No place to hide

Power won’t leave India alone, even if Indians claim to be disinterested in power

Every year this month, the world converges in the city of New York. Ostensibly it’s to start a new year in the United Nations General Assembly calendar, but in essence it’s a demonstration of the power position of various nations. The more powerful a nation is, the bigger the splash it makes, the greater the coverage it gets in global media (unless of course it’s a perennial provocateur like North Korea or Iran). This year was different with world leaders sending in their pre-recorded speeches, a perfect metaphor for an international order that is becoming more insular with nations, big and small, looking more and more inwards and the grand vision of post-1945 internationalism withering under the weight of its own contradictions.

While UN secretary-general Antonio Guterres inaugurated this year’s general assembly by warning “we must do everything to avoid a new Cold War,” US President Donald Trump called upon the UN to hold China accountable for the Covid-19 pandemic, implying that Beijing and WHO had worked in tandem to cover up its dangers. And then there was Chinese President Xi Jinping, whose UN speech would have been comical had it not been for the havoc he’s wreaking at home and abroad.

While he may have a right as Chinese leader to hail his own response to the pandemic, Xi without any hint of irony underlined that Beijing wants to “continue to work as a builder of global peace, a contributor to global development and a defender of international order”. For a leader who has secured his own rule indefinitely, cracked down on all forms of opposition and is busy provoking territorial clashes from the South China Sea to the Himalayan borders, these claims seemed farcical.

As if not to be left behind, Russian President Vladimir Putin went a step further and completely disregarded any need for UN Security Council reforms. Though he seemingly agreed that the UNSC “should more fully take into account the interests of all countries”, he was categorical that it couldn’t work “without preserving the veto right of permanent members”. The message was very clear, those who have real power in the UNSC have no intention of giving it up.

The UN as the anchor of global multilateralism turned 75 this year, yet it’s readily evident that the central issue of global politics remains who wields how much power, when and how. International order remains as hierarchical as it was in 1945. Yet, even today, there are many in India who continue to ask why should India try to become a major power in the global order.

Power in international relations is important not as an end in itself, but because it allows a nation to shape or control the environment rather than being shaped by it. A nation may not be interested in power, but that doesn’t mean the question of power will leave that nation alone. It really doesn’t matter if Indians keep on proclaiming they don’t want major power status, the world will encroach upon us and we will be forced to respond.

That the world will encroach upon India is glaringly evident in the current crisis with China across the LAC. And this isn’t the first time this has happened to India. Even as China’s emergence as a major power across domains constrained Indian options over the last several decades, we continue to debate the merits or demerits of non-alignment and strategic autonomy. Like good argumentative Indians, debate became an end in itself without that debate resulting in a concrete strategic choice.

The intellectual sophistication of linguistic jugglery ensnared us into believing we’re doing a service to strategic discourse, while in reality it was simply another way of trying to avoid a choice. The idea that not making a choice is also a choice has been perfected to an art form, and is a central tenet of our strategic culture.

There is something to be said about not making hard choices and continuing with the status quo. But the problem is that others don’t allow us that luxury. Today China isn’t allowing the status quo to persist and it isn’t China’s fault. It’s inherent in the very nature of power: Power is expansionist. So when we were trying not to ruffle any feathers to keep China in good humour, this is what China was doing: It was enhancing its muscle along the border, it was propping up Pakistan, it was building pearls around India’s periphery.

And in our desperation not to shatter the status quo we even ended up advocating on behalf of the Chinese, as when we told the world that no one should worry, there are no Chinese pearls in the Indian Ocean, let alone a string. We buried the Quad in 2007 and tried to maintain a facade of equidistance from China and the US. But China only became more aggressive, and now the noise on the border is almost deafening.

Power disparities always make a lot of noise. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been more forthright in tackling China, but he didn’t have the capabilities needed to respond effectively. Yet, while he may have articulated an Indian aspiration towards becoming a leading power, China seems to have responded by attempting to expose (in its view) the gap between New Delhi’s aspirations and capabilities.

Many in India may not like it, but India’s major power gambit is not merely a function of the nation’s leadership. It’s inherent in the very nature of the global order. The question of power will not leave India alone, so it’s better India remains proactive in shaping the calculus of that power.


This commentary originally appeared in The Times of India

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