The second edition of the Raisina Dialogue, which is gradually becoming a regular feature of Modi government’s outreach to the world concluded on the 18th of January, 2017. The annual dialogue purports to outline India’s vision and its role in the international system and its future trajectory. The Inaugural address to the 2017 dialogue was delivered by the Prime Minister himself, and distinguished leaders from around the world attended the session. The PM underlined important geographical facts which perhaps have been neglected over the years in formulation of India’s foreign policy. A significant part of the PM’s address was devoted to the Indian subcontinent and India’s neighbours. He emphasized that his government’s policy since the beginning of his term in 2014 as the PM has been to involve its neighbours to maximize the benefits of India’s emergence as a prominent regional player and a valuable global economic actor. Beginning from the neighbourhood, the address marked the importance of geography as a factor in India’s foreign policy. It is important to make a critically analyze the geographical elements of New Delhi’s strategic vision for the near future as evident from the PM’s speech.
Mr. Modi stressed that his government’s approach has been rooted in the principle of “neighbourhood first”. Though such an approach does not substantially transform the traditional template of India’s foreign policy, it surely creates the moorings and lays the foundations for a very concrete and geopolitically grounded foreign policy for India. The larger idea is to concentrate on the creation of a very secure South Asian neighbourhood under Indian leadership, which is the dominant country in the region. The current establishment must be lauded for such an innovative regional political outlook wherein the eternal irritant Pakistan is ignored and neighbours with positive intent and cooperative attitude begin to work together for peace and prosperity in the region.
The Indian Ocean Region (IOR), which by its geographical expanse is very dynamic and is deeply embedded in the Indian strategic vision, also figured prominently in the PM’s speech. The SAGAR (Security and Growth for All in the Indian Ocean Region) initiative is an extension of India’s traditional security and strategic calculations. India has been the main protagonist in the region with the Indian Ocean Region Association for Regional Cooperation (IOR-ARC), its Joint Exercises with many countries littoral to the Indian Ocean and extra-regional powers. The biennial Indian Ocean Naval Symposium (IONS) has become a regular feature of India’s maritime security cooperation since 2008.
An extension of New Delhi’s Indian Ocean policy is gradual acceptance of the new geopolitical construction, the Indo-Pacific. The term Indo-Pacific, which forms the “confluence of two oceans” namely the Indian and Pacific Oceans also found mention in the speech. The term indicates maritime strategic collaboration with the main proponents, Japan and Australia, thereby providing a novel and dynamic angle to security calculations in the region. Some scholars argue that such a geopolitical nomenclature and the nature of constituent countries indicates a geopolitical code aimed at China and seems to be encirclement cum containment strategy in a typical Cold War mode.
It would only be a cliché to argue that such mechanisms are also intended to thwart Chinese attempts to build credible partnerships and bases in the Indian Ocean. Recent statements by the United States Pacific Command (USPACOM) chief indicating a close collaboration between the Indian and US Navies in pursuing the Chinese naval vessels in the IOR also attest to such manoeuvers of countering Chinese threat in the region. In the long run, though it also indicates to an Indian realization of China’s presence in the Indian neighbourhood.
An important marker in the PM’s address is of acceptance of China’s presence in India’s neighbourhood. It must be noted here that China is, beyond doubt, an important actor in the larger Southern Asian region, rather than South Asia itself. Its strategic and economic actions increasingly impinge on India’s security calculus in the region and it is gradually becoming difficult for the Indian establishment to counter the Chinese threat.
A major irritant is the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), which runs through Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (PoK) and India has contested the same as violation of India’s sovereign territorial status as it is a disputed territory between India and Pakistan in a legal context. Many commentators have argued that the CPEC may become a grave geopolitical threat to India as it provides a major transport and military linkage between China and Pakistan. This, however, was not mentioned in the PM’s speech and instead he argued for the potential of economic cooperation between the two Asian economic giants (India and China).
From a geopolitical perspective, such acute and sensible application of geographical knowledge only translates into formidable strategic planning and policy. With the improving bonhomie between India and the United States, the question of required resources, both financial and military, to cover the geographic expanse New Delhi seeks to cover, is answered to some extent. But the Indian establishment needs to invest more to emerge as the only dominant actor in both South Asia and the Indian Ocean. The approach should be to secure these two geographies first and then to project outwards to a larger regional and global role.
Dr. Krishnendra Meena is a member of faculty at School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. He teaches courses on Geopolitics and Political Geography. His research interests include Borders, BRICS, and Indian Ocean region