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India’s Geopolitical Mandala in 2023. by Lt Gen P R Shankar (R) 

2023 is critical for India from many aspects. It has to constantly stave off hostility in its immediate neighbourhood, stabilise turmoil in its near neighbourhood, build on opportunities of its intermediate neighbourhood and strengthen its strategic relationships.

A rising India with its dominant location in the Asian Landmass and the Indian Ocean Region  sits at the crossroads of global continental and maritime flows.  However it lives in a fluid strategic environment which is dotted by the ongoing pandemic, global inflationary trends, the Ukrainian War and a China in flux. In addition, 2022 has seen kaleidoscopic changes in its neighbourhood. To this,  one must add the oncoming impact of climate change and energy crisis. The overall environment is challenging indeed. In this challenging environment, India  must also manage the contradictions of its own rise. In this context it will be prudent to take stock of what lies ahead in 2023. 

India’s complex geostrategic environment is best understood in terms of Chanakya’s ‘Mandala’ theory against the backdrop of national interests and established global trends. Chanakya’s Mandala principle, mandates a need to consider our geopolitical equations in the immediate, near, intermediate neighbourhoods. These have to be extrapolated with the strategic relationships India has developed beyond its neighbourhoods. However at the core one must also examine the internal issues which will impact India’s rise to derive a balanced outlook.  

Immediate Neighbourhood

India’s immediate neighbourhood consists of Pakistan, China and the Indian Ocean Region. Pakistan and China, have been  India’s traditional adversaries. They are  overmilitarized and pose a constant challenge to India – individually and in collusion. This neighbourhood is intensely  nuclear. China and Pakistan also pose a long term proxy / hybrid / grey zone  multidimensional threat to India. This region remains strategically the most complex globally. Pakistan’s faces continued political instability with a defunct economy. It faces uncontrollable inflation and food insecurity. The  Army will continue to call the shots irrespective of a civilian façade. State and non-state entities continue to radicalise Pakistan competitively. It is facing a severe threat on its western border with the TTP active along the Durand Line fully supported by the Afghan Taliban. However the Kashmir fixation and its identity crisis of ‘not being India’ makes it a dangerously decadent adversary. It will remain proximally tethered to China. An indebted Pakistan will remain China’s catspaw against India. China, which till recently was seen to be rising is stagnating with a slowing economy, a declining population and a revisionist leader aspiring for a lifetime in power. However China continues to  increase its military capabilities at an unprecedented rate. It is also strengthening the LAC through a heavy build-up of infrastructure and induction of sophisticated weapon systems. Its three main geo strategic goals will remain to be a global superpower by displacing USA , annexation of Taiwan by either force or peacefully,  and to keep India, its next competitor down. Keeping India down could be through assertive salami slicing along the LAC, expanding its influence in the neighbourhood /IOR or direct interference through India’s internal political fissures. These indications are evident from multiple  incidents. In 2023, China will be India’s foremost geostrategic challenge. Further, the Indian Ocean Region will witness the next great maritime game  which is panning out with India as the pivot and China as the hammer.   

Near Neighbourhood

India’s near neighbourhood comprises of Afghanistan, Nepal, Bhutan, Myanmar, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Maldives. These nations are prone to periodic turmoil internally and externally. Afghanistan, under Taliban seems to be going from bad to worse. With the international focus on Ukraine, it will remain a forgotten dark hole. Off late, the Taliban is reaching out to India. However one has to proceed with caution despite opportunities opening up. In  2022, Sri Lanka’s economic and political meltdown has been dramatic. 2023 provides an opportunity to India to regain lost ground and limit Chinese influence. Bangladesh, seemingly stable till recently, is likely to head into political and financial turmoil in 2023. Myanmar, a complicated nation, has slipped into its historic cycle of internal violence. A stable Myanmar where Chinese influence is minimised is critical to India’s security. India needs to do more in this regard. The recent elections in Nepal have thrown up a Maoist government which will be challenging to India.  Overall, India will have to take concrete and focussed steps to stabilise its deteriorating  neighbourhood. These nations will look to India to resolve their issues but will also  endeavour to hedge their bets in a strategic  alternate to India. Pakistan will remain a spoiler in India’s relations with these countries. China has made major inroads into these nations and will endeavour to keep them entrapped in an eternal debt cycle. Further,  India will face an indirect Chinese threat through these countries. In 2023, India will continue to face the challenge to keep these nations,  with which it has deep ethnic and cultural connections, on its side. After China, the near neighbourhood will be India’s priority challenge  through 2023.

Intermediate Neighbourhood

India’s intermediate neighbourhood consists of Africa, Middle East, Central Asia, ASEAN, South Korea, Japan and Australia. India’s equations with these nations has been largely cooperative  based on historical, ethnic and religious linkages. However from time to time it has had to endure competition from other countries, including Pakistan and especially China. Many countries in India’s intermediate neighbourhood are becoming battle grounds for big power contestations.  India has deep cultural and ethnic linkages with African nations. These linkages go back to the non-aligned period and are based on trust. Currently, these linkages are under stress due to Chinese debt trap diplomacy. An energy deficient India has deep energy and trade links with the Middle East nations. It also enjoys a great degree of trust of these nations due to the high Indian expat and NRI population there, who form the basic skilled working force in the region. The recent agreement between USA, Israel, UAE and India on trade and other matters opens up new strategic possibilities. Central Asia is important to India for its energy requirements and to have access to Afghanistan. The major complexity in equations with Central Asian Republics is the absence of a direct land route to these nations. India’s relationships with the relatively better developed South Korea, Japan and ASEAN are on an even keel and growing. Many countries in this region want to have a good equation with India as a hedge against China and to shake off the overbearing presence of USA. India needs to enhance these relationships in order to garner international support and also develop its own economy. These nations are important in the Indo Pacific strategic construct as also to manage disaster situations. The nascent partnership with Australia needs nurturing and patience. Overall, India’s intermediate neighbourhood will be largely stable in 2023. However, the most important aspect of the intermediate neighbourhood is that this is a region of opportunity for India to enhance its influence and cement its global role. 

Strategic Relationships

Beyond the intermediate neighbourhood, India has strategic relationships with USA, Russia, France, EU nations and Israel. India has developed deep political linkages with these nations based on historical, democratic, cultural and other perspectives. This is a landscape of changing power equations. The Russo-Ukrainian war will reshape these linkages and relationships to an extent. India’s relationship with Russia is the oldest which has withstood the test of time. However it is under some degree of pressure due to the Ukrainian situation. Russia’s growing proximity to China and India’s quest for strategic autonomy by reducing dependence on Russia for armaments will weigh in. On the other hand, India’s all round acceptability gives it an opportunity to steer the Russo-Ukrainian conflict towards peace.  India’s strategic partnership with USA is important for both nations in their quest to contain China. This partnership will underpin the QUAD to a large extent. The QUAD and the Indo Pacific construct is the first time that India has entered a strategic grouping of such nature. In 2023, India’s challenge will remain to find a balance between its increasing commitment to the QUAD, Indo Pacific and USA on one hand and with its friendship with Russia on the other. India will have to play its cards well. India’s relationship with EU nations will also come under stress  due to its proximity to Russia. India’s relationship with Israel will grow due to a commonality of interests. It is set to have an impact in the Middle East due to the formation of the ‘Western Quad’.  The Indo-French relationship will remain on an even keel and can be used as a balancer to even out India’s strategic contradictions. Very importantly, India’s strong strategic relationships are based on being dependent on these countries for its defence needs. These relationships have also contributed to loss of India’s strategic autonomy . 2023 will be critical as India continues to rise and strives for Aatmanirbharta.  It will define if these  strategic relationships change or have a bearing on India’s geopolitical heft. A lot rides on Atmanirbharta in 2023.     

Internal Issues

India has many internal issues which have a bearing on  its external environment. These are largely well known but worth recounting. India remains energy deficient, disaster prone and susceptible to climate change adversely. Historically India has been dependant on outside powers and has rarely been able to attain strategic autonomy. It suffers from partisan politics which has not been able to rise to the occasion even on issues of national importance. Its governance lacks strategic culture. India has also shown tendencies to veer towards self-inflicted ethnic and religious fractures. It has been subject to a long running proxy war in J&K and the insurgencies in the NE have had an extended lease of life due to instabilities in Bangladesh and Myanmar – past and present. India is yet to develop a defence industrial base and has not been able to fund its military adequately nor has been able to build adequate capacities to  make its defence forces very strong. Despite , all its shortcomings , a politically stable India remains one of the fastest growing economies globally and has shown great strength during the pandemic to bounce back from adversity. It has great innate strength being the largest democracy. Most importantly it has a professional military force which has gained international respect through its vast experience , performance in battle and during international commitments under the UN flag.   

Conclusion

2023 is critical for India from many aspects. It has to constantly stave off hostility in its immediate  neighbourhood, stabilise turmoil in its near neighbourhood,  build on opportunities of its intermediate neighbourhood and  strengthen its strategic relationships. As India seeks a global role and a permanent seat on the security council,  2023 is important since it will be judged on how it steers the G20 during the year. Last but not the least, the real test of India’s rise will lie in how it manages its internal contradictions

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