India needs a new integrated approach to Eurasia


Delhi’s Indo-Pacific strategy has gained political and institutional strength, thanks to intensive Indian diplomacy in recent years. It must now devote a similar energy to the development of a “Eurasian” policy. If the Indo-Pacific concerns Delhi’s new maritime geopolitics, Eurasia involves the recalibration of India’s continental strategy.

This week’s consultations in Delhi on the crisis in Afghanistan among key regional security officials following the US withdrawal are part of the development of a Eurasian strategy. National Security Advisor Ajit Doval invited his counterparts from Pakistan, Iran, Central Asia, Russia and China to join the discussion on Wednesday. Pakistani Moeed Yusuf refused to join us. It is not yet clear whether China will participate. Pakistan’s reluctance to engage with India over Afghanistan reveals Delhi’s lingering problem with Islamabad in crafting a new Eurasian strategy. But it also reinforces the urgency of an Indian strategy vis-à-vis Eurasia.

After years of doubt, Delhi won the internal Indo-Pacific debate and made it part of India’s foreign and security policy. Given its novelty and its strategic importance, the Quad or the quadrilateral forum which unites India with Australia, Japan and the United States, occupies an important place in the Indo-Pacific debate. But Delhi now has a mix of other important unilateral, bilateral, minilateral and multilateral initiatives in the Indo-Pacific.

As in the Indo-Pacific, so in Eurasia, there is no shared international understanding of what constitutes the region. Among those who study the geography of landmass and oceans, there are agreed definitions of Indo-Pacific and Eurasia. While the Indo-Pacific describes the long stretch of tropical waters from the east coast of Africa to the central Pacific, Eurasia is the name of a tectonic plate that lies beneath much of what we call l ‘Europe and Asia. But trouble begins when it comes to the political geography of Eurasia. In the definition of Russia, Eurasia covers the former territories of the Soviet Union, which collapsed in 1991. In other words, it is Russia’s political claim to a sphere of influence in his “near abroad”. Then there are various older uses like “Inner Asia” and “Central Asia” which cover parts of the region. Given the deep connection between Muslim Central Asia and West Asia, some prefer the term “Greater Middle East” to describe parts of this region.

For Delhi, it makes sense to use the broadest possible definition of Eurasia to reimagine the region. The most important development in Eurasia today is China’s spectacular rise and growing strategic assertiveness, expanding economic power, and growing political influence. Beijing’s tough approach to the contested long border with Bhutan and India, its quest for a security presence in Tajikistan, its active search for a greater role in Afghanistan and a greater voice in the affairs of the wider sub-Himalayan region are only part of the story. As the world’s second-largest economy, China’s trade influence is felt around the world. The physical proximity multiplies the economic impact of China on the interior regions of Asia.

The impressive expansion of China’s Belt and Road Initiative across Central Asia and Russia, to the shores of the Atlantic, and Europe’s growing economic interdependence with China added to the powerful levers of Beijing in Eurasia. These levers, in turn, have been strengthened by a deepening alliance with Russia that straddles the core of Eurasia. Russia’s intractable disputes with Europe and America have increased Moscow’s dependence on Beijing.

Amid growing challenges from China in the Indo-Pacific maritime domain, Washington has started to rethink its strategic commitments to Eurasia. The US withdrawal from Afghanistan is only the beginning of a long overdue redefinition of US global strategic priorities. Even Europe, which has seen a massive deployment of US military resources since World War II, is not immune from the inevitable rearrangement of the overall layout of the US military. Washington and Brussels are today at the heart of an important debate on how to rebalance transatlantic responsibilities for the collective defense of Europe.

Whether defined as “burden sharing” in Washington or “strategic autonomy” in Brussels, Europe must necessarily assume a greater role in Eurasian regional security. More broadly, regional powers will reshape Eurasia.

India has certainly treated the constituent spaces of Eurasia separately over the decades. What Delhi now needs is an integrated approach from Eurasia. Like the Indo-Pacific, Eurasia is new to India’s strategic discourse.

Certainly, there are references to India’s ancient civilizational ties to Eurasia. The collaboration between the Sangha and the Shreni during the Buddhist era produced a lasting interaction between the two regions. The inward orientation of India after the decline of Buddhism did not stop the flow of forces from Central Asia into the subcontinent. The arrival of the British in India and the consolidation of the Raj as a territorial entity in the subcontinent saw the outward projection of India’s influence in Central Asia. British rivalry with Russia during the Great Game in the 19th and early 20th centuries placed Eurasian geopolitics at the top of India’s indivisible security agenda. The partition of the subcontinent and India’s physical disconnection from Inner Asia, however, cut India off from Eurasian geopolitics. Overcoming the geographic limitation – represented by the Pakistani barrier – will be at the heart of India’s increased role in Eurasian geopolitics.

While there are many elements to an Indian strategy towards Eurasia, three of them stand out. One is to put Europe back in the continental calculation of India. Before independence, many Indian nationalists looked to Europe to secure the nation’s liberation from British colonialism. After independence, Delhi’s drift towards an alliance with Moscow saw India neglect the strategic importance of Europe. As India now intensifies its engagement with Europe, the time has come for it to strike up a strategic conversation with Brussels on Eurasian security. It will be a natural complement to the emerging engagement between India and Europe on the Indo-Pacific.

India’s Eurasian policy must necessarily involve greater engagement with both the European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. A dedicated military office in the Indian mission in Brussels, where both the EU and NATO sit, will be a crucial step towards a sustained security dialogue with Europe.

Second, intensify the Eurasian security dialogue with Russia. While the Indo-Russian differences over the Indo-Pacific, the Quad, China and the Taliban are real, Delhi and Moscow have good reason to narrow their differences over Afghanistan and expand cooperation on continental security. Eurasian.

The third is India’s substantial collaboration with Persia and Arabia. If Persia’s situation makes it critical for the future of Afghanistan and Central Asia, the religious influence of Arabia and the weight of the Gulf capital are quite substantial in the region. India’s partnerships with Persia and Arabia are also essential to overcome Turkey’s alliance with Pakistan which is hostile to Delhi.

India will surely encounter many contradictions in each of the three areas – between and among America, Europe, Russia, China, Iran and the Arab Gulf. As in the Indo-Pacific, so in Eurasia, Delhi must not let these contradictions slow India down.

The current flow of Eurasian geopolitics will ease some of the current contradictions and generate new antinomies in the days to come. But the key for India lies in greater strategic activism which opens up opportunities in all directions in Eurasia.

This column first appeared in the print edition on November 9, 2021 under the title “The Eurasian Opportunity”. The writer is director of the Institute for South Asian Studies at the National University of Singapore and associate editor on international affairs for The Indian Express.


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