India’s Chief of Defense State General Bipin Rawat said last week that “We are seeing some kind of a joint manship between the Sinic and Islamic civilizations. You can see China now making friends with Iran, they are moving towards Turkey… And they will step into Afghanistan in the years to come…. Is that going to lead to a clash of civilizations with the Western civilization?” His country’s External Affairs Ministry soon thereafter issued a press release following its chief Subrahmanyan Jaishankar’s meeting with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) Summit in the Tajik capital of Dushanbe clarifying that “India had never subscribed to any clash of civilizations theory.”
Nevertheless, General Rawat’s remarks say a lot about the emerging world order. They indicate that some of the highest levels of the Indian Establishment acknowledge civilizations as actors in International Relations to an unclear extent. What’s meant by this term is debatable since the concept itself is ill-defined, though it’s generally regarded as referring to the unique combination of socio-cultural, political, and historical factors that differ between broad groups of people across the world. Those who acknowledge civilizational diversity tend to believe that certain interests and mindsets are also intrinsic to each one. The late American political theorist Samuel P. Huntington infamously predicted that some of these civilizations might therefore clash.
Importantly, while India’s External Affairs Ministry doesn’t support Huntington’s “clash of civilizations” theory, it also didn’t deny General Rawat’s acknowledgement of civilizational diversity nor the geopolitical trends that he observed and claimed to be influenced by civilizational factors. Two conclusions can be drawn from this. First, India is aware of China’s growing influence in the international Muslim community, or “Ummah”. Second, there isn’t any consensus in the Indian Establishment for explaining this. General Rawat believes that it’s due to innate civilizational factors which imply a possibly impending clash while the External Affairs Ministry might consider it to be driven by political, economic, and strategic factors that aren’t exclusive to those civilizations.
This insight prompts two supplementary questions that deserve to be pondered. First, how does the Indian Establishment identify itself with respect to the civilizational perspective on International Relations? Second, what influence could India’s self-identified civilizational role have on its foreign policy, particularly with respect to the “Ummah”? External observers acknowledge that India is a majority-Hindu country with very strong Islamic influences due to its historical experience. Therefore, the present-day Republic of India is civilizational diverse, which presents challenges and opportunities from the standpoint of “civilizationalism”.
Those who support Huntington’s “clash of civilizations” theory might fear an impending civil war between India’s Hindu and Islamic elements. At the same time, opponents of this interpretation of civilizational factors might argue that such a worst-case scenario isn’t inevitable. The second school of thought has more empirical evidence in its favour than the first, at least when considering India’s contemporary foreign policy. This majority-Hindu South Asian state has recently expanded relations with the majority-Muslim Gulf Kingdoms, showing that there isn’t an innate incompatibility between these two civilizations, at least on the international level. While identity tensions exist domestically, they aren’t insurmountable, and India has thus far remained united.
Conceptualizing India as a unique Hindu-Islamic hybrid civilization could help its policymakers achieve the best of both worlds, though only if pertinent policies are properly implemented. On the one hand, it’s understandable why a significant share of the population supports the ruling party’s Hindu nationalist policies. On the other, going too far in some respects risks provoking the Muslim minority and thus worsening identity tensions within the country. Having said that, ignoring the civilizational perspective through which the majority of the population nowadays interprets their country’s history wouldn’t be a popular political decision and could thus lead to the loss of electoral support for whichever party ends up doing this.
If the perfect balance can be struck (which might have to be recalibrated from time to time and from region to region), then India could strengthen its internal identity cohesion. This is understandably a lot more difficult to do in practice than it is to propose, but this vision should still be seriously considered by policymakers. On the international front, the foreign perception of India celebrating its Islamic heritage could improve its standing within the “Ummah”, whose people deeply appreciate knowing that their co-religionists are being respected. Nevertheless, foreign policy pragmatism still seems to take precedence over symbolic civilizational factors in policy formulation, as proven by India’s close ties with the Gulf Kingdoms.
Bilateral relations improved despite the security situation in Jammu & Kashmir worsening during that same time. The second-mentioned development prompted Pakistan to share its concerns with its fellow majority-Muslim partners. Islamabad might have expected that they’d place the concept of “Islamic Solidarity” above the expansion of political and economic ties with India in that contentious context, which is why many in Pakistan were surprised to see that this didn’t negatively impact New Delhi’s relations with the Gulf. This observation suggests that while civilizational factors are growing in importance, they have yet to become the primary basis upon which policy is formulated in the “Ummah” and might never even reach that level.
Considering this, General Rawat’s innuendo that certain factors innate to Sinic and Islamic civilizations are driving the ongoing strategic convergence between their civilizations doesn’t seem to be all that accurate, with all due respect to that leading military official. He also didn’t identify any specific factor within both of them that could explain his concern about their convergence possibly leading to a clash with Western civilization. The Ministry of External Affairs’ assessment is comparatively more accurate since it implicitly acknowledges the recent history of Indian foreign policy gains with the majority-Muslim Gulf Kingdoms despite the South Asian state’s majority-Hindu civilizational composition.
Still, it would be amiss to disregard civilizational factors in the emerging world order completely. There are clearly some strategic trends within and between each of the main identified civilizations across the world that should be more closely studied to determine whether they’re attributable to such civilizational factors, whether in part or in whole. It’s also possible that certain factors might have latent influences that could mature to shape some countries’ policies at a later date. General Rawat’s remarks should therefore serve to generate more interest in this subject. It’s significant that an individual of his stature is speaking in civilizational terms, which might become more commonplace across the world in the coming future.