Will India outmaneuver China strategically?

By James M. Dorsey

03/02/2023

This could be India’s decade if it plays its cards right.

The subcontinental state is poised to be the next China, even if its path will likely be less straightforward than that of China and more of a Leninist two steps forward, one step backwards.

Leaving aside the multiple domestic issues India will have to address to realize its full potential, it is already, in the words of an Indian analyst, in a “geopolitical sweet spot.

Recently concluded defense and technology agreements with the United States constitute a milestone.

The agreements acknowledge reality, including that one underestimates the United States at one’s peril and that, despite their domestic travails, the U.S. and Britain still produce 50 per cent of the global wealth as opposed to China and Russia’s combined 20 per cent.

“For India, the West is the most important trading partner, the dominant source of capital and technology, and the major destination for the Indian diaspora,” said columnist and former member of India’s National Security Advisory Board C. Mohan Raja in a Foreign Policy article, entitled ‘It’s Time to Tie India to the West.’

With India set to become the world’s third largest economy, Raja advocated turning the Group of 7 (G-7), which groups the world’s foremost democratic economies, into a G-8 with India as its newest member.

The agreements constitute a building block for a potential future multilateral security arrangement in the Gulf in which India would be a key player.
Doha skyline: The U.S. maintains its largest military base in the Middle East at the Al Udeid Air Base, Qatar

The agreements reinforce the notion that supply chain security and geopolitics have become as important as economics and pricing in creating and/or managing global value chains.

Furthermore, they are a step towards enabling India to redress its trade imbalances skewed in China’s favor.

Finally, the agreements constitute a building block for a potential future multilateral security arrangement in the Gulf in which India would be a key player.

Gulf security was not foremost in the minds of Indian and US policymakers when they conceived the agreements.

However, inevitably, that is where the Gulf is going for multiple reasons.

These include a US desire to rejigger America’s commitment to Gulf security and share the burden with regional players.

The United States is not yet at a point where it is willing to share control of Gulf security commitments with other external powers. Still, it is something that policymakers in both the Trump and Biden administrations have at various times considered.

It’s an option that the U..S has not pursued, but neither has either administration rejected it out of hand.

“I don’t think we are ever again going to see a position where the United States is prepared to be the primary security provider and bear any burden or pay any price to uphold order in the Middle East,” said former Singaporean diplomat and chairman of the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute Bilahari Kausikan.

Kausikan added that “the United States made dreadful mistakes in the Middle East 20 years ago, and an analogous shift from direct intervention to the role of an offshore balancer is happening in the region right now.”

Gulf states continue to look to the United States to guarantee their security interests. But over time, and as US thinking evolves, Gulf states, like in other aspects, are likely to want to hedge their bets and diversify their relationships assertively.

India is one player on which Gulf states have set their sights.

Already, India’s security posture in the region is changing. India regularly deploys ships in the Arabian Sea and the Gulf of Aden as part of stepped-up military engagement with Arab states.

This week, a six-member Saudi army delegation visited India for briefings on the Indian military’s training methodology and infrastructure. In addition, India has a presence in Oman’s Duqm Port.

Regarding regional engagement, Iran remains for India the most vexing issuein its evolving security posture.

To be sure, India will not allow its foreign relationships to be put at risk by cooperation with Iran. Yet, Iran is India’s gateway into Afghanistan and Central Asia.

Add to this that, depending on how U.S.-China relations evolve, it’s only a matter of time before China will no longer want to rely on an adversary to guarantee its energy security.

Chinese port, pipeline, and other infrastructure investments in various parts of Asia may allow it to reduce energy security risks in the Indo-Pacific but do not address threats in various strategic Gulf waters.

More fundamentally, there is no effective Indo-Pacific strategy that does not include the Arabian Sea, which requires Indian involvement, not least because of geographic proximity.

That maxim is reinforced from India’s perspective by the security presence of China, India’s main regional rival, which starts with a military base in Djibouti and is likely to expand.

Secretary of State Anthony J. Blinken. Photo credit: U.S. Department of State

U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken noted that the I2U2 that groups India with the United States, Israel, and the United Arab Emirates was as much about economic cooperation as it was about working together on maritime security.

Last but not least, India has its own strategic, energy, security, and economic interests in the Gulf, including the millions of Indian expatriates and workers who work and live in the region.

India’s regional relationships, ability to get its domestic house in order, and grow its economy will likely shape its place in a new 21st-century world order.

This year’s Indian chairmanship of the Group of 20, which brings together the leaders of the world’s 20 largest economies, is an opportunity for President Narendra Modi to showcase where India is heading.

One focus will be the impact of the rise of Hindu nationalism, the country’s increasingly strained inter-communal relations, and what India’s motto for its chairmanship, ‘One Earth. One Family. One Future’ means in practice.

So far, India, like China, has benefitted from Muslim-majority states emphasizing national interests rather than communal and identity concerns. However, that may prove to be a fragile proposition.

Even so, India is likely to be a factor in determining whether a new world order will be multipolar or bipolar and dominated by the United States and China.

Already, it is a world in which middle powers have greater agency and are more assertive.

Functional and regional blocs like I2U2; Chip4, the semiconductor alliance between Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan, or the northern transport corridor linking India and the Indian Ocean with Europe will play a greater role in a new world order.

Furthermore, it will be a world in which Russia, as a result of the Ukraine war, is likely to be a middle rather than a superpower, a consideration that will not be lost on India, particularly at a time that the principles of the inviolability of international borders and the right to self-determination have become ever more paramount for stability.

The functional and regional alliances take on added significance in an environment in which Russia, the United States, and China, because of its handling of the Covid-19 pandemic and assertive wolf warrior diplomacy, have suffered reputational damage.

The United States may have suffered the least, given its ability to marshal its allies in Europe and some in Asia to forcefully support Ukraine while remaining focused on its rivalry with China in Asia.

Even so, as former Indian national security advisor Shivshankar Menon notes, “worries remain… about the United States being distracted by Ukraine from its roles elsewhere, particularly in the Middle East and Africa.”

Those worries are compounded by the bungled U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2021 and concern about the impact of deep polarization in the United States that is likely to be reflected in the campaign for the 2024 presidential election.

“There are new opportunities in this uncertain world. India….can work with neighbors to build the peaceful and more prosperous periphery that its own development demands. It can participate in the remaking of the rules of the international system now underway… And it can reengage economically with the dynamic economies of Asia, participating in global value chains, to further its own transformation,’ Menon said.

This story is made on the author’s remarks at the Maharana Pratap Annual Geopolitics Dialogue 2023

Dr. James M. Dorsey is an award-winning journalist and scholar, an Adjunct Senior Fellow at Nanyang Technological University’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, and the author of the syndicated column and blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer.

India is likely to be a factor in determining whether a new world order will be multipolar or bipolar and dominated by the United States and China: Dorsey 
Gulf states continue to look to the United States to guarantee their security interests: Dorsey
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