Policy Engagements and Blogs

Geopolitics and Geo-Economics in a Changing South Asia

Srinath Raghavan

January 4, 2019


Watch the full video of the panel discussion on ‘Geopolitics and Geo-Economics in a Changing South Asia’, organised as part of CPR Dialogues, featuring Nimmi Kurian, Zorawar Daulet Singh, Ambassador Shivshankar Menon, chaired by Srinath Raghavan.

The contemporary phase of international politics is full of uncertainty and fluidity. The US is unable to enforce its writ over the system, nor is it able to supply the public goods necessary to produce a stable and flourishing world economy. Rising powers are contending for new roles and seeking to reshape the rules that govern world order. If we step back, however, what we notice is actually a recurring cycle in world history. A pattern of struggle and competition where each epoch has ultimately produced a larger and more dynamic process of capital accumulation and international division of labour. After a struggle for leadership, the baton passes towards a new contender who resuscitates world order and assumes the onus of managing the process of economic globalisation. Does the present phase portend such a scenario? What aspects of the ongoing power transition are similar to the past and what is distinct? Can the dominant power and its rivals arrive at a modus vivendi that avoids a zero-sum confrontation?

Coming to India and its region, the changing international environment has profound consequences. Both the geoeconomic order – an open world economy where capital and goods could move relatively freely between states – and a peaceful geopolitical setting underwritten by a great power peace has enabled India since the end of the last Cold War to focus on economic growth and development. Profound changes to this status quo imply that policymakers and strategic thinkers are being called upon to supply fresh ideas and frameworks for India’s foreign policy.

If unrelenting pressures on globalisation do continue to increase, it would imperil South Asia’s economic story. Short of finance capital, non-renewable energy resources, and industrial technologies, South Asia’s transformation for the past two decades has been intrinsically linked to reliable access to economic resources from other high-income and emerging economies. Any disruption to trans-national and trans-continental interdependence, will naturally push the region to look within it own socio-economic base to sustain its economic transformation. This would place greater responsibilities on India to safeguard not only its own economic prospects but supply public goods and assist its neighbours too. And, there is no sensible reason why India must seek to do this alone with its scarce resources and growing domestic claims. Cultivating diverse partnerships are, therefore, not a luxury but a strategic necessity. Setting the terms and shaping how other major powers with greater economic heft engage with the South Asia is one of the central challenges for India’s foreign policy. What have been missing from Indian debates are more sophisticated approaches to the multitude of regional visions and connectivity ideas that are being espoused by several great powers. Can India leverage its unique location at the crossroads of many of these geoeconomic visions provides to mediate and steer Asia’s political economy evolution in directions that advance its interests?

Furthermore, a fundamental assumption – indeed a sacrosanct premise – for India’s strategic thinking in the post-Cold War period has been internalising the reality of one preponderant power centre that shaped political and economic life across the globe. This structural setting – unipolarity as it was described by many – led to a basic Indian foreign policy framework of a sustained, albeit gradual and tentative at each step, integration into the US-led order as well as of course a transformation in bilateral relations with the US and its key allies. This has been a bipartisan strategy and for the most part it could be claimed that Indian policymakers accomplished this process within the broad confines of strategic autonomy with some success. But given the geopolitical changes now underway, without a careful strategic readjustment and a sensible assessment on Asian geopolitics, India’s foreign policy risks losing the advantages that might accrue from a multipolar Asia. How should India reimagine its place in this diffusion of global power and disintegration of the unipolar consensus?

The panel explored these and related themes to understand what possible roles can India realistically adopt to shape the ongoing power transition in a way that advances its domestic transformation and security along with a stable Asian and world order.

Srinath Raghavan is a Senior Fellow at CPR.

Nimmi Kurian is a Professor at CPR.

Zorawar Daulet Singh is a Fellow at CPR.

Ambassador Shivshankar Menon is the former National Security Advisor and Indian Foreign Secretary.

The question and answer session that followed can be accessed here.

Coverage of the panel by ThePrint (digital partner for CPR Dialogues) can be accessed here.