The Geopolitics of India: A Shifting, Self-Contained World
This is the fifth in a series of Stratfor monographs on the geopolitics of countries influential in world affairs. It was originally published on Dec. 16, 2008.
The geopolitics of India must be considered in the geographical context of the Indian subcontinent — a self-contained region that includes India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and, depending how one defines it, Nepal and Bhutan. We call the subcontinent "self-contained" because it is a region that is isolated on all sides by difficult terrain or by ocean. In geopolitical terms it is, in effect, an island.
This "island" is surrounded on the southeast, south and southwest by the Bay of Bengal, the Indian Ocean and the Arabian Sea. To the west, it is isolated by mountains that rise from the Arabian Sea and run through Pakistan's Baluchistan province, stretching northward and rising higher and higher to the northwestern corner of Pakistan. There, at the Hindu Kush, the mountain chain swings east, connecting with the Pamir and Karakoram ranges. These finally become the Himalayas, which sweep southeast some 2,000 miles to the border of Myanmar, where the Rakhine Mountains emerge, and from there south to India's border with Bangladesh and to the Bay of Bengal. The Rakhine are difficult terrain not because they are high but because, particularly in the south, they are covered with dense jungle.
The Geography of the Subcontinent
The subcontinent physically divides into four parts:
The mountainous frame that stretches in an arc from the Arabian Sea to the Bay of Bengal.
The North Indian Plain, stretching from Delhi southeast through the Ganges River delta to the Myanmar border, and from the Himalayas in the north to the southern hills.
The Indian Peninsula, which juts southward into the Indian Ocean, consisting of a variety of terrain but primarily hilly.
The deserts in the west between the North Indian Plain and Pakistan's Indus River Valley.
Pakistan occupies the western region of the subcontinent and is based around the Indus Valley. It is separated from India proper by fairly impassable desert and by swamps in the south, leaving only Punjab, in the central part of the country, as a point of contact. Pakistan is the major modern-day remnant of Muslim rule over medieval India, and the country's southwest is the region first occupied by Arab Muslims invading from what is today southwestern Iran and southern Afghanistan.
The third major state in the subcontinent is the Muslim-majority Ganges delta state of Bangladesh, which occupies the area southeast of Nepal. Situated mainly at sea level, Bangladesh is constantly vulnerable to inundations from the Bay of Bengal. The kingdoms of Nepal and Bhutan rest on the heights of the Himalayas themselves, and therefore on the edge of the subcontinent. There is also a small east-west corridor between Nepal and Bangladesh connecting the bulk of India to its restive northeastern states and its eastern border with Myanmar. In this region is India's easternmost state, Arunachal Pradesh, whose territory is also claimed by China.
The bulk of India's population lives on the northern plain. This area of highest population density is the Indian heartland. It runs through the area around Lahore, spreading northwest into Pakistan and intermittently to Kabul in Afghanistan, and also stretching east into Bangladesh and to the Myanmar border. It is not, however, the only population center. Peninsular India also has an irregular pattern of intense population, with lightly settled areas intermingling with heavily settled areas. This pattern primarily has to do with the availability of water and the quality of soil. Wherever both are available in sufficient quantity, India's population accumulates and grows.
India is frequently compared geographically to non-Russian Europe because both are peninsulas jutting out of the Eurasian land mass. They have had radically different patterns of development, however.
The Europeans developed long-standing and highly differentiated populations and cultures, which evolved into separate nation-states such as Spain, France, Germany and Poland. Their precise frontiers and even independence have varied over time, but the distinctions have been present for centuries — in many cases predating the Roman Empire. The Indian subcontinent, on the other hand, historically has been highly fragmented but also fluid (except when conquered from the outside). Over fairly short periods of time, the internal political boundaries have been known to shift dramatically.
The reason for the difference is fairly simple. Europe is filled with internal geographic barriers: The Alps and Pyrenees and Carpathians present natural boundaries and defensive lines, and numerous rivers and forests supplement these. These give Europe a number of permanent, built-in divisions, with defined political entities and clear areas of conflict. India lacks such definitive features. There are no internal fortresses in the Indian subcontinent, except perhaps for the Thar Desert.
Instead, India's internal divisions are defined by its river systems: the Ganges, the Brahmaputra, the Narmada and so on. All of India's major cities are centered around one of these river systems, a fact that has been instrumental in the rise of so many distinct cultures in India — Punjabis, Gujaratis, Marathis, Tamils and others — which have manifested in modern times as states within India. That said, Indian nationalism is very strong and counters the separatist tendencies. There is a balance between a strong central governance and substantial regional autonomy.
What is permanent in the subcontinent is the frame, the mountains, and beyond these the wastelands. We can see this most clearly when looking at the population distribution of the surrounding regions. The subcontinent is isolated as a population center, surrounded by comparatively empty regions. It is not only a question of the mountains around it, although those are substantial barriers; the terrain beyond the mountains in every direction is sparsely populated, and in many ways its resources are insufficient to support a sizable, sedentary civilization. As a result, India has rarely demonstrated an appetite for adventurism beyond the subcontinent. If India can find a way to manage Pakistan and Bangladesh, there is little pressure to do anything more.
India's Geopolitical Imperatives
The geography of the subcontinent constrains the behavior of governments that arise there. If there is to be an independent India, and if it is to be a stable and secure nation-state, it must do the following things:
Achieve suzerainty in the Ganges River basin. The broad, braided plains of the Ganges basin are among the most fertile in the world and guarantee a massive population. India must become the premier power in this heartland. This does not mean that such power must be wielded by a unified, centralized authority. A coalition of powers can be functional, and even somewhat hostile powers such as Bangladesh can be tolerated so long as they do not challenge India's authority or security.
Expand throughout the core of the subcontinent until it reaches all natural barriers. Forests, hills and rivers aside, there is little else in the confines of the subcontinent that limits India's writ. "Control" of the additional territories can be a somewhat informal and loose affair. The sheer population of the Ganges basin really requires only that no foreign entity be allowed to amass a force capable of overwhelming the Ganges region.
Advance past the patch of land separating the Ganges basin from the Indus River basin and dominate the Indus region (meaning Pakistan). The Indus Valley is the only other significant real estate within reach of India, and the corridor that accesses it is the only viable land invasion route into India proper. (Modern India has not achieved this objective, with implications that will be discussed below.)
With the entire subcontinent under the control (or at least the influence) of a centralized power, begin building a navy. Given the isolation of the subcontinent, any further Indian expansion is limited to the naval sphere. A robust navy also acts as a restraint upon any outside power that might attempt to penetrate the subcontinent from the sea.
These imperatives shape the behavior of every indigenous Indian government, regardless of its ideology or its politics. They are the fundamental drivers that define India as a country, shaped by its unique geography. An Indian government that ignores these imperatives does so at the risk of being replaced by another entity — whether indigenous or foreign — that understands them better.
A History of External Domination
India's geopolitical reality — relative isolation from the outside world, a lack of imposed boundaries, the immense population and the dynamic of a central government facing a vast region — has created localized systems that shift constantly, resist central authority, and ultimately cannot be organized into a coherent whole, either by foreign occupiers or by a native government. It is a landscape of shifting political entities, constantly struggling against each other or allying with each other, amid an endless kaleidoscope of political entities and coalitions. This divided landscape historically has created opportunities for foreign powers to divide India and conquer it — and indeed, the subcontinent was under foreign domination from the 11th century until 1947.
Externally, the threats to India historically have come from the passes along the Afghan-Pakistani border and from the sea. India's solution to both threats has been to accommodate them rather than resist directly, while using the complexity of Indian society to maintain a distance from the conqueror and preserve the cultural integrity of India. (In a sense, Mahatma Gandhi's strategy of nonviolent resistance represents the foundation of India's historical strategy, although the historical basis for Indian nonviolent resistance has been more commercial than ethical.) But essentially, India's isolation, coupled with its great population, allows it to maintain a more or less independent foreign policy and balance itself between great powers.
Between the 11th and 18th centuries, India was ruled by Muslims. The first invasion occupied the area of what is today Pakistan. Over the centuries — under various rulers and dynasties, particularly the Mughals — Muslims expanded their power until they dominated much of India. But that domination was peculiar, because the Muslims did not conquer the Hindus outright. Except in the area west of the Thar Desert and the Ganges delta, they did not convert masses of Indians to their religion. What they did was take advantage of the underlying disunity of India to create coalitions of native powers prepared to cooperate with the invaders. The urge to convert Hindus to Islam was secondary to the urge to exploit India's wealth. Political and military power was a means toward this end, rather than toward conversion, and because of this, the Hindus were prepared to collaborate. In the end, the Indians' internal tensions were greater than their resentment of outsiders.
European powers followed the Muslims into India en masse. Unlike the Muslims, they arrived from the sea, but like the Muslims, their primary motive was economic, and they sought political power as a means toward economic ends. The British, the most permanent European presence in the subcontinent, used India's internal tensions to solidify their own position. They did not conquer India so much as they managed the internal conflicts to their advantage.
What was left behind when the British departed was the same sea of complex and shifting divisions that had defined India before they came. Most of the regions that were Muslim-majority areas became Islamic entities, eventually dividing into Pakistan and Bangladesh. The rest of India was united under a single government, but in a sense, that government ruled in the same way the British had.
The Geopolitics of Modern India
Modern India has its origins in the collapse of the British Empire. Indeed, it was the loss of India that ultimately doomed the British Empire. The entire focus of imperial Britain, from the Suez Canal to Gibraltar and Singapore, was to maintain the lines of supply to India. Many of the colonies and protectorates around the world secured by Britain in the 19th century were designed to provide coaling stations to and from India. In short, the architecture of the British Empire was built around India, and once India was lost, the purpose of that architecture dissolved as well. The historical importance of India could not be overestimated. Lenin once referred to it as the supply depot of humanity — which overstated the case perhaps, but did not overstate India's importance to Britain.
The British gave up India for several reasons, the most important of which was commercial: The cost of controlling India had outstripped the value derived. This happened in two ways. The first was that the cost of maintaining control of the sea-lanes became prohibitive. After World War II, the Royal Navy was far from a global navy. That role had been taken over by the United States, which did not have an interest in supporting British control of India. As was seen in the Suez crisis of 1956, when the British and French tried to block Egyptian nationalization of the canal, the United States was unprepared to support or underwrite British access to its colonies (and the United States had made this clear during World War II as well). Second, the cost of controlling India had soared. Indigenous political movements had increased friction in India, and that friction had increased the cost of exploiting India's resources. As the economics shifted, the geopolitical reality did as well.
The independence of India resulted in the unification of the country under an authentically Indian government. It also led to the political subdivision of the subcontinent. The Muslim-majority areas — the Indus Valley region west and northwest of the Thar Desert, and the Ganges River basin — both seceded from India, forming a separate country that itself later split into modern-day Pakistan and Bangladesh. It was this separatism that came to frame Indian geopolitics.
India and Pakistan, for the bulk of their mutual existence, have had an adversarial relationship. For a long time, the Indian sentiment was that Pakistan's separation from India could have been avoided. This attitude, coupled with Pakistan's own geographic, demographic and economic inferiority, has forced Islamabad to craft its entire foreign policy around the threat from India. As a result, the two sides have fought four wars, mostly over Kashmir, along with one that resulted in the hiving off of Bangladesh.
As noted earlier, the Indian heartland is the northern plain of the Ganges River basin. This plain is separated from Pakistan's heartland, the Indus Valley, only by a small saddle of easily traversed land; fewer than 200 miles separate the two rivers. If India is to have any ambition in terms of expansion on land, the Indus is the only option available — all other routes end either in barriers or in near-wasteland. Meanwhile, the closeness — and sheer overwhelming size — of India is central to Pakistan's mind-set. The two are locked into rivalry.
China and the Himalayan Wall
Apart from this enmity, however, modern India has faced little in the way of existential threats. On its side of the mountain wall, there are two states, Nepal and Bhutan, which pose no threat to it. On the other side lies China.
China has been seen as a threat to India, and simplistic models show them to be potential rivals. In fact, however, China and India might as well be on different planets. Their entire frontier runs through the highest elevations of the Himalayas. It would be impossible for a substantial army to fight its way through the few passes that exist, and it would be utterly impossible for either country to sustain an army there in the long term. The two countries are irrevocably walled off from each other. The only major direct clash between Indian and Chinese forces, which occurred in 1962, was an inconclusive battle over border territories high in the mountains — both in the northeast Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh and the Kashmiri border region of Aksai Chin — that could lead nowhere.
A potential geopolitical shift would come if the status of Tibet changed, however. China's main population centers are surrounded by buffer states — Manchuria, Inner Mongolia, Xinjiang and Tibet. So long as all are in Chinese hands, the core of China is invulnerable to land attack. If, however, Tibet were to become independent, and if it allied with India, and if it permitted India to base substantial forces in its territory and to build major supply infrastructure there, then — and only then — India could be a threat to China. This is why the Indians for a long time championed the Dalai Lama and Tibetan independence movements, and why the Chinese until fairly recently regarded this as a major threat. Had a pro-Indian, independent government been installed in Tibet, the threat to China would be significant. Because New Delhi held open the option of supporting Tibetan independence, Beijing saw the Indians as engaged in developing a threat to China.
The Chinese tried to develop equivalent threats in India, particularly in the form of Maoist communist insurgencies. Indian Maoists (Naxalites) and Nepalese Maoists have been supported by Beijing, though that support is no longer what it used to be. The Chinese have lost interest in aggressive Maoism, but they do have an interest in maintaining influence in Nepal, where the Maoists recently increased their power through electoral gains. This is China's counter to India's Tibet policy.
But for both, this is merely fencing. Neither would be in a position militarily to exploit an opening. Stationing sufficient force in Tibet to challenge the Chinese People's Liberation Army would outstrip India's resources, and for little purpose. Using Nepal as a base from which to invade India would be similarly difficult and pointless for Beijing. At the moment, therefore, there is no Indo-Chinese geopolitical hostility. However, these would be points of friction if such hostility were to occur in the distant future.
Russia, the United States and Pakistan
In the absence of direct external threats, modern India's strategic outlook has been shaped by the dynamics of the Cold War and its aftermath. The most important strategic relationship that India had after gaining independence from Britain in 1947 was with the Soviet Union. There was some limited ideological affinity between them. India's fundamental national interest was not in Marxism, however, but in creating a state that was secure against a new round of imperialism. The Soviets and Americans were engaged in a massive global competition, and India was inevitably a prize. It was a prize that the Soviets could not easily take: The Soviets had neither an overland route to India nor a navy that could reach it.
The United States, however, did have a navy. The Indians believed (with good reason) that the United States might well want to replace Britain as a global maritime power, a development that might put India squarely in Washington's sights. The Indians saw in the United States all the same characteristics that had drawn Britain to India. Elsewhere, India saw the United States acting both to hurry the disintegration of the European empires and to fill the ensuing vacuum. India did not want to replace the British with the Americans — its fundamental interest was to retain its internal cohesion and independence. Regardless of American intent — which the Indians saw as ambiguous — American capability was very real, and from the beginning the Indians sought to block it.
For the Indians, the solution was a relationship, if not quite an alliance, with the Soviet Union. The Soviets could provide economic aid and military hardware, as well as a potential nuclear umbrella (or at least nuclear technical assistance). The relationship with the Soviet Union was perfect for the Indians, since they did not see the Soviets as able to impose satellite status on India. From the American point of view, however, there was serious danger in the Indo-Soviet relationship. The United States saw it as potentially threatening U.S. access to the Indian Ocean and lines of supply to the Persian Gulf. If the Soviets were given naval bases in India, or if India were able to construct a navy significant enough to threaten American interests and were willing to act in concert with the Soviets, it would represent a serious strategic challenge to the United States.
In the late 1950s and early 1960s, the United States was facing a series of challenges. The British were going to leave Singapore, and the Indonesian independence movement was heavily influenced by the Soviets. The Egyptians, and therefore the Suez Canal, also were moving into the Soviet camp. If India became a pro-Soviet maritime power, it would simply be one more element along Asia's southern rim threatening U.S. interests. The Americans had to act throughout the region, but they needed to deal with India fast.
The U.S. solution was an alliance with Pakistan. This served two purposes. First, it provided another Muslim counterweight to Nasserite Egypt and left-leaning Arab nationalism. Second, it posed a potential threat to India on land. This would force India to divert resources from naval construction and focus on building ground and air forces to deal with the Pakistanis. For Pakistan, geographically isolated and facing both India and a not-very-distant Russia, the relationship with the United States was a godsend.
It also created a very complex geographical situation.
The Soviet Union did not directly abut Pakistan — the two were separated by a narrow strip of territory in the northeasternmost confines of Afghanistan known as the Wakhan Corridor. The Soviets could not seriously threaten Pakistan from that direction, but the U.S. relationship with Pakistan made Afghanistan a permanent Soviet interest (with full encouragement of the Indians, who wanted Pakistan bracketed on both sides). The Soviets did not make a direct move into Afghanistan until late 1979, but well before then they tried to influence the direction of the Afghans — and after moving, they posed a direct threat to Pakistan.
China, on the other hand, did border on Pakistan and developed an interest there. The aforementioned Himalayan clash in 1962 did not involve only India and China. It also involved the Soviets. India and China were both putatively allied with the Soviet Union. What was not well known at the time was that Sino-Soviet relations had deteriorated. The Chinese were very suspicious of Soviet intentions and saw Moscow's relationship with New Delhi as potentially an alliance against China. Like the Americans, the Chinese were uneasy about the Indo-Soviet relationship. Therefore, China also moved to aid Pakistan. It was a situation as tangled as the geography, with Maoist China and the United States backing the military dictatorship of Pakistan and the Soviets backing democratic India.
From the Indian point of view, the borderland between Pakistan and China — that is, Kashmir — then became a strategically critical matter of fundamental national interest. The more of Kashmir that India held, the less viable was the Sino-Pakistani relationship. Whatever emotional attachment India might have had to Kashmir, Indian control of at least part of the region gave it control over the axis of a possible Pakistani threat and placed limits on Chinese assistance. Thus, Kashmir became an ideological and strategic issue for the Indians.
Shifting Alliances and Enduring Interests
In 1992, India's strategic environment shifted: The Soviet Union collapsed, and India lost its counterweight to the United States. Uncomfortable in a world that had no balancing power to the United States, but lacking options of its own, India became inward and cautious. It observed uneasily the rise of the pro-Pakistani Taliban government in Afghanistan — replacing the Indian-allied Soviets — but it lacked the power to do anything significant. The indifference of the United States and its continued relationship with Pakistan were particularly troubling to India.
Then, 2001 was a clarifying year in which the balance shifted again. The attack on the United States by al Qaeda threw the United States into conflict with the Taliban. More important, it strained the American relationship with Pakistan almost to the breaking point. The threat posed to India by Kashmiri groups paralleled the threat to the United States by al Qaeda. American and Indian interests suddenly were aligned. Both wanted Pakistan to be more aggressive against radical Islamist groups. Neither wanted further development of Pakistan's nuclear weapons. Both were happy to be confronting the Pakistanis with more and more aggressive demands.
The realignment of Indian relations with the United States did not represent a fundamental shift in Indian geopolitics, however. India continues to be an island contained by a ring of mountains. Its primary interest remains its own unity, something that is always at risk due to the internal geography of the subcontinent. It has one enemy on the island with it, but not one that poses a significant threat — there is no danger of a new generation of Muslim princes entering from Pakistan to occupy the Indian plain. Ideally, New Delhi wants to see a Pakistan that is fragmented, or at least able to be controlled. Toward this end, it will work with any power that has a common interest and has no interest in invading India. For the moment, that is the United States, but the alliance is one of convenience.
India will go with the flow, but given its mountainous enclosure it will feel little of the flow. Outside its region, India has no major strategic interests — though it would be happy to see a devolution of Tibet from China if that carried no risk to India, and it is always interested in the possibility of increasing its own naval power (but never at the cost of seriously reshaping its economy). India's fundamental interest will always come from within — from its endless, shifting array of regional interests, ethnic groups and powers. The modern Indian republic governs India. And that is more important than any other fact in India.