Let’s not get carried away by ‘strategic’

Anand K Sahay

Lately, the Americans are all gung-ho about India and have been bandying about the “Next steps in strategic partnership”, or NSSP. After the recent visit of US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice to India, some enthusiasts on the Indian side venture to believe that a few elements of policy under discussion with Washington presage that the NSSP may already be recent history.

The Chinese, as the recent visit of premier Wen Jiabao to Bangalore and New Delhi revealed, are also girding their loins to hit the “strategic high road” with India.

The Japanese leadership—with prime minister Junichiro Koizumi following in the wake of Wen, not to forget Pakistan’s Pervez Musharraf—appears somewhat more circumspect, preferring “global partnership in the twenty-first century”. But in a newspaper interview on the eve of his visit Koizumi too could not resist speaking of reinforcing Japan-India ties “with a new strategic orientation in a new Asian era”.

Thus, it appears these days “strategic” has got to be the most overloaded expression in Indian diplomacy, and in the promised relations of the major powers toward this country.

Time was when its very sound spelled glamour in the power sense. This was in the cold war days.

To wit, the “strategic” relationship between the US and its trans-Atlantic allies. This meant, broadly speaking, that “strategic” partners had no bilateral tensions or issues between them, that they thought the same way on handling issues in their region, and not the least, they saw the world through the same lenses.

Attention may also be drawn to two other usages of “strategic”. The expression could mean long-term, as distinct from “tactical”, ie. expedient, short-term, or arising out of a particular need or situation. Employing “strategic” in this way is perhaps akin to the meaning above which denotes “congruent”, for a long-term relationship is unlikely to hold in the absence of congruency of interests.

The only remaining sense in which “strategic” has enjoyed currency since roughly the middle of the cold war period is in the discussion of weaponry- “strategic” weapons, ie. those with long-range impact, as different from “tactical”, meaning battlefield weapons confined to a particular theatre.

Quite clearly, when the US, China or Japan speak of building “strategic” ties with India, they are referring to a possible long-term understanding. This is an excellent idea, though it needs filling out and should be possible to do, given moderation and a conscious sense of mutual adjusting.

It is of course immediately obvious that in relation to India, none of the three has as yet developed a congruency of interests, although wide areas of cooperation abound.

So, let’s not get carried away with “strategic”. Its frequent overuse appears to be the result of intellectual laziness on the part of the foreign policy establishments of all the countries in question, India included. Perhaps the world is at a cusp and major countries might see greater benefit in cooperation (as ties between communist China and capitalist America seem to suggest) than in confrontation.

But wars can erupt, even if America alone may want it—as Iraq shows. For India too, “strategic” relations with the major powers will be on an equal footing not just by stepping up growth rates but after we have ensured that the poorest 20 per cent in the country have moved up at least to the level of our definition of lower middle class.

Sahay, a journalist, writes for THT from New Delhi