India Will Not Become a Great Power by Loudly Proclaiming its Intentions

Instead, she will be a great power through building her own strength and capabilities and continuing to show wisdom and good sense in her choice of engagements abroad.

When Bharat Karnad asked me to speak at the launch of his latest book, Why India is not a Great Power (Yet),  he knew that we have not always agreed on issues, to put it politely. He told me that I figured extensively in it and that I may not like what I saw. He was correct. I did not like what I saw about myself in the book; nor did I recognise myself in it.

Nevertheless, this is an important book which raises and discusses issues of primary importance to India’s foreign and security policy – issues which deserve much more serious discussion and examination than they have received so far in the country.

Karnad’s argument is straightforward, familiar to his friends and stated clearly in the Introduction. It is that independent India is a reticent state, has consistently underperformed and has consistently declined as an independent player in the international arena. This is primarily because of its over-bureaucratised and super fragmented system of government, the hollowness at the heart of its defence, its hard power deficit, and its lack of vision or, as he says, that it may be a “strategically dim-witted lug”. He thinks that India’s China policy in particular is pusillanimous.

Fortunately, international conditions for India’s rise couldn’t be more propitious. For India to be a great power, Bharat says, we should embrace the following agenda:

  • Choose sides in dyadic situations: siding with the United States against China; with Russia against China; with South East Asia, East Asia and Australia against China; and, Iran, Russia and China against the US and its allies in West Asia. As a result, India will be the regional and international balancer in two formations, a ‘middle-Asian quadrilateral’ and a ‘security diamond’ of India, Japan, the US and Australia.
  • Define its security perimeter in terms of an Indian ‘Monroe Doctrine’, and assume the role of gendarme in the area bounded by the East African littoral, the Caspian Sea, the Central Asian republics, South East Asian nations and Antarctica; and, cobble together a pan-Asian maritime security system on China’s sea border.
  • Incentivise India’s immediate neighbours, including Pakistan, with generous economic terms that plug into India’s economic and industrial engine, establishing India’s economic preeminence to complement its role as security provider.
  • Build up strategically-oriented, conventional military forces able to take the fight to China in Tibet and the distant seas, and to prosecute expeditionary missions from Subic Bay to Central Asia to the Gulf, and establish foreign military bases in Vietnam, Central Asia and Mauritius
  • Reorient her military effort from Pakistan to China, forming two additional offensive mountain strike corps.
  • Erect a consequential private sector led defence-industrial complex.
  • Resume thermonuclear testing, and place nuclear munitions at Chinese points of ingress along the border with China.
  • Prosecute a tit-for-tat policy with China, nuclear arming Vietnam as payback for China arming Pakistan.

Karnad concludes by saying that unless there are drastic changes, Great Power-lite is all that India can realistically hope for.

Just this summary will give you an idea of the sort of robust , assertive and thrusting policy that the author wants, and of the host of issues that he raises and considers in this book. There is much that can be said on its military aspects, on what Karnad has to say about India’s military infirmities and strengths, the hollowness of hard power and how it is configured and used, and on the alleged lack of vision and plans for its use.

In the limited space I have, I would rather focus on what the author says about India as a great power. There are two main aspects to this. One is what is a great power. The other is why and how India should become one.

What a great power does – and doesn’t do

Bharat Karnad defines what separates a great power from others thus:

“With a modicum of economic strength, and natural attributes of size, population and location apart, what separates great powers and would be great powers from the rest are a driving vision, an outward thrusting nature backed by strong conviction and sense of national destiny and matching purpose, an inclination to establish distant presence and define national interests within the widest possible geographic ambit, the confidence to protect and further those interests with proactive foreign and military policies, and the willingness to use coercion and force in support of national interests complemented by imaginative projection and use of both soft power and hard power to expansively mark its presence in the external realm.”

And yet, has it really been so in history? I do not think so. This is a description of how empires or hegemons behave as they wane: of the British Empire at the end of the 19th century and after the Boer War, of the US since its moment of unmatched preponderance just after World War II, of Rome after Marcus Aurelius, of the Qing after Qian Long, and so on. And frankly speaking, what happened in history when they did adopt such policies? Did they arrest or significantly postpone their decline? The record is mixed. The most successful at managing decline were the British. Others who followed the kind of assertive policies that Karnad advocates before they had built the power base to sustain it saw their relative position decline rapidly. And some saw calamity – as did Wilhelmine Germany and militarist Japan, which chose to stress adventurist power projection and said so.

Bharat Karnad Why India is not a Great Power (Yet) New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2015

Bharat Karnad
Why India is not a Great Power (Yet)
New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2015

Peter Gordon has noted how “modelling all countries and peoples as if they were America-in-waiting has led to any number of false predictions and ineffective and misguided policies.”

Where does India stand on the historical curve of power? She is still rising, putting in place the sinews of power and accumulating it. She is certainly not in the ranks of the declining or mature great powers who have followed the assertive policies Karnad urges.

During the period of their rise, the great powers went through long extended debates on their role abroad, avoided external entanglements where possible, concentrated on building up their internal strength, and projected/cultivated the myth that they acted abroad only reluctantly or for moral reasons. The US invoked freedom and human rights, but intervened in Europe in the two World Wars only after the old established powers had knocked each other out. The British even claimed to have acquired two empires in a fit of absent mindedness! None of them declared their purpose and goals in the terms that Karnad uses. Deng Xiaoping’s 24 character strategy of keeping one’s head down etc. sums up the approach adopted by successful rising powers through history.

The reason for this is simple. Existing power holders do not share power easily or unless they are forced to by external circumstance and shifts in the balance of power. It is a declared goal of US policy to prevent the emergence of peer competitors in the world. And yet the paradox of power is that precisely those balance of power strategies that Henry Kissinger so assiduously learnt from Metternich and Bismarck have enabled the rise of China to a position where she can actually consider herself a strategic competitor of the US, despite their economic interdependence.

Should India therefore adopt Bharat’s prescriptions? Certainly not as declared policy.

What India has been doing

As for his detailed policy recommendations, some of the more eye-catching ones are likely to be controversial and seem unlikely to be adopted, while others are actually part of the government of India’s practice though not presented in the same fashion as Karnad does for their effect on China.

More assertive ones – like military bases abroad, providing security in Central Asia and Antarctica, thermonuclear testing and force projection – sit ill together with his assertions about the hollowness of Indian military power and the defence procurement system, and are subject to divided opinion among our own forces, as he acknowledges in the book.

The book recommends that India declare an Asian or Indian Monroe Doctrine. An Asian ‘Monroe Doctrine’ of sorts was suggested at last year’s CICA Summit in Shanghai by the Chinese president when he spoke of “Asia for the Asians”. The idea sank without a public trace. No other Asian government has picked it up. Instead, their actions since have consolidated their considerable external balancing to China’s rise – witness the India-US Joint Vision Statement on Asia-Pacific Security in January 2015, the Japanese Diet passing laws permitting the deployment of Japanese forces abroad this month, the increasing defence and security ties among countries on China’s periphery, and other developments.

As for the book’s other prescriptions, it is hard to see how some differ from the practice (not the rhetoric) of successive governments of India. For instance, he speaks of the need to make the extra effort to involve Pakistan in our regional integration. That is precisely what the previous government did, when it came closer than ever before to neutralising the issues that divide us while opening up economic and other links with Pakistan. That the effort did not succeed was due to internal developments in Pakistan, not for want of trying here. Karnad is right in saying that our primary strategic focus should be China, not Pakistan.

The LCA 'Tejas' at the Bangalore Air Show, 2011. Credit: Sandflash/Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Speak softly, carry a big stick: The LCA ‘Tejas’ at the Bangalore Air Show, 2011. Credit: Sandflash/Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Without entering into a polemic, it was precisely the period of the UPA, which the author decries as a lost decade, when India shifted strategic focus from Pakistan to China, when India’s nuclear weapons programme and deterrence were fully operationalised, when India accumulated economic power at an unprecedented rate with GDP growth rates unmatched by any other Indian government/decade, when the government decided to raise the mountain strike corps which Bharat wants more of and strengthened the posture along the China border, and so on. The verdict on this period’s work will come when India finds that she needs to turn to her economic sinews to support and sustain her military and political quest as a great power.

I do believe that “speak softly and carry a big stick” is likely to be a more productive policy to deal with the consequences of China’s rise and the other changes we see around us. What this book seems to suggest is to “shout loudly and brandish whatever stick you have, whether big or not”! The chapter on the infirmities and strengths of the armed forces suggest that Karnad thinks we have a pretty weak or useless stick. Frankly, the best judges of the size and quality of the stick are the professionals themselves.

What India must do next

I am convinced that India will be a great power if she continues on her present course. This will not be through her soft power. Here Bharat Karnad is right, though he sets up a straw man – saying that there are those in the establishment who think so. I have never heard anyone responsible saying so or professing this peculiar belief. Nor will it be by others giving great power status to India, through some mysterious process of entitlement or accretion. Nor will it be through a variant of Bismarckian policy, which – despite all of A.J.P. Taylor’s and Henry Kissinger’s efforts to convince us otherwise – was a much simpler task than that facing Indian policy makers. (Bismarck had to deal with one continental system, which by its nature was a zero sum game. We have to deal with a complex continental system containing the rise of China, and simultaneously with an equally complex maritime system which is a positive sum game.) Instead, I believe that India will be a great power through building her own strength and capabilities and continuing to show wisdom and good sense in her choice of engagements abroad.

To me, the idea of a “responsible power” is a red herring. It is only a way existing power holders use to encourage conformity with their wishes and preferences.

Why am I sure that India will be a great power, despite all the limitations that Bharat Karnad mentions in his book? Because it is in India’s interest to be a great power. And this brings us to the purpose of power. Why should we want to be a great power? Theoretically it could be argued that like post-war Japan until recently, or Australia and Canada, we should be satisfied with concentrating on our own economic development and leave security to others. India cannot accept that for a simple reason. India, as Karnad says rightly, cannot rely on others for its security. Its interests are unique, whether economic, political or security – a function of its unique history, geography and culture. If we wish to abolish mass poverty, hunger, illiteracy, and disease and modernise our country, (or, as Gandhiji said so much more elegantly, “wipe the tear from the eye of every Indian”,) we can only do so by becoming a great power, with the ability to shape the international system and environment to our purposes. India is and has been an anti-status quo power, seeking to revise and reform the international order since Nehru’s day. That we have not succeeded is evident. That we need to be a great power if we want to have a chance of succeeding is also apparent.

There is also a chapter on what sort of power India should be which bears reading. This is something on which there can be and are legitimate differences among Indians. But I agree with Karnad that we are not clear yet in India about this concept. To me, the idea of a “responsible power” is a red herring. It is only a way existing power holders use to encourage conformity with their wishes and preferences. If you conform, you are labelled “responsible”, if not you are “irresponsible” or a “rogue”. We should worry less about the labels and the attempts by the world to fete us as a great power, and more about our own accretion of hard power and influence.

So, in sum, I find myself in agreement with Bharat Karnad on the goal of India becoming a great power but differ with him on the timing and the route, on how and when that will occur.

This is a book that anyone with an interest in India’s foreign and security policies should read, and read critically, and think about. You don’t have to agree with all that it says. I certainly didn’t. But I do hope that it sparks the debate in our country on these issues that we so urgently need.

Shivshankar Menon was India’s National Security Adviser from January 2010 to May 2014.