Wednesday, April 22, 2009

India's National Objectives

Two of India’s national objectives will bring them into collision with two of the other great civilizations of the world, per Samuel Huntington’s construct expressed in “Clash of Civilizations.” India’s objective to be hegemon of South Asia will bring that nation into conflict with China, which has similar ambitions in the same location. India’s objective to accrete sufficient armed forces to improve its standing in the world will bring it into conflict with the Muslim powers on their frontier, namely Pakistan and Iran. Conflicts with either China or with a Muslim power would have a global impact as the countries of the world would be forced to take sides. Conflicts with both simultaneously would magnify the impact. Unfortunately, there may be no way to avert the rivalries, perhaps only ways to contain the damage.

The clashes between India and Pakistan and India and China have been fought at various levels of intensity for the last 70 years or so. However, since the clashes only involved armed, conventional conflict along isolated, largely unpopulated frontiers or in domestic terrorist attacts, the conflicts did not manifest into global crises. The situations along those frontiers have started to change in the recent past, changes that will result in the conflicts having a much wider impact on the world.

China and India both seek to be the pre-eminent power in South Asia. India’s claim on the region is based on geography and population while China’s claim is based on its requirements to keep the lines of commerce open through the Indian Ocean and Straits of Malacca. In India’s view, if it is going to be taken seriously as a great power, it must the country responsible for security in its region and the Indian Ocean, just as the US is responsible for the Western Hemisphere. Since the Straits are in the Indian Ocean, India must exert its will there, to be the protector of regional security and to be the regional hegemon. To do otherwise would be to forfeit its standing as a great power.

This objective will inevitably bring it into conflict with China. The Middle Kingdom sees the South China Sea as being its waters. Since the Straits connects these bodies of water, one or the other of these powers will eventually move to safeguard the Straits and thereby, gain de facto control of both the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea. Control of the Straits makes the holder the hegemon. In the last 50 years, the United States Navy has assumed this duty, partly because there was as power vacuum among the local countries. Yet, as India moves to realize its national objective as hegemon in South Asia conflict is likely with China. The best possibility to avoid this conflict would be for India to partner with the United States, Australia and Singapore as co-guarantors of the Straits, then transition to the senior guarantor as India’s relative power increases. To make a grab precipitously will make a shooting confrontation likely with China. That kind of confrontation would rile world economic markets worried about a disruption of a significant portion of world commerce that passes through South Asia. Such a disruption would create a seriously deleterious world impact.

As India moves to realize another of its objectives, to accrete sufficient armed forces to be a world power, this will mean having a more robust and survivable nuclear capability as well as more power projection. An increase in these capabilities would threaten the balance or power with Pakistan and also likely, with Iran. An arms race with either or both of these countries would have a negative impact on the world, for a number of reasons. Pakistan and India would feel compelled to match increased and more technologically advanced Indian weaponry with more and more advanced weapons of their own. It is not in the world’s interests for either Iran or Pakistan to pursue more advanced weaponry since Iran would surely use the weapons once acquired and Pakistan’s government would likely crash under the economic burden of sustaining an arms race. Pakistan’s weapons could then well fall into the hands of terrorist entities. Neither of these outcomes would be good for India’s foreign policy either. India is beset with the blight of domestic terrorism that to date has not had much international impact. However, that situation would suddenly change if the terrorists attacking Indian targets were armed with weapons of mass destruction built by Pakistan or Iran because of an arms race with India.

On the other hand, since the Indian economy and industrial capacity dwarfs that of both Pakistan and Iran, there is a chance that igniting an arms race might crush the economies and topple both governments. Since regime change is certainly welcome in Iran, the resulting governments that arise might be less threatening to India and to the world. If the successor governments are somehow worse, then India, by realizing its objective of accreting more power, will be in a better position to defend itself in a more dangerous world that India itself had wrought.

As India moves to realize its national objectives, the diplomacy will become more challenging as regional rivals react and respond to a more assertive foreign policy on the sub-continent.