India’s Great Power game

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Munir Akram

SHAFAQNA (Shia International News Association)

THE election of Narendra Modi as prime minister and geopolitical developments — particularly the US pivot to Asia and the Russia’s new Cold War with the West — have revived India’s prospects of achieving Great Power status. In quick succession, Modi has visited Japan’s ‘nationalistic’ prime minister; hosted China’s president; and will be received this week by the US president in Washington.

The US obviously wishes to embrace India as a partner in containing a rising China, responding to a resurgent Russia and fighting ‘Islamic terrorism’.

It is prepared to bend over backwards to secure India’s partnership. During his Washington visit, Modi is likely to be offered the most advanced American defence equipment; military training and intelligence cooperation; endorsement of India’s position on ‘terrorism’; investment, including in India’s defence industries; nuclear reactor sales; support for a permanent seat on the UN Security Council, and a prominent role in Afghanistan after US-Nato withdrawal. There will be no mention of the Kashmir dispute, nor of past or current human rights violations in India.

The reticence, if any, in this love fest is likely to emanate from India rather than the US. While seeking all the advantages of a strategic partnership with the US, India is unwilling to relinquish the benefits of its relationships with Russia, China, Iran and other power players.

India’s evolving relationship with China is complex. Both Asian giants see the benefits of trade and investment cooperation and want to ‘democratise’ the post-Second World War economic order dominated by America. During President Xi Jinping’s recent visit China offered to invest $20 billion in industrial parks including in Modi’s home state of Gujarat and to support India’s infrastructure development.


The most proximate impediment to India’s quest for Great Power status remains Pakistan.


Yet, there are obvious limitations in the Sino-Indian relationship. Memories of its defeat in the 1962 border war with China still rankle in India. The border dispute has been managed but not resolved. There is expectation of future strategic rivalry, felt more strongly in India than China. New Delhi wishes to become China’s military and economic equal in Asia and the world. In particular, India desires an end to China’s strategic relationship with and support to Pakistan — a price Beijing is unwilling to pay.

Without compromising its strategic options, China is prepared to adopt a benign posture towards India, in part to prevent its incorporation in the US-led Asian alliances around China’s periphery. As some Chinese officials put it: “When you have the wolf [US] at the front door, you do not worry about the fox [India] at the back door.” If India does eventually emerge as a US strategic partner, Beijing will exercise its options to neutralise it including through greater support to Pakistan. For the present, China’s advice to Pakistan is to avoid a confrontation with India.

The complexity of the Sino-Indian relationship was on display during President Xi’s visit when news surfaced of a face-off between Chinese and Indian troops on China’s border with India-held Kashmir. It is unlikely that the Chinese would have instigated the incident while their president was in India. According to Indian sources, the “robust” Indian troop deployment to confront Chinese border forces could only have been authorised by the Indian prime minister. Was this then a demonstration of Modi’s muscular credentials meant for his hardline domestic constituency or perhaps a message of common cause to the US on the eve of Modi’s Washington visit?

The new Russia-West Cold War over Ukraine will enhance the ability of India (and other non-aligned countries) to play the two sides against each other. But it will also lower the tolerance of both protagonists for third-party positions that are seen as inimical to their vital interests.

So far, the Russians have been quite accommodative of India’s developing relationship with the US and the growing diversification of India’s huge arms purchases away from Russia.

Until now, Moscow has maintained its undeclared embargo on defence supplies to Pakistan in deference to its long-standing relationship with India. However, given India’s closer relationship with the US, Russia’s reinforced strategic cooperation with China, and the slow divorce between Pakistan and the US, the Russian reticence towards Pakistan, and its emotional bond with India, are receding. Moscow is now more likely to adopt a more ‘balanced’ posture towards India and Pakistan on defence and other issues, including Afghanistan.

The most proximate impediment to India’s quest for Great Power status remains Pakistan. So long as Pakistan does not accept India’s regional pre-eminence, other South Asian states will also resist Indian diktat. India cannot feel free to play a great global power role so long as it is strategically tied down in South Asia by Pakistan.

India under Modi has maintained the multifaceted Indian strategy to break down Pakistan’s will and capacity to resist Indian domination.

This strategy includes: building overwhelming military superiority, conventional and nuclear, against Pakistan; isolating Pakistan by portraying it as the ‘epicentre’ of terrorism; encouraging

Baloch separatism and TTP terrorism (through Afghanistan) to destabilise Pakistan; convincing Pakistan’s elite of the economic and cultural benefits of ‘cooperation’ on India’s terms.

In this endeavour, India is being actively assisted by certain quarters in the West.

Insufficient thought has been given in New Delhi and Western capitals to the unintended consequences of this strategy. It has strengthened the political position of the nationalists and the Islamic extremists in Pakistan. Islamabad’s vacillation in confronting the TTP was evidence of this. Further, the growing asymmetry in India-Pakistan conventional defence capabilities has obliged Pakistan to rely increasingly on the nuclear option to maintain credible deterrence.

The combination of unresolved disputes, specially Kashmir, the likelihood of terrorist incidents and a nuclear hair-trigger military environment, has made the India-Pakistan impasse the single greatest threat to international peace and security.

New Delhi’s bid for Great Power status could be quickly compromised if another war broke out, by design or accident, with Pakistan.

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