This piece is intended as a follow-up to Anvesh Jain’s previous special report on recent trends in Indian grand strategy.
A New Vision:
On the day of India’s great reckoning with history, at the moment of its long-due emancipation from the fetters of empire, the country’s first Prime Minister and hero of the Independence struggle Jawaharlal Nehru uttered before a captive nation; that “at the stroke of the midnight hour, when the world sleeps, India will awake to life and freedom”.
The clock has ticked on since then, and seventy-two years later there is no doubt that Indian foreign policy has seen its moments of alacrity and instances of brilliance. The cathartic years of 1971 and 1998 come to mind, in which fundamental alterations to the subcontinental strategic equation cemented India’s status as a regional power.
More often it was the case that the ‘elephant’ of India would still slumber, still meander, burdened by the weight of its bureaucracy and internal cacophony, and unharried by the urgent passage of time. Until recently, a laggard application of strategic thinking has seen India fall into a reactive cycle with regards to new developments in the realm of continental and international affairs. Perhaps for lack of will, perhaps for lack of resources, India has largely prevented itself from achieving Nehru’s visionary prescripts – those vested aims of new life, and greater freedom. Yet this can be, and is, subject to change.
Movements in the interstate system have engendered reciprocal shifts in India’s ideational approach to its own neighbourhood and to the world beyond it. The Modi government has begun to reimagine traditional approaches to Indian international relations, spurred by the paralysis of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) and the Trump administration’s role in accelerating the United States’ relative positional decline, establishing the U.S as an ‘unreliable hegemon’ in the eyes of its overseas allies and partners.
India, along with states like China, Russia, and Iran, has begun preparing for an era beyond the American age. In this approaching multipolar world, the diktats of strategy and security, culture and society, economy and trade will cohabitate to reshape the nodes and nexuses of global power. To chart a course towards the future, India has increasingly relied on looking back on its civilisational past, rekindling ancient connections, and fortifying India’s role as the natural connection point between east and west.
To consolidate its hold in the subcontinent, and with an eye on its long-term strategic rivals, India has begun cultivating a network of diplomatic, commercial, cultural, and military relationships in three key areas of focus. With proper investment and care, these nascent foci have the potential to become major avenues for Indian influence in upcoming years. These three ‘bangles’ of Indian strategy deftly wield soft and hard power to provide regional connectivity and linkages back to the Indian mainland over air, sea, and land. India’s image as a benign power comes with emergent possibilities in the Asian continent and the Indian Ocean Region, allowing the country to skillfully extend the operational range of its military ambition, and gain crucial footholds in strategic geographic chokepoints such as the Straits of Malacca and Hormuz.
Each of the Three Bangles work in conjunction with one another to advance India’s global interests and transform a fundamentally reactive and limited foreign policy into an expansive, forward-thinking, and proactive agenda.
The Central Asian Bangle:
The first of the Three Bangles is in large parts intended to surround and isolate Pakistan, India’s neighbourhood rival and strategic distraction. This Bangle is currently the most well-developed, and the completion of its circuit will allow India to turn its focus elsewhere without leaving its back exposed on its western borders.
As with the others, this Bangle begins with a realization of the vitality of economic infrastructure and transport connectivity. To that end, India remains party to the Ashgabat Agreement, meant to enhance its trade presence in Central Asia. The Ashgabat Agreement will help facilitate other projects such as the International North-South Transit Corridor through Iran, and the India-Central Asia Transit Corridor. Some observers see this multilateral push for Central Asia’s mineral resources as a 21st century edition of the ‘Great Game’, one in which India refuses to be left behind.
Critical to the development of this Bangle is the growth of India’s military presence across the region. The Chabahar Port in Iran, designed as a counterweight to China’s Gwadar Port in Pakistan, provides India a direct connection to landlocked Afghanistan through the Chabahar-Zahedan Rail Link and associated Afghan highway systems. Afghanistan is a key strategic partner of India, and Chabahar allows Afghanistan to reduce its reliance on Pakistan for international trade. On the northern end of the Central Asian Bangle is India’s Farkhor Air Base in Tajikistan, giving India aerial access to Afghanistan’s hinterlands, and more importantly, strategic depth over Pakistan vis-a-vis the Tajik front. The strengthening of the Central Asian Bangle counters and breaks the Pakistan-China nexus (exemplified by projects such as the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor) that had in previous years hemmed India in.
On the water, the upgrading of Chabahar to deep-sea capacity goes hand-in-hand with Modi’s diplomatic strategy in Oman. In February 2017, India and Oman signed a pact allowing the Indian Navy use of facilities at Duqm Port, giving India a say over the contested Strait of Hormuz, where over one-third of global seaborne oil trade passes through annually. Situated on direct maritime lanes between Mumbai, the Arabian Peninsula, and the east coast of Africa, Duqm and Chabahar allow India to extend its operational range to the western reaches of the Indian Ocean Region, and provide a natural pathway for the growth of Indian influence into crucial development zones.
The Oceanic Bangle:
The Second Bangle concerns the vast geostrategic crossways of the Indian Ocean, that border three continents and host boundless economic and natural resources within its depths. At the moment, this Bangle extends from the southern tip of India to the northern coasts of Madagascar, and India has done well to curry the favour of the Indian Ocean littoral states that lie in between. The potential for this Bangle is as immense as the ocean itself, and India will need to ramp up its efforts if it wishes to maintain and consolidate the current favourable balance of power in this region.
Recent Chinese maneuvers in the Indian Ocean have rattled Delhi. Conventionally, India inherited much of the supremacy over these waters as a legacy of imperial Britain’s naval dominance. The so-called ‘string-of-pearls’ and Beijing’s stated interest in developing a ‘Maritime Silk Road’ have put India on the backfoot, scrambling to catch up and reestablish Indian preeminence in the area.
India holds the decisive cultural advantage, and benefits from an ancient mercantile and diplomatic familiarity with the small island states of the Indian Ocean. These strong civilizational ties manifest in the form of official endeavours such as “Project Mausam”, which seeks to bring together the Indian Ocean world on the basis of national values and mutual concerns. In kinetic terms, India has been granted the permission to develop military infrastructure in the Assumption and Agalega Islands, as outlined in previous Memorandums of Understandings with the governments of Seychelles and Mauritius, respectively.
These outreach efforts differ from traditional great power plays made in hotly contested regions. Indian intentions to build airfields and ports in these islands have been coupled with gifts of patrol ships to the governments of Mauritius and Seychelles, and the primary users of these facilities will be the domestic armed forces themselves. Rather than perpetuating Indian dominance over these smaller nations, the purpose of these actions is to keep other great powers out of the area, including the U.S, China, Great Britain, and France. By sharing responsibility for collective defence in the region, India has enabled the self-empowerment of these countries in the tackling of piracy or other threats to maritime security.
Coupled with an Indian radar surveillance station in northern Madagascar, India is well poised to develop the Oceanic Bangle in the future. Countering Chinese influence in the Maldives and Sri Lanka must become major priorities; and in the long term the expansion of this Bangle across the Indian Ocean ought to be seriously considered through initiatives such as a potential pentalateral security forum engaging states like the Seychelles and Mauritius, in addition to the aforementioned.
Joining the French, Americans, and Chinese with a major military base on the coast of Africa would be a step in the right direction, and in doing so Indian forces will be able to reliably operate without interruption from one periphery of the Indian Ocean to another. The construction of a third, indigenous aircraft carrier in the next decade will, in combination with the piecemeal upgradation of existing Indian Ocean facilities, further fortify the Indian navy’s ability to extend its operational range far from the subcontinent’s own coasts. Indian prowess in its eponymous maritime space will allow for better protection of expanding commercial trade routes, while simultaneously fulfilling the pressing exigency of containing an ever-ambitious China.
The Eastern Bangle:
The final piece of the puzzle lies in the much-vaunted Eastern Bangle that Indian planners have long looked to develop, often without knowing exactly how to do so. This Bangle plays both a defensive and offensive role in the management of Indian influence across Asia, through cooperation in international organizations and the measured utilization of Indian hard and soft power in the regions to the country’s east.
The Bay of Bengal has garnered new focus in the Indian strategic vision as a basin of economic and cultural potential. That SAARC has in recent times seen gridlock and dysfunction as a result of the India-Pakistan relationship has facilitated an Indian drive to revive an old, but forgotten regional development organization – the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC). This was exemplified by Modi’s invitation of BIMSTEC leaders to his second inauguration ceremony this summer, as compared to SAARC leadership in 2014.
This Bangle perfectly merges the various strands of Indian foreign policy into a cohesive manifesto. Beginning with India’s assumed responsibility to defend Bhutan on the immediate border with China, it continues on with India-ASEAN connectivity projects such as the India-Myanmar-Thailand Trilateral highway, which has solicited proposals for extension to other countries as well.
The Eastern Bangle taps into India’s ancient connections with the countries of South-East Asia, many of whom have been influenced culturally by Indian and Hindu civilization. An increased focus on Buddhist Diplomacy, for example, has the potential to expand relations between the countries that now practice the religion in the majority, and the country in which it originated long ago.
That this region hosts a forward potential for India will not go unacknowledged by observers in Beijing. Decades of Chinese policy in the area have sowed nervousness and tension in the South China Sea and in the countries neighbouring the behemoth next door, even as trade and commerce flourish. Many will look to India to offset the colossal influence of China. The Bay of Bengal and South-East Asia represent China’s gateway into the Indian Ocean, and India has begun taking steps to stop that creeping expansion.
The Strait of Malacca, in particular, is regarded as one of the most important geostrategic chokepoints in the entirety of the world. Indian thinkers have incorporated this critical zone into the tactical rim and defensive perimeter of the Indian Ocean. Indian military installments in the country’s Andaman and Nicobar Islands territories are absolutely necessary for ensuring the balance of power remains in India’s favour. The co-development of a deep-sea port in Sabang, Indonesia, has now given India the ability to plug Chinese trade and military maneuvers going through the straits. In the case of military hostilities, these three Indian bases will prove decisive.
Finally, the signifiance of the Eastern Bangle lies not only in how it consolidates India’s defensive arrangements across the Indian Ocean Region, but in how it provides the power – should Indian leaders choose to utilize it – to establish an advance presence in China’s own strategic backyard. Increased cooperation and diplomacy with Vietnam (another nation keenly aware of China’s growing presence and history) has the potential for generational breakthrough in what is already a dynamic security environment.
India has previously been granted access to dock at Cam Ranh Bay, and perhaps in the future it might be in the interest of both countries to build an exclusive Indian port on the coast of Vietnam. Creating an Indian foothold in the South China Sea would certainly be a sign of active, rather than passive, containment from Delhi and a major blow to Beijing’s interests. Coupled with Indian overtures to Singapore and its Changi Port, there is immense possibility here for the future of Indian foreign policy. Whether Indian strategists choose to pursue this course of action is another matter altogether.
The theory of the Three Bangles is in an inchoate stage, and is not yet perfectly developed. It is far off from being realized in any official capacity. As an overarching observation of current and future trends, it is an idea that aims to capture India’s short and long-term security anxieties in Asia. Often, India’s immense cultural soft power potential is not a part of calculations made by foreign observers. This theory aims to address such shortcomings.
Though Indian foreign policy has rightfully been characterized as a tale of playing catch-up, an understanding and actualization of the Three Bangles can initiate a reversal of the tide. The eastwards shift of the global balance of power is surely coming to fruition as the European age comes to a close. Asia is a young continent, growing by the day in both population and trade. India is well poised at the heart of that fundamental shift. By developing the Three Bangles in conjunction with one another, India can begin laying out an autochthonous path for its future grand strategy in this newfound Asian paradigm. The Three Bangles, at its core, represents Indian modalities of viewing foreign policy.
India must be careful in its delicate dance with the dragon. It will be relied upon as a new regional security guarantor, and a continental counterweight to China. In a multipolar world, India will become an ascendant pillar of democracy in the new rules-based international order. For many years, the model of American constitutionalism inspired generations of thinkers and leaders around the world. As the most successful major post-colonial democracy, the idea of India will hold its own sway for vast swathes of the still-developing world. For those still struggling with the legacy of bygone empire, it is an Indic model of liberation that can provide attainable guidance and moral direction. India has the history, the resources, and the benevolent humanity needed to provide such direction as it seeks to shape the international system in its own unique way.
Featured Images: The Three Bangles Theory proposes a radical shift in the Asian order, with India at the heart of that changing paradigm. Visuals produced by the author.
Disclaimer: Any views or opinions expressed in articles are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the NATO Association of Canada.