Features | Security | South Asia

India’s Great Power Plans

India has long had a strategy for great power status, says N.V. Subramanian. But recent developments mean it can finally happen.

Although India doesn’t have a formalised plan for acquiring great power status, the outlines of a consistent grand strategy have been clear for some time—strategic autonomy through interlocking networks of interests with world powers, and the building of military capabilities based on growing economic prowess.

This intuitive two-pronged approach, enunciated by the nation’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, is likely to be in place at least until 2050, when India is expected by some projections to be vying with the United States for the position of world’s second-largest economy after China.

Nehru introduced the principle of strategic autonomy so that India wouldn’t be sucked into or trapped by the opposing ideologies of an intensifying Cold War. Understanding that India’s stance would be unappreciated unless it built a vehicle for its position, Nehru mooted the Non-Aligned Movement, a bloc scorned by both Cold War powers (although both sides were privately grateful for Nehru’s brokering efforts in the Korean War).

Yet the bloc survives today—toothless it may be, but it still occasionally provides India with a moral compass. Meanwhile, India has kept up its studiedly ‘neutral’ position, contributing unflinchingly to UN peacekeeping efforts, while staying out of non-UN-sanctioned endeavours such as Iraq, and ensuring its contribution to Afghanistan has been purely humanitarian and developmental.

The limited brokering success of the Korean War prompted some Indian commentators to suggest a bridging role for India between rival great powers as a key component of its grand strategy—back then the United States and Soviet Union, and now the US and China. Yet India’s own strategic competition with China makes such a role far-fetched, and India anyway has no great taste for, nor skill at, brokering, a reality that has apparently solidified its strategic autonomy policy.

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But read between the lines, and it’s clear that India’s autonomy policy has anyway actually morphed from its Cold War incarnation with the changing international environment, and is now geared instead at making it a great power in a non-polar world.

The key to understanding India’s strategy is the so-called Mandala approach to geo-strategy and the theory that Indian security lays in concentric circles.  The most immediate of these circles radiates from its centre to its neighbours, the second touches the Gulf of Aden and Singapore on either side, and the third circle reaches around the rest of the globe to embrace the great powers. This theory suggests that India cannot truly be secure until all three circles are pacified.

Such a theory is nothing new—indeed it has prevailed continuously from the third century BC, when Chanakya—India’s own Machiavelli—propounded it. But recent decades have shown India may now be on the path to mastering these circles.

The critical change that has allowed India to continue to move forward was the end of the Cold War, from which it emerged both territorially intact (many had predicted India would go the way of the Soviet Union) and with a newly-opened economy that has since grown at an average rate of about eight percent a year. This growth has been mostly based on its domestic market, unlike the export-oriented economy of China, thus shielding India from the brunt of the recent global recession.

Such growth has also unbound India’s appetite for embracing an interlocking network of interests with nations across the globe, weak and strong—a necessary development to ensure its continued rise and security. For example, India has partially co-opted the Burmese regime with money and materials in an effort to contain Chinese influence and guerrilla groups operating in India’s north-east.

Meanwhile, the Indo-US civilian nuclear deal was implemented in an effort to overcome Non-Proliferation Treaty and Nuclear Suppliers Group-related proscriptions on dual-use technology exports to non-parties such as India, something that has helped the country tackle uranium fuel shortages while giving long-term stakes to US, Russian, French and perhaps Japanese nuclear power reactor manufacturers.

In addition, it is political as much as technical considerations that are weighing on India’s choice of where to purchase 126 multi-role combat aircraft—a major defence deal—with India warning the United States that it will be out of the reckoning if it sells F-16s to Pakistan as part of the Afghanistan bailout package.

Such defiance of the United States on the fighter aircraft issue marks a shift from the Cold War years as India seeks to bolster its regional, South Asian hegemony. This shift has also seen a recent effort to renew ties with Russia, which has been the quickest nation to sign up new reactors for India; price disputes on the Gorshkov aircraft carrier have also been resolved.

And, despite recent tensions, there has been progress on building pragmatic relations with China, overcoming the emotionalism of the 1962 war between the two (a war that India lost). For example, India and China were part of the BASIC group that prevented the United States and Europe from hijacking the Copenhagen Summit agenda, while India also has placed considerable value on intense consultation with Russia, Iran and China on Afghanistan, where the terrifying prospect of an Islamic caliphate looms, with snatchable Pakistani nukes nearby.

It would be a spectacular strategic breakthrough if India could dissuade China from encouraging Pakistani bellicosity (an attitude emboldened by earlier Chinese nuclear and missile proliferation). But India likely doesn’t yet have enough strategic weight to make that possible, and in the near-term can only count on a failing Pakistan becoming everyone’s headache, something that would prompt a range of international countermeasures.

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There is, of course, a flip side to India’s approach. Because it sees no value, so far at least, in intercontinental power projection outside of the Indian Ocean littoral, India is limiting its great power ambitions by stunting its huge and growing military prowess; it is also so far yet to gain significant experience of foreign combat or intervention. It is therefore a victim of its own relative insularity in South Asia, meaning it can be effectively blackmailed by even weak states like Pakistan (although this approach still has the merit, for now, of meaning there are generally few questions raised about whether India’s rise is a peaceful one).

It’s clear that taming the three concentric circles of interest—a principle that has survived 23 centuries and recurs regularly in internal strategic discourse—is the key to India becoming a great power. Circumstance may have prevented this occurring until now, but recent developments suggest India is working to a time, perhaps not too far away, when it is a leading economy and a power able to reorder the world to its liking.