Distinguished fellow, observer research foundation, New Delhi
Academic discussions on security and foreign policy tend to get confined to capital cities where the policy-making elites cluster. For this reason, the Pune Dialogue on National Security (PDNS) has marked out a unique place for itself in the country. Not only is it outside the capital region, it is also proximate to India’s financial capital which has no comparable discussion on issues such as the ones the PDNS has had in recent years.
The fifth annual dialogue held earlier this month focused on three ostensibly disparate issues — the Indo-Pacific Region, economic and climate security. Its goal was to look at security in a holistic manner, examining the intersection between geopolitics and geo-economics.
In his keynote address, former Navy Chief Admiral Arun Prakash paraphrased the Miles Law, saying that country perspectives on Indo-Pacific are determined by the location of the observer. He noted that the Indo-Pacific was in a state of flux, both conceptually and militarily, with countries like India, Japan, the US and ASEAN coming out with their own interpretations of the idea which is yet to take firm roots.
There was a time when for the US, the region called ‘Asia-Pacific’ ended in Southeast Asia. We South Asians were seen as being part of the ‘Near East’. Renamed as ‘Indo-Pacific’, it is now seen as a new geopolitical region. The reason for the change is obvious. When it was Asia-Pacific, China loomed large, but with the addition of India, a country of considerable size and potential, China looks a little bit smaller.
But as is well known, Indo-Pacific means different things to different people. Prime Minister Narendra Modi told the Shangrila Dialogue in 2018 that India viewed the region stretching from the ‘shores of Asia to the Americas’ as a geographical, rather than a geopolitical entity.
The US mooted the Free and Open Indo-Pacific strategy in 2017, which it says is an ‘iron-clad and enduring commitment’ to the region that spans from ‘Hollywood to Bollywood’, featuring critical linkages in economics, governance and security. Though the Trump administration undermined the key economic pillar of the strategy—the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) — it is making some efforts to promote investment in the region. In June, the US Department of Defence issued its first Indo-Pacific Strategy report, underscoring the importance of ‘preparedness, partnerships and the promotion of a networked region’. Even so, it’s not clear the extent to which President Trump himself is committed to the strategy.
Clearly, a lot of the Indo-Pacific strategy is about pushing back China. And there it remains a work in progress, with the US itself undermining key relationships such as the ones with Japan and South Korea. Then, take the Quadrilateral Dialogue between India, the US, Australia and Japan. Though it has been upgraded to ministerial-level talks, it’s not clear what its goals are. As Ambassador BS Raghavan pointed out in his remarks, Quad was not a strategy, but ‘four countries looking for a strategy’.
Everyone swears by the notion of ASEAN centrality, but ASEAN itself is riven with differences over China. Though they released their document ‘ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific’ earlier this year, the grouping’s point of view is still not clear. Like the Indian position outlined by the PM, the ASEAN one also hedges, and does not give any comfort to those who want the Indo-Pacific strategy to contain China.
The second major PDNS theme this year looked at three separate but interrelated themes of economic security — agrarian distress, unemployment and climate change.
Geopolitics and geo-economics can come together for India if it can get its domestic economic and social act together. We all know that we need to restructure our economy, undertake a manufacturing revolution to employ people from the countryside and new entrants into the job market, like women. But getting down to doing things is another matter.
As it is, the situation is not good. As Prof Santosh Mehrotra pointed out in a presentation, growth of non-farm jobs fell by half after 2012. But if India could have high growth in that area in the 1999-2012 period, there is no reason why it cannot happen again, he noted. The really alarming issue is the failure of India to become a manufacturing nation. In the 1999-2005 period, India used to create two million or so manufacturing jobs annually. This slipped to a million per annum in the 2005-12 period, and now, we are actually seeing a loss of about six lakh jobs per annum.
The session also had focused presentations pointing to ways in which this situation could be handled. Setika Singh spoke of the experience of her NGO Parivartan in Bihar, and there was a presentation on the experience of the Magarpatta Township development. But these are pilot schemes, and they would have to be scaled up by orders of magnitude to make any difference.
Located where it is, and with its grand history, Pune has a rich pool of technological and entrepreneurial talent, as well as orthodox security policy wonks in the form of a vast community of retired military officers, diplomats and civil servants. They come together at the Pune International Centre which is the core of the PDNS, and previous dialogues have examined other themes related to security—technology, governance, geopolitics, economic growth and social change. Similar pools exist in other places, Chandigarh for one, and there is no reason why they should not be more active in contributing to the debate on national security and foreign policy.
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