India’s Rising Strategic Significance

Sub Title : India will inevitably rise but the obstacles in the way need identification

Issues Details : Vol 17 Issue 2 May – Jun 2023

Author : Lt Gen Syed Ata Hasnain, PVSM, UYSM, AVSM, SM, VSM & BAR (Retd)

Page No. : 14

Category : Geostrategy

: May 27, 2023

This article is intended to be an initiator of debate on India’s strategic rise and confidence rather than a decisive delivery of a verdict on the theme. A basic assumption is that India will inevitably rise but the obstacles in the way need identification and removal to allow a sustained ‘step up’ in an early time frame

Nations often project notice of their impending rise, both in terms of their significance and strategic confidence. China’s rise was seen as inevitable once Deng Xiao Ping gave it the wisdom of the ‘Four Modernizations’ in 1978. Japan’s national character and its US sponsored post war security cover ensured the success of the ‘Reverse Course’. The latter focused on strengthening, not punishing, what would become a key US Cold War ally. Japan’s economic rise was thus guaranteed. A look at the contemporary strategic environment reveals an already risen China now openly competing for dominance to be the most powerful nation in the world. In recent years among all nations of the world it is India which has displayed a high propensity for a rise in geopolitical and strategic significance. Amidst the gloomy picture of the post pandemic world is the apparent shiny vista presented by India. A nation tasting progressive success and then being catapulted to heights has to understand the nuances of power play, an inevitable phenomenon which determines the role that nation will play in the major aspects of international geopolitics. It has also to anticipate and comprehend the obstacles in its path to achieve higher status it aims at.

The pandemic and the various dynamics of its geopolitical management have left much of the world perplexed while attempting a struggling return from the abyss into which many nations had sunk. India should have been on the mat with huge numbers affected by the pandemic and an economic impact which left its economic growth in the negative for two years. It is now at 6.2 % making it the fastest growing economy in the world. The economic turnaround through effective handling of the economy and the positive spiral brought about by India’s pharma story has given it a leg up both economically and strategically. Alongside is the growing strategic confidence of India whose leadership is often consulted by big powers in the management of world affairs. The Chairmanship of G20 and Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) have also recently fallen to India’s lot, at a significant time. This too has given a hype to India’s international and regional stature. In addition, is the growing stature of India’s large diaspora which is contributing no less to the positive image of its capability and a positive projection of its people. While all this provides the adrenaline for self-perception and boosting national confidence, this is all evolving and there is perhaps nothing permanent about it unless we  ensure it becomes permanent.

India has difficult geopolitical challenges to overcome and the choice of going with one nation/bloc or the other in the emerging multi-polarity is fraught with danger. We are thus far maintaining neutrality and yet being counted. India’s  leadership has been subtle and balanced in the outreach of its projection. With the specter of challenges coming from China, remaining alone may for India not be a choice at all, especially after the commencement of the standoff since Apr 2020. There is also the whole issue of internal stability which currently is not such a problem but could become a future challenge if the societal fabric is disturbed.

Some quarters are partially ascribing the recent terrorist attacks in Poonch to loss of focus from the current main threats in favor of the perceived future threats; a tendency to move a little faster than desired in the reorientation of foreign policy. The assumption that India could play the role of a swing state in maintaining balance in the emerging world order is perhaps also dawning, ascribing a role it is yet to fully comprehend and work its options through.

There is also a field of thought that relations with the US have matured through a process of almost 20 years and the exceptional attention being received from the US augurs well for India’s strategic significance and role. Can all this sustain or is it a flash in the pan because of the economic hype India has achieved which too needs to be more permanent. Is geopolitical labeling in sync with reality and are old threats giving way to new ones which need better identification and analysis? Too many questions and too few answers but when there are times of transition of the world order there will always be more questions than answers. The intent here is to raise questions and ascertain the degree of truth in many of the assumptions we may be making about a rising India. While every patriot will applaud the rise of the nation it is also in our interest to get a reality check on various nuances which make up the rise.  We could then recalibrate if necessary or reinforce the line. In recent weeks I have attended a few discussions on this challenging theme where high caliber intellectuals of exceptional experience did an introspection on some issues. Some views which were gleaned are broadly summarized in succeeding paragraphs. This cover story should be treated as an initiator to debate and strengthen India’s strategic rise and confidence rather than a decisive delivery of a verdict on the theme. A basic assumption is that India will inevitably rise but the obstacles in the way need identification and removal to allow a sustained ‘step up’ in an early time frame.

Economics and its Spinoffs

The bounce back from the pandemic has been heartening as is the quantum of India’s forex, at 550 bn $. The economy needs to become more resilient for a guaranteed surge in national wealth to achieve the worth of 10 trillion US$ by 1935, and geopolitics have to be managed to tailor to this envisaged economic milestone. Conflicts have a nasty way of setting back things in the path of economic growth. The combined weight of China and Pakistan postured against India has a ‘bog down’ effect on our progress. Ways have to be found towards smart and effective adversary management.

Pakistan’s nuisance potential is currently low in the conventional field. That situation may not last forever.  However, by itself in the hybrid field, and in combination with China in the conventional field, its impact on India’s interests is much higher. Relative peace at the borders is wishful thinking but India need not be responsible for any conflict initiation except in extreme contingencies when its interests and reputation are hurt. What India needs is an equivalent of the strategy of Four Modernizations by which China accepted a relatively lower strategic significance until attainment of higher momentum in the gaining of comprehensive national power (CNP). It prioritized its modernization and followed a strategy of stable borders until it was fully prepared.

In the case of India, a surge in economic growth would need to be powered by increased contribution of manufacturing in the economy; a service-oriented economy has its limitations. A concept of conflict avoidance needs to be adopted through dissuasive strategy until the attainment of threshold acceptable levels of economic growth and military capability which are perceived as adequate for India’s aspirational needs. In all this the importance of the development of a military industrial complex to ensure full implementation of Atmanirbharta (Self Reliance) would be mandatory.

An UNDP report mentions an interesting comparison between India and China; that India has succeeded in lifting 415 million people out of poverty just like the Chinese had succeeded in doing so for 750 million. This remains work in progress for both nations but for India it must remain a mantra if it has to exploit its positive demographics.

General Diplomacy

Some key aspects in the diplomatic domain need to be factored into the furtherance of India’s rise. Some self-explanatory conceptual ideas are expressed below without too much explanation: –

  • The main cadre of the Indian Foreign Service (IFS) is too small to manage Indian foreign policy interests and its second rung secretarial service is not of the required quality. The IFS has been averse to cadre review or it projects that these proposed reviews have never been accepted by the Government. There is a tearing need for more human resources in the domain of diplomacy. In the interim they can be from any service with proper selection standards applied.
  • A system of special envoys could be incorporated for priority areas and clusters of nations/regions.
  • India has followed a policy of strategic autonomy and followed it rather well. However, serious challenges in this regard will arise in due course. We will have to decide between nations and between blocs too. It is only India’s interest that should be pursued as long as possible.
  • The pandemic has triggered de-globalisation and nations have become more inward looking. It is to India’s advantage to see the return of a globalized economy and existence.
  • India should promote the Global South and champion it. Over the last three decades, Indian diplomacy’s focus has been on reordering its great power relations, bringing stability to the neighbourhood and developing regional institutions in the extended neighbourhood.
  • Understanding the Global South is important for addressing global issues such as poverty, inequality, and climate change. All this will give India exceptional outreach and enough support to sit at the high table of developed nations.
  • The true potential of India’s soft power has yet to be projected although many efforts are being made. Indian missions abroad need more knowledge and talent empowerment in this field with culture being one of the most important tools.
  • Military diplomacy reinforces political diplomacy and should be enhanced through consultation with the Armed Forces.
  • Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief (HADR) is a domain in which India has gained much reputation. External deployment in Nepal (2015) and the recent assistance to Turkiye and Syria (2023) have gone down well with the international community.

 Dealing with China

Most discussants about China feel that the level of mutual understanding of each other’s compulsions in the Sino-Indian context was extremely poor. The promotion of Chinese studies in our knowledge institutions needs a fillip. The next steps beyond the  China Study Group could be thought of. The number of Sinologists in India needs to increase manifold. More than anything its lack of trust which dictates China’s behaviour. It remains unconvinced about India’s intent towards a benign rise and delivery of progress to its people; in this stance it situates rather than analyses India’s intent. India’s border infrastructure expansion has given China cause for concern because this is something we neglected in the past. The current alarming rate of our infrastructure development could be tempered in projection rather than allow it to become cause for conflict.

Nations which trade with each other usually do not get into conflict situations with each other. The volume of Sino-India trade for 2022 has climbed to 135.98 billion US$, overtaking the 125 billion US$ mark a year earlier. China’s exports to India climbed to 118.5 billion US$, a year-on-year increase of 21.7 per cent. However, Sino Indian tension at the LAC continues because of China’s intent to use the LAC for its wolf warrior tactics. The latest Chinese ploy is to detach the relationship from what is happening at the border. India’s acceptance of this will be tantamount to agreeing on the principle that talks and terror can go hand in hand against Pakistan.

During 2022, China’s imports from India dwindled to USD 17.48 billion, a year-on-year decline of 37.9 per cent. India’s aspirations for big power status have to be matched by its economy being powered by manufacturing capability to a higher degree. Emphasis should be laid on increasing foreign direct investment and having robust policies for start-ups.

In the military domain it is clear that China enjoys a qualitative asymmetry in its favour. An Indian prioritization and change of strategy should be the management of the border which must be handed over to the Indian Army, the organization best equipped to handle it. All other forces must be placed under command for optimization of resources. The Ministry of Defence (MoD) must assume responsibility for the border from the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) just like the LoC where all forces function under the Army. Contentious borders must remain the purview of the MoD.

Pakistan and the Neighbourhood 

The difference here from the past is the fact Pakistan has lost its status for an independent review and is clubbed with the neighbourhood. That is how India needs to treat Pakistan although the nuisance potential of Pakistan still remains high. Strategically except for conniving with China for a force multiplication effect its conventional worth is low although it ties down a sizable number of Indian forces in the West. India must not fall for any premature ruses to draw it into limited conflict with a Chinese provocation. J&K has been managed well except for an odd one-off incident the like of which will probably continue.

For the neighbourhood no relationships can be taken for granted; each has to be uniquely structured. The promotion of democracy and welfare assistance through medical diplomacy are important factors but the political diversity of nations will need to be respected almost as a rule set in concrete. Our engagement with the region should be focused   on non-traditional security issues.

Relations with the US and Europe

In the light of the recent opinion expressed by Ashley Tellis that India may not prove to be a reliable partner of the US when it comes to the Indo Pacific, India must continue respecting its own interests and not fall prey to propagandist views. It must make it clear that its partnerships are tempered by its national interest which will always be supreme. With that approach India must also realize that it is a part of the international community and will therefore have to many times compromise and promote mutual rather than just self-interest. Growing under the radar, without causing consternation is the acme of emergence of big powers. This is what India has to master. China’s discomfort with the US is worldwide and comprehensive but in sheer geopolitical terms it is the Taiwan issue which remains most critical. This is an issue India should avoid getting involved with till as long as possible.

An Indo-US progression of partnership appears inevitable and we need to understand that US democratic freedom will always give great scope for critique. We have been extremely sensitive to US-Pak relations but with the growing status these linkages will need to be ignored in order to retain partners and friends.

Although Europe largely follows a China appeasement policy it should be clear to us that India will follow an India centric policy. Balancing India-US-Europe will remain a challenge.

The Middle East

In the last ten years if there is any region with whom India’s relationship has been transformational it is the Middle East. Indian interests have been promoted in the medium and long term. In order to progress to higher geopolitical status India will need the support of the Gulf nations, particularly Saudi Arabia and UAE. There is positive development with the US also involving itself here and pursuing strategic groupings such as the Western Quad or I2U2 (India-Israel-UAE-US). By expanding its partnerships, the US is attempting to control narratives in all areas of interest. By partnering the US regionally too the benefits also travel to India. This is one area demanding a Special Envoy from the Indian diplomatic community. An extended outreach must also be made to all non-GCC countries too.

This is one region in which India can attempt to be a mediator in disputes and progressively learn to handle these. China has stepped into the Iran-Saudi dispute and has brought a ceasefire in Yemen. India with its proximity to the Gulf, a better understanding of Islamic culture and the existence of a large diaspora, needs to grab initiatives aimed at higher diplomacy.

On Iran, it may appear that India has lost the plot due to the proactivity of Chinese diplomacy. India’s access to CARs through Chahbahar is not a closed chapter as some may imagine. What the Iranians would definitely want is an Indian policy without the US baggage, to give weight to an Indo-Iran ‘civilizational relationship’.

It is reputed that most Middle East nations are close to India but are unclear what India wants from the relationships. Russia and the Ukraine War

Although India has maintained neutrality in the Ukraine war there is no doubt that its discomfort with the Russian stance in the Ukraine war is now increasing. Energy prices through Russia may be in its favour but by and large India’s continued neutrality is being viewed more as a bias towards Russia. The effect of that on Indo-US relations will soon need to be assessed.

Russia is against the Quad as the latter targets China. As a virtual junior partner of China for some years Russia is unlikely to be supportive of India or do much to improve Sino Indian relations. However, India will be constrained to maintain a good relationship with Russia for the sake of the operational efficiency of its Armed Forces until Atmanirbharta achieves much more and offers realistic options for weapons and equipment.

The Indo Pacific Region

Any aspiring nation that ignores a whole continent such as Africa needs a rethink of strategy. India has not ignored Africa; in fact, during the nonalignment period, it gave much substance to the developing world with special favours to many African nations. Today, while entire Africa is important it is the nations in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) which have special significance. The east coast of Africa, the nations astride the waterways of the Middle East, the island nations such as Maldives, Seychelles, Mauritius and Sri Lanka are all important because the world’s most significant sea lanes, which carry the maximum energy and container traffic, all pass through the Indian Ocean and under the shadow of the Indian peninsula.

The strategic location of the Andaman Islands and the Straits of Malacca give even more significance to India and its maritime capability even as the US, Japan and Australia will eventually look at the Pacific side of the Straits of Malacca.

Almost every discussion on India’s strategic affairs ends with the analysis of its maritime power, and the aspirations towards that. To achieve anything meaningful India will need to balance its defence expenditure between the continental domain of the northern borders and the maritime domain of the Indian Ocean.

Internal Security

This is a domain which needs another cover story and it would be sacrilege to dismiss it perfunctorily. It is being included here only to remind the managers of India’s security that unless internally secure and stable the legendary ‘half front’ will always be on offer to the adversaries.


This essay commenced with the idea that nations on the rise usually project their own aspirations so that friends and adversaries get a clear message. The lack of a White Paper on India’s rise, the type annually put out by China, is not helpful to India’s cause. This is something modern Indian think tanks need to work upon so that India’s security leadership has enough guidelines and broad parameters of expectations and expected response.