has maintained a pose of masterly equanimity – cowardice and impotence – in its dealings with the neighbourhood and the Great Powers.
The release of Non-Alignment 2.0 in late February this year, though to much fanfare from a small Delhi clique, was received with resignation and an anti-climactic sigh from most India watchers. The analysts were right – the much-hyped report merely reflected more of the same stodgy thinking that has marked India’s government apparatus for over six decades. Most opinion on the ill-advisedly named report has been negative, some analysts dubbing it Claptrap 2.0 and Failure 2.0. An interesting response on Non-Alignment 2.0, Non-Alignment Redux, has been a but-Brutus-is-an-honourable-man take from Ashley Tellis, arguably the foremost analyst of South Asia and known for his common-sense realism, who has strong reservations about the report despite praising it.
Non-Alignment 2.0 is, as Tellis notes, the first public effort to formulate a clear grand strategy for India. In essence, it identifies domestic weakness – infrastructure, economy, governance – as one of India’s greatest challenges in the coming decade, and China as the most worrisome external factor, though Pakistan makes the list due to its coupling of nuclear weapons with structural weakness and support of cross-border terrorism. Furthermore, Non-Alignment 2.0 reminds readers that India cannot emerge as a global power without calming the apprehensions its neighbours have of an increasingly muscular India.
If Non-Alignment 2.0 is meant to be a grand strategy, it would be an odd one for two reasons: 1. grand strategy usually entails the affairs of a state in interaction with the world system, rather than highlight its internal deficiencies, and 2. its predecessor was certainly a framework of addressing India’s relations with its neighbours, the superpowers with their attendant blocs, and other nations of the world and had little meaning internally. Indeed, non-alignment means little within the realm of India’s domestic politics, for who or what would one be non-aligned against? Thus, the internal issues Non-Alignment 2.0 raises are really general matters of state management rather than strategic considerations.
Reading Non-Alignment 2.0 and its recommendations on India’s foreign policy, one cannot help but be reminded of Thucydides famous line, “You are convinced by experience that very few things are brought to a successful issue by impetuous desire, but most by calm and prudent forethought.” Despite foreseeing the power differential between India and China widening in the immediate future, the authors suggest that India “develop a diversified network of relations with several major powers to compel China to exercise restraint in its dealings with India, while simultaneously avoiding relationships that go beyond conveying a certain threat threshold in Chinese perceptions” – in short, the original non-alignment, demanding all possible assistance without actually offering anything beyond platitudes. While it can be argued that such a policy would not risk alarming Beijing by ensuring that New Delhi treads softly, there are three questions left unanswered.
The first is whether any amount of leverage would work on China. Beijing has repeatedly thumbed its nose at the world, right since 1949. First, Mao disregarded Stalin and crossed the Yantze river; in 1950, they took on the might of the United States in the Korean peninsula and crossed the Yalu river; twice they challenged the sovereignty of Taiwan in 1954 and 1958; Beijing practically ignored the Eighteen Nation Disarmament Committee and the talks surround the Limited Test Ban Treaty and the Non-Proliferation Treaty. Ignoring international opinion with impunity, China has supplied Pakistan with nuclear weapons designs and reactors, and probably N. Korea with missile technology. China’s brinkmanship was again on display in 2001 when a Chinese jet “bumped” into a US EP-3, sparking the Hainan Island incident. Presently, Beijing is flexing its muscles in the South China Sea at its tiny Southeast Asian neighbours, making all sorts of spurious territorial claims and resorting to gunboat diplomacy rather than well-intentioned negotiations. China has received much criticism for its domestic policies too, not the least of which was for the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989. For India, China has been an ulcer on the northeastern border, first in 1962 but constantly since then with threats of opening a second front in 1965 and 1971, supplying of arms to separatist elements in the North East, hundreds of border skirmishes every year, and its claim on Arunachal Pradesh. None of this indicates in the slightest that China is a state upon which leverage will work – they have repeatedly called their opponents’ bluffs and won.
The second question is if India can defend herself, even minimally, in a significant border skirmish. While China’s military modernisation and investment in infrastructure in the border regions is well known, equally well known is the lack of preparedness, deficient infrastructure, and a questionable defence procurement policy on the Indian side. Furthermore, as the authors of Non-Alignment 2.0 themselves admit, the gap between India and China is “likely to widen” in the near future. Poor civil-military relations, civilian stranglehold on strategic planning, poor talent pool of premier defence research institutes, and opacity of the entire process has so far ensured a poor output in terms of defence technologies, and this will continue to plague India. While even a rudimentary nuclear deterrent may serve as the guarantor against total destruction and occupation, India lacks sorely in tactical battlefield technologies such as advanced assault helicopters, artillery, missile systems, stealth, protective gear, night vision, etc. which are far more likely to be used in patrolling India’s borders. Much of this, if not all, is still imported from Russia, Israel, Europe, and now the US, creating strategic dependency on external forces.
The third question is, even if India can manage to retain her honour in Siachen and Aksai Chin, who are the powers the authors of Non-Alignment 2.0 are thinking of developing “diversified network of relations” with that can or would want to leverage China? Russia is not interested because they are upset with the United States over missile defence in Eastern Europe; besides, they are wary of a strong American presence in their backyard. Japan is too small and lacks the strategic depth to serve as a counterweight to China; the same is true Australia demographically. Europe has its own woes and is looking to China to help them ride out the present economic crisis; furthermore, its military spending and Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP) leaves much to be desired. As much as Indian thinkers try to ignore it, the fact remains that the United States is the only country that has the military, demographic, and technological wherewithal to balance China. Of course, all this assumes that India can even put together a network of countries willing to balance China, for many have reasons, however shortsightedly, to desire the rise of China as a counterweight to American unilateralism. Critically, it is not clear why any of these states should assist India in balancing China without any inkling of a serious commitment to the effort on India’s part.
On the section that deals with Pakistan, Non-Alignment 2.0 reads like a government press briefing, suggesting that talks are essential, that India must take a firm but reasonable stance on Kashmir and terrorism, and that it must also foster better cultural and economic ties so that they may ease the political rigor mortis. These are all policies that India has followed flawlessly over the last decade (if not more), and as Appu Soman argues in “Through the Looking Glass,” have met with little to no reciprocity from the Pakistani side. While Pakistan has successfully delinked terrorism from Kashmir (even claimed itself a victim of terrorism!) and terrorists roam their land freely, this side of the border has seen little progress on terrorist infiltration, the Mumbai case, or a host of other pinpricks to national security. However, Non-Alignment 2.0 blithely suggests that India continue more of the same.
In short, Non-Alignment 2.0 has little to offer in terms of original thinking and suffers from much wishful thinking and few practical suggestions. No doubt, it is useful to pontificate on the direction a state is heading once in a while, and as Tellis informs us, the report is certainly a good analysis of the structural problems, both internal and external, that India faces. However, a strategy has to ultimately make recommendations for an entity to get from point A to point B, and in this, sadly, Non-Alignment 2.0 only offers more of the same platitudes that landed India in this sorry state in the first place.