The Strategist Six: C. Raja Mohan
4 Aug 2016|

Welcome to The Strategist Six, a feature that provides a glimpse into the thinking of prominent academics, government officials, military officers, reporters and interesting individuals from around the world.

1. Since Narendra Modi became the prime minster of India in May 2014, he has sought to reorient India’s international posture from ‘Look East’ to ‘Act East’. How successful has he been in doing so?

The broad direction of India’s foreign policy—its reengagement with the major powers, its reconnection with Asia, its expanded profile in the Indian Ocean—was set in 1991 as India embarked on economic reforms. But because of the weakness of various coalition governments in New Delhi, there has previously been a certain ambivalence and tentativeness to reengaging with the world. Prime Minister Modi has brought a lot more energy and purposefulness to India’s international engagement through the Act East policy, which has seen India ramp up coordination with the US, Japan and Australia, among others. So while the weakness of Act East can be seen in the economic realm, particularly on trade-related issues, the initiative has brought about much more political engagement, a greater emphasis on security cooperation, and a recognition that India must develop physical connectivity with East Asia.

2. What is the state of the US–India relationship?

The Modi government’s most rapid and intense engagement has been directed at the United States. Never have we seen such frequent meetings as we have in the last two years, nor such determined attempts to resolve many of the outstanding issues and to keep expanding US­­–India strategic cooperation. Washington and New Delhi have wrapped up the remaining issues that had previously hobbled the nuclear deal; they’ve renewed and expanded defence cooperation; they’ve released a document outlining a new broad vision for the Indian Ocean and the Indo–Pacific; and the US recently recognised India as a ‘major defence partner’, including a mutual technology access agreement. So it’s clear that the Modi government really has put a special weight on expanded strategic cooperation with the US.

3. In balancing its security and economic interests, how should India manage its relationship with China?

The traditional Indian policy has been to proclaim friendship with China but to actually do very little business with them because of deep historical suspicions. Prime Minister Modi has sought to break that cycle by being upfront and standing firm on security issues, rather than fudging or hiding differences—be it on the Nuclear Suppliers Group or on Sino–Pakistan relations. At the same time, Prime Minister Modi continues to be practical in welcoming Chinese investment in the country, as he’s well aware of the economic benefits that can flow from that sort of engagement.

4. Japan is now a permanent member of the US–India Malabar naval exercise. Do you see a role for Australia in this engagement, and should the four countries look to reconstitute the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue?

The fact that Australia walked out of the Quad still rankles people in India. But I wouldn’t worry too much about Australia being in either the Quad or in Malabar. Frankly there’s so much that India and Australia can do bilaterally and of course we must do more trilaterally with Japan. So we should look at building up multiple networks rather than returning to the Quad. Any framework involving Washington will lead Beijing to claim a US-led plot to contain China. It also has the potential of leading to domestic objections in all of our countries. So there’s a lot less resistance to doing things with Australia and Japan either bilaterally or trilaterally, so let’s not get fixated on form but instead develop substantial military and strategic cooperation between India, Australia and Japan, trilaterally and in the three bilateral groupings.

We can also look at the Five Power Defence Arrangements as a good framework for expanding our network. And beyond that there are possibilities for cooperation with Indonesia or with Singapore. So there are huge opportunities borne of the fact that India and Australia operate in the same maritime space.

5. You’re the inaugural director of Carnegie India, the sixth international centre of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. What will the centre focus on and what do you want it to achieve?

India has a lot of think tanks but the significant benefit of being part of the Carnegie operation is that we can leverage the resources of a larger global network in order to consider India’s changing approaches to both development and strategy. Carnegie India will be a small operation in the near term, but tapping into that international network will allow us to do more interesting things.

Instead of replicating what others are doing, Carnegie India will carve out niche areas of research. For example, we’ll be looking at the intersection of technology, law and policy concerning new tools like artificial intelligence, 3D printing and robotics. These developments have potentially significant economic and strategic implications for India so we must make sure we have appropriate national policies. And even though it’s called Carnegie India we are interested in the whole region and will be looking to develop a framework for accelerating regional economic integration. There are also some important questions we will be exploring around India’s role in the region as well as the international system.

6. What is the biggest threat to global security?

I believe that we’ve reached a point where there’s no clarity around how we integrate China’s rise into the international order. I think that any hopes that we could do this in a peaceful manner and that the Chinese would be part of the international system have faded as China has taken a more aggressive position. The problem is larger than the South China Sea; it expands to China’s approach to international law and to a range of items which are creating tensions. China’s legitimate demands have to be accepted because China is destined to be a great power—and it has a right to be a great power—but the question now is around how we negotiate the terms of China’s rise.