India’s Geopolitical Significance Then … and Now

World War I ended with the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the crippling of the German military juggernaut. The Ottomans had served as a bulwark against Russia’s southward expansion. With the fall of the Ottomans, Britain could carve up the undemarcated Arab lands to secure its energy interests, which were vital to the British economy and military. Britain was also free to use the services of the Arabs in the Great Game with Russia. But soon Russia, Germany, and the US were all rapidly industrializing. Germany began to compete with Britain for economic and military supremacy, outselling British goods with its superior products, akin to the present-day Sino-US gambit for markets and resources. Stalin transformed the Russian economy from an agrarian to an industrial one, but at the cost of the peasantry. The US’s industrialization process was ironically underwritten by British investors seeking higher returns from what they could get at home, strikingly similar to American corporates investing in China’s industrial growth, in the wake of the Sino-US thaw of 1972, to cut back on rising labor costs at home. The US’s industrial prowess spawned a navy that outclassed the British Navy to become the dominant naval force in the Atlantic. The Chinese are today building on their economic gains to raise a blue water navy. World War II proved to be the last straw on Britain’s back. It shattered the myth of British invincibility. Britain won the war over its arch rivals, but lost the plot to the US, for the locus of power took a westward shift. Though Britain retained its Empire, its ability to hold it depended on the US Navy, which took over the reins of control of the crucial sea lanes straddling the Indian and Pacific Oceans in maintaining British trade and communication links to its colonies. Economically and militarily humbled, the costs of policing the restive colonies—especially India, for its sheer size and the struggles within—became untenable for Britain, relative to the benefits.

Both world wars demonstrated the indispensability of oil in fighting a war and running an economy. The British had set up the Iraq Petroleum Company after installing King Faisal to the throne of Baghdad in 1921 and backed Reza Shah in the 1921 coup to consolidate its hold over the Anglo Persian Oil Company and to impede the Bolshevik invasion of India. Indian troops were used in the local wars to expand Imperial overreach. During WWII, the Allies staged military attacks into the Arab heartland from the Karachi port and Baluchistan’s shores (Makran coast), situated at the mouth of the Persian Gulf. Today most of the ports and naval facilities which Pakistan is upgrading with Chinese assistance, like Gwadar, Pasni, and Ormara, which lie along the Makran coast in the Gulf of Oman in close proximity to India’s north-western coastline. The strategic significance of this area assumes greater proportions when viewed in the backdrop of the widening rift in the US-Pakistan and Sino-US relations, China’s stakes in the West Asia-North Africa(WANA) region, the looming uncertainties over Iran and the US’s withdrawal from Afghanistan. India was integral for the protection of the Allied oil supplies to Europe and the Far East during the war, and this scenario hasn’t changed much today when we recount India’s role in safeguarding the Malacca Straits. India was the main base for Allied troop deployment in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR), the WANA region, and the Far East, a transit point for air and sea communications and a large pool of manpower. Roosevelt was cognizant of India’s wartime importance and could gauge its usefulness in the past-war world order. He also realized that an Allied victory would help the Soviet Union (USSR) become an unrivalled power in Eurasia. With a larger economy, military, and territory, Moscow’s appetite for oil would inevitably grow. With no major challenge from Europe and the Far East, Russia could resume her southern drive for oil and warm water ports in the IOR. As Britain would emerge incapable of securing Western oil interests in the Middle East (ME) and the sea lanes of communication and transportation, the US would have to step into the shoes of Imperial Britain and take on the mantle in maintaining the balance of power. Pivotal to this plan was India’s support for America after its independence. But how would the plan fare if India passed into the Soviet bloc? It was in this context that Roosevelt made a strong and relentless pitch for independence of an undivided India; but convinced of the British arguments that Indian Congress leaders would strive for “strategic autonomy” in matters of defense and foreign policy , he later winked at the partition plan.

At the Margate conference of the British Labor party in the June 1947, Ernest Bevin, the then Foreign Secretary, declared that the division of India would “help to consolidate Britain in the ME”. The British ploy was to use the north-western part of India (Pakistan) as bases to forestall Soviet expansionism towards the Indian Ocean and the Persian Gulf as had been done earlier to halt the Czarist “forward thrust”. That the Muslim Leaguers were in cahoots with the British became evident when Pakistan joined the Baghdad Pact with Iran, Iraq, Turkey and Britain in 1955, which became CENTO in 1958 after the US pitched in to form the “brick wall” against the sweeping tide of communism. British assessments that a Muslim ally like Pakistan could better manage Western interests in the tribal and lawless frontiers with Afghanistan proved prophetic when the tribesmen eventually helped wreck the mighty USSR.

Leap-frog to the geopolitics of today, and we see India’s stature growing by the day in the strategic calculus of the 3 leading powers: the US, the only superpower; Russia, a recognized power; and China, a rising power. As the US extricates itself from the long war in Afghanistan, Obama has shifted his gaze to the Indo-Pacific. His “pivot” to the Pacific means Washington’s renewed focus to the center of the global economy: the Indian and Pacific Oceans. Robert Kaplan writes, in an insightful account on India’s “balancing” role in the “pivot” policy:

The Indian Ocean is the world’s energy interstate through which energy supplies pass from the WANA region to the robust economies of East Asia. Half of the supplies traverse the South China Sea (SCS) which connects the Indian Ocean to the western Pacific and is itself a known energy hub. China’s proximity to the SCS is linked to fears of “Finlandization” (undermining of smaller states by larger nations by economic and military means) of the littoral states. America alone cannot guarantee the stability of this region. India and the US are not formal allies. India’s ruling dispensation cannot build a consensus on an alliance with the US. But because of India’s location astride the Indian Ocean at the heart of maritime Eurasia, the growth of Indian economic and military power benefits the US as it could help in countervailing China and thus relieve the US of the burden of being the world’s dominant power because the US can never see a dominant power in the eastern hemisphere as itself in the western hemisphere.

In a similar vein, Secretary Clinton had recently called on India to “not just to look East, but to engage East” in a clear sign of America’s growing dependence on India in the Indo-Pacific.

Russia’s existing economic policy is export-oriented (export of raw materials and arms). As it needs stable markets over the long haul, Moscow is shifting its focus from the sick Eurozone economies to Asian ones placed on a high-growth trajectory. From this aspect, India will remain as a country of great import. India is the largest importer of heavy military equipment from Russia. But the historic relationship, in recent years, has turned from one of “confidence” (the word confidence is in single quote)to that of “apprehension”. India is upset over the time delays and cost over runs in some of the most crucial projects that Russia has been entrusted with. On the flipside, Russia is aware of the deepening Indo-US ties and the fact that the biggest beneficiary of Indian military purchases through the FMS (non-competitive formof weapons procurement) route is the US. Pakistan-Russia ties have also changed from one of “animosity” to that of “engagement”. And China is high up in Putin’s foreign policy agenda. However, this is not to suggest that Moscow has come to terms with the Sino-Pakistan misdemeanors of the Cold War. Russia has gone to great lengths in supporting India’s permanent candidature to the UN Security Council and full membership in the Shanghai Cooperation Council (SCO) in a bid to induce a measure of change in India’s strategic behavior in conformity to the Sino-Russian strategic agenda. It is pertinent to note that both Russia and India still share a similar worldview, have a strategic partnership in place and a string of joint ventures spanning several strategic sectors.

The India-China discord stems from geopolitical and geo-economic complexities as both are vying for economic and military influence, sometimes impinging on each other’s spheres of influence, and has no ethnic animosity behind it, unlike the Indo-Pakistan rivalry, which is mired in the tangled partition story with an element of emotion to influence it. Though India and China are at loggerheads over the messy territorial tussle, the dispute around the Dalai Lama, the trade imbalance skewed highly in favor of China, and the protectionist impulses on both sides in opening up some sectors for investments, there are healthy signs of confidence building through naval diplomacy. For India to reconcile with the stigma of the 1962 war debacle, China has to take some unilateral measures, concrete and conspicuous, to dispel the negative perception of my-enemy’s-friend-is-my-enemy from India’s national consciousness. And Delhi has to do its bit in allaying China’s core concern that India could “do a China on China”(in the last few years of the Cold War, China ganged up with the US with a dual purpose, for modernization and destruction of the USSR). India and China ought to take the existing ties forward by engaging in counter-terror (CT) co-operation through a bilateral mechanism since both are victims of the scourge of terrorism. If China drops its inhibitions to let India into the SCO fold as a full member, then many more security-related regional initiatives could be hammered-out. The two distraught neighbors need to invest their constructive energies in troubled places like Afghanistan, Libya, Syria, Iran and South Sudan/Sudan where both have considerable ‘resource interests’ for tripartite benefits. Such steps will go a long way in forging an India-China security partnership, which will come handy in defusing a border crisis. India cannot wish away China as its neighbor and this applies to China as well.

India has economic interdependence with each of the three major powers in varying degrees. But economic integration does not last at the time of crisis. India must continue to have creative strategic co-operation with each of these powers to excel in the geopolitical chess game.