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.