Global disorder appears to be the leitmotif of mid-2018, with the US and China embarking upon a trade-tariff war and the US-led Western alliance in considerable turmoil over the unseemly outcome of the just-concluded G-7 summit in Canada.
The "historic" meeting in Singapore on June 12 between President Donald Trump and the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has the potential to lead to a completely unexpected rearrangement of the strategic framework in East Asia. Disruption is the flavor of the times.
Against this backdrop, the manner in which India relates to the major powers and the strategic orientation it aspires towards has been outlined in some detail by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in the course of the Shangri-la Dialogue held in Singapore on June 1. This annual inter-governmental conclave, launched in 2001 by a London-based think-tank, brings together the Asia-Pacific political leadership and the regional military/diplomatic/academic/analyst community.
Narendra Modi's address was expansive and underpinned by the Indian commitment to normative values in inter-state conduct and contrasted the ethical power of principles as opposed to being trapped in competitive power politics.
This is a familiar theme in India's global outlook and harks back to the early Nehru years, when a relatively weak India sought to stay away from the prevailing Cold War compulsion and chose to identify itself as a "non-aligned" nation. The reality was that after the US-China rapprochement in the 1970s, India was drawn closer to the USSR and a very robust military supplier relationship was established with Moscow.
However, the global strategic framework changed considerably after the December 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union and, in 1992, India embarked upon its economic liberalisation and the related re-arranging of its estranged relationship with the US. Begun by Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao, this was carried forward by his successors Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh, and the baton has now passed to Modi.
In the last few years there was a perception that India had drawn closer to the US due to the anxiety induced by an overbearing China (again, this is a recurring pattern and it merits recall that Delhi turned to Washington for assistance in October 1962 and support in May 1998) and that the India-Russia bilateral was also fraying.
Modi in his address indicated that India seeks a robust engagement with all major powers such as US, China, Russia and Japan, and added that the ASEAN bloc was the critical entity for India's "Act East" policy. The change in semantic to the Indo-Pacific is an acknowledgement of India's own relevance in the extended maritime region. This has been further endorsed by the US which has changed the name of its Pacific Command in Hawaii to Indo-Pacific Command.
The bilateral with Japan was described as a "partnership of great substance and purpose that is a cornerstone of India's Act East Policy". In relation to the Delhi-Moscow relationship, Modi asserted, "It is a measure of our strategic autonomy that India's strategic partnership with Russia has matured to be special and privileged." The informal meeting at Sochi, in late May with Russian President Vladimir Putin was referred to, and the aspiration of both towards forging "a strong multi-polar world order for dealing with the challenges of our times".
India's most complex bilateral ties are with the US and China, and Modi has sought to evolve a framework wherein Delhi does not have to be deferential to either Washington or Beijing, or adopt a posture of prickly defiance or extended politico-military dissonance. The bilateral with the US has been described by Modi as one which "has overcome the hesitations of history and that has assumed new significance in the changing world." Respect for international law and a rule-based maritime order was reiterated and the sub-text was China, though not stated explicitly.
Notwithstanding the wrinkles and disagreements with China over Doklam, the Belt Road Initiative (BRI), support to Pakistan over terrorism et al, Modi came up with a very persuasive formulation when he noted, "No other relationship of India has as many layers as our relations with China."
While India's preference for strategic autonomy and a multi-polar global order is earnest and desirable, it cannot be ignored that Delhi remains an anomalous power despite its nuclear-weapon status. Two stark indicators illustrate this anomaly.
As regards human security, the ultimate political objective for any democratic dispensation, India is unable to reach a credible open-defecation-free index and provide appropriate education for its children, who number in the hundreds of millions. And while Delhi strives for "autonomy" and the Modi government has venerated "Make in India", the truth is that India is still dependent on imports for most of its major military inventory.The indigenous defence manufacturing eco-system remains eloquently imagined and more rhetorical than real. Four defence ministers in as many years is a poor indicator of governance and political determination. These are glaring voids that hobble Indian aspiration and need to be effectively redressed if the Modi vision is to be realised.