It is indeed naïve to state that India needs to have a comprehensive National Security Strategy even after seven decades of independence. The fact that India has survived in these years despite a very volatile neighbourhood and an acrimonious internal strife is testimony to a reasonably robust National Security Strategy that includes its protection as a nation and more importantly its citizens from a range of multi-dimensional threats and coercion while ensuring territorial integrity of our land, sea and air spaces.
However, what is overwhelmingly critical is reframing the scope of this strategy to deal with the changing dimensions of threats in a fast-evolving global and regional landscape mandated over time. The past couple of years have seen the steady rise of India as a super power in the making. Post-Covid, this dictum has been conclusively established given the fact that the existing power blocks, in tacit conflict direct or indirect, have solicited Indian intervention not only restricted to their immediate concerns but affairs at the international level.
Thus, in the Indian security context while there seems to be a global tranquillity, the belligerence in the immediate neighbourhood remains unabated. Instead, it is witnessing a marked escalation across several rungs along our northern borders necessitating a radical shift in the focus of India’s National Security Strategy which otherwise was wallowing in the aftermath of a defensive mindset post-independence, besides a political outlook rooted in non-alignment.
A Strategic Global Scan
Great Power Rivalry: The current global strategic landscape is marked by a growing polarisation among the major global powers – China, Russia, and the United States (US). The primary drivers of this polarisation are not ideological, but political and economic in nature. Russian invasion of Ukraine is a blatant assertion of its national sovereignty over Ukraine purported on the edifice of a cold war rivalry shamelessly defying norms of global harmony and humanitarian considerations. It strikes at the very structure of international order. In fact, by imposing their unilateral insecurities on NATO expansion and protective policies over Ukraine, it has sowed the seeds of replication elsewhere in contentious hotspots around the world viz Taiwan, Kashmir etc.
Moreover, the fact that the invasion is taking place under the full glare of international power blocks is a defying moment in international politics and heralds the reorientation of international rivalry. The proxy support of US & European Union (EU) against Russia both in terms of arms supply as well as economic sanctions while China’s economic support to Russia given its trade marginalisation by the US fought through the prism of Ukraine is a testimony. It is here that India is being sought after to mediate and bring a closure to the conflict and human sufferings. But it also signals a need for reorientation of its own security parameters being vulnerable to global intimidation.
Genesis of Global Turmoil: The tripwire relationship between the three major powers US, Russia and China has resulted in this quagmire. Following Russian Invasion, the US imposed sanctions against Russia. Russia has in turn, reciprocated with symbolic sanctions against the US and the EU, arguing that NATO’s eastward expansion is contrary to the understanding that Russia had reached with the West for the reunification of Germany and the end of the Cold War in 1989. Russia’s “Greater Eurasia” initiative sought to reconstruct some of the former Soviet Union’s inter-linkages through the creation of a Eurasian Economic Union bringing together Russia, Kazakhstan, Armenia, Kyrgyzstan, and Belarus.
As regards China, its powerful economic and military growth has precipitated its relationship with the US forcing a trade war thereby forcing it to lean towards Russia with whom it maintains an acrimonious relationship. At the regional level, the US has unveiled an “Indo-Pacific” strategy. The region, stretches from the Pacific coastline to the Indian Ocean is home to more than half of the world’s people, nearly two-thirds of the world’s economy, and seven of the world’s largest militaries.
The US has long recognised the Indo-Pacific as vital to its security and therefore this intensifying American focus is due the fact that this region faces mounting challenges from the China. In fact, China is combining its economic, diplomatic, military, and technological might in pursuit of a sphere of influence in the Indo-Pacific and seeks to become the world’s most influential power. China’s coercion and aggressive strategy spans the globe, but it is most acute in the Indo-Pacific and the South China Sea. From the economic coercion of Australia to the conflict along the Line of Actual Control with India to the growing pressure on Taiwan and bullying of neighbours in the East and South China Seas, countries in the region bear the cost of China’s belligerent and harmful behaviour. In the process, China is also undermining human rights and international law, including freedom of navigation, as well as other principles that have brought stability and prosperity to the region.
Thus, at the strategic level this has prompted the formation of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, commonly known as the Quad, a strategic security dialogue between Australia, India, Japan and the United States. The objective of this strategy is designed to contain China’s hegemonic imposition in the Indo-Pacific and more importantly South China Sea as well as its territorial expansion – a part of China’s comprehensive national strategy. China, on its part, has launched an ambitious “Belt and Road Initiative” (BRI). The BRI seeks to enhance China’s dominance in economic relations with a vast number of countries, including many considered to be in the traditional spheres of influence of the US, EU,and Russia. While Russia and China have expanded their bilateral relations, the two powers are still wary of each other in strategicareas such as Central Asia and the Far East, where their interests compete.
The US-Russia competition in Syria has little to do with fighting terrorism but more to assert themselves in the region. In the process, they have directly and indirectly aided various terrorgroups. The Saudi Arabia intervention in Yemen is a manifestation of the larger Shia-Sunni conflict. Apart from the horrific humanitarian cost, one consequence of this conflict has beenthe strengthening of al Qaeda in Yemen.That apart the reinstating of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan following US withdrawal has given a renewed impetus to al Qaeda’s transnational violence. Closer home, China’s recent border skirmishes and escalation of belligerence has resulted in a renewed impetus and military cooperation of like-minded players in the QUAD.
Global Hot Spots in the Middle East: The current situation in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) has its origins in the “Arab Spring” movement of 2011. It was an attempt to empower ordinary citizens of Arab states of Tunisia, Libya, Egypt and Syria but the movement fractured within a short period. In broad terms, the attempt to empower ordinary citizens in the MENA through street demonstrations resulted in unprecedented volatility across the region, with varying outcomes. Festering sectarian confrontation between the Sunni and Shia groups in the Middle East has spread into Syria and the Gulf. The dominance of the Shias in Iraqi politics is linked with the rise of violent extremism and terrorism among Iraq’s Sunni population. Saudi Arabia has in turn mobilised military action against alleged Shia militancy of the Houthi tribes in Yemen, accusing Iran of supporting them.
Israel has reenergised its campaign against Iran as the instigator of instability in the region and called for economic and military action against Iran for alleged nuclear weapons proliferation. The activities of pro-Assad groups in Syria, and Hezbollah in Lebanon are perceived by Israel as proxies of Iran, acting in coordination with Hamas in Palestine.
Volatility in the Middle East will be impacted by the approach of the major powers and countries like Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and India towards Iran. On the other hand, Iran’s geographic location in terms of hosting alternative North-South connectivity links to existing maritime links between Asia and Europe and the dependence of Japan, India, and China on Iran’s energy exports will play a significant role in the response to calls for isolation of Iran.
The role and influence of external powers like the US, Russia, and China in the current situation in the Middle East is determined by their individual domestic interests. The US appears to have recalibrated its support for democracy in the Middle East and is now guided by the alignment of US economic interests in the oil sector and its strategic defence cooperation with the Middle East powers like Israel, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Kuwait.
Following the deployment of its military assets in Syria in support of the government of President Assad, Russia has used the crisis in Syria to re-establish its credentials as a powerbroker in the region. This proactive engagement in Syria has enabled Russia to establish an ongoing dialogue with other major Middle Eastern powers, including Saudi Arabia and Turkey, which impacts on Russian foreign policy interests in Iran and Afghanistan. China activated its foreign policy interests in the Middle East and under President Xi Jinping has reappraised its position, besides acting as a bridge in a revived Cold War confrontation between the US and Russia. With more than 45% of its oil imports being sourced from the Middle East, China has sought to insulate its energy interests through this nuanced position.
A Troubled Neighbourhood: South Asia remains one of the most troubled regions of the world. The withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan has resulted in an upsurge in transborder terrorism and increased refugee inflows into neighbouring countries resulting in increasing instability. Pakistan’s hostility towards India remains unabated. Despite its problem of severe political and economic weakness, Pakistan continues to sponsor terrorism as a state policy. The rise of China and its growing assertiveness poses the most significant long-term challenge to India. An unsettled border provides China the opportunity for selective provocation at a time of their choosing. China has not been a traditional naval power but is now increasing its presence in the Indian Ocean, across which flow not only Chinese oil but also raw materials sourced from Sub-Saharan Africa. The development of Gwadar port in Pakistan, and operation of Hambantota port in Sri Lanka besides operationalising the gas and oil pipelines from Myanmar’s Kyaukpyu port to Kunming is seen as potential encirclement threat to India.
Using its economic strength, China is today the largest trading partner of Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Myanmar. Chinese influence in Southeast Asia is coming under some strain due to maritime disputes and ethnic tensions. Military expenditures in ASEAN remain consistently high, in part due to China’s growing power. Wary of falling in China’s debt trap, many countries like Malaysia, Indonesia, Nepal, Bangladesh, and even Pakistan have pulled out of major development projects with China. Many of these countries look towards India as a balance to China.
Threats from China: The strategic rivalry between China and India is an ongoing issue despite being a successful trading partner. The manner in which this relationship pans out will define the geopolitics of not only South Asia but also of the larger continent of Asia in particular. The ongoing border talks are achieving no major breakthroughs. Instead, flashpoints like Gulwan and Yangse are demonstrative occurrences that espouse China’s doublespeak – an olive branch in one hand and a dagger in the other. China’s stance on terrorism emanating from Pakistan has not only been disappointing but strikes at the heart of India’s national security.
Dealing with Pakistan: India-Pakistan relations have always been at its nadir. Pakistan’s attempts to bring India to the negotiating table by destabilising Kashmir have not only failed but also hardened India’s stance. Recent events have established new redlines in India’s response to terror flowing from Pakistan. The international support to India’s airstrikes at Balakot has also reinforced our policy on cross-border operations. That apart, there is also no doubt that military actions carry the risk of escalation hence needs to be calibrated. Pakistan’s role in nurturing terrorism is increasingly being condemned by nations around the world and combined with Pakistan’s economic woes, it can be induced to crack down on terror organisations. The changing stance of the US towards Pakistan and the withdrawal of military package in support of anti al-Qaeda operations in Afghanistan can be skillfully exploited. Should situations turn worse then, India must also be prepared for unilateral, limited military actions against terror groups in Pakistan. Nuclear sabre rattling by Pakistan is also a major hindrance to stability in South Asia.
India’s security concerns: The past couple of years have seen the steady rise of India as a super power. Thus, while there seems to be a global tranquillity in India’s global security interplay, the belligerence in the immediate neighbourhood is serious enough to warrant a redefinition of its national security strategy in the near and long term. Examination of the threat spectrum given the recent global security developments and China’s nationalistic security approach necessitates a closer look in our approach to national security.
India’s Global security Perspective: From the foregoing it is amply clear that India has emerged as a mature democratic society capable of asserting itself in pursuit of its national interests and in the interest of its people. In so doing its focus has been on developing an all-encompassing, robust comprehensive national power. It has conclusively demonstrated its strengths in terms of its economy that is fast growing towards an enviable status of growing to a 5 trillion dollar economy. Militarily it is the 4th largest Army with state-of-the-art equipment manned by one of the highly motivated and passionate rank and file. Its excellence in science and technology, education and resources, and its influence in almost all spheres of human development far exceeds global minimum. This can more abstractly be referred to as the combination of all the powers possessed by India as a sovereign state including material and ideational ethos and soft power. Its opinionated response to western rhetoric symbolises its maturation in matters of governance capable of a befitting response be it political, diplomatic, military, economic or humanitarian. India needs to grow out of a defensive mindset to one that espouses a strong aggressive and retaliatory capability albeit short of being offensive.
Pakistan: Until recently our national focus has been Pakistan centric having fought several conflicts resulting in the dismemberment of the erstwhile Pakistan and the birth of Bangladesh. On Pakistan’s part avenging this extreme national humiliation is their national goal singularly pursued by successive governments in general and the Pakistan Army in particular. However, over the last decade Pakistan’s economic downslide as well as its domestic political turmoil coupled with growing sectarian divisions of Baluchistan, Pakhtunkhwa and Gilgit Baltistan have diminished their anti-India stance albeit continuing on the low-cost option of nurturing cross border terrorism. That apart, its western border abutting Afghanistan is now a flash point where the Pakistan Army is deeply embroiled against the Taliban.
China’s Security Framework: In so far as China is concerned “securitisation of everything” as promulgated by Xi in the 20th Communist party congress is postulated to extend beyond Xi’s tenure and will continue to define China’s domestic and international behaviour until there is a substantial ideological shift. In Xi’s calculus, achieving security across domains/areas in turn helps uphold political security. China’s concept of securitisation of everything has a deep implication in the regional and global domain and therefore calls for a radical review in the strategic stance towards China particularly in the face of unprovoked incursion and skirmishes along the LAC.
Xi Jingpin has turned national security into a key paradigm that permeates all aspects of China’s governance. His expanding “comprehensive national security” concept now comprises 16 types of security and has formalised new implementation systems from laws and regulations to institutions and mass mobilisation campaigns. It also serves as a strategy to hedge legitimacy risks and ensure continued support for the rule of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) as China shifts away from a development-first model.
India’s Look East Policy: Over the past six decades India has made significant strides in emerging as a strong and self-sustaining regional power with a credible international standing. Commensurate to this outlook it has been developing its comprehensive national power as an asset to its democratic credence. Therefore, given the current global and regional security environment it may not be out of context to consider and develop punitive deterrence capability along selective yet critical areas across the entire length of its northern borders. Towards this end, India is making significant steps in developing commensurate infrastructure and logistic support, besides upgrading its air, maritime and space assets. The shift in defining northern borders as the primary front as opposed to the west will necessarily give the required impetus in appropriate capability development.
Multilateralism: Given the enormity of resources required to upscale Indians military parity with China, the strategy of multilateralism is the key to achieving it. Toward this end, India’s active membership in QUAD brings likeminded countries into a security bind against China on similar lines of the tacit posturing that is visible in the Russian invasion of Ukraine. As India looks beyond its primary areas of interest, and China increases its maritime footprint into the Indian Ocean, the growing rivalry between the Asian giants could cause anxiety amongst the smaller countries of the region. A starting point should be the enunciation of an Indian Ocean strategy to help the littoral states perceive our point of view and move towards strengthening maritime cooperation and security. Formal mechanisms that could influence maritime governance include the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA), Indian Ocean Naval Symposium (IONS), Western Pacific Naval Symposium (WPNS) and the Djibouti Code of Conduct. Efforts must be made to expand IORA’s membership to include all the littoral countries besides empowering the IONS to strike a formal relationship with the WPNS to knit an Indo-Pacific maritime construct.
Bilateralism: In dealing with China, it is essential to keep all the neighbouring states as well as the Far East in sync with our nationalistic ideology. Of particular concern is India’s stand on Taiwan, which is a flashpoint of Chinese political and territorial mandate. Due to India-Pakistan tensions, SAARC is slowly losing its value. In its place, greater energy should be devoted to groupings like the Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal (BBIN) initiative and the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC). India’s Act East policy and relations with ASEAN countries should be strengthened. However, India will only be considered seriously if it enhances its credibility by visible actions.
Nuclear No first use Policy: In the nuclear domain, there exists a state of strategic ambiguity versus strategic consistency in the realms of no first use policy of India particularly against Pakistan which does not have a clear nuclear policy as opposed to China which subscribes to a NFU policy. However situational variance and state of conflict escalation may warrant a concurrent review. Notwithstanding strategic ambiguity, the lack of knowledge of an adversary’s red lines could lead to lines inadvertently being crossed, but it could also restrain a country from engaging in actions that may trigger a nuclear response. To this end, India has undergone a degree of NFU evolution since its 1999 draft doctrine, under which it would ‘not be the first to initiate a nuclear first strike, but will respond with punitive retaliation should deterrence fail’ while in its 2003 draft doctrine it has added the option of nuclear retaliation in the event of ‘a major attack against India, or Indian forces anywhere, by biological or chemical weapons’.
While it is a fact that both India’s and China’s NFU remain in place and unyielding, questions may be raised with respect to the aspects of both countries’ nuclear postures. Therefore, in the wake of recent changing strategic dynamics, a relook at India enhancing its own strategic ambiguity to prevent adversaries from exploiting the ‘vacuum’ left by NFU may be a calculated deterrence.
Soft power: In addition to economic and military power, the idea of Soft Power has gained traction during the past few decades. Indian arts, culture, yoga and spiritualism, culinary varieties, festivals, music and dance forms etc, have attracted people from all around the world for centuries. Indian ethos and practices have helped it build a benevolent image and tremendous goodwill globally, but it has to be backed with quality project delivery for creating the desired goodwill. As a strategic investment, soft power must translate into India becoming a leading strategic investor in commercially viable and financially attractive public-private partnership infrastructure projects.In the post-pandemic period, it allows for increased scope of cooperation and the realisation that global problems require global efforts like India’s role has gained prominence as the pharmacy of the world. In so far as trade and investment flow is concerned, India needs to build an image of a trusted and reliable partner with assured deliverance. This will lead to rising trade and investment flows to growing Indian markets.The projection of soft power can help India establish agreement and communication between states through peaceful methods.
Capability Development: The current battlefield milieu demands force modernisation infusing quantity with quality. Disruptive technologies are transforming the character of modern warfare, faster than ever before. The impact of these technologies in the recent conflicts is changing the character of warfare. In addition, the relevance of tank warfare seems to be grossly impacted by the infusion of armed drones and short-range missiles. But in the Indian context the development has to meet the challenges along our Northern borders opposite China. The focus of India’s military orientation has to slowly shift to the East characterised by inhospitable terrain, rugged mountains scaling to super high altitudes under extreme climatic conditions and with poor infrastructure, while retaining the erstwhile punitive capability along the western border. In so doing the possibility of a dual front response cannot be ruled out calling for a high degree of intricate resource management. In addition, the recent conflict in Ukraine has redefined conflict duration from a short swift engagement to one that is prolonged calling for a war fighting sustenance capability. In the Indian context our experience has been limited to a couple of weeks of active engagement. This will require a paradigm shift. That apart the ability to fight a multi domain war remains pronounced.
India’s National Security Strategy, which otherwise was wallowing in the aftermath of a defensive mind set post-independence needs a paradigm shift in outlook. The effort should be to break the shackles of colonial dominance and carve a path of self-determination and reassured self-esteem backed by an affirmative outlook that remains mature and assertive in action.
– The writer is a former GOC-Indian Army and presently a Strategic Consultant & Principal Advisor. The views expressed are of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views of Raksha Anirveda