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#1183, 21 October 2003
International Security Environment – III: Challenges to India
Maj. Gen. Dipankar Banerjee
Director, IPCS

The external security environment presents both challenges and opportunities to India; where the challenges are major, yet there are enormous opportunities. 

First, in the area nearest us in South Asia

The obstacles to regional cooperation must not be underestimated. It is also true that a majority are not of India’s making. Because India occupies a central location and its size and economy are overwhelming, there arise a natural sense of insecurity and concern among its neighbours. They suffer from an acute ‘small state syndrome’ even though in terms of population and size, each is large by global standards.  Regrettably the Indian state has also not done enough to provide the necessary confidence to these countries through sustained engagement.  

There is a new nationalism in our region where some countries are more affected than others. Hence there are imagined grievances, unreal expectations and a reflexive approach to consider any offer for cooperation from New Delhi with suspicion. These mutually beneficial approaches are then often politicised for domestic political gain. An attempt is then made to project an image of Indian hegemony, which is not possible to counter with reason and persuasion, when prejudices lie deep and are carefully sponsored by vested groups. In spite of this New Delhi has rightly maintained a high record of accommodation, provided our neighbours have demonstrated reasonable concern and sensitivity to India’s security.  It is in India’s interest to develop a cohesive and prosperous region where its leadership is uncontested. India will matter in the world as a leader of a cohesive regional group. As a contested leader in an underdeveloped and conflict prone region – it will matter much less.

What can India do to overcome regional apprehensions? There are no easy answers. Ideally regional cooperation should emerge through SAARC. Realistically, as structured, SAARC has limited possibilities. Some have suggested that it died at adolescence. The fact is that without economic cooperation, other issues matter for little. Here, current Pakistani policies, which do not allow even minimal trade relationship with India, offer little hope of any significant regional arrangement for economic cooperation. Bilateral and sub-regional initiatives are the answer and India’s initiatives in the last few years show the way. However, till now these have remained mainly platitudes without substance and will remain so unless India invests much greater effort and resources to make these capable of implementation.

India must consciously expand and redefine the region, both to the west and particularly the east. Opening up to Southeast Asia and through it to the dynamic Asia-Pacific region is the strategy that needs to be consciously developed. The recent initiatives undertaken by the PM at the ASEAN summit provides the ground for a new beginning; a beginning that should have logically happened at least a decade and a half ago. India is many years behind China today in the breadth and depth of relations in the region and these are not comparable. Yet, this is where our real challenge and competition will lie with China.

Relations with China

India-China relations will remain an important issue affecting the future of Asia and the world. It must remain cooperative and not confrontational and it must span both bilateral and multilateral issues.

Bilateral issues should focus on cooperation through trade and people to people contact and also to deal with outstanding issues over the boundary. Neither side are fully ready for it, yet some hopeful steps have been taken recently. There are a number of so-called soft security areas where the cooperation between the two countries can help set the global agenda and particularly help the developing world. There was some cooperation at the recent WTO meeting at Cancun. There is need to expand this to other global issues such as human rights, disarmament, climate, intervention and such areas.

At the same time it will not do to be surprised by Beijing once again in the security field. New Delhi must develop simultaneously a resilient and effective dissuasive and deterrent capability to deal with sudden turns in China’s policy and its unpredictable uncertainties.

International Issues

Ties with the US need to be both strengthened and deepened – politically, economically and strategically. Vajpayee’s description of this relationship in 2003 as one of “natural allies” is potent with many possibilities. Long estrangement will lead to many mistakes along the way, but its long term objectives must never be allowed to be obscured in short term considerations. In turn this relationship needs to be based on values and mutual interests and accommodate each other’s concerns. True friendship may not be achieved or be even desirable in an era of realpolitik, but sound relations are based on supporting each other, even at some sacrifice. Over the next couple of decades, this relationship will be critical in the global war on terror, whose last battles are likely to be fought in the sub-continent. Great maturity and strategic perspective will be needed in this critical phase.

Energy security will remain a major security concern for India. For the foreseeable future it will remain dependent on external supply for up to 60-70 per cent of its requirement. This will call for far reaching measures and long term relations and plans for cooperation with the energy rich countries to our west and even further afield.

Revolution in Military Affairs

Future dissuasion and deterrence capabilities will rely heavily on RMA technologies. Even though India will never be able to acquire full scope capability covering a wide spectrum, asymmetric capabilities in selected areas can and must be developed. This must remain the central focus of any long term strategic planning. It will need enormous resources and costs will be high though possible civilian benefits might off set some. The nation must remain prepared to allocate resources over a period of time.

Finally, the principal challenge to India will remain internal. Only a country that is cohesive, free from poverty, ill health and universally educated, and whose people are gainfully employed, can play a role in the world and meet the challenges from the external environment and truly turn these challenges in to opportunities.

Extracts from a presentation at the National Defence College, New Delhi, India, on 14 October 2003

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