Event ReportsPublished on Apr 30, 2018
India must guard against ‘strategic reluctance’ in the post-Westphalian World Order: Former Vice Admiral

“India cannot be a great power until we manufacture our own military arms and equipment”, said Vice Admiral Anil Chopra during his talk on The Contemporary World Order and Global Geopolitics’ at Observer Research Foundation, Mumbai, on 26 April. Chopra was the only admiral to have had the distinction of being the Commander-in-Chief of both the Western and Eastern Naval Commands, besides heading Indian Coast Guard.

Although the Vice Admiral lauded the endurance of the ‘nation-state’ concept that dates back to the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648, he expressed concerns over its future in these troubling times. With the return of ‘great power competition,’ the Westphalian world order has never been more “anarchic in nature.”  In addition, the future of global governance stands jeopardised in the face of border-defying developments in the realms of power projection, lone-wolf terrorism, and cyber warfare.

Vice Admiral Chopra hence argued that the United Nations today is “not looked upon as a tangible player anymore” and multilateral treaties like the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) stand “inadequate” in dealing with contemporary challenges on the high seas. Furthermore, Chopra purported globalisation – once celebrated as the boon of the post-Cold War world, to have adversely “impacted common people in the West the most” – contributing to the rise of illiberalism in the form of Donald Trump’s election victory and the Brexit vote.

In these times, the Vice Admiral deemed the persistence of world powers in three broad categories: Superpowers, Great Powers, and Major Powers. He deemed the United States as being the world’s “only superpower” owing to its superior economy and its unmatched military and technological primacy. Whereas, countries like China and Russia were deemed to be attempting to inch away from the great power bracket into the superpower bracket. As for India, Chopra said, while India may not be considered as having immense hard power capabilities today, it surely has “the second largest soft power” potential after the United States. To substantiate this view, Chopra cited India’s civilizational heritage, the vast reach of the Indian film industry, and finally India’s diverse cuisines.

Expressing disappointment over India’s failure to tap into this immense ‘soft power’ potential, Vice Admiral Chopra pondered if India willingly hones ‘strategic ambiguity’ or suffers from ‘Strategic Reluctance’. The former, he deemed, can be an asset, unless the ambiguity also involves “us also not knowing what we are going to do.” Whereas, the latter, he said, impedes India’s transition into a great power from a mere major power today. How India positions itself in the fast changing geopolitical and geostrategic theatre – playing itself out in the Indo-Pacific – will determine its foreign policy focus in the 21st century.

With respect to enhancing its energy security, Vice Admiral Chopra argued for India to pursue an equally active westward strategy – like its contemporary ‘Act East’ policy, from where “our nation gets 80 percent of its energy resources.”

On India’s position vis-à-vis world blocs, Chopra deemed India to have a distinct position wherein India “stands in the middle” of the Indo-Pacific region. This geographical position renders India to be courted by both – the emerging axis between Russia and China on the one hand, and the United States and its Western allies on the other.

Underscoring future priorities for India’s developing strategic vision, Vice Admiral Chopra purported the relevance of some key regions –  Africa, Central Asia, and Antarctica – over which future world scrambles shall take place. Noting the value of resources and the future scarcity of the same, Chopra warned of a coming “gold rush” for resources in these regions.

In summation, Chopra thus deemed an urgent update in India’s current “chess board” – which currently stands occupied with its immediate neighborhood, to be imperative in tackling these “great games of tomorrow.”

This report was prepared by Shreya Chopra, Research Intern, ORF Mumbai

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