Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Why is India Shy of Playing Geo-strategic Games?

Here's an analysis of mine on the recent (Indian) MOD decision not to send Indian Army Chief for the Pacific meet of Army Chiefs in Singapore, published by ORF. Indian decision-makers appear to live in splendid isolation and do not recognise the importance of meetings like the Pacific Army Chiefs Conference. These meetings have become more institutionalised and are likely to gain greater momentum.

Indian Army Chief General VK Singh should have been in Singapore this week for a meeting of the Army Chiefs from all the Pacific countries. The meeting, the biennial Pacific Army Chiefs Conference sponsored by the U.S. Pacific Command (July 28-31, 2011), would have been an ideal platform for army chiefs in the region to start conversations outside of formal meetings. It is reported that Pakistan and China are represented by their respective army chiefs; so is the case with almost all other invited and participating countries. So far, there is a confirmed participation of around 23 Army Chiefs whereas India has decided to stick to its earlier policy of sending only Vice Chief to attend the Conference (the only exception was in 2009 when Army Chief Gen. Kapoor had attended). This also raises the protocol issue as to how and whether other army chiefs would meet and have meaningful meetings with the Indian Army Vice Chief.

Indian decision-makers appear to live in splendid isolation and do not recognise the importance of such meetings that have become more institutionalised and are likely to gain greater momentum over time. Intentionally or otherwise, India is clearly losing out on opportunities and opportunities don't come knocking every day.

Is India averse to accepting a leadership role in Asia and beyond? On the one hand, we cry hoarse for a UN Security Council seat, but on the other we are not even willing to be part of new forums and initiatives in Asia that are gaining strength year after year. In fact, the Indian leadership ought to recognize that traditional alliances and partnerships have almost entirely been replaced by the new floating partnerships, based on issues rather than any permanent interests. One good illustration is the role of China on the North Korean nuclear issue. China has become the "interlocutor" for the outside world to engage with Pyongyang. While there is no dearth of conflictual issues between China and the U.S., Washington has understood the game, as it deals with the North Korean imbroglio. Therefore, India has to recognise that it has to become part of these regional groupings and forums if it wants to play a meaningful role in Asia and beyond. A revamp of Indian thinking in dealing with the external world has become urgent if India wants to play a greater global role.

Why is the Singapore forum important? As mentioned earlier, it provides a platform for bilateral and multilateral engagements with a region that is of critical importance. Some of the Southeast Asian countries appear to be more keen today than India is in deepening its engagement with the region. The Vietnamese leadership, for instance, has been arguing for a closer partnership with India; in fact, members of the military or civilian defence bureaucracy have visited India, in an effort to bring New Delhi closer to Hanoi. They are reported to have offered India Vietnamese naval base for use although India is yet to take a decision on it.1 It appears that India is yet again willing to lose an opportunity. Take the case of Hambantota Port development project in Sri Lanka. It was first offered to India by Sri Lanka. After getting no positive response, Sri Lanka went ahead and offered it to China. However till date, India holds it against the Sri Lankan leadership as a hostile move on the part of Colombo. India has to recognize that it has to get its act together and become more responsive and responsible if it does not want to lose crucial strategic space in Asia.

Unless India is willing to come out of the cocoon and adapt itself to the changing geostrategic games, New Delhi can forget about taking a seat at the high table. Indian leadership should also be reminded that it will be forced to take hard decisions once they assume positions of power. As a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council, India is already confronted with difficult choices. So, it may be good to check whether it would like to be in a such position or is it going to be happily contended staying just as another South Asian nation.

1 For the Vietnamese offer, see Malcolm Moore and Praveen Swami, "Vietnam Offers Navy Base to Foil China," The Telegraph (U.K.), November 08, 2010, available at As part of the deal, India is to assist Vietnamese Army in jungle warfare.

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