India and the United States: Whither the Great Powers?

by Dr. Souradeep Sen - 5 October, 2023, 12:00 448 Views 0 Comment

The Problematique

At the recently concluded State Visit of Indian Prime Minister NarendraModi to the US, the two nation-states have announced agreements on semiconductors, critical minerals, technology, space cooperation, and defense cooperation and sales. However,as regards the Summit,a particular statement strikes one as intriguing. While toasting Prime Minister Modi and India, President Biden cheered to ‘two great nations, two great friends, and two great powers’ (Bose and Zengerle, 2023, emphasis added). This statement begs questionsregarding India’s purported great power status. Going by standard metrics used to identify a nation-state’s Comprehensive National Power (CNP), India is indeed doing better than most states vis-à-vis economic and military indicators: ranking fifth and fourth in respective metrics (International Monetary Fund, 2023; Global Firepower, 2023). In terms of soft power, the Global Soft Power Index (Brand Finance, 2023) ranks India 28 out of 121 countries—with China in 5th and US in 1st positions.

However, there are ideational aspects of becoming a great power,perhaps as important as the quantitative metrics (Karnad, 2015). Strategic ideas, an inclination towards proactive worldviews, garnering support from the immediate neighbourhood, power projections and strategic response to perceived or real security threats, also, the ideological quest towards self-sufficiency in defence-related and civilian technologies are imperative. As regards these, India is still the largest net importer of military equipment (SIPRI, 2023). India’s import dependence on its greatest strategic antagonist, China, has also been ascendant(Embassy of India, Beijing, China, 2023). As regards the immediate neighbourhood, India could still not gather muchsupport or trust for various strategic blunders. Moreover, in power projections and response to perceived or real security threats, India has only begun to shed its reactive garb, thereby proactively choosing neutrality towards global crises by advertising its ‘strategic autonomy’.

The Analysis

The concept of ‘strategic autonomy’ has been dominant in Indian strategic thinking since independence. However, as abstract strategic thinking continues to inform the core of Indian strategic/foreign policy, not least, an almost cynical reluctance towards achieving self-sufficiency vis-à-vis military equipment and technology, there is a distinct nonchalance towards publicizing its strategic doctrine in terms of the operational aspects of policy.Over the years, India’s quest for achieving ‘strategic autonomy’ has degenerated into ‘strategic ambiguity’, to the detriment of its great power ambitions. Ergo, insofar as great power status is concerned, India, having traversed some fathoms towards it, is far from the destination.

Coming back to the toast, what compelled the President to liken India with the US as a fellow great power? Moreover, what compelled India’s External Affairs MinisterDr. S. Jaishankar (Haider, 2023) to affirm in a post-Summit press meet that India and the US are two ‘countries with similar political, social, cultural, market values’? Arguably, such statements are largely rhetorical, issued, as these are, fromthe geopolitical narratives governing contemporary Indo-US relations. Such narratives are, in turn, influenced by changing power alignments and geopolitical contingencies. Few of these may be listed:

  1. The rise of China and the consequent challenge to US hegemony. American hegemony in global politics is seemingly in decline. The US is in desperate need of gathering allies outside North America and Europe to counterbalance China. Its advocacy of multi-polarity is also indicative of the desperation of curbing Chinese influence, as a world with multiple competing powers would be easier for Western global governance institutions to manage than a powerful and irredentist China. India, as an Asian power, has a significant role in this American design of creating a non-threatening multipolar world order where US predominance would not be overtly challenged.
  2. The Russia-China entente has become stronger in recent times. America’s long-term allies such as Pakistan and Saudi Arabia are switching allegiance to this axis. America’s global appeal is declining since the Trump presidency and its ignominious exit from Afghanistan after twenty years of failed war and counterinsurgency. American foreign policy is now in dire need of assistance from stable liberal democracies—India being one such in Asia. This necessity has gained momentum since the Ukraine War: dubbed by the US as a brutal attack by a dictatorship on a democracy which threatens democratic states the world over.
  3. The US is for the first time promoting India as an equal partner in global governance for its geostrategic proximity to and enmity with China. The US needs Indian partnership in protecting the Sea Lines of Communication (SLOCs) in the Indian Ocean and Indo-Pacific from undue Chinese control, and this is where the QUAD group of states attain geopolitical significance.The US also wants to reduce India’s crude oil and military equipment import dependence on Russia,and technological and raw-material dependence on China perhaps to influence its foreign policy to be more openly supportive of the Western powers, despite India’s nonchalance towards military alliances.
  4. Having perceived China’s BRI negatively—as a ploy to strategically encircle India in Asia and the IOR—and having repeatedly been a victim to Chinese irredentism, India’s threat perception of China is on the rise. To counter this, India is in need of American support, for it has historically prioritized relations with extra-regional powers at the cost of ties with immediate neighbours. Thisperpetuation of strategic ambiguity and its attendant reactive foreign policy are likely to get entrenched, as at the cost of stabilizing ties with the neighbouring great power and its alliance partners, India continues toemphasize socio-cultural and political propinquity with an extra-regional power. The agreements reached may qualify as manifestations of India’s ‘strategic autonomy’ and America’s anti-China/Russia foreign policy, but the disparities of power and ideas informing great power status between the US and India may soon impact the implementations thereof. As long as India remains reactive vis-à-vis foreign policy, not least,is largely import dependent, its ‘strategic autonomy’ is more theoretical than practical.

So, the Biden-Modi Summit, the agreements and the visuals thereof are likely to have larger implications for contemporary global politics. The visuals, albeit flattering for India, fail to undercut the imperatives of achieving self-sufficiency vis-à-vis hard power.There is also an identifiable trend in contemporary global politics of the ‘weaponization’ of Summit Diplomacy, practised by the Western powers to shore up support against the China-Russia axis. This has become stark since the Ukraine War, where Summits have served as platforms for the tactical denigration of global competitors and the open, sometimes obtrusive, show of bonhomie between so-called likeminded state leaders who project unity against common competitors. Summits are now conducted in a manner to elicit adverse reactions from ‘the other’ to further discredit them as threats to international peace and security.

Whither the GreatPowers?

For India’s theoretical ‘strategic autonomy’, it is now in a unique position to receive overtures from both the Western powers and Russia.However, India is more likely to continue with its policy of declining military-strategic alliances, primarily for domestic and external factors.Domestically, India has a normative stance against alliance templates and bandwagoning since Nehruvian times.India’s advertised ‘strategic autonomy’ betrays its legitimate ambitions of becoming an independent power pole in future—explicit in itsquest of becoming a net security provider in the Indo-Pacific, and its recent pronouncement of the AmritKaal (that in another 25 years, India will be a great power).Not least, there is, among India’s strategic elite, a latent distrust of the US for very valid reasons.Tellishighlights, ‘a major divergence in terms of foreign policy objective between the US and India is that the US has obligations to treaty allies that it has to uphold whether or not India will support it in that activity’ (Chivvis, 2023); also, forRasgotra (Penguin, 2019: 380), ‘Washington has a proclivity in a crisis to act primarily and always in its own interests, and when a choice between India and Pakistan is forced on it by unforeseen circumstances, it opts for Pakistan’. The same can be said of the UK, which is one of the reasons why India has been sceptical towards the AUKUS.

Externally, due to the China-Pakistan axis, India’s complicated relationship with both states, its open defiance of the BRI and strategic ambivalence towards Russia, the prospects of materializing a hypotheticalTroika-like security agreement featuring China, India, and Russia are slim. The CPEC runs through territories claimed by India but occupied by Pakistan—a major irritant for India’s security and foreign policies.On the other hand, India has recently declined offers to join NATO-Plus, citing reasons that it is quite capable in handling China on its own, and that alliance templates would negate India’s ‘strategic autonomy’. Such reasons do not measure up when juxtaposed with findings of China’s CNP beingroughly seven times that of India’s (Bajpai,2021).

Contrarily, experts have argued that joining an American alliance would be unsustainable for India, not least, due to the heavy linking of the US and Chinese economies, India will have to continue to deal with both China and Pakistan on its own. It is also likely to ‘harm India’s attempt at optimal positioning and pursuit of interests during conflicts and degrade its ability to walk the tightrope or be diplomatically nimble’ (Talukdar, 2023). As these would probably expose India to further Chinese/Pakistani belligerence—not least, mark a clear strategic break with Russia—India’s foreign policy apparatus could ill-afford to take such risks, at the cost of realizing ‘strategic autonomy’.

It may be, thus, inferred that the implications of the recently concluded Summit, whether good or bad, would unravelin due course.The visuals of the Summit might make those uninitiated in strategic affairs, proud. But, a section of the strategic community would be more interested to see how far the US is willing to carry through its great rhetoric towards India, despite the latter’s preoccupations with‘strategic autonomy’, and perpetual dependence on Russia and China.

Dr. Souradeep Sen
Author is Assistant Professor of Political Science, University of North Bengal (West Bengal, India).

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