India in the Indo-Pacific
Understanding India’s Security Role Evolution towards Southeast Asia and East Asia
by Aditi Malotra
About the book
In view of the fast-changing world order, emerging countries are increasingly influencing the dynamics of regional securities. This timely and in-depth book examines India’s reorienting strategic posture and describes how New Delhi’s security policy in the Indo-Pacific region has evolved and expanded over the past two decades. The author argues that India’s quest to leverage its geostrategic location to emerge as an Indo-Pacific actor faces multiple challenges, which create a clear divide between the country’s political rhetoric and action on the ground. The author critically examines these contradictions to better situate India’s security role in an increasingly fluid Indo-Pacific region.
Reading sample from pp.132-135
5) Self-Conception: Domestic Determinants of Role Conception
“As our capabilities have grown, so too has our sense of responsibility.” – EAM Natwar Singh (MEA, 2005a)
Having identified the evolving RCs (from 2001 to 2021) in the previous chapter, this chapter digs into the determinants (IV) of the role evolution and associated MVs. From this chapter onwards, India’s security role evolution is regarded as the DV, and self-conception and role prescription are considered as IVs. This chapter studies the link between changes in self-conception (one of the IV) and the role evolution (DV). This is done by examining factors at the domestic level which shape India’s self-conceptions. The chapter also examines MVs (role competition and domestic contestation) that cause the conception– performance gap (identified in Chapter 4). The focus is on endogenous factors that determine India’s evolving RCs towards the Indo-Pacific region.
The first part offers an overview of the permanent domestic determinants followed by internal factors that have altered over two decades. The new domestic determinants identified in the chapter are India’s growing economic potential and the rise of the IN. Subsequently, the chapter identifies MVs that inhibit India’s security role performance—role competition and domestic contestation— and create a conception–performance gap.
5.1 Permanent Determinants
So far, it has been established that India’s RCs began evolving in the early to mid-2000s. Because self-conception(s) constitute a vital part of the RCs, it is essential to understand the domestic changes in India that led to its alterations. Self-conceptions emanate from an amalgamation of constant and dynamic factors. Before delving into the aspects that spurred a change in India’s self-conception( s), it is crucial to understand some permanent determinants that have historically shaped its master and auxiliary RCs.
One of the fundamental factors that allow Indian decision-makers to envision a role in the IO and the Indo-Pacific is India’s strategic geographical location. India is a large landmass that stretches across the Himalayan Range in the north. Towards the south, the Indian Peninsula tapers into the IO with the Bay of Bengal in the east and the Arabian Sea in the west. With a coastline of 7500 km, India is located comfortably in the IO. Flanked by the Atlantic Ocean in the west and the Pacific Ocean in the east, the IOR sits at the crossroads of the global maritime trade and is home to crucial SLOCs and maritime chokepoints such as the Malacca Straits and the Persian Gulf. Indian planners accord importance to the SLOCs in the west and the east in terms of trade and energy flows. India’s unique geographical location (seen in the map below) bestows an advantage in the maritime space. It allows the political leadership to envision a maritime role in the IO (first concentric circle) or the larger Indo-Pacific region (second concentric circle). Such references are rife in foreign policy officials’ speeches to domestic and international audiences. FS Rao, for instance, stated the following:
“India and the Indian Ocean are inseparable. In the midst of the third largest ocean in the world, India’s location is in many ways her destiny. That is not just a statement regarding a fact of geography but of deeper civilizational, historical, cultural, economic and political linkages that have been forged between India and the Ocean that bears its name” (MEA, 2010b, pt. 2).
Another factor that influences Indian self-conceptions is its civilisational history. The 5000-year-old Indian civilisational history went through phases of expansion and contraction. According to Cohen (2001), this has a strong influence on how the Indian leadership looks at their country’s role at the regional and global levels. He argues that “the Indian elite holds fast to a vision of national greatness […] the historical memory of a great Indian civilization has practical consequences. Indian officials believe that they represent not just a state but a civilization” (Cohen, 2001, p. 52). The ancient glory of the past remains embedded in the policymakers’ sense of ‘greatness’, which informs India’s perpetual search for a “rightful place in the comity of nations” (for more details, see Ayres, 2018; Pande, 2017; Basrur & de Estrada, 2017). This was apparent in historical and contemporary master RCs such as major power, leading power, or great power. Nayar and Paul (2003) believe that Indian planners have historically strived for a major power role driven by a status-seeking desire.
Looking back at India’s role performance as an Asian power during the Nehru years, it becomes apparent that it wanted to perform an expanded regional role despite lacking the concomitant resources (see Chapter 3). Even under Indira and Rajiv Gandhi, when India acted as a dominant regional player, a sense of civilisational entitlement loomed large in the background. Expressing a similar sentiment, PM Modi, in 2014, said: “this [India] is a country that once upon a time was called ‘the golden bird’. We have fallen from where we were before. But now we have the chance to rise again” (IANS, 2014, last para). Notably, whenever India possesses greater economic and military capacity to assume a larger role, its leaders seek to revive its historical and civilisational high status. As noted by EAM Jaishankar, “strengthening a sense of extended neighbourhood is part of India’s reclaiming of history” (MEA, 2019b, para. 62). These statements reflect that the views of Indian leadership and policymakers are moulded by a combination of the country’s geographical location and civilisational history. Overall, a dominant role in the IO or a stake in the Indo-Pacific falls within the gambit of India’s ambition to revive its historical and civilisational pre-eminence. In recent years, as New Delhi seeks a more active regional leadership role, its definition of the extended neighbourhood has expanded. In December 2021, the Indian FS remarked, “for India, the Indo-Pacific region is part of our extended neighbourhood” (MEA, 2021e, pt. 2).
Apart from these factors, another near-constant ideational determinant of Indian external behaviour is its quest to preserve strategic autonomy. This attribute was dominant in the former RC of a non-aligned power and is equally relevant to its current multi-alignment and issue-based alignment strategy. The preceding chapters touch upon the connection between India’s colonial experience and the idea of strategic autonomy. Given this context, it is worth reviewing the concept of strategic autonomy in ancient Indian literature on state135 craft. Some of the noted works are the Arthashartra written by Kautilya, the minister of the Maurya Empire in the fourth century BC, and Shukraneeti, named after the thinker and Hindu sage Shukracharyya, which covers the idea and practice of strategic autonomy (Sarkar, 1918). These works have been translated from Sanskrit texts to English. Shukraneeti emphasises the independence of the Rashtra, which roughly translates into English as the nationstate. As argued in the text of Shukraneeti, “great misery comes of dependence on others. There is no greater happiness than that from self-rule” (Gustav Oppert, 1882 cited in Sarkar, 1919, p. 400). The negative connotation attached to dependency on others is also echoed in the accounts of Kautilya (Sarkar, 1919). These ideas were revived and gained greater credence during the colonial era and complemented India’s freedom struggle against the British empire.
The value of decisional autonomy was realised during the Indian liberation movement, giving rise to new concepts such as ‘swaraj’ (self-rule) and ‘swadeshi’ (indigenous) (Mohanty, 1991). Although famously associated with Mahatma Gandhi, the concept of swaraj, which eventually transitioned into Purna Swaraj (complete self-rule or undisputed independence), was adopted and advanced by freedom fighters such as Bal Gangadhar Tilak and Bhagat Singh. These ideas dominated India’s foreign and security policy conduct as a postcolonial country. Even after gaining independence, political elites (many of whom were involved in the freedom struggle) jealously guarded the newlyachieved decisional autonomy. While searching for its place in the new world order as a young country, India perpetually struggled with the practice of security cooperation with other powers (particularly the western powers). It was constantly wary of compromising on decisional autonomy. Ever since, this has remained a constant theme in the foreign policy and security discourse of the country.
The desire to preserve strategic autonomy was manifested in the NAM during the Nehru era. It was also pursued under the leadership of Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi in different forms. Even when India partnered with the USSR in 1971, it strived to preserve its strategic autonomy. This obviated the possibility of an India–USSR alliance, although security cooperation was a vital element in their bilateral relations. Until the 2000s, India’s quest for strategic autonomy had an unmistakable ‘anti-Western edge’ (Tourangbam, 2014). From the mid-2000s, when New Delhi inched closer to Washington, the antiwestern sentiment substantially subsided but did not dissipate altogether. In the current day situation, the concept of strategic autonomy has become more flexible than in yesteryear. Still, it remains relevant in the context of India’s foreign and security policy conduct.
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by Aditi Malotra