Before the age of colonialism, India was a world power. Now, like China, it is returning to the global stage. With economic growth topping 9 percent in 2007, an acknowledged nuclear capability, and a growing role in international relations, it has attained the status of “emerging power.”
What still remains unclear, however, is India’s capacity to maintain this growth, to resist falling prey to the endemic instability in its neighborhood, and to manage its diplomatic balancing act with China and the United States. Equally unclear is what India will do with its power if it manages to meet all of these challenges.
“India’s biggest contribution to world affairs will be as an example rather than as a great power,” observed Pratap Bhanu Mehta, the president and chief executive of the independent Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi, at an ‘Asian Voices’ seminar this week in Washington, DC, sponsored by the Sasakawa Peace Foundation. “One of the grandest experiments in history is under way. With more than a billion people living in a democratic system, India is trying to lift millions of people out of poverty in an ameliorative way rather than a revolutionary way.”
Mehta predicted that India would chart a course of “moderation without principle” in its relations with the outside world. Whatever disputes might rage within India’s fragmented domestic political sphere, this modest pragmatism has generated consensus around one key element. “The basis of India’s power will be more, and more rapid, integration into the world economy,” Mehta said, noting that this position has evolved over time. “Ten years ago, there was a lot of anxiety about opening up India’s economy, not just vis-a-vis the West, but also toward China,” he explained. “Those anxieties are muted now. India now feels that it can take on China.”
Washington eyes relations between Beijing and Delhi warily. In 2005, India and China formed a “strategic partnership.” More recently, they agreed to hold their first-ever joint military exercise next October. At the same time, U.S.-India relations have experienced an upturn, particularly around the negotiation of the U.S.-India nuclear cooperation deal.
“We profoundly misunderstand the nature of India’s interest in the U.S. as a global partner,” argued Kurt Campbell, chief executive and co-founder of the Center for a New American Security, at the same seminar. “You hear, in the Pentagon and other conservative political councils, that India is looking at the U. S. as a crude hedge against China. But nothing could be further from the truth. Obviously India would like to have good relations with the U.S. But the country that India is trying to get along with more than U.S. is China.” India’s experience in the Non-Aligned Movement has made it allergic to siding with one side or another in large ideological conflicts. “India will not accept the terms in which the axes of conflict are defined by the major powers,” Pratap Mehta maintained. “It is in India’s interest not only not to align itself wholeheartedly with any single major power but also to act as a force to deconstruct the terms in which those conflicts are expressed.”
As such, India has not only played well with both the U.S. and China, it has also maintained a careful distance from the widening cleavage between the “West” and “radical Islam.” Its sizable Muslim population means that “India is not in a position to straightforwardly take the U.S. view of the Middle East,” Mehta continued. “India has still not accepted the terms in which the discourse of international terrorism is articulated.”
The pull of global economic integration and the long-held antipathy to taking sides in grand ideological struggles both tilt India toward some form of “liberal interdependence,” Mehta argued. It would hedge its bets by continuing to increase military spending. It would lobby for membership in the UN Security Council (and indeed, according to Mehta, try to “get a seat at any and every high table that exists in world politics today”). But it would essentially abide by the current status quo and not lobby for any significant change in the architecture of global institutions.
U.S. reluctance to adopt strong measures to stop climate change, which has handicapped global efforts to establish a stricter emissions control regime, has allowed India to avoid taking any significant steps of its own to rein in the production of carbon dioxide, Mehta pointed out. So, too, has the continued international legitimation of nuclear weapons opened up a loophole through which India can pursue its own nuclear programme.
Satu Limaye, director of the East-West Center, looked at India’s embrace of liberal interdependence from a different angle. Everything that it wants – whether a UN Security Council seat, recognition of its nuclear status, or continued economic growth – depends on India cutting deals with a wide variety of countries. India depends on remittances from the Indian diaspora to the tune of 20-25 billion US dollars a year, so must cultivate relations with the countries where that diaspora lives. It needs to curry favour with European and African countries alike to boost its chances for a Security Council seat. However, to achieve its objectives, Limaye said, “the United States is the most important player on all these issues.” Of the four structural variables determining how India integrates with the world economy – trade, remittances, external debt, and oil imports – the U.S. is the critical actor for all but one, energy supply.
Ultimately, however, India may become a prisoner of its neighborhood. Tensions with Pakistan over Kashmir, civil war in Sri Lanka, endemic poverty in Bangladesh, the looming chaos in Afghanistan: how India manages these challenges on its perimeter may well determine the sustainability of its economic growth. “Most countries that have risen to great power status have benefited from quiescence in their region,” Kurt Campbell explained. It is up to India to “come up with a more profound rationale for lifting other countries out of the soup, a Marshall plan so to speak, a set of strategic, self-interested rationales for why other countries have to do better.”
For Pratap Mehta, India could achieve a measure of neighborhood stability by offering regional economic integration, predicated on free-trade agreements, as the solution to its neighbours’ problems. “You can either join this party or be left out,” Mehta imagined India telling Pakistan, Bangladesh and others. If these countries “can be persuaded that what they are joining is not an India-centric order, but a larger integration of South Asia into the larger Asian region, then they will see this joining as beneficial for them.”
Inter Press Service, June 21, 2007