India: The World’s Next Superpower (Or Not…)??

By Julia Huentemann a recent graduate in International Relations at King’s College London about to embark on postgraduate study in Modern South Asian Studies at the University of Oxford.

Because of its billion plus population, accelerating economic growth and increasing military capabilities, India is often spoken of in the same breath as China when it comes to rising powers. But whilst China’s rise seems given, India is still widely seen as a slowly emerging power which cannot quite get its act together.  In this context, an evaluation of the factors that hinder India’s rise to power in the international system seems valid and imperative for a more nuanced understanding of Indian foreign policy. This article will argue that limitations of political will, limitations of military capacity and India’s unfavourable regional strategic neighbourhood are hindering India’s rise to power in the short run. At the same time, this essay will suggest that military obstacles are decreasing as more realist tendencies take hold of India’s strategic core. Thus, in the long run, India’s emergence as a global power will be dependent on its ability to overcome political obstacles.

  • Limitations of political will

Amongst those factors hindering India’s rise as a global power, the most pressing is perhaps India’s lack of a strategic culture that would enable its foreign policy elite to formulate a long term strategic framework or grand strategy. Emergence to great power status does not just happen. It isn’t just bestowed upon a nation. Rather statesmen must grasp the contours of structural changes and adopt appropriate policy responses in line with them. Evidence presented by Hash V Pant suggests that despite a rapidly rising defence budget, India’s policy elites show little interest in designing a grand strategy that would allow India to translate its growing hard as well as soft power capabilities into global power status.[1]

In line with Hash V Pant is George Tanham who contends that Indian elites have shown little sign of coherent and systemic thinking about long term national strategy.[2] This he argues is a result of continuing inability and unwillingness of India’s policy elites, across political ideologies, to provide a strategic vision and establish foreign policy priorities.[3] Symptomatic of such a strategic deficit, Hash V Pant presents historical evidence showing that India’s policymakers continue to merely respond to foreign policy challenges on an ad hoc basis (a phenomenon which he refers to as intellectual sloth).[4]

Such a lack of strategic culture will come at a cost in the long run. Without a significant shift away from India’s strategic vacuum towards a well integrated strategic culture, Indian foreign policy will remain modest and non provocative, taking the role more of a follower rather than a leader in South Asia and the world as a whole.

  • Unfavourable regional strategic environment

India’s geographic backyard, an unstable regional security complex, has further impeded India’s rise in the international system.

Historically, it has been difficult for an aspiring state to become a true great power within an unfriendly or hostile regional environment. This applies to India as much as to any other aspiring nation in the past. Accordingly Walter C Ladwig claims that the achievement of regional peace and stability in South Asia will be a necessary precondition for India to claim great power status.[5]

So far, the protracted Kashmir conflict between the arch rivals India and Pakistan has destabilized the South Asian regional security complex. The conflict has drained India of material as well as intellectual resources that may well have been invested in the articulation of a grand strategy to foster great power emergence.

Further, Indian dominance in the region is contested which poses a further challenge to India’s rise as a global power. India is not accepted as the natural leader of the region especially not by Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal or Sri Lanka. According to Bumitra Chakma, smaller states actually fear a more powerful India to be dominating and challenging their territorial sovereignty.[6] Hence, they have traditionally pursued strategies of power balancing most notably by allying with China. Given India’s inability to assert regional dominance in South Asia either by consent or force, China has been able to build an alternative incentive structure for India’s South Asian neighbours.[7] This poses a serious impediment to India’s quest for its own sphere of influence in South Asia.

  • Limitations of military capacity

The last impeding factor to be mentioned in the scope of this essay is India’s marginalization of the military in foreign affairs. In order to become a conventional and globally recognized great power, India needs a professional defence ministry and a well integrated army to at least signal its willingness to shoulder the burdens of a great power.[8] So far, India’s military has been marginalized and remained unable to wield force effectively. According to Harsh V Pant, India has failed to master the creation, deployment and use of its military instruments in support of its national objectives.[9] As a result, war has systematically been ruled out in India’s foreign policy. The military continues to remain separate from broader society and foreign policy as a whole. According to Stephen Rosen, this has in the long run reduced military effectiveness.[10]

While this case of military marginalization may have characterized India’s foreign policy in the past, Walter C Ladwig notes that India’s armed forces have indeed undertaken a range of power projection missions.[11] While India may still lack revisionist territorial aims requiring the capacity to conquer lands, realist foreign policy thinking has recently penetrated official policy discourse.

Conclusion:

This article has outlined that apart from geographic obstacles related to its security complex and limitations in military capacity, the biggest obstacle to India’s emergence in the international system has been the deficient way in which Indian policy elites have responded to the country’s material rise. At a time when India’s weight has grown and the country is on the brink of achieving great power status, the foreign policy establishment appears to have failed to capitalise on this opportunity. This intellectual vacuum has allowed Indian foreign policy to drift without any sense of direction.

India certainly has the potential to become a great power – the question is whether its leaders want it to be.

[1] Pant, Harsh V., “A Rising India’s Search for a Foreign Policy” in Orbis, Vol 53, No 2 (2009).

[2] Tanham, George, “ Indian Strategic Thought: An Interpretive Essay (Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corp., 1992).

[3] Tanham, George, “ Indian Strategic Thought: An Interpretive Essay (Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corp., 1992).

[4] Pant, Harsh V., „A Rising India’s Search for a Foreign Policy” in Orbis, Vol 53, No 2 (2009).

[5] Ladwig III, Walter C.,  “India and Military Power Projection: Will the Land of Gandhi Become a Conventional Great Power?” Asian Survey, Vol. 50, No. 6 (2010).

[6] Chakma, Bumitra, „South Asia’s Realist Fascination and the Alternatives” Contemporary Security Policy Vol 30, No. 3 (2009).

[7] Sahni, Varun, “India’s foreign policy: Key drivers” South African Journal of International Affairs, Vol. 14, No. 2, (2007).

[8] Pant, Harsh V., “A Rising India’s Search for a Foreign Policy” in Orbis, Vol 53, No 2 (2009).

[9] Ladwig III, Walter C.,  “India and Military Power Projection: Will the Land of Gandhi Become a Conventional Great Power?” Asian Survey, Vol. 50, No. 6 (2010).

[10] Rosen, Stephen, Societies and Military power: India and Its Armies (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1996).

[11] Ladwig III, Walter C.,  “India and Military Power Projection: Will the Land of Gandhi Become a Conventional Great Power?” Asian Survey, Vol. 50, No. 6 (2010).

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