Chasing the dragon

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From the 1950s, at the beginning of every decade, the convergences would stand out if our geopolitical challenges and goals were compared. Aside from vocabulary and terminology changes, continuities would easily outweigh any significant policy changes or deviations. From this perspective, our priorities for the coming decade are no different: securing the neighborhood, maintaining stable relationships with the major powers, freedom of choice in our own interest and, above all, ensuring a conducive external environment for our economic development. Thematically, the convergences would also stand out: ensuring greater justice in terms of international power and markets, tackling the challenge of climate change while taking our development priorities into account, strengthening the global consensus against terrorism, etc. So if we need a decade – what can change in the 2020s may be different from the past? Or has anything changed at all?

Perhaps the really big change, and this could well define the 2020s, is that the China factor in all its multiple aspects will be bigger than ever. Of course, this is not just a change for India. China will be a recurrent theme in every foreign office, law firm and think tank. Nevertheless, the interface will have an unmistakable quality for us: it is based on our proximity with all its security and military effects, our comparable size and population, the contrast of our governance systems and, above all, our roughly similar economic development until the 1980s and the acceleration of Chinese growth afterwards.

If China becomes the determining factor for our geopolitics in the coming decade, it will encompass numerous dimensions that go beyond conventional thinking. Three of them are particularly striking.

The first is how we view our domestic social development indices in a more explicit geopolitical context. This clearly follows China's exceptional performance in improving the quality of life for its citizens. Aggregated numbers are useful to illustrate this. At the end of the 1970s, GDP per capita for China and India was comparable. By 2019, the orders of magnitude had diverged and the difference is now a multiple of 4 if not 5. The scale of our performance is significant given our democratic framework. But the Chinese progress has been breathtaking.

The progress of the material wellbeing of the large Chinese population has become a geopolitical asset for the government and also an unspoken submission that others judge India to use. More importantly, this has strengthened other forces that are now defining China's growing soft power in controlling information, knowledge production and tourism. China already plays a big role in our conventional geopolitical concept as a challenge, threat or opportunity. However it is interpreted, the repetition of its progress in basic education, higher education, hygiene, public health, nutrition and social infrastructure appears to be essential to any listing of our priorities. Regardless of whether we have defined our priorities in this way or not, others will judge us based on this template. That is why social development in the broadest sense is becoming a geopolitical goal for the 2020s.

The second question is how we reorient ourselves towards our neighbors. The rise of China means that it will now be omnipresent as a balancing factor in every interface our neighbors have with us. Our historical approach to our neighborhood has been that it is in both our and our neighbors' interests to keep them isolated from outside the major powers. We may not always have been successful, but it remained a template to aim for. The big change now is that we have great power or almost great power in our neighborhood. How we should deal with this requires a reorientation of our conventional thinking and approach.

Do we accept this change, do we oppose it or do we work around it? Our approach will be different with every neighbor and also from situation to situation. Nevertheless, the reorientation in thinking will be real enough and it will not be easy. So far, it has been believed that our constitutional provisions, not just federalism, can serve as a template for our neighbors. This perception now has a competitor in the form of a new narrative for modernity that China projects. This should not result in the relationship between China and Pakistan being repeated elsewhere in South Asia. Views about China elsewhere are far too nuanced for this to happen, sovereignty is carefully preserved, and Pakistan's dependence on external powers (and not just China) is seen as a situation that must be avoided at all costs. Nevertheless, China's economic and social progress is a kind of magnet for all of our neighbors, and we have to understand this and focus on our approach.

The third question that requires reorientation is maritime thinking. This shift is inevitable as our economy is more focused outside and foreign trade is a bigger part of our GDP. Most of this trade takes place across the Indian Ocean, so shipping has to take up a much larger space on our mental map. The discussions about the Indo-Pacific since 2018 on the one hand or the establishment of an independent fishing department in the center in 2019 on the other hand illustrate this growing maritime turn. But the process has just started.

The spread of Chinese maritime traffic will also intensify over the next ten years. How we deal with it depends on our own awareness of maritime areas. This means much more than just willingness to go to sea and covers the entire area from coastal development to maritime infrastructure and is possibly the most difficult of all maritime knowledge. Our awareness of the Indian Ocean state means going beyond the usual continental contrasts of the north and south and thinking about the conventional difficulties of Pakistan, Afghanistan or even how our northern and northwestern borders cut us off from the Asian landmass. A maritime construct will begin with even greater contrasts, such as between the eastern and western Indian Oceans, the Arabian Sea and the Bay of Bengal, and finally our east and west coasts.

TCA Raghavan, a former Indian High Commissioner in Singapore and Pakistan, is currently the Director General of the Indian World Council. Views are personal.

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