By Lt. Gen Dalip Singh
Notwithstanding the legacy of the oldest uninterrupted civilization, India is otherwise a relatively young country. The country has gone through a series of trials and tribulations to reach where we are today. As we celebrate the 75th anniversary of India’s independence as ‘Azadi ka Amrit Mahotsav’, we must be thankful to our preceding generations for bringing us where we are. It is also a time to do some crystal gazing about the challenges and opportunities facing us in the time to come.
Not very long ago, it was a standard practice to do the Net Assessment by analyzing the threat perception emanating from our traditional potential adversaries in our immediate neighborhood. But globalization has altered the notion of the neighborhood and the covid-19 pandemic has shown us how intertwined our future has become with global events.
Global Variables Impacting India
The outcome of the Ukraine conflict is the big question keeping the world on edge. But still, the war in Ukraine is a massive historical event, perhaps the final act of the post-Cold War period and possibly the commencement of a new epoch in world politics.
The six-month-long war has already cast a shadow on global economic health. The whole world with the exception of petroleum exporting nations is facing a slowdown and we may witness a few more Sri Lankas in time to come.
On the other hand, the Abraham accords in the Middle East would cast its influence much beyond the immediate region. Interestingly, Iran has displayed tremendous resilience in grappling with the US-led sanctions, but its per capita income still stands frozen at the 2004-05 level and overall GDP at that of 2016-17.
While the Shia-Sunni divide precludes a larger Muslim polarization in the Middle East, Iran’s growing closeness to China and Russia may force a rethink on some of the Indian options and initiatives like the Chabahar port.
Fire and Fury of the Dragon
Spurred by robust double-digit growth in the past, China looked eager to shed its earlier policy of strategic restraints in favor of ‘moving to center stage of global affairs’ as once described by President Xi Jinping in 2017.
Chinese behavior in the past few years certainly gave a lot of credence to this change in their grand strategy. India experienced some resultant tremors when overconfident China looked to assert itself along the line of actual control (LAC) and other domains. The past two years have, however, proved to be a big reality check for China.
There are ominous signs that the overheated economy of China is under severe pressure due to a series of misadventures such as the Belt & Road Initiative with at least $385 billion in debts, a virtual trade war with the US, headwinds on account of its perceived role in Covid-19 pandemic, its internal zero tolerance of Covid-19 policy, stumbling economy and overheated real estate market.
India’s economic growth has taken a hit due to the pandemic, zooming oil prices, higher inflation, and falling rupee. Notwithstanding these hiccups, the resilience of our economy is now well acknowledged. While its relative capability to withstand external shocks would strengthen Indian position in leveraging its position, in near future, India will have to get used to the sub-par level of growth. Political stability at the center would be of great help but a heightened level of political brinkmanship and communal cauldron has the potential to cause major damages and frequent embarrassment, to say the least.
Management of climate change and water stress in India would eventually become a greater factor in the medium to long term and it is high time the government takes a serious look at this elephant in the room.
Evolving Strategic Landscape
Given the ongoing economic downturn and stand-off with Taiwan-USA, China would need to keep throwing a few punches in order to continue pumping nationalistic fervor into its masses to avoid internal dissent over job losses, the downturn in the market, and decimated real estate prices.
Attacking Taiwan would not be a realistic option open to China as it would not like to jeopardize its business with global economies such as the US, but its near-war-level hysteria and preoccupation along the Eastern Coast would compel China to prioritize its response which may provide some breather to India, though heighten the level of activity along LAC would continue.
Pakistan burdened with Chinese loans has almost become a vassal state for the dragon. Pakistan is not only a route to the Indian Ocean for China but also a gateway to the mineral wealth of Afghanistan. Despite limited maneuvering space afforded by its precarious economic situation and internal bickering, Pakistan would remain to be a constant irritant to India.
The Indo-Pacific has already emerged as a theatre of opportunity for India and affords an opportunity to leverage its partnerships to assert itself and effectively negotiate evolving strategic and security landscape. These partnerships would prove to be the fulcrum of India’s Indo-Pacific policy, allowing India to significantly enhance its strategic and diplomatic overreach through collaborative initiatives.
India has successfully managed its Neo Non-Alignment approach of maintaining good relations with Russia as well as the US block. Much as the US would prefer to firmly embrace India in its fold, its stagnant or slowly diminishing clout would afford enough maneuvering space to India to effectively continue its policy to safeguard its national interests by balancing its approach, at least in near future.
The Westerly Winds
Islamic consolidation to oppose India’s perceived marginalization of Muslims may continue to pose some difficulties. Though, most of the influential Islamic nations would be hugely aware that another slump in oil price is not far away due to receding demand in the future, spurred by the slowdown of the world economy. Frankly speaking, more than external Islamic consolidation, the management of acute sectarian and ideological polarization within India may pose an uglier challenge.
Iran would continue to remain an uncertain enigma which would call for India’s cautious approach towards it, especially the possibility of it being a very active and assertive part of the anti-West bloc led by China.
Precluding any black swan event, India has a great opportunity to put pressure on China to resolve the boundary dispute along LAC. It must utilize the expected breather to develop its infrastructure along with Northern borders and improve the operational readiness of its forces and up the ante vis-à-vis China.
The improved combat readiness and enhanced operational capability would be the best instrument to put some sense in Pakistan. We need to also discard the pretense of the much-touted theory that a stable Pakistan is in the best interest of India. Pakistan is unlikely to discard its pathological hate for India.
While external factors may look to be in control, India will do well by taking a serious relook at her ever-increasing internal strife and threats to our social harmony.
(Lt. Gen Dalip Singh, PVSM, VSM retired from the Indian Army after 39 years of service. He held important posts such as Director General – Recruiting, and Director General Ordnance Services in his distinguished career as a soldier.)
Disclaimer: The views expressed are not necessarily those of The South Asian Times