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Geography shapes Geopolitics

  • Geopolitics
  • 1 Years ago
  • 4 min read
Geography,  geopolitics,  Russia

© NatStrat

PS Raghavan
PS Raghavan - Chairman, National Security Advisory Board of India

Well over a century ago, the English and American strategists, Halford Mackinder and Alfred Mahan, drew attention to the significant impact of geography on the political and economic behaviour of nations, across the world and over the centuries. In Prisoners of Geography (2016), noted journalist Tim Marshall provides modern-day illustrations of this truth.

In its broadest sense, geography includes the physical landscape – land, soil, rivers, mountains, but also climate, demographics and natural resources. Geopolitical perspectives of nations – the way they look at international developments – depend on the geography from which they are looking at them. Geographical factors have shaped their historical experiences, cultures and social structures. It follows that they play a significant role in influencing nations’ security perceptions, strategic ambitions and responses to external developments.

Most foreign, and many Indian, analysts have not fully factored this reality in their analyses of India’s international outlook and behaviour in recent years. The ravages of COVID-19 and the global churn caused by Russia’s war in Ukraine have highlighted the concerns and opportunities of India’s security environment. The Himalayan range to the north that divides Tibet from India has become a tense interface between India and China over much of its stretch. In the northwest, the post-independence dismemberment of Jammu and Kashmir, engineered by Pakistan and tacitly condoned by some of its Western collaborators, denied India its border with Afghanistan and direct land access to the Eurasian landmass. Terrain, political factors and economic limitations also hamper traffic across land borders to the east.

 "Geopolitical perspectives of nations – the way they look at international developments – depend on the geography from which they are looking at them."

Effectively, therefore, India is largely a “sea-locked” country, with a huge coastline of over 7,500 km to defend against external threats. Over 90% of India’s trade (including a substantial proportion of its energy supplies) are carried by the surrounding ocean. The marine resources of the Indian Ocean are important for the economies of the littoral Indian states. It is a vast area, supporting arms, drugs and human trafficking by state and non-state actors. It is also a valuable piece of maritime real estate – an open stretch of the ocean, across which there is a huge flow of commercial and (increasingly) military traffic, between bottlenecks in the east and the west. It is also a part of India’s historical consciousness that its dominance in the global economy until the 17th century owed significantly to its maritime economic reach.

It is, therefore, in India’s economic, security and strategic interest to prevent external dominance in this maritime domain. This is at the heart of India’s bilateral, plurilateral and multilateral initiatives to promote a broad understanding on the elements of an open, inclusive, rules-based order in the Indo-Pacific, based on international law. In the longer-term, it is in India’s interest to draw China into meaningful discussions for an open and inclusive security architecture, reflecting a multipolar Asia. This effort has obviously to be underpinned by strengthening India’s own economic, technological and defence capacities.

 "The marine resources of the Indian Ocean are important for the economies of the littoral Indian states."

The chaotic withdrawal of the US and NATO from Afghanistan initiated a churn in the Eurasian landmass in India’s immediate neighbourhood, further aggravated by the ongoing Russia-Ukraine war. Over a vast expanse from Afghanistan to the Caspian and Caucasus, we see the advancing footprints of a number of countries, including China, Iran and Turkey, seeking to replace the receding footprint of Russia and (to a considerable extent) the US and Europe. The outcome of the Ukraine war will determine the extent of diminution of the Russian footprint. These developments provide a powerful argument for India to be engaged intensively in this region, expand its own political and economic presence, and monitor the Russia-China dynamics.

An important part of India’s history was the evolution of a strategic partnership with Russia, including a strong defence cooperation. As External Affairs Minister Jaishankar has publicly, repeatedly and forcefully pointed out, this was the product of a Cold War geopolitical reality. Over two decades now, India has been diversifying its sources of defence acquisitions. The goals have been to avoid overwhelming dependence on a single source, acquisition of a wider range of sophisticated technologies, and the development of robust indigenous technological and manufacturing capacities. The goals remain unaltered, but the pace of their achievement has been determined by domestic and external factors. The war has, of course, introduced new variables that may impact the course of this process. Whatever its outcome, India would have to look closely at the military tactics, strategies, and technologies that enabled the Ukrainian military to perform as it has done in a situation of great asymmetry.

India’s response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and its subsequent diplomatic actions were driven by the fundamental imperative to bring an integrated approach to the security and strategic challenges from its maritime and the continental neighbourhood. In a sense, India connects the Indo-Pacific with Eurasia. This is the thought behind India’s engagement with diverse plurilateral groupings like the Quad, I2U2, BIMSTEC, BRICS and SCO, alongside intensified bilateral engagement with the US, Europe, ASEAN, Japan, Australia and other partners.

"India has so far coped better with the political flux and the economic travails than most countries, with sure-footed diplomacy, political pragmatism and economic resilience."

There are other consequences of Covid and the war in Ukraine which impact India's national security strategy. We see a disruption in every institution and arrangement of globalisation, as geopolitics dominates decision-making on trade and economic policy. Multilateralism is now hostage to polarizations. The IMF has pointed to concerns about fragmentation of the global financial system. Supply chain resilience has become a popular refrain, but if closed groups of countries protect their own interests, it may severely impact the materials security of others. The experience with COVID-19 has brought into focus the imperative of all aspects of biosecurity: mechanisms need to be developed for mitigation of biothreats from natural outbreaks, accidental dissemination, biowarfare or bioterrorism.

Climate justice is vanishing: in their rush to boycott Russian energy supplies, rich countries have fallen back on the most polluting energy sources and have reneged on their commitment to assist energy transition costs of developing countries. India has to constantly recalibrate its strategies to achieve its climate commitments, while protecting economic growth, as well as energy, food and water security.

India has so far coped better with the political flux and the economic travails than most countries, with sure-footed diplomacy, political pragmatism and economic resilience. The overwhelming response to its invitation for the ‘Voice of the Global South’ Summit reflected a recognition of this fact in the developing world, much of which grapples with the high costs and shortages of food, fuel, fertilizers and finance, even as a climate emergency approaches.

As the world order appears to be in the throes of change, India – with its democratic, economic, geographic and demographic attributes – is in a position to participate meaningfully in shaping the course of this change.

(Exclusive to NatStrat)


     

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