Strategic ‘Greyness’ 26 August 2013

Strategic ‘Greyness’                                                          26 August 2013


Above: Kautilya, author of the ancient Indian political treatise ‘Arthasashtra’ (Economics).

One matter that many Westerners appear to find difficult to deal with, and which impacts somewhat on South Asia, is strategic ‘greyness’ (as against things being ‘black and white’).
I have been thinking about this matter because an Australian recently asked me if Pakistan chose to deal with either (Shia) Iran or (Sunni) Saudi Arabia. I answered that it was not an ‘either/or’ choice, but an ‘and’: Pakistan had good relations with both nations. So too does (supposedly ‘Hindu’) India. Similarly, for strategic reasons—not necessarily because they liked them—Pakistanis were prepared to support a Taliban regime in Afghanistan. For pragmatic reasons, China has long had relations with all sorts of nations, including military-dominated Myanmar, which until recently was an international ‘pariah’.

For many Westerners, the strategic and diplomatic ‘flexibility’ that some Asian nations engage in is difficult to accept. Consciously or otherwise, they appear to subscribe to George W. Bush’s oft-repeated and unequivocal statement: ‘You are either with us or against us’. While this credo specifically related to the United States’ ‘War on Terror’, it emulated the US’s frequent Cold War stance whereby Washington desired that nations subscribe to membership of either the Western or Soviet ‘camp’—not the confounding Non-Aligned Movement that sought independence from both blocs. Australia strongly supported this US stance. This narrow Western view of international relations made, and makes, life strategically simple. However, it also partly explains why the US and Australia have struggled with post-colonial India. They could not accept that this developing, non-Communist democracy would not be unequivocally pro-Western in its strategic alignments.

Post-USSR, the United States and Australia still struggle on occasions with India’s strong desire to keep itself aloof from Western alliances and military entanglements, many of which, while generally unstated, appear to be focused on limiting an economically powerful and militarily expansive China. Thus, in its own national interest, India will sign an important and ground-breaking civilian nuclear agreement with the United States, but, unlike Australia, it will not contemplate giving the US military staging rights through its territory. Such independent strategic thinking irks some ‘black-and-white’ Americans and Australians. They would prefer to see ‘argumentative’ Indians, as Amartya Sen has described them, simply toe the Western strategic line. Conversely, they seemingly fail to understand India’s complex geo-strategic situation and its volatile post-colonial Indian history, culture and politics.

Similarly, both the US and Australia have struggled to deal with the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Their distaste of China lessened as the PRC increasingly, and more obviously, became anti-Soviet from the late 1950s. Beforehand, many considered Communism to be inherently hostile (which it was) and unpenetratingly monolithic (which it wasn’t). When the West finally digested that the USSR-China equation had become irredeemably antipathetical, US President Richard Nixon saw it as strategically beneficial to abruptly ditch Taiwan and embrace PRC as the ‘real’ or legitimate China. Concurrently, Australia did likewise, although not necessarily for the same reasons. Similarly, in recent years, India has become a nation worthy of Western wooing, while, pragmatically, Pakistan has been of use in relation to Afghanistan. With Western forces soon to leave Afghanistan, both this nation and Pakistan worry about their ongoing strategic ‘worth’ to the West. Meanwhile, China is moving into Afghanistan economically, while Pakistan and India continue to shore up their positions there.

Thinking further about the China-India-Pakistan strategic triangle, India successfully has enjoyed fair-to-good relations with China, with two-way trade currently flourishing. This is despite both nations having fought a war, having a major territorial and border dispute, and having increased maritime rivalry. Indeed, India has a far better relationship with China, with which nation it has little in common, than with Pakistan, with which it has much in common. One complication for India is the closeness of China-Pakistan relations, an alliance that started in the mid-1960s when China was still diplomatically ‘on the nose’ with the West. For Islamabad, China is now Pakistan’s ‘all weather friend’ from which it receives significant military, economic and nuclear support. Beijing is not as unequivocal, with one concern being the spread of radical Islam from Pakistan to western China’s Muslim-populated Xinjiang Province. Conversely, the issue of ‘terrorism’ gives China and India something in common. For its part, India also must consider the possibility of having to fight a two-front war against Pakistani and Chinese military forces. Equally, although far less likely, China could have to fight a five-front war if some of its neighbours (e.g. Russia, Japan, Taiwan, Vietnam, India) colluded in anti-China hostilities.

Few Western nations have to contemplate such strategic complexity. In terms of defending their homelands, most are either island nations (Australia, Japan, New Zealand, United Kingdom) or continental nations (Canada, US), or they are part of the peaceful European theatre (France, Germany, Italy, etc.). Apart from Japan, almost all have settled borders, while they also are distant from major international ‘hot spots’. It therefore would seem to follow that a ‘black and white’ strategic outlook occurs when one’s strategic environment is fairly simple and relatively benign. Conversely, nations such as India, China and Pakistan are forced to ‘walk and chew gum’. In other words, diplomatically and strategically, they must deal with complex situations that demand a variety of relationships. This might make these nations appear somewhat contrary in their international engagements. Equally, it makes them difficult to strategically ‘pin down’, something that often frustrates those Western minds that are clinical, linear and black-and-white. Perhaps they need to read some Kautilya or Sun Tzu, the respective Indian and Chinese strategists who long preceded their Italian counterpart, Machiavelli. Summarising their arguments very simplistically, strategic ‘greyness’ is totally explicable, even desirable.

Christopher Snedden
26 August 2013


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