No apologies expected

The discomfort with reapolitik

Gurcharan Das came back to New Delhi from a lecture tour of East Asia with some astute observations about how countries in that part of the world perceive India (via Shehjar & Pragmatic). They look forward to India playing a more assertive role in East Asia because “they fear China and desperately want a countervailing power (and) they don’t trust Japan.” Mr Das correctly points out that India does not realise that East Asian countries might actually want a stronger Indian role in the region in order to balance China.

It might be that India’s approach to East Asia suffers from a the legacy of its approach to the countries in the subcontinent, several of who resent Indian dominance.

While Mr Das caught the point made by his East Asian audiences, his own conclusions reveal that he was less comfortable with realpolitik than his interlocutors.

On my way home, I asked myself that if it is true that the Indian state is genuinely less aggressive, then that is in fact the right answer to the original question about why India’s rise does not threaten the world. I, for one, do not want an intimidating India which seeks military greatness.

He conflates the projection of geopolitical power with military greatness as an end in itself. As Mr Das heard, projection of power is necessary to create the conditions for human development through trade and culture. This projection of power —whether aggressive or not—is bound to threaten some countries more than others. As a corollary, it is impossible to project power without being seen as a threat by one or another country.

India’s accumulation of power and influence in Asia will be perceived as a threat by China to the extent that it relatively diminishes Beijing’s own influence. And vice versa. There’s no reason to feel apologetic about this. Aggression and intimidation, like diplomacy and negotiations are parts of a composite toolkit. An offhand rejection of one or more of them is not prudent.

18 thoughts on “No apologies expected”

  1. I don’t think these countries want India as a military, but an economic and political one. The problem with India is the elites perceive this new power as unbecoming– even imperialistic. India has to get rid of this socialist mindset if it is to move on in the world.

  2. India is not perceived as a threat because Indian perceptions of self are not reflected in foreign perceptions of India. That is positive cognitive bias leads Indians to attribute much more status to India than the rest of the world actually grants.

    This has even been quantified, I have seen several polls from Gallup and one conducted by Die Welt polling people across the world asking people to rank countries on both present power and future power potential. In every country, citizens consistantly attributed to India much less influence, sometimes dramatically so, than native Indians felt that their country had.

    This is I believe due to India’s strategic environment and linking with South Asia. In India’s neighborhood, it is the big fish in a small pond, but in the broader context of Asia at large, it is still a just a fish in an ocean of sharks.

    p.s. Having read Mr. Das’s Indian Unbound, jot me down under the column of color me unimpressed. It wasn’t so much insight as intellectually empty fizz pop Friedmanesque feel-gooderism.

  3. To add to my last comment, the reason why India is not presently in a position to have much significance in Asia is that is not capable of being a security guarantoor. The same problems also plagues China for now. India is presently not able to exhert much constructive influence in it’s own immediate neighborhood. Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Burma, Nepal are not exactly shining examples of stability. If India cannot even secure it’s own periphery, how can Malaysia, Indonesia, or Korea expect that India will go so far out of the way to assist them?

    For the foreseeable future, the U.S. will continue to remain the principal arbiter in the Western Pacific inspite of the Iraq war. Should the U.S. draw down it’s commitment to the Pacific in the aftermath of Iraq there will be a re-alignment, but it most likely will be towards China rather than India.

  4. I agree with Nitin. Given that the Indian state exists to serve its citizens, running an effective state demands that all feasible options remain on the table.

    Gurcharan Das may be well-known commentator, but I find some of his ‘liberal’ views a little outdated. It’s probably the result of his college years in the midst of 1960s counterculture.

  5. Its too early for India to think about projecting power into ASEAN, IMHO. As long as Uncle Sam’s holds pre-dominance in the ASEAN waters, we’ve got ourselves time to invest in building capabilities – both economic and military.

    At some point presumably, political capabilities – such as developing multilateral mechanisms that align with your worldview (as the US so successfully demoinstrated post WWII) may become a possibility but all that is at least a generation away.

    The US’ political and military predominance in the ASEAN region isn’t getting beat by China’s in the next 2 decades at least.

    In any case, its pertinent to remind oneself of very recent history and how these ASEAN countries treated us when we were down. They were the first to cancel flights from all over India when the Surat plague broke out (circa 1994). To date, the same ASEAN that refuses us membership in their oh-so-mighty economic grouping. That they’re now beginning to see sense in flattering us is only because Oil flows from the ME to ASEAN under the Indian Navy’s watchful eye. How Malaysia deals Tamil folk of India origin also spills out in their advertising for Indian tourists (they don’t want Chennai tourists, apparently). Indonesia wanted to rename our ocean the ‘Indonesian ocean’, apparently, biut too bad it coukldn’t pull it off. Both Malaysia and Indonesia play sly ummah politics and appear to favor Pak’s position on J&K. The list goes on.

    Right now, under the aegis of the current generation of our leadership, it pays to play dumb, keep smiling while silently building capabilities and institutions….back to square one, I see….

    Soon, out time will come, that may mirror the glory of the Chola kings whose banner held sway in the entire region from the Arabian Peninsula to Kalimantan in Indonesia. THAT, friends, is our true region of influence. Our Backyard. But only if we play ours cards right. Time will tell.

    JMTPs and IMVVHOs etc.
    /Have a nice day, all.

  6. Dear Blogger – I understand your point that aggression, regional trading prowess, military greatness, intimidation all come together in a package … But what Mr. Gurcharan Das over here is trying to say is a very interesting thought … He’s asking India to not only be a superpower in Trade and be agressive about it but at the same time not be a country that neighbors fear and lose their sleep. It can have a strong military but neighbors need not fear an attack due to it but rather can depend on it’s help during calamities. Not sure but I think Taiwan has to an extent achieved this (Bad comparison of India and Taiwan though)

    Being different from other opinions here, but I would agree with Gurcharan Das. Let us not lose our identity of a non-intimidating nation. A nation of peace and harmony. But at the same time, agressive when attacked. It’s a difficult line to walk on, but let’s try!

    Gurcharan Das, for me, is a lost son of India. A son that her mother does not the worth of. Wish he were neck-deep into making national policies and spending a lot of time in the echelons of bureaucracy. Working with the system to get rid of its cancerous cells.

  7. Pranav,

    The fundamental reason why countries would have mistrust/misgivings arising from the threats posed by a rising China, vs those by a rising India is that China is not transparent. You don’t know what’s happening inside the black box. You don’t know what are the internal policy debates. You don’t know what factions there are. You don’t know what the dynamics of the political process are.

    In contrast, India is fully transparent to the world. So everyone knows how dirty our linen is. There is a higher degree of strategic predictability with India. Therefore there is less anxiety about the Indian threat.

    The point here is not that India should do anything different, but that China would do well to be more transparent. That would make its rise less “threatening”.

  8. I think its time Acorn took up the cause of getting the report from Task Force on Global Strategic developments released to pubic.

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