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Asian Security Environment and Choices for India


The global security environment and the global strategic calculus are in a state of dynamic transformation. This unfolding dynamic transformation is also generating a new set of strategic uncertainties unlike the predictable bipolar strategic template that prevailed during the Cold War.

Widely viewed and accepted too is the fact that the global strategic transformation underway, going by available trends, is likely to usher in an entirely new global order which would be visibly and vastly different from the international order and the global power balance that existed in the second half of the 20th Century. The first quarter of the 21st Century i.e. by 2025 or so the trends in the global transformation underway would have substantially crystallized and that would present significant challenges to the unipolar global predominance of the United States that commenced with the disintegration of the Former Soviet Union in 1991.

Asia is fast emerging as the center of gravity of the global political, economic and military power in parallel with what many view as the progressive diminution of Western hold and dominance over global affairs. While the 21st Century may not emerge as “The Asian Century”, as many would like to believe it, but it also is emerging as irrefutable that it will be Asia which would be in driver’s seat to usher in the global transformation as never before. China, India and Japan are being seriously viewed as serious contenders for global power status in the emerging ‘New World Order’.

The 21st Century could have been an ‘Asian Century’ had inherent divisive contradictions between China on the one hand and India and Japan on the other hand not prevailed and all these Asian aspirants for global power status been united in carving out a ‘New World Order’. Available indicators suggest that China is not willing to share the Asian ‘strategic space’ with India and Japan as co-equal Asian powers. Nor is China willing to allow the global limelight on it as the only Asian power in the UN Security Council as a Permanent Member to also shine similarly on India and Japan and hence its strong opposition to such initiatives.

So while Asia is emerging as the catalyst for the transformation of the global balance-of-power and the consequent changes in the global strategic calculus, China’s intra-Asian strategic rivalries with India and Japan would more markedly determine the Asian security environment. More importantly, China’s reluctance to share the Asian ‘strategic space’ and the ensuing jostling that would ensue between these three rising Asian powers would leave the door open for the United States to manipulate the Asian balance-of-power system. The United States has substantial strategic stakes in Asia and especially the Asia Pacific region in which China and Japan are co-located.

The Asian security environment in the coming decades, to a great extent would therefore be also fashioned by the United States even as the rising Asian powers too would be instrumental in doing so. A resurgent Russia is also likely to increasingly figure as a factor in Asian security environment especially with its past and present strategic linkages with China and India too.

In order to examine the ‘Asian Security Environment and Choices for India’ it is proposed to analyze the theme under the following heads:

Global Security Dynamics Asian Security Environment: The Trends in the Making India’s Security Dynamics and India’s National Aspirations. India’s Strategic Choices in Asia’s Unfolding Security Environment GLOBAL SECURITY DYNAMICS

Asian security environment cannot exist in a strategic vacuum. The Asian security environment would to a great extent be determined by the strategic power play at the global level and which in turn requires a brief reference and examination.

The global strategic dynamics are largely determined by the policies or lack of policies of the United States as the sole superpower straddling the globe with its substantial political, economic and military leverages. In the global ‘Big Five’ the United States supported by the other European Powers, namely Britain and France outweighs the power of Russia and China, which two in any case have separate strategic priorities.

The United States possesses unparalleled military power both in terms of strategic assets and conventional military power with an awesome military punch. More significantly, the United States is uniquely placed as the only world power with force- projection capabilities with a global reach. Russia and China are nowhere near the United States in terms of force-projection capabilities.

On current indications there is no Asian regional power or a combination of Asian powers or elsewhere which can challenge Unite States global supremacy.

Strategic analysts asses and concede that neither Russia as a resurgent power intent on reclaiming its erstwhile status as the ‘second pole’ in global affairs nor China with its burgeoning military power buildup can pose a significant threat to United States global supremacy before the year 2050.

Global strategic dynamics today is also witnessing a churning of other forces at play which suggest that alternative economic and security groupings to those dominated by the United States are concurrently taking shape paving the way for a more multi-polar world. Some of which that need to be mentioned are as follows:

The US and Western dominated economic groupings are being enlarged to accommodate Asian and other rising economies. Emergence of new politico-economic groupings like BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India and China) which in the future could attain security contours too. Emergence of security-oriented groupings like the Shanghai Cooperation Organization as a Russia-China dominated security organization to check NATO’s eastward creep. In short, what these trends suggest is that alternatives to checkmate United States global supremacy are gradually emerging, impelled by the growing economic clout of Asia’s rising powers, other regional powers and other Asian resurgent economies. This could pick up momentum in the period 2025-2050 should the United States out of ‘strategic fatigue’ induced by its overstretched strategic commitments adopt a global diplomatic draw-back posture.


The Asian security environment encompasses a very wide canvas extending from the Easter Mediterranean in the West to the Western Pacific littoral in the East. Ensconced in this wide landscape are the critical geostrategic and geopolitical regions of West Asia, Central Asia, South Asia, Southeast Asia and East Asia. During the Cold War these regions witnessed intense power-play between the United States and Russia for the control of strategic resources, cultivation of alliances and extension of political influence.

The current Asian security environment is turbulent and conflict prone induced by a number of defining developments, namely (1) US military interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq following 9/11 (2) Rise in Pan- Islamic fundamentalism and Jihadi terrorism (3) China’s massive military buildup and brinkmanship policies including with the United States (4) China’s buildup of Pakistan’s and North Korea’s nuclear arsenals (5) Conflictual flashpoints all across Asia due to regional rivalries, border disputes or religious and sectarian strife as currently underway in Pakistan.

Region-wise brief survey is called for to comprehend the trends in the making in various regions of Asia and which add upto Asia’s overall turbulence and conflictual overtones.

West Asia

Adding to the many explosive flashpoints that simmer in the region is now superimposed a strategic transformation of West Asia in which the Arab monarchial oil-rich kingdoms which were solidly pro-US seem to be veering now towards Russia and China as part of hedging strategies. China has built up the missiles arsenals of Saudi Arabia. Iran, Syria etc destabilizing the region further. Islamic fundamentalism and terrorism is prominent.

Central Asia.

Central Asia with its rich oil and natural gas wealth has become the vortex of United States-Russia-China strategic rivalries. Turbulence in contiguous Islamic regions is impacting Central Asian stability.

South Asia

South Asia is witnessing the specter of state-failure of nuclear-armed Pakistan and Afghanistan. Wrong strategic priorities of the US policies on Pakistan and despite billions of dollars in US aid, Pakistan is imploding. Pakistan’s problems are further compounded by the Pakistan Army’s military adventurism against India in the form of proxy war and terrorism

South Asia’s security environment is further compounded by China’s festering border dispute with India, China’s military brinkmanship on the issue and the China-Pakistan strategic nexus.

Southeast Asia

United States military distractions in Afghanistan and Iraq in this decade created a strategic vacuum in the region enabling China to muscle its way here. United States has belatedly realized the strategic inroads that China has made in the region and is now trying to restore the situation in its favor and one can expect a lot of US-China jostling in the region.

East Asia

Despite the current US-China friendly rhetoric currently on in this region, East Asia promises to be a conflictual flashpoint between the United States and China in the decades to come. It is unthinkable that the global superpower, the United States, and China as a ‘revisionist power’ with superpower aspirations can share the restricted East Asia ‘strategic space’. China’s proxy nuclear- armed North Korea and its threatening unpredictable provocations are perceived as threats by USA and Japan.

Overall, the Asian security environment presents turbulent, conflictual and explosive overtones which defy any conflict-resolution initiatives. In terms of major powers power-play in the Asian security environment the following trends can be discernible:

United States is unlikely to cease playing the predominant role in the Asian security environment. United States –China strategic jostling can be expected in South Asia , Southeast Asia and more markedly in East Asia United States –Russia strategic jostling can be expected in West Asia and Central Asia. Russia’s resurgence is aimed at re-establishing itself as an independent global power center. If it materializes in the coming decades it could provide both a countervailing power to USA and also a possible ‘balancer’ against China’s strategic overbearance India with substantial strategic stakes in virtually the entire Asian strategic landscape has yet to strategically assert itself to secure her national security interests. Despite the above, India in the decades to come would circumstantially be prompted to become strategically assertive. The Asian security environment would then witness an intense power struggle between India and China. ASIAN STRATEGIC DYNAMICS AND INDIA’S NATIONAL ASPIRATIONS

India both in terms of her national security interests and also in terms of her national aspirations cannot divorce itself and insulate itself from the Asian security environment. Since India’s national security primary interests in terms of defending India from external and internal security threats receive continuing attention from successive Indian Governments, hence it is not pursued further in the discussion in this Paper. Of course, there is a lot of scope for efforts by the Indian Government in terms of India’s constant war- readiness in relation to threats from China and Pakistan.

The point worth noting is that both in terms of India’s national security interests and India’s national aspirations China and Pakistan would continue to figure as long range destabilizing factors to contend with in India’s security calculus.

India’s national aspirations to emerge as a major global player to begin with and a global power subsequently needs to be viewed against the contextual background of the Asian security dynamics currently taking shape and what they portend for the coming decades. These stand spelt out above.

Measured against the above trends what emerges is that amongst the present Big Five major global powers, the United States, Russia, France and Britain would generally not oppose or impede India’s national aspirations to emerge as an important ‘global player’.

The United States during the Bush Administration is on record that the United States is committed to assist India’s emergence as an important ‘global player’ on the strength of her vibrant democracy, resurgent economy and India being a ‘responsible stakeholder’ in global stability and peace. The Indo-US Nuclear Deal was a reinforcing US initiative to its perceptions that India needs to be assisted in emerging as a global player which could be an asset to the United States in the global power-play.

India enjoys strong and vibrant strategic relationships with the European Union and leading European countries like France and Britain. Their enlarging strategic engagement with India is an investment in India’s future and India’s national aspirations.

The Russia-India Strategic Partnership has been a valuable and time-tested strategic relationship for more than thirty years. Even today despite Russia’s current proximity to China, it can be maintained that Russia continues to invest heavily on India’s strategic potential and its value as an asset in global power-play. It has rekindled its strategic partnership with India after the downslide of the Yeltsin years. Russia is the only country which has publicly supported India’s aspirations to be a Permanent Member of the United Nations. India can count on Russia’s support to pursue her national aspirations to emerge as a global player.

China is the only global player which has been incessantly been engaged in impeding India’s emergence as the regional power in South Asia and lately to emerge as a global player of consequence. China can be expected to pursue policies which would be directed to ensure that India is constantly impeded from its national aspirations to emerge as a global player. China can also be expected to use her growing political clout to ensure that countries like the United States are also dissuaded from assisting India in the realization of her national aspirations.

Japan may not be currently figuring in the ‘Big Five’ league of major global powers, but Japan is viewed as a rising power which could also like India emerge as a major global player. Japan’s attitudes and relationship with India therefore becomes material and relevant to India’s national aspirations. Fortunately for both these Asian rising powers there is a marked strategic convergence of interests between these two democratic and peace-loving countries. Japan and India have unresolved territorial disputes with China and China has not been on friendly terms with them. China figures prominently in the threat perceptions of both Japan and India.

Japan and India have an ongoing functional strategic partnership with institutionalized mechanisms for political and security dialogues. Should China continue with her intransigent attitudes towards Japan and China, one could hope for a more substantive security relationship evolving between the two countries.

Within Asia , other Asian countries view India’s rise in global affairs in benign terms and as an emerging power which could contribute to Asian stability and peace as a responsible stake holder. China on the other hand evokes contrary perceptions in Asian countries.


Asia’s security environment in the coming decades is likely to unfold in strategically disruptive terms for India both in terms of her external security challenges and internal security challenges. China and Pakistan would continue to prevail heavily in India’s threat perceptions. China lately has begun displaying belligerent attitudes towards India on the India-Tibet border. Pakistan secure in the belief that it has the strategic patronage of both China and the United States persists in its unending proxy war against India through Pakistan Army sponsored frontline Islamic Jihadi terrorist organizations.

China through proxy use of Pakistan intends to keep India strategically confined to within South Asian geographical limits thereby precluding India as a contender to China on the Asian stage and by extension on the global stage.

India’s strategic choices therefore essentially boil down to achieve a strategic breakout from this ‘India Containment’ by China. This task becomes extremely difficult for India as in the strategic calculus of the United States today, China is fast emerging as a global power which the United States perceives that it must strategically co-opt in its strategy to lessen the strategic challenges that globally confront the United States.

India’s choices perforce boils down to playing the international system and managing the major global powers in a manner and giving preference to those who can assist India in breaking out of the China imposed ‘India Containment’.

But before that some contextual realities need to be outlined which the Indian policy establishment needs to embed in its mindsets as they proceed to formulate India’s choices in the unfolding Asian security environment.

Contextual Realities That India’s Policy Establishment Needs to Embed in its Mindsets in Formulation of India’s Choices in the Unfolding Security Environment.

These are spelt below in outline for reasons of brevity in this Paper:

Non-Alignment. This is no longer a strategic choice .It neither would promote India’s national aspirations nor a sound policy choice in the grim Asian security environment that is unfolding “Soft Power” Policy Choice. Strategically, this choice or approach would not propel India to emerge as a global power. This is a choice of those who shirk from hard strategic choices. India’s choice of “Soft Power” approaches can commence once she acquires a global power status on the strength of her credible “Hard Power” capabilities and demonstrated use of such power to ensure her national interests. ‘Soft Power’ approaches work only in a benign security environment and the unfolding Asian security environment is certainly not a benign one. “Hard Power” Policy Choice. This is an inescapable and inevitable choice for India to be counted as a global player ready to accept a global role which more often than not involves the will to use power firmly and also to use ‘hard power’ for political and military coercion to secure policy ends. India’s inability to reorder her South Asia security environment and lack of respect for India’s standing as the regional power basically arises from the Indian political leadership’s reluctance to use ‘hard power’ and shy away from the use of India’s tremendous comprehensive national power strengths to attain policy ends. “Balance of Power” Strategy. India can no longer shirk from incorporating this concept in its policy choices by a virtual condemnation of this approach which it used to do earlier, presumably as it was in contradiction of her ‘non-alignment’ fixations. Nor is there any alternative of “Balance of Interests” as a former Indian Foreign Minister sought to make. Even after India emerges as a global player it would still have to resort to ‘balance of power strategies. INDIA’S BASIC STRATEGIC POLICY CHOICES IN UNFOLDING ASIAN SECURITY ENVIRONMENT

At the turn of the millennium, India under the BJP Government commenced on establishing a series of ‘strategic partnerships ‘with the major global players and others too in different regions of Asia. The main aim was to signal a departure from India’s long held obsession with no-alignment policy fixations. That trend has been maintained by the successor Governments too. However this now stands reduced to a routine formulation with all and sundry.

India is pathologically opposed to military alliances and hence this contrivation of ‘strategic partnerships’. Curiously, in the pursuit of this strategy of ‘strategic partnerships, India also signed such an agreement with China some years back. No strategic utility seems to have emerged.

With China currently engaged in a reversion to pre-1962 belligerence with India and China’s persistent policy of “India Containment” India’ strategic choices.

basically boil down to the following, if the overall aim is checkmating China’s moves to thwart India from emerging as a global player and in the process generating military turbulence against India on her peripheries and within India.

United States-Centric Strategic Engagement Inescapable Russia-Centric Strategic Engagement Should Continue as Priority Policy Choice India-Japan Strategic Engagement Needs Impetus India’s ‘Poly-Centric’ Strategic Engagement in a Multipolar World. India as a Strategically Independent Asian Power and Strategically Autonomous Global Power Center: The End Aim The last named would be the ideal strategic choice for India but to reach that final round, India in the interim would need to use all of the above named alternatives as preferred choices. A comparative analysis of these choices is carried out in the succeeding paragraphs.

United States-Centric Strategic Engagement Inescapable

The United States as analyzed earlier in this Paper would continue to be the global predominant power for decades to come. India cannot emerge as a global player despite the United States nor can India emerge as a global player, if the United States is opposed to it. The US-India Strategic Partnership was conceived in 2000 presumably with this in view.

The United States too perceived that India with her power potential and democratic political structure could be a future strategic asset for the United States in a multipolar world that was like to take shape in the 21st Century. Implicit in the US-India Strategic Partnership from both sides, though not publicly articulated, was the contingency of China-containment.

However this implicit understanding does not seem to be a United States priority now going by the advocacy in influential circles in the United States of a G-2 combination of USA and China for management of global political and economic affairs and which can be construed by extension strategic affairs too. Such US policy trends run counter to India’s ultimate national aspirations and also conflicts with the underlying premise of the US-India Strategic Partnership of China-containment.

Therefore in terms of India’s policy choices the US-Centric Strategic Engagement choice is an inevitable and inescapable imperative but cannot emerge as the sole option because of the ambiguities of United States policies on China and its obsessive fixations with Pakistan in the South Asia context not mindful of the fact that Pakistan is China’s proxy in South Asia. Hence this cannot emerge as the top choice.

Russia-Centric Strategic Engagement: Should Continue as a Priority Policy Choice

The Russia-India Strategic Partnership was the first substantive strategic partnership forged by India. This strategic partnership has stood the test of time for more than three decades except for a short break of the Yeltsin years who was susceptible to US pressures.

To the credit of Russia as India’s strategic partner it needs to be recorded that in South Asia unlike the United States and China which played balance-of power’ strategic policies aimed at India through Pakistan, Russia never resorted to such policies.

Similarly, Russia even with its strategic proximity to China in the last decade or so has kept China out of its strategic calculus when devising its policies on India. Russia is the only major power which has publicly supported India’s Permanent Membership of the UN Security Council ignoring China’s opposition for the same.

India would stand to lose heavily in the ensuing multipolar global system should it devalue its strategic engagement with Russia. India for her own strategic insurance should continue as a policy priority its Russia-Centric Strategic Engagement.

India- Japan Strategic Engagement Needs Impetus

This falls within the purview of a purely indigenous ‘Asian Strategic Engagement’ choice for India. Stated before is the fact that in the 21st Century, within Asia there are only three notable ‘rising powers’ namely China, India and Japan’. Stated also earlier is the fact that of these three China is reluctant to share not only the ‘Asian strategic space’ with India and Japan but would impede their emergence as global players in the international arena.

India and Japan as rising powers of Asia are both democratic nations and unlike China enjoy a wider international acceptability as responsible nations not intending to be revisionist powers.

With Japan having given notice that it intends to focus more on independent strategic choices a great opportunity exists for India to strike more strategic convergences with Japan and forge a substantial India-Japan Strategic Partnership. Substantial headway already exists in this direction independently by India and also under auspices of the previous US Bush Administration.

India’s Poly-Centric Strategic Engagement in a Multipolar World

India’s strategic engagement policy choices necessarily have to be viewed at two levels. At the first level are the existing global powers and the Asian powers perceived by the international community as rising or emerging global players .At the second level India cannot ignore the regional powers which are prominent in the various regions of Asia and also in Africa and South America as once India emerges as a global player of note it would need strategic partners worldwide.

In Asia the regional powers that India would need to take note of are Israel, Turkey. Iran, Kazakhstan and Indonesia.

In other regions India would need strategic partnerships with South Africa, Egypt and Brazil to name a few.

India’s poly-centric strategic engagement is distinct from non-alignment as here the determining factors are strategic governed by India’s national security and economic interests including energy security. The focus has now to be strategic and not political idealism.

India’s poly-centric strategic engagement both within Asia and elsewhere would have a challenging task as it would have to contend with competing strategic priorities of other global powers and more specifically China.

India as a Strategically Independent Asian Power and Strategically Autonomous Global Power Center: The End Aim

India’s national aspirations call for this send-aim as a strategic imperative to be recorded at this stage itself. This is being reiterated because whatever strategic choices India adopts in the coming decades need to be crafted with this end-aim in view and which must not be lost sight of.

India’s strategic policy choices in terms of preferred strategic partners and strategic preferences should be restricted to those that can assist India in the direction of achievements of her national aspirations. The lengthy examination of the contextual factors at the global level and the Asian level throw some meaningful pointers towards this end.

In terms of the Asian security environment, India needs to emerge as an independent ‘Asian Power’ whose strategic interests and strategic sensitivities cannot be discounted by the global powers including China. The generation of India’s Comprehensive National Power needs to be directed towards tis end by India’s political leadership’.

At the global level India should emerge as a strategically autonomous global power center with the potential to draw in its fold regional powers and other geo-strategic entities which could add to India’s strategic weight in the global reckoning.

The paths for India towards this end can only be generated by India’s political leadership adopting policies which attach premium to development of India’s ‘hard power’ potential and the will to use power to achieve policy ends.


India’s potential to emerge as an Asian Power and a global player in the decades to come is well recognized by the global powers including China. This recognition is not some gratuitous offering by the global powers to India but emerges from a hard-headed deliberate analysis of India’s strategic power potential.

However, India needs to recognize that in any strategic setting and especially in the Asian security environment which is developing, where India has to contend with a serious rival like China, India’s emergence as an Asian Power and a global player would greatly depend on India’s own political readiness and political will to shoulder strategic responsibilities which are inherent in any power status. There are no ‘soft options’ here.

India’s political leadership of all political hues has yet to demonstrate to the global community by demonstrated strategic performance that India’s political leadership has it in itself to back its diplomacy with muscle when the chips are down to secure India’s national security interests. This precept must begin in South Asia to begin with.

The challenging Asian security environment which promises to be more disruptive than benign and the policy choices that the Indian political leadership exercises in the coming decades would determine whether India has arrived to emerge as an Asian Power and a global player, or regrettably, India has let slip strategic greatness to bypass it.

(Courtesy- South Asia Analysis Group.The writer, Dr Subhash Kapila, is an International Relations and Strategic Affairs analyst, based in New Delhi. Email:

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