Oslo Notes: North by northwest, but where’s the rest?

September 19, 2010


What makes a country matter to another?


The conference in Oslo was part of a large and important collaborative research project between IFS, Norway and IDSA, India on strategic thinking in India. Unusual for security studies conferences, the focus in this one was on philosophy and thought that underpin policy and behaviour relating to security. The historical overview began with the Indian epics and finished up with surveys of perceptions and writing in the post-colonial period with regard to particular relationships.

Nothing new about it, but the most striking fact about discussions over two and a half days was that India’s northern neighbours and the U.S. had a complete stranglehold on the worldview reflected in the discussions. Coming from Chennai, sitting in the city where many rounds of Sri Lankan talks have taken place, Sri Lanka’s invisibility was striking.

What accounts for the dominance of the northwestern neighbourhood, China and the United States in Indian thinking? One can suggest some explanations.

Relative proximity to the Indian capital and its resident security elite is one possible reason. Another might well be history—the Khyber Pass has been gateway to migration and invasion alike, and the unsettled border with China holds innumerable potential gateways to which the Indian media has been drawing attention recently. Moreover, the postcolonial history of India’s foreign relations has been centered on unresolved ideational and territorial national identity issues, and their focus has been the Indian northwest.

The nation-building process in India has also created a historical narrative of India that emphasises and valorises periods when pan-Indian polities were created, over those when regional powers were dominant and mutually competitive. The latter were usually centered around the coasts and the Deccan, while pan-Indian polities found their centre in the Gangetic plain, first in Pataliputra (Patna today) and then in Kanauj, Delhi and Agra. The periods where regional kingdoms dominated were often periods when oceanic trade, colonisation and conquest were the norm rather than large land expeditions—the Pala and Chola kingdoms are prime instances. They were focused on Southeast Asia, Sri Lanka and even East Africa as opposed to the Hindukush-Himalayan neighbourhoods.

More discomfiting is the possibility that as foundations, universities and think-tanks in the west commission more and more work in the area of studies, their own interests are reflected in the work of people they engage with or employ. The likelihood of media attention directing academic attention is just as disconcerting.

One interesting conversation I found myself having was about the need for a history of maritime activity in India. To this research wishlist, I would add the need for a critical intellectual history that asked why some regions dominate strategic thinking in India, more than others do. Realpolitik cannot be answer enough, can it?

At the end of two and a half days of deliberation, our Norwegian hosts raised the question: Where does Norway figure in India’s strategic horizon? That’s a very hard question to answer when the line of strategic vision does not quite move 360 degrees but stays fixated on a particular geopolitical zone.

Oslo Notes: Norwegian Lenses, South Asian challenges

September 19, 2010


What are the international relations and security consequences of climate change that South Asia should anticipate?


At the inaugural session of a recent Norwegian Institute of Defence Studies (IFS)-Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA) conference on grand strategic thinking in India, held in Oslo, the Norwegian Foreign Minister, Jonas Gahre Støre, spoke about Norway’s changing strategic horizons in the east and north. In the east, Norway was interested in building further its relationships in South and South-east Asia but saw itself as one among many rather than anticipating a special relationship. It was his exposition on Norway’s northern interests that was illuminating and thought-provoking for someone who cannot imagine anything further north than Norway!

The Norwegian Foreign Minister identified three concerns at the country’s very doorstep. The physical impact of climate change in the Arctic region was the first. The melting ice will open sailing routes in hitherto impassable stretches of the north. With one-fourth of the world’s gas resources being located in the Arctic Sea, the second concern related to the exploitation of natural resource in areas made accessible by melting glaciers. The minister pointed to the imperative of settling delimitation issues and mentioned the imminent Norway-Russia agreement over delimitation in the Barents Sea. Russia and changes within Russia form Norway’s third strategic horizon. The Minister pointed to potential areas of Indo-Norwegian cooperation ranging from scientific to humanitarian to diplomatic and military. But his presentation on Norway’s northern interests raised many questions for me for the South Asian context.

Have we given enough thought to the impact of climate change on our own regional international relations? The Pakistan floods may already presage a re-think of our Indus agreements. If floods and disaster management are going to be added to the agenda of water-sharing, are we looking at a new round of negotiations in years ahead? Nepal, Bhutan and Bangladesh have long been advocates of an integrative approach to riparian issues in the eastern Ganges-Brahmaputra region. Rising sea-levels will also move migration further up the region’s security and economic agendas. Bangladesh, Maldives, Sri Lanka and large areas of India, including Indian island territories, will experience displacement following inundation and destruction of homes and property along rivers and coasts. This may be the right time to think of cooperative solutions and emergency arrangements.

If there is an assessment of how climate change will affect our food supplies and natural resource base, is it available in the public domain? The Gangetic flood plains are India’s mineral-rich areas. Oil and natural gas have been found off the coasts. What is an opportunity in the northern seas could be a closed door in our much warmer waters. If the ability to exploit newly available resources reduces the global North’s dependence on others, will the premature closing of barely exploited resources increase ours? Perhaps these are questions scientists have already answered; my point is that it is time now to ask them in the context of international relations and security.

For those primarily interested in traditional diplomatic concerns too, I have a question: The Great Game in Afghanistan began as a way to thwart the Russian search for warm sea-ports. If polar sea-routes open up, what happens to Afghanistan? Will it be abandoned, left to heal itself or left to the mercy of its neighbours? For Pakistan, Iran and India, this is a very important consideration because their connection to and interest in Afghanistan is not limited to Great Game ramifications.