Updated: Sep 22
Inviting Australia to the Malabar exercises is not merely a strategic move. Through it India is, once again, indicating that something fundamental has changed in the nature of its state.
Krishna (holding the reins) and Arjuna blow their conch shells before the battle of Kurukshetra in the great Indian epic, the Mahabharata. An artist's rendition.
In the latest book written by India’s External Affairs Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, The India Way, the most though-provoking chapter is called Krishna’s Choice.
Its theme takes from the Hindu epic, the Mahabharata, and within it, a seminal conversation on a battlefield between the warrior Arjuna and his charioteer, the divine incarnation Krishna. Faced with the prospect of fighting an opposing army full of relatives, Arjuna dithers, hesitant at the thought of slaughtering his own cousins. To this Krishna explains to him that the duty of the warrior is fight for righteousness and fulfill the action that is just instead of being deterred by the consequences, which, after all, is in the domain of the divine.
Or as Jaishankar explains it, “The best known dilemmas of the Mahabharata relates to a determination to implement key policies without being discouraged by the collateral consequences of the action.” There are, writes Jaishankar, “underlying aspects of Arjuna’s behaviour that apply to state players in international relations. But sometimes, even when there is a pathway, it may not be taken due to lack of resolve or fear of costs”.
Jaishankar goes on to imply that historically it has been the Indian state’s predicament that it acts like a ‘soft state’, with an “inability or unwillingness to do what is necessary”, often trapped in arguments that favour its opponents (for example “a competitor is too big to challenge and would anyway prevail in the end”). Jaishankar is critical of such a mindset. He calls it “fatalism disguised as deliberation” and suggests that India is moving away from such an approach towards ‘Krishna’s choice’ or doing “the right thing with full responsibility”.
This makes for most instructive reading even as Indian government has announced – after many months and years of public debate on the subject – that it has invited Australia for the annual Malabar naval exercises in November, joining other forces from the US and Japan. Thus, taking a long-awaited step towards the formalization of a security framework, the Quad, in the Indo-Pacific which China sees as aimed at containing its influence.
Ever since the then US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, followed by President Donald Trump, started to champion the cause of the Indo-Pacific, and the US ‘pivoted’ strategically with the release of the ‘Free and Open Indo-Pacific’ document by the US State Department in 2019, there has been a debate on how far India (and indeed other countries in the region like Japan and Australia) go down a path that China considers inimical to interests of the Middle Kingdom. The US defines the Indo-Pacific as the region beginning with its west coast and right up to the west coast of India, and the germ of the Indo-Pacific idea can be traced to (‘the first Pacific President’) Barack Obama’s pivot to Asia. The core idea was that America would take a leadership position in a century where the rise of Asia seemed inevitable, and it has expanded under Donald Trump to suggest that the role of key partners in the region, like Japan, Australia and India, would be critical in this rebalancing.
As talk of the Quad (the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue) strengthened over the months, so did apprehension that perhaps the final formalization will not occur especially in light of the increasing face-off between China and Australia.
One of the key signals in this was India’s pending decision, which it has just taken, to invite Australia to the Malabar exercises. Over the summer as India and China clashed once again in the Himalayan heights of Ladakh, doubts emerged that China was opening new fronts against all countries, including Australia and Japan to prevent a coming together. Some commentators opined that India should be wary of such a formulation especially since a similar effort was jettisoned about a decade ago since some members felt that their dealings with China were too critical to be disturbed.
The invitation to Australia to the Malabar exercises puts an end to speculation that India might demur in the end. In a sense it continues that messaging of India’s stronger military pushback against Chinese forces along the disputed border which was described by a senior US National Security Council official as “the will and capability to standup to China” in August. It has been noted that India now uses its giant market (and its fifth largest economy status) strategically, as it demonstrated when it responded to Chinese provocations across the border by shutting the door to a range of Chinese products including a host of popular apps. China enjoys a significant trade surplus with India (worth more than $48 billion in FY20) – a gap India has pledged to increasingly close with a new campaign fronted by Modi called Atmanirbhar Bharat or self-reliant India.
India’s behaviour, as its foreign minister has suggested in his book, takes inspiration from the idea that, “It is only when a national elite has a strong and validated sense of its bottom lines that it will take a firm stand when these are challenged… Asserting national interests and securing strategic goals through various means is the dharma of the state, as indeed it was of an individual warrior. This needs underlining in a climate where judgements are sometimes made with the yardstick of popularity, rather than strategy…” The message, says Jaishankar, is that “we have to face up to responsibilities, however difficult the consequences.”
The resonances of this message are clear. Narendra Modi’s India is indicating that its posture on taking tough decisions has changed. Not least because, as Jaishankar writes, “The India of the Mahabharata era was also multipolar, with its leading powers balancing each other. But once the competition between its two major poles could not be contained, others perforce had to take sides.”
Therefore, when India welcomes Australia to the Malabar exercises, it might well be taking Krishna’s choice.