The fearful asymmetries of Modi’s world

Narendra Modi must plan for the looming battles of the future — not prepare to fight yesterday’s wars again. To do that, he will have to give India new tools of political, economic and military persuasion

May 29, 2014 01:17 am | Updated December 04, 2021 11:24 pm IST

Raymond Poincaré’s aide delivered the news during the break between the third and fourth course of his languid Sunday lunch at the Longchamp racecourse: “the Archduke, heir to the throne of Austria and his morganatic wife were just assassinated.” The sun was shining down on the Paris elite that afternoon in June 1914; the flowers were in full bloom. France’s President chose not to skip dessert. The Times of London, historian Sean McMeekin records, thought the event insignificant compared to the looming civil war in Ireland. Paris media mostly ignored it, transfixed by the shooting of a newspaper editor by the Foreign Minister’s mistress.

The shot that was to claim 37 million lives was barely heard next door — but unexpected consequence followed improbable cause in lockstep, as Europe marched towards Armageddon.

Contours of Modi’s world For Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the events that transformed the world a century ago hold out some important lessons. Large swathes of text have been written about how he ought to face the next 13/12, or 7/7 or 26/11; by probes across India’s eastern borders or skirmishes on the western one. Each of these might indeed prove to be grave challenges. His true tests, however, will be made up of the unforeseen: events that will be forged in fearful new asymmetries of power that are remaking our world.

Mr. Modi’s foreign policy debut — >his invitation to South Asian leaders for his swearing-in — has demonstrated that he has a flair for glittering theatrical gesture. His aides know, though, that while audiences will likely applaud a good act, other actors aren’t so easily impressed.

For much of his 10 years in office, former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh looked out on a benign world, built around one, singular circumstance: the direct engagement of the United States, then the >world’s undisputed superpower , in Asian wars.

Fearful that regional conflict could undermine its position, the U.S. worked hard to defuse regional crisis. In Kashmir, following the 2001-2002 India-Pakistan crisis, violence levels fell dramatically each year. India, in turn, was compelled to moderate its responses to events like 26/11. Dr. Singh’s energies, though, were largely left free to pursue India’s overarching strategic objective: getting as close as was possible to double-digit economic growth.

Later this year, though, all but small numbers of >U.S. troops will leave Afghanistan — marking the end of this benign decade. India’s lesser concern is that the U.S. will strike a deal with Pakistan, allowing its military to resume low-level warfare against India in return for ensuring the stability of the Kabul regime. The greater concern is that the withdrawal will mark a turning-inward of the U.S., leaving Asia without a great power to enforce the rules of the global system.

Changing balance of power Perhaps the biggest fact of the new world is this: U.S. supremacy is no longer uncontested. Even as the U.S. implements deep cuts to military spending, >China’s naval power is growing . China’s DF-21D anti-ship ballistic missile (ASBM) poses the first credible threat to the U.S.’ once-invincible Pacific fleet. Its blue water, submarine and littoral naval capabilities are increasing dramatically, along with its air force, helped by its massive economic resources.

Though the U.S. still enjoys an overwhelming preponderance of military power, scholars Andrew Erickson and Adam Liff note, the People’s Liberation Army increasingly “has the resources, capabilities and confidence to attempt to assert China’s interests on its contested periphery, particularly in the Near Seas (Yellow, East, and South China Seas).”

For countries across East Asia, the changing balance of power in Asia is an existential concern: Vietnam, the Philippines, South Korea and Japan have all clashed with China or its proxies on the seas, much as has India in the inner Himalaya. Shinzo¯ Abe, Japan’s Prime Minister, has sought to draw India into a closer military relationship with his country, aware that a nuclear-armed ally will buy his country insurance in case the U.S.’ promises of protection prove illusory. India, aware of the potential costs of an adversarial relationship with China, has held back — but Mr. Modi’s regime may find itself in circumstances that necessitate a tough call.

In the arc of states around the Persian Gulf — from where India draws the bulk of the oil and gas it needs to feed its hungry economy — similar forces are at work. Saudi Arabia, fearful that the U.S.’ rapprochement with Iran might one day leave it with a hostile, nuclear-armed neighbour, has begun to contemplate what the commentator Faisal al-Yafai has called “a farewell wave to America.” U.S. power, some in the Kingdom argue, has been unable to protect its neighbours, Iraq and Yemen; new alliances, and new deterrent capabilities, are needed.

Challenges in the neighbourhood Last month, Pakistan’s Army chief General Raheel Sharif was the pre-eminent guest at the “Sword of Abdullah,” a Saudi military exercise where the Kingdom for the first time displayed its Chinese-made CSS-2 missiles — nuclear-capable missiles which, it has long been rumoured, were purchased for doomsday use with Pakistani-provided warheads. The message was lost on no one.

India’s immediate neighbourhood, meanwhile, is seeing the emergence of a new kind of Pakistan, where central authority is being degraded by Islamist assault. Though the prospect of the country’s tactical nuclear weapons falling into the hands of terrorists isn’t high, at least in the medium term, the Lebanon-isation of the border isn’t. In the future, Islamist forces could launch small-scale attacks — with no worthwhile government forces which could restrain them, no matter how much international pressure there was.

New Delhi knows it has no ready responses to address >threats emanating from Pakistan . Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, back in 1951, massed forces in Punjab, threatening to strike deep inside Pakistan if it went to war in Kashmir. In 1965, Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri demonstrated what would happen if it did. In 1999 and 2001, though, Pakistan’s nuclear weapons deterred a conventional military response. There’s long been talk of developing offensive covert means or limited war means to deter Pakistan — but the consequences have never been carefully thought through, nor a programme for capacity-development framed.

To deal with India’s challenges from the East, too, is proving difficult. New Delhi is investing in an entire new corps to fight defensive wars in the Himalaya, and investing in new hardware. It’s going to prove impossible to outspend China in an arms race — so smarter means are going to have to be found to ensure India’s borders are defensible.

It is hard to imagine, today, that the U.S. will allow India’s immediate or wider neighbourhoods to slide into war. It is worth considering, though, that the reason that brought it to the region is vanishing. For the past five years, the world has seen an energy revolution, thanks to massive finds of shale oil and gas in the U.S. The International Energy Agency (IEA) predicts that the U.S. will, for a time, become the world’s largest oil producer by 2017, ahead of Saudi Arabia, In 2035, it would be net self-sufficient.

Planning ahead Like Europe in the early 20th century, Asia has entered a fraught period of change. China fears its rise will be shackled by the very international system that nourished its rise. >From the South China Sea to the Himalaya and Persia’s deserts, new arms races and alliances are evident. Russia is again demonstrating muscle, responding to what it sees as threatening western encroachment into its near-neighbourhood. Even European militaries have been forced to reconsider how they might deter Russia, unaided by the U.S. West Asia is sliding into chaos.

In 1914, Europe’s leaders lurched into war, lacking the diplomatic tools to prevent one and the military tools needed for victory: as they lunched, the world had changed. For a decade, Indian strategists have assumed that economic growth and integration will usher in a secure future — but Europe was economically better integrated in 1913 than at any point in the past. Mr. Modi’s national security team cannot afford to live in illusion. Their swearing-in invitation to South Asian leaders has been hailed by New Delhi cheerleaders as epoch-defining — but courtiers have rarely encountered a Prime Minister they did not proclaim was a genius. His team will need to look out at the world with an open mind, and plan for the >battles of the future .

Ensuring a secure future for India needs all the tools of political, economic and military persuasion that nation states use to shape the course of history. India needs to acquire the best ones it can — and keep them sharp for the day they may have to be used.

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