Looking beyond geopolitics
The transition from geopolitics to geoeconomics will mark the trajectory of peaceful development in the Asia Pacific region
In 490-70 BC, Sparta and Athens, forgetting their animosity, joined their forces to fight the mighty Persian empire under Darius and Xerxes to prevent Greece from becoming a Persian colony. In this struggle to save Greece against the onslaught of the Persian empire, Sparta provided the army and Athens contributed its navy. After the war was over, Sparta demobilised its troops, suffered the economic stagnation and lapsed into agricultural seclusion. On the other hand, Athens converted its navy into a merchant fleet and became one of the greatest trading cities of the ancient world.
The Athenians understood well the importance of trade and commerce in building their empire, something which the ancient world, by large, was not able to foresee. Gradually, the Athenians were developing science, mathematics, and navigation techniques. The growth of wealth from trade and commerce provided them with essential economic security, which is the prerequisite for research and development.
What is the relevance of the above story? Two empires come together to fight one common enemy, save their respective realms, and dismantle the alliance. One empire follows the traditional path of the military, and the other turns to the path of commerce and research. The rest is history, with Greece becoming one of the most important centres of knowledge, science, and philosophy.
The story is relevant to this day where nation states form strategic and military alliances to dominate a region or to counter a common enemy. The USSR and USA were the classic example in the cold war era during which they divided the world into two blocs; communist and non-communist and tried to increase their sphere of dominance by forming strategic military alliances (NATO and Warsaw Pact) across different parts of the World.
In the 21st century, the same great 'geopolitical game' is being played by the hegemonic powers in the countries of Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Oman, the Korean Peninsula, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Vietnam and Philippines etc. This 'geopolitical' game has destroyed the economies of many countries including Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan etc., leading to humanitarian and migration crisis, last witnessed during the time of the World Wars. In short, the world powers have had a long strenuous history of military invasions in different parts of the world from Korea, to Vietnam, to Guatemala, to Cuba, to Haiti, further on to Iran and more recently to Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria to accomplish its foreign policy objectives.
The post-war world has increasingly forgotten the traditional and more effective instrument of foreign policy; the systematic use of economic tools to achieve both domestic and international policy objectives. For example, there is no advocacy in either Washington or Moscow to cut the channels through which the requisite finances reach the ISIS or to put a sustained economic effort to revive the war-torn economy of Syria and Afghanistan. Thus, there are two ways in which nations try to influence the world; the Athenian way, i.e. through geoeconomic means and the standard military way, i.e. by adopting geopolitical means.
There has been a tendency to treat geopolitics and geoeconomics interchangeably. Indeed, the two are closely related but still, they can be very different. According to one of the most widely held definitions, geopolitics is, "a method of foreign policy analysis that seeks to understand, explain and predict international political behaviour primarily in terms of geographical variables". Most geopolitical accounts explain and predict state power in relation to a host of geographical factors (territory, population, natural resources and military capabilities).
Geoeconomics, on the other hand, is about providing an alternative account of how a state builds and exercises its power by aligning itself to economic factors rather than military ones. Geoeconomics, thus, is concerned with how countries are applying economic and financial tools to achieve their foreign policy goals.
The western logic of power mandates a growing dependence on military means. However, due to the interconnected web of global value chains in the modern-day proliferation of trade and commerce, any chance of military warfare is mostly withdrawn. Under such circumstances, the ascendancy of India into the global stage can be achieved only by geoeconomic means -- that is by strategically forming alliances by trade, investment, technology, infrastructure development and institutions (democracy, welfarism, diaspora and soft power).
Thinking beyond the traditional means of geopolitics and hard power has both its positives as well as its negatives. A country when free from strategical constraints and ideological dilemmas can pursue the policies of self-interest in the global affairs. India will be able to position itself more flexibly in global affairs by forming alliances based on trade and investment. This approach will also give India the advantage of pursuing power in the contemporary international system.
For example, India can pursue more aggressive trading and investment relations with Japan, Brazil and Germany. The four countries together form the G4 club seeking entry into the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) as permanent members. Their individual bid is often sidelined by the five permanent members. However, if the G4 nations could come together and form an economic alliance, then their combined financial strength (G4 along with P5 are the top 10 economies in the world and constitutes close to 60 per cent of the world's GDP) will be difficult to ignore by the P5 members and, sooner or later, they will have to accept the accession of G4 into the UNSC.
Similarly, India can bid for alliances with countries that have similar motivation, such as Australia, the US and Japan, which have had a longstanding tradition of adhering to democratic principles and free speech, to confront China in the Asia Pacific. The revival of this quadrilateral alliance in the light of China's aggressive military consolidation in the South China Sea is the need of the hour. However, the partnership would be successful only if it tries to go beyond joint naval exercises and focuses its attention on trade and technology-related concerns. A favourable trade relation and technology transfer will assure India that it is credible in being aligned next to similar democratic countries at the global stage.
India can also ally with the countries of the global South, which are fast becoming centres of technological innovations. These countries can come together and share their innovation expertise with each other so that their dependence on the North for technological transfers decreases.
In conclusion, the post-cold war years have reduced the importance of military power in global affairs, and as the relevance of military threats and military alliances wanes, geoeconomic priorities and modalities are becoming dominant in performing state actions. Global politics is now woven around the importance of trade and commerce and, geopolitics is giving way to geoeconomics – where strategic thinking revolves around trade, commerce, investment and soft power.
(The author is Young Professional, Economic Advisory Council to Prime Minister, NITI Aayog. The views expressed are strictly personal)