India and Central Asia: The Mythmaking and Relations of a Rising Power
by emilian kavalski
London, I. B. Tauris, 2010. 272 pages
Hardback UK £54.50
We are often assured of the inevitability of the Asian age, and by extension of the rise of the Indian superpower, but as Emilian Kavalski’s timely investigation points out, a “Pax Indica” remains far from certain. Unquestionably aspiring to superpower status, India, despite having various influential individuals and companies, continues to lack a coherent and capable foreign policy that can translate the country’s considerable capacity and strengths into tangible geopolitical relevance. As a result, New Delhi’s first noteworthy foray outside the Asian subcontinent, its “Look North” strategy into Central Asia, remains one of “no influence”, and India lags far behind its Chinese, Russian and Western competitors.
Misleadingly titled, India and Central Asia is actually a grand panoramic exposition of Indian foreign policy that uses Central Asia merely as a prism through which to view the country’s external interactions. Admittedly, Kavalski’s excellent analysis is ruthlessly academic and strongly biased against militaristic power politics, in which he sees no utility. Kavalski does a fine job in showing how Indian assertiveness is often pursued haphazardly and without reference to reality. But his reading of affairs is weakened by his summary dismissal of the possible value of hard-power assets.
Nevertheless, Kavalski’s book is an essential read for anyone interested in understanding Indian foreign policy in the twenty-first century. Structurally, the book divides into two halves, the first examining the “new” Indian foreign policy and the creation of a new Indian identity, the second a series of essays that consider the interactions of India with each of its key external rivals, China, Russia and the West.
The story begins with the 1998 Indian nuclear-weapons tests. While they were of little tangible strategic consequence, given Indian nuclearisation in 1974, Kavalski argues that the subsequent contextualisation of the post-1998 period marked a watershed in Indian strategic thinking. “Jettisoning moralpolitik in favor of realpolitik” (p. 179), India moved to create an aggressive and often militaristic narrative, seeking to transform its abstract domestic desire for national greatness into the global prominence it believes it merits. An “exaggerated sense of self” (p. 76) helped to create a new Indian identity drawing strength from domestic frustrations and desires and at its simplest promising India’s citizenry meaningful Indian contributions to a new era of history.
The unfortunate reality, as Kavalski meticulously explains, is that Indian strategic policy continues to grapple with the complexities of globalisation by relying on a manufactured narrative of self-aggrandisement that is more “fantasy, wishful thinking and make-believe” (p. 195) than hard policy. Symbols such as a Hindu civilisational history and an over-weighted nuclear capability are less instruments of power in the modern world than “artifacts of India’s perception of itself as a global power” (p. 76). These symbols help institutionalise a series of myths that validate a new assertive Indian national identity designed to distract from domestic and internal crises, harness nationalist fervour, and mitigate the sense of insecurity arising from a perceived denial of access to the “white man’s club” (p. 71).
India in many ways continues to vacillate between the moralistic and militaristic traditions. From independence through the Cold War, Nehruvian moralism guided its desired international image as the world’s moral preacher. With the demise of its all-weather Soviet ally, India grappled to come to terms with the end of the bipolar world for much of the 1990s. Coming out of its funk after 1998, India today has an aggressive foreign policy that is overly obsessed with hard-power military assets, seeing them as the best means of achieving its security in the “mythical tradition of realpolitik” (p. 52). Kavalski sees this militarisation of foreign policy as a mark of frustration and weakness rather than confidence and maturity. Barely acknowledging the benefits of the “power of attraction”, i.e., soft power, India is failing to learn the lessons of Western coalitions such as the European Union, which bloodlessly managed to integrate eastern Europe into their spheres of influence. Kavalski also points to Indian aggrandisement as helping to alienate regional neighbours and encourage the formation of defensive coalitions against India.
Having laid out the nature and failings of Indian foreign policy in the post-1998 period, Kavalski returns to his promised focus—India’s involvement in Central Asia. Chapter 4 explains how India sees the region as having a “direct bearing on its vital interests” (p. 82) given its potential to be a conduit for destabilisation. In particular, India is preoccupied with the rise of religious extremism, increased trafficking of drugs and people in the region, the potential for political and economic turbulence, and its desire to be involved in the “new great game” of energy competition. The energy dimension is the most pressing of these concerns, but India also seeks to project power beyond its regional bindings while denying Pakistan and China a strategic hinterland. These issues have been widely discussed, but Kavalski’s analysis goes further in suggesting that India seeks to use its Central Asia engagement to signal its willingness and ability to be a “democratic balancer and stabiliser in Asia” (p. 99).
India’s engagement in Central Asia is built on the perception that its “past linkages act as a bridge to the present” and that its lack of “hidden agendas” (p. 89) allows it to leapfrog other competitors. The unvarnished reality as revealed by Kavalski is that Indian agency in the area remains one of “no influence”, and that India has been relegated to a mere “spectator of regional politics” (p. 87). India continually fails to appreciate the diversity of Central Asia, often mistaking it to be a “natural unit” (p. 81). Its foreign-policy neglect for much of the 1990s means that its belated involvement in the region leaves it far behind other actors. A rare success, as noted by Kavalski, is Tajikistan, where India has deployed its first regional military presence, which leaves some hope that it will become more effective in its tactic of picking off China’s vulnerable friends and allies (p. 102).
Chapter 5 concerns itself with India’s relations with Russia in Central Asia. The Gorbachev and Yeltsin years marked a profound upheaval in Indo-Russo ties, shocking India out of the complacency to which it had grown accustomed. Under these two leaders, Russia focused on improving relations with Western countries, somewhat neglecting India, which no longer received the attention or guaranteed support from Moscow that had been customary in the Soviet era. While Putin’s ascension helped restore bilateral relations, India came to the stark realisation that “Russia’s attitude to India has depended on New Delhi’s compliance with the role envisaged for India by Moscow” (p. 113). Consequently, while close, Russia no longer monopolises India’s foreign-policy attention, and indeed the relationship is beginning to resemble “little more than a weapons supplier nexus” (p. 114).
In Central Asia, Russia has created for itself a role as security guarantor. Its regional influence remains deep and entrenched, and India has been forced to recognise the adage that “you can take the [Central Asian] Republics away from Russia, but you can’t get Russia out of the Republics” (p. 124). However, India is fortunate in that there is a strong element of convergence in Indian and Russian aims. Both countries share a worry of increased American international bellicosity and both seek to ensure regional stability and security while blocking any Islamist or Pakistani inroads. Moscow also sees utility in balancing India against China and the United States. Thereby, as Kavalski concludes, in many ways “Moscow serves India’s deep strategic interests in Central Asia” (p. 126). But he takes pains to note that this convergence of interests is not seamless. There remain key points of divergence, notably, Indian worry that Moscow’s influence is waning as Russia’s internal problems intensify. Russia also seems increasingly willing to include and accommodate China. This, in particular, is a likely source of future contention, as noted by Kavalski, who argues that “on almost every economic issue, China is far more useful to Russia than India” (p. 130).
Chapter 6 relates to China, which “looms large on the security and geopolitical environment of India” (p. 135), although “India has never figured in China’s threat cosmology in any serious fashion” (p. 136). Kavalski argues that the Sino-Indian war of 1962, contested border issues, and the Chinese provision of a security and nuclear shield under which Islamabad is comfortable waging a proxy war against India in Kashmir, are the primary reference points for New Delhi. From the Chinese perspective, India’s provision of sanctuary to Tibetan exiles is a major irritant, as is Indian intransigence over contested borders, which Beijing sees as evidence of “British imperial thinking” (p. 145). Spending considerable time on tracing Indo-Chinese interactions since Indian independence, Kavalski concludes that relations have reached an “advanced stage of détente” (p. 150), particularly as India’s economic profile offers obvious attractions for Chinese investors and exporters. Most interesting is Kavalski’s somewhat contrarian assessment that China still does not see India as a major geopolitical competitor. Instead, he argues that China’s increasingly placatory rhetoric towards India is a reflection that Beijing’s motivations are growing “less euphoric and emotional and instead … more interest-driven and therefore balanced and rational” (p. 152). In essence, China aspires now to global power and is unwilling to be distracted by peripheral regional concerns such as India, mirroring in many ways the lexicon India uses with Pakistan.
Nevertheless, “India’s desire to play a role in … the strategic balance of Asia is in direct conflict with China’s ambition of making Asia its area of influence” (p. 159). Both sides are angling to reshape the Asian security architecture, but China also has direct security concerns, worrying about the spillover of instability into its already restive far-western province of Xinjiang. Indian and Chinese concerns do align on certain matters, notably in a shared aversion to Western-sponsored democracy-promotion in Central Asia, but China sees substantially more utility in engaging with Moscow to “define the rules under which the USA, EU, Iran and Turkey will be allowed to participate in the region” (p. 154). As a result, Indo-Chinese relations in Central Asia are likely to remain hyper-competitive. Even so, Kavalski argues that India does and should see China as the model for its “Look North” strategy. India reportedly admires the pragmatic manner in which China has created far-reaching strategic partnerships without compromising on its security posture.
Chapter 7 deals with the “West” and is perhaps the weakest in an otherwise outstanding book. Its primary focus is on the European Union; Kavalski’s decision to ignore the United States is understandable given the availability of other literature but leaves a conspicuous and gaping hole.
Kavalski argues that the West has been forced to “accept the validity of India’s post-1998 foreign policy” in the wake of the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks, but that it continues to see India as a porcupine—“vegetarian, slow-footed and prickly” (p. 168). While Indo-EU relations have evolved from a narrow trade-focused mandate to one much more encompassing, they remain in the realm of desire and intent rather than tangible reality. Kavalski also discusses Brussels’s patronising and condescending tone towards India, which fuels Indian resentment at the European Union’s sluggish recognition of India’s potential and consequence. India desires a “partnership of sovereign equality” (p. 177), believing that both sides stand to gain and learn from each other. It is also upset at the European Union’s propensity constantly to seek balance and neutrality on issues between India and Pakistan.
Indo-EU relations in Central Asia are also rather weakly touched on when contrasted with how previous chapters dealt with their subjects. Kavalski argues that India supports Western involvement in Central Asia as it conforms to the narrative that India and the West are natural partners on the basis of democracy, confronting terrorism, and the need to create an Asian counterbalance to China. However, Kavalski sees this warming Indo-EU relationship in Central Asia as a “strategic marriage of convenience” as India also shares the Central Asian political elites’ resentment of Western intrusion. New Delhi believes NATO’s eastward expansion is strengthening the Shanghai Co-operation Organisation—the security pact comprising Russia, China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan—and generally cementing Moscow–Beijing collaboration, to India’s detriment. Kavalski adds that a probably transient Western presence in Afghanistan is having negative effects on both India and Central Asia.
All in all, India and Central Asia is a refreshing look at Indian foreign policy, cutting through the hype that often precedes any discourse on India and China. It does suffer from a few glaring limitations, notably, the conspicuous absence of trade or economic figures. Yet overall it remains an excellent assessment of India’s complex foreign-policy dynamics that often simultaneously include areas of convergence and divergence. Kavalski’s analysis may be a bitter pill to swallow for India’s cheerleaders, many of whom are active propagators of the “myths” that he illuminates. Detractors, too, may be tempted to take Kavalski’s sometimes scathing assessments as institutionalised realities. To do either, however, would be to do a tremendous disservice to the true insights that the book contains. It provides a rare and unvarnished examination of Indian deficiencies in the country’s first real decade of international engagement, the acknowledgment and mitigation of which can help create a new and revised blueprint for Indian success.