NEW DELHI - 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%
this year, an acknowledged nuclear capability, and a growing role in
international relations, it has attained the status of an "emerging power".
What 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 Center for Policy Research in New Delhi, at an
"Asian Voices" seminar 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
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,
US-India relations have experienced an upturn, particularly around the
negotiation of the US-India nuclear cooperation deal.
"We profoundly misunderstand the nature of India's interest in the US as a
global partner," Kurt Campbell, chief executive and co-founder of the Center
for a New American Security, argued at the same seminar. "You hear, in the
Pentagon and other conservative political councils, that India is looking at
the US as a crude hedge against China. But nothing could be further from the
truth. Obviously India would like to have good relations with the US. But the
country that India is trying to get along with more than US 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 US 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 US 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 United
Nations 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 in
essence abide by the current status quo and not lobby for any significant
change in the architecture of global institutions.
US 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 program.
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 US$20 billion to $25 billion a year, so it must cultivate relations with the
countries where that diaspora lives.
It needs to curry favor 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 US 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
"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 neighbors' 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".