The Indira Doctrine is dead

Make way for the Global Raja-Mandala Doctrine

Led by the redoubtable Aziz Haniffa some observers are getting more than a little flustered at a senior US official’s remarks about the United States letting China play a bigger role in and around the Indian subcontinent. Speaking at a seminar at the Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars, James Steinberg, deputy secretary of state in the Obama administration said “”China has an important role. It’s a neighbor of South Asia. And it’s unimaginable that China would not be involved.”

Well, he’s right. He appears to refer to Afghanistan and Pakistan, but even if he were to mean the subcontinent and its neighbourhood, he would not be wrong. Whether you like it or not, China is and will, in the coming years, become a even more influential player in India’s immediate neighbourhood. This will undoubtedly mean that India’s neighbours will attempts to play one against the other, and because India is the status quo power, this will work to India’s relative disadvantage vis-a-vis China.

The Indira Doctrine—which saw the subcontinent as India’s exclusive sphere of influence—died somewhere over the last twenty years. Whatever might be the reasons for its lapse, the objective reality today is that India is a pre-eminent power, but not the sole hegemon, in its immediate neighbourhood. Getting excited over Mr Steinberg’s realist appreciation of the situation is therefore unwarranted.

Should Indian foreign policy attempt to resuscitate the Indira Doctrine? Doing so would be limiting the vision to India’s capabilities and interests to what obtained during Indira Gandhi’s days, would be very challenging, of dubious strategic wisdom and perhaps even unnecessary. Why? Because India is playing in a much bigger playground today. New Delhi needs a Global Raja-Mandala Doctrine. If China seeks to gain influence in India’s neighbourhood, India should do the same in China’s neighbourhood and elsewhere. [See East of Singapore and The Asian Balance]

What is interesting about Mr Steinberg’s remarks is that the United States is prepared to engage India on this. “Just as we talk about South Asia with China,” he said, “we talk about East Asia with India…” In fact what is even more interesting is this “We see India as (an) East Asian country. We engage with them on issues like North Korea and the like because we think of the importance that India plays.” This is almost exactly The Acorn’s argument.

Because of geography if not anything else, India’s influence in its immediate neighbourhood will grow in parallel with its own development. It is important, however, to understand the opportunities in the geopolitical environment that allow India to implement the Global Raja-Mandala Doctrine. At this moment, it is in the United States’ interest to support India in the East Asian balance of power. New Delhi must swing towards this opportunity.

9 thoughts on “The Indira Doctrine is dead”

  1. Dear Nitin

    Do you see a pattern in Obama’s choice of countries that he will be visiting in his Asia tour, namely, India, Indonesia, South Korea, and Japan. His address to the UN suggested that it is because of the ‘D’ word- Democracy, but do you think that it is more to do with the ‘C’ word- China!

  2. The analysis here ignores the possibility of collusion among actors on a issue-by-issue basis, which ultimately translates to a multi-turn prisoner’s dilemma game, where the actors learn from the behaviour of the other over time.

    Of the three, India, USA, and China, all possess leverage on the other to varying degrees. Realpolitik dictates that only those leverages that can be mapped to a set of capabilities can be considered as leverage, i.e., “India’s youth will make it a super-duper economy by 2028.3” cannot be considered leverage India has over anyone else. So once we list such leverages on a pair by pair basis:

    USA over China: Its large internal economy that supports Chinese economy

    China over USA: Many trillions of $s of US treasury bonds.

    India over USA: Nothing of note currently

    USA over India: (1) Its large internal service economy that sustains a chunk of Indian middle class. (2) Indo-US deal/NSG access as leverage over Indian security (which has been mitigated by India placing its nuclear eggs in several baskets held by competing intertests).

    China over India: (1) Nuclear weapons transferred to proxy states like Pakistan and North Korea, and providing them resources and capabilities to harm India (2) Using its UNSC veto power to prop up terrorist groups like Lashkar-e-toiba (3) Various illegal and criminal trade practices such as marking spurious drugs with “Made in India” (probably a lot more).

    India over China: (1) India’s current independence in operation in the Indian Ocean to protect commerce and shipping lanes from Chinese Aggression (losing this independence would be a significant loss of leverage over china). (2) Security and Trade linkages with East Asian countries that are also threatened by Communist China’s Aggression

    All of these supposed leverages can be neutralized if two of these entities collude against the third. Clearly, any such collusion will be done when both colluders see value in neutralizing any leverage possessed by the third.

    USA has vested its Asia policy on Chinese hegemony in Asia, and neither possesses the strength to hurt the other’s interests without hurting their own interests, as things stand today.

    India has no real leverage on either country, and it cannot allow any Indian capabilities that exist that can potentially moderate Chinese behaviour to be susceptible to US shenanigans. Let us recall that US actions have repeatedly protected Pakistan as they continued to commit terrorism against India for decades right upto this very day. There is no reason why the US would not duplicate such behaviour in an alliance with China against India.

    This is probably stating the obvious, but the USA has no intention of reining-in Chinese aggression in Asia but it will be intent on acquiring capabilities to moderate the behaviour of all asian powers by playing them off each other. If at all it does moderate Chinese behaviour, it will only be in ways that are convenient to US interests, which may be divergent from Indian interests.

  3. Srikanth

    Your take is valid and if you compare tangible trade offs then there is nothing India has to leverage except for its geo strategic location at the confluence of the two oceans.

    My greater concern is the abysmally poor leadership and strategic culture to leverage all we have.

    Public diplomacy mandates power shifts, which are evident by Obama’s visits to Indonesia and ASEAN along with a visit to India. Our choices are along a route of reconciliation with both US and China for our best national interests. China’s new found anti Suntzu belligerence mandates that we form suitable policies to counter that influence singly or with partners. As per Kautilya’s teaching we should invest pragmatically in international relations now to be standing at the right side of a new geopolitical equation at the end of this second decade of the 21st century.

    Whether we have the wisdom,farsightedness and courage to balance our National Interests in tune with realpolitic is the question.

  4. “Your take is valid and if you compare tangible trade offs then there is nothing India has to leverage except for its geo strategic location at the confluence of the two oceans.”

    So, go ahead and list the rest of them if you want to claim that the list is incomplete. What is the leverage India would have over the USA to stop the USA from working with China in the Indian ocean, once the USA is legitimately allowed to project power in the Indian Ocean. How much has Pakistan’s approval of projecting US power in Pakistan actually helped Pakistan? So you need to explain why the USA would change is past behaviour and start behaving in a manner friendly to India, if India allowed the USA to obtain long-term leverage over Indian assets and capabilities.

    To be clear, India, USA and ASEAN can be involved in the East Indian Ocean/Bay of Bengal, but India and the Middle Eastern states, not involving the USA, must man the Arabian Sea/West IOR from India’s POV — the Arab countries will be more interested in ensuring open shipping lanes for oil than foreign powers located far away from the region. Such powers have already been sowing turmoil in Asia for their benefit, for decades.

    In fact, Kautilya has stated views opposing the ones you claim to be Kautilyan. Kautilya also stated that neighbouring countries must be treated as adversaries and not as allies (a.k.a Raja Mandala)….so if we are going to be all “kautilyan”, then India should be making things difficult for Pakistan, China, and everyone else. This would be more in keeping with Kautilya’s Raja Mandala, would it not?

    Instead, we have people trying to re-negotiate the Indus Water Treaty and hook up with a country like the USA that has been responsible for arming and funding the Pakistani army and its terrorists for decades, and then pretending that such behaviour is “kautilyan”.

    There is no reason the USA will not continue such behaviour with the Chinese PLA and the CCP dictatorship, just as they have worked with Pakistani dictators for decades. There is nothing kautilyan in sucking up to adversaries with a history of funding and arming India’s enemies and hoping they will help India fix its problems. Altruism is not a strong point of world powers for a reason.

    None of this advocated allying against with the USA unconditionally, but my point is to qualify the relationship with the USA so that it will be to India’s benefit, and not to China’s benefit in the long term. If India wants to ally with the USA, it needs to maintain its own independent leverage on China, that cannot be undercut by US’s “alliance” with India from here onwards.

      1. Nothing wrong with the inimitable Kautilya, but everything wrong with the invocation of his name (and its associated views) by naive people that do not understand all shades of human nature. Kautilya’s first rule was well-being of the “common man” (i.e., the citizens of the King), and his theories never contradicted that one rule, something modern governments should learn to live by, but they don’t.

  5. “Our choices are along a route of reconciliation with both US and China for our best national interests.”

    Just like the islamists China does not care for reconciliation — any attempt to reconcile with China will be seen by China as India’s inadequacy, and will be followed by more attempts to needle India and put India on the backfoot.

    The following will NOT help India in dealing with china:

    1: The UNSC seat for India (which is about as useful as a brain tumour for India).

    2: Any attempt to change China’s behaviour via multilateral forums — china does not give a twaddle for multilateralism, except in cases where it undercuts the power of its challengers or increases the perception of China’s power.

    3. Empowering china economically by sending over raw materials to china and then incurring a huge trade imbalance by buying all the third-rate chinese goods that flood the international market, which only increases China’s power at India’s expense. In fact, this seems to be the “India’s China policy” of the people in Charge of India for some reason (taking a leaf out of the pre-independence strategy to bleed India for UK’s benefit, while the Indians were eating dirt for breakfast and losing their livelihood to british industry).

    Only the demonstration of ruthlessness and raw power when dealing with China will make the Chinese stop their brinkmanship, but there is value to allowing the Chinese to expose themselves and their agenda fully before taking on the PLA vermin.

  6. “Only the demonstration of ruthlessness and raw power when dealing with China”

    That requires a brand of leadership the likes of which we don’t have. Our system of governance to meet the complex threats we face is fractured and our National Security Structure weak and inchoate. Do we have the resolve or the muscle to articulate a coherent security policy to keep China at bay?

    Until that day our choices are limited – It is Beijing Olympics vs CWG mindset. A tough call of character.

    This post explains

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