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Speech by National Security Advisor at IAFAC on 'India in the 21st Century World' (February 12, 2014)

February 12, 2014

Mr Vijay Naik, Convenor, Indian Association of Foreign Affairs Correspondents,

Ladies and Gentlemen.

Thank you for the honour of speaking to this significant group of opinion makers and interpreters of foreign affairs. This is not the first time that I speak to you. To be asked once could be a mistake. But to be asked again is a true compliment.

I was asked to speak about India in the 21st century world. It seems an appropriate topic at a time when both parts of that equation are rapidly changing. Though just over a decade old, the twenty first century is already nothing like what we knew in the previous century. And it promises to be even more different in the foreseeable future. At the same time, India’s needs and capabilities are also changing fast, raising questions about the role and responsibilities that India should assume in the world.

Let us begin by looking at the 21st century world.

A Changed World

How is the international environment of the 21st century different from the last century? (It is different enough that people now reach all the way back to 1914 to find analogies to our present situation.)

Since 2008, the post-Cold War world that we had got used to is metamorphosing into something very different, as different from the previous two decades as those two decades were from the four decades of the Cold War. After the binary Cold War world we went through two decades of globalisation and an open international economic order in what was described as a unipolar moment. This came to an end with the global economic crisis of 2008. And now a fundamental reordering of the international economy appears to be underway.

Strangely this time the impulse for change is not coming from the re-emerging or rising powers, like India, China and others, who were the greatest beneficiaries of the decades of globalisation and an open international economic order. Unusually, the impulse to change the rules of the game is coming from established power holders who feel that the system and institutions that they built and ran after WWII no longer serve their interests. Negotiations to form a TPP and a TIPP attempt to set higher and different international standards and rules through plurilateral agreements negotiated among like-minded countries.

In terms of political economy this is a world where, as Gandhiji once said, there is enough for everyone’s needs but not for their greed. Today science and technology offer us solutions to humanity’s food, energy, and health needs. Advances in renewable energy, (nuclear, solar and wind, in particular), and the shale oil and natural gas revolution have made irrelevant Club of Rome type predictions of supply running out. The geopolitics of energy have changed fundamentally. Equally, molecular biology, genetics and biochemistry have brought a revolution to medical science in terms of cures and interventions. But there is no sign yet that the international trading system or existing IPR regime will make these advances widely available to mankind in practice.

Another obvious way is which the present situation is different is the multiplicity of state and non-state actors on the international stage, unlike the tight bipolar state system that the two superpowers built and maintained after WWII through the Cold War. This is not just a world tending towards multipolarity or of many more states having power and influence in the international system. Today 50% of world GDP comes from outside the original industrial powers. Information and communications technology (ICT) has made non-state actors and groups as powerful as states in some respects, empowering both good and evil. There are new domains of contention like cyber space. And fundamental changes are underway in the rules of the game in several spheres — military technologies, the globalisation of terrorism, and so on.

Technology has created new domains of contention such as cyber space. And what we assumed were global commons, in the oceans, outer space, cyber space, and, in some respects, even air space, are now contested. Cyber space and outer space now see military contention, and are used for espionage and both conventional and sub conventional warfare. Technology is the driver of accelerated change in these and other domains, affecting every nation’s security calculus.

Add to this the recent revolutions in military affairs, and the globalisation of terrorism (evident in Libya and Syria), and I think it is clear that the strategic landscape is rapidly changing in fundamental ways.

Unchanged Politics?

What seems not to have changed so far in the 21st century are the political uses and goals of power. I suppose that what one is saying is that human nature has not changed and that politics, security and foreign policy are still to catch up with the possibilities opened up by the 21st century world.

If anything this is a politically more contentious and uncertain world. Look around India. In our extended neighbourhood the turmoil in West Asia is continuing, having affected Libya, Tunisia, Egypt, Syria, Iraq and spread to Central Africa. Afghanistan is going through multiple transitions this year.

Asia east of India is a crowded geopolitical space where existing and rising powers rub up against one another. The rapid accumulation of economic power is being followed in quick succession by the accumulation and redistribution of political and military power in the Asia-Pacific. There is the obvious reality of a rising China, and the reactions that this has aroused among emerging and established powers on China’s periphery. East Asian harmony is no longer evident, and the region’s rapid economic development has given it the means to support a major arms build up. The US sponsored Asia-Pacific security order of the last three decades is changing but has not yet been replaced by another arrangement.

These trends also affect the Indian sub-continent, which is, after all, only a sub-region of Asia. Great power involvement in the politics, internal and external, of the countries of the sub-continent is not a new phenomenon. As South Asia continues to grow faster than most of the world and has become increasingly integrated into the world economy in the last decade, the outside world’s stakes in the sub-continent have grown. For us in India, it is vital that the fight against terrorism and radical religious extremists be won to our West in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and that it not spread to our East in Bangladesh and Myanmar.

Consider also the turmoil in West Asia, the promise of changed US-Iran relations, and the shift in the pattern and geography of global energy supply and demand.

This is why I believe that we may indeed be at a "hinge moment” politically as well.


What does this mean for us in India?

We are reminded daily that we face a time of great uncertainty and risk. Of course these changes complicate our security calculus at a time when India is more involved with the world than at any time since the Mughals. We are all aware of the risks that these changes bring — of old and new hotspots and disputes flaring up, of cyber threats, of terrorism and extremism in more virulent forms destabilising more countries, and so on.

What is much less commented upon are the opportunities that change brings. A time of great change, when the rules are being rewritten, is not necessarily one that we in India should be nervous about. After all we do not consider the present global order ideal and have long argued for real change in how international decisions are made. In change lies opportunity for the nimble and quick, for those who are clear about their goals and who grasp the nature of change in the international system.

Some of our opportunities arise from the way in which India has changed in the last decade.

For instance, for the first time since the late fifties we have managed in ten years to create the industrial capacity in India to actually meet our power demand internally. However, we rely on the outside world for hydrocarbon and fossil fuel to feed that capacity. Thanks to changes in world energy supply, particularly in natural gas and shale oil and gas, we can today tie up long term supply arrangements at favourable terms and secure access. The time to move is now, taking risks, when the entire global energy market is changing. If we miss the opportunity, lack of energy could become the greatest threat or limitation on our ability to transform India.

Similarly, we are among the largest producers of food grains in the world and have become significant but sporadic exporters of rice and some other agricultural commodities. This is a result of our internal policies increasing renumeration to farmers and the unprecedented growth in agricultural incomes and production in the last few years. Now is the time to work with other global producers and consumers to minimise the risks to food security on a global scale, even if it involves a radical restructuring of our positions on agricultural negotiations at the WTO, building new coalitions across commodities and country groups.

Other opportunities are a result of our past policies and the shifting balance of power in the Asia-Pacific.

As the economic centre of gravity of the world shifts to the Asia-Pacific we are well placed to increase our cooperation with ASEAN and East Asia thanks to our Look East policy. China is already our largest trading partner in goods. We have entered into free trade arrangements with ASEAN as a whole and with ASEAN members, Japan, and South Korea. We are now negotiating the RCEP with other members of the East Asia Summit which we expect will increase regional economic integration.

The responses that we have received to our political and military outreach in maritime Asia — around the Indian Ocean in terms of maritime security, or in South East Asia and the Far East in terms of strategic partnerships, — are more positive than they have been at any time in the last sixty years. In the last year we have firmed up maritime security arrangements with Sri Lanka and the Maldives that we hope to extend soon to others who have expressed an interest like the Seychelles and Mauritius. We have made more concrete progress in our relations with China, Japan, Vietnam, the US, Myanmar, Singapore, and ASEAN as a whole in the last ten years than in any earlier decade. There is demand for India to be a net provider of security in our extended neighbourhood. This is an opportunity.

The Asia-Pacific region clearly needs to improve, strengthen and use the processes and institutions of multilateral consultation and action. The process of building an open, inclusive security architecture based on a common understanding of the rule of law is at its very inception, and must be hastened. In the last forty years Asia-Pacific countries have shown the maturity and ability to manage conflicts despite major disputes and differences but this is now under visible strain.

In the Indian subcontinent, which has been consistently growing faster than other parts of the world in the recent past, we today have a much wider realisation of the opportunities of economic integration and much less political resistance to it.

And some opportunities are there to be seized.

India is well placed to take advantage of the new situation in new domains of contention and to exploit risks and opportunities in cyber space. The ICT revolution plays to our strengths. We have the human talent and operate well in the small groups and disaggregated manner that these domains require. As revolutions in military affairs and circumstances take us away from the era of mass industrial warfare to net centric and small group counter terrorism and counter insurgency, and to small quick applications of force for limited political purposes, the lessons that we in India have had to learn in the last sixty years are increasingly relevant.

To my mind a time of flux offers India a chance to try new approaches to old problems, and opens up new options. If not taken, the same opportunities become risks. Changes would be threats if we were a status quo power. But we want change in India, and should therefore see how the profound changes in the world around us can enable India’s transformation.

India’s Role

Whether India chooses to seize these opportunities is up to us. It would be convenient to allow the traditional listing of threats and dangers to frighten us back into a vain quest for autarchy. It would be lazy to choose alliance, shirking responsibility for our own fate. That would hardly solve or eliminate the threats. If anything the scope and nature of the changes that we see suggest that the answer is more multi-directional engagement with the world not less. That would certainly be my choice.

How we react will be determined by the role that we seek in the world. In the last few years there has been considerable loose talk of whether India will be a super power. I am not sure what is meant by that and whether that is really a desirable goal. We have never sought to replace or imitate existing power holders, and I hope we never do. We have certainly sought to remake the international order, making it more equitable, democratic and conducive to our development.

Mrs Indira Gandhi, who was definitely a realist, used to speak of India as a different kind of power. I think that she recognised the overwhelming priority of the domestic tasks of development that history has left to us. She, and others, warned against the over-militarisation of security and diplomacy, and recognised the importance of soft power. And yet even when we were still to acquire some of the basic requirements of hard power, they had no doubt of the fact that India was, is and will be a major power. But a power whose influence was used to best effect with other actors in the international system, multilaterally or even individually for causes like disarmament, decolonisation and economic development. Today, as we have changed and begun to acquire some attributes of power, our domestic priorities and imperatives remain. It also remains our best course to work with others in the international community who share our interests and values to remake the international order peacefully, so that India can be secure and prosperous.

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