Indian Geopolitics: The Arena
India is in the middle. It lies in the middle of the Eurasian landmass, between Iran at the far eastern part of the Middle East, south of Central Asia and west of the Far East. Its southern tip, Kerala, is practically tropical, touching the middle of the world. The country sits near three continents – up the Suez Canal to Europe, a hop across the Arabian Sea to Africa, and part of Asia.
And yet, India is its own entity. It’s the dominant country of the Indian subcontinent, which is the first arena in which India competes. Thriving in the subcontinental arena, India has a chance to spread its influence further afield, as it has done in the past.
As with the first in this series on Japan, we’ll look at how India’s geography and history shape its present and its future trajectory.
India, Pakistan, Bhutan, Nepal and Bangladesh are subcontinental nations cut off from the rest of Eurasia by sea and mountain. North are the Himalayas, the highest mountain range in the world. Northwest is the Hindu Kush and northeast, the Arrakan or Rakhine Mountains, eventually shrinking into the hilly jungles of Burma. With the exception of the Indus River Valley, these mountains are almost impassable, most importantly, by armies.
The Land and Pakistan, the Sea and China
India’s focus for the last fifty years has been Pakistan, which it violently broke with during the Partition. Struggles over Kashmir, and with China, over territorial disputes in some of the highest places in the world, means we tend to think of India as a land power. Its vast population is concentrated in the north, along the Ganges. However, India has a vast coastline. The Bay of Bengal to the east and the Arabian Sea to the west protect and constrain the country.
Both these barriers, sea and land, have been breached in the past.
Alexander the Great, the Mughals and others have successfully attacked India by coming out of Afghanistan and through the Indus River Valley in Pakistan. It’s the only realistic land invasion route. And unfortunately for India, Pakistan controls it. Therefore subcontinental geography drives India’s first political necessity: checking Pakistan on land.
India and Pakistan both possess sizeable nuclear and conventional forces. The nuclear weapons have prevented conflicts escalating into general war, but there’ve still been four since independence. Pakistan, with less territory to lose, is therefore difficult to invade: it can only lose so much before it goes nuclear.
Meanwhile the majority of India’s population is in the north, putting India’s heart within range of a Pakistani strike. The two countries also compete in Kashmir, where there’s regular violence sponsored by Pakistan against Indian troops, who often behave unacceptably towards the local population. The issue of Kashmir is used by both countries to drive national sentiment, but there is a geopolitical motive behind India’s actions: control of Kashmir gives it the ability to control
Pakistan-Chinese cooperation where their countries’ borders touch. Retreating from Kashmir would give Pakistan and China a much more accommodating environment for military cooperation against India.
The British came by sea before they conquered and ruled India for 200 years. The Portuguese and the French were also able to exploit India’s naval weakness and its long coastlines. After the British left in 1947, India was wary of the US’s enormous navy. And now China, a rising naval power, is throwing up maritime infrastructure to India’s east, west and south. This drives India’s second political necessity: becoming a maritime power, and working with other powers, in order to check China.
China and India are two ancient civilisations which are, on a map, apparently contiguous. And yet their impact on each other has been limited. They’re separated by the highest mountain range in the world, the Himalayas. No army, let alone a pre-modern one, could cross. Both were content to their own spheres of influence, meeting abroad but leaving each other alone at home.
But now there’s opportunity for mischief: Beijing is wary of New Delhi stirring up trouble in Tibet. After all, Buddhism was born in India, which has supported the Dalai Lama against Chinese wishes. If India wanted to cause trouble domestically for China, Tibet would be the easiest way to do it. Meanwhile, China has been investing in Bhutan, to have a foothold in the Himalayas. In terms of deterring China from the subcontinent arena, the northeast frontier will not be ignored.
The Indian Ocean
India is energy hungry. It’s dependent on the sea for its imports and exports because the only land access is such hostile terrain. Therefore it requires a navy to protect its freedom of access to Gulf energy and foreign markets.
In its desire for a free and open Indian Ocean, New Delhi is happy to be part of ‘the Quad’ of Indo-Pacific naval powers – along with the USA, Australia and Japan. The US and Japan, for example, have military bases in Djibouti (as does China), vital to the Suez Canal and Persian Gulf.
In great power politics, one bandwagons or joins counterbalancing coalitions. Being part of the Quad makes India a far more competitive naval rival to China. Any major Chinese naval operations in the Indian Ocean would be difficult: the US can close the Straits of Malacca, and then the Chinese would be fighting at the end of a very long supply line. However, India cannot rest easy in the Indian Ocean despite this.
China is developing a series of naval bases which, in effect if not necessarily in purpose, surround India. There is the Chinese-funded port of Gwadar, on Pakistan’s tiny strip of coastline, the base in Djibouti and there is a Chinese-owned port in Hambantota, Sri Lanka. There are rumours of a Chinese naval base in Cambodia. New Delhi strategists, not unreasonably, feel surrounded, though there is good reason to suggest this Chinese expansionism is aimed more against the US than India (Gwadar, for example, is part of the Chinese-Pakistan Economic Corridor which would allow goods from Europe and the Middle East to come overland rather than through the contested Indian Ocean).
Thanks to Pakistan, Central Asia remains geopolitically important to India. Indian soft power projection in Afghanistan allows it influence over Pakistan’s restive neighbour, encouraging Pakistani worries about being surrounded. Iran and India cooperate on several issues – India gets military equipment from Iran, among others. They are also working together on the port of Chabahar, near Gwadar, to ensure Indian access to natural gas, and both have a stake in Afghanistan, which Iran borders.
India’s closest connections to Eurasia have been the result of integration with the empires based in Iran and Afghanistan, for example the empire of Babur the Timurid. India has a long history of needing to manage the tough Muslim polities that have, on occasion, descended down the Indus Valley and into India’s heartland.
The Middle East
The size of India’s market and its diplomatic equivocation allow it a relatively free hand in the Middle East. It works with the Gulf Cooperation Council and Israel and, as mentioned above, Iran. India’s Prime Minister Modi has launched a “Look West” policy regarding the region, understanding that his country will be dependent on Middle Eastern energy for a long time to come. The deployment of Indian warships to the Persian Gulf region emphasises India is willing to travel outside the subcontinental arena in pursuit of security and influence.
Russia and India have a long, if long-distance relationship. The British fought the Russians in the ‘Great Game’ in Central Asia out of fear of a Russian invasion into India. After World War II and independence, India, in its fear of the US replacing Britain as a colonial master, saw the Soviet Union as a potential balancing partner: for Russia to threaten India militarily would need to march through some of the harshest terrain on the planet.
The powerful US Navy could far more efficiently and effectively menace the long Indian coastlines. Therefore India traded extensively with the Soviets, receiving the arms it used to check the US- and Chinese-backed Pakistanis. This relationship has been of less importance recently: post-Soviet Russia is not able to check China, which is one of India’s primary requirements from partners. The US is.
As discussed, India has historically been wary of the US. It resembled Britain too much, as a western seafaring power appearing in Asia. However, this has changed in the last thirty years.
The end of the Cold War ended the USSR, so India needed new allies. China rose, so India and the US needed new allies. Then 9/11, the invasion of Afghanistan, and Pakistan’s inability or reluctance to help the US in its longest war, has meant Washington has decided there is less to be lost if developing a closer partnership with India angers Pakistan. George Bush’s acceptance of India as a nuclear power went a long way to improving India-US relations.
Southeast Asia, Indonesia, Malaysia, even East Africa and the Arabian Peninsula have, in the past, been tied to India, not China, or Europe, or Central Asia. To illustrate the high watermark of Indian cultural influence, consider Cambodia: presently, it’s ensconced well within China’s sphere of influence. But the temple of Angkor Wat, represented on Cambodia’s flag, is dedicated to Hindu gods.
Sixty years ago, China was ruined by civil war and destructive communist policies. Now it’s on the brink of superpower status. India has been growing steadily, has the second largest population in the world, and, with the exception of Pakistan, operates in an arena with no existential threats.
It has managed Pakistan since independence, and there’s no reason to think it cannot continue to do so, thanks to the chilling effect of nuclear weapons. The Chinese army cannot cross the Himalayas in sufficient force to existentially threaten India, and, again, nuclear weapons make large-scale conflict unlikely. India is balancing the Chinese navy in the Indian Ocean within the Quad, and becoming a serious naval power in its own right.
In short, India is secure and growing. It lies between the enormous markets of the east and the energy supplies of middle, with access to the west via Suez. If it can take advantage of this hand geography has dealt it, it will prosper.
However, there is one force which could damage India’s prospects, and that is Hindu nationalism which has been unleashed by Prime Minister Modi, who has been accused of involvement in the Gujarat Massacre in 2002, in which hundreds of Muslims were killed, and was, until his political ascension, a persona non grata in several Western countries.
The murder of Muslims (and the tit-for-tat violence against Hindus this has led to) is a daily fact of life in India. It has one of the largest Muslim populations in the world, but a larger Hindu one. If it wants to thrive, it cannot allow sectarian and religious violence to spread. Without responsible social reforms aimed at addressing this violence, modern India will struggle to take its place as a great power.
https://thediplomat.com/2018/12/india-and-the-evolving-geopolitics-of-the- middle-east/https://www.orfonline.org/expert-speak/south-asias-changing- geopolitical-landscape-47458/
Report written by Brendan Clifford