The 21st century’s great shift of power from West to East is not limited to China alone. The Asian century also belongs to India.
Already the world’s fourth-largest economy, India has continued to grow swiftly even after the financial crisis, expanding at 8-9 percent annually. With more than 60 percent of its population younger than 35, it possesses the world’s most potent demographic dividend. Its recent affluence has also increased India’s appetite for military power. India’s annual defense expenditure stands at $30 billion today, or 2 percent of global defense spending, making it the world’s biggest importer of arms. From 2006-2010, India accounted for 9 percent of the global arms trade. After the Indo-U.S. civilian nuclear agreement, India stands as a de facto nuclear weapons state, and almost all Security Council veto holdershave accepted India’s candidacy for a permanent seat on the council.
Compared to that of China, few feel threatened by India’s rise. The China-threat syndrome defines the new geopolitical reality. In fact, the rhetoric of China’s avowedly peaceful rise suggests Beijing is wary of the negative fallout from perceptions of a hostile China. India’s rise, in contrast, has been welcomed as a necessary counterweight to China and as a sign of an egalitarian world in the making. The absence of an official narrative on India’s global trajectory suggests that even New Delhi’s leadership believes that India’s rise will be inherently peaceful.
Why is a rising India not considered a threat when a growing China is?
First, India is a democracy, whereas China is an authoritarian state. India’s democratic credentials engender an extremely positive image around the world, especially among liberal democracies — plainly visible in the recent bonhomie between the U.S. and India. Democracy is India’s most important soft power resource. China’s opaque political system, on the other hand, acts as a threat multiplier.
Second, whereas the Indian government’s legitimacy rests on the free will of its people, China derives its state authority from constant policing of its citizenry and its ability to satisfy their growing material demands. Many fear that Beijing would resort to a belligerent, hypernationalist foreign policy if it lost its domestic credibility, a tendency evident in China’s ubiquitous anti-Japan protests.
Finally, as Stephen Cohen and Sunil Dasgupta argue in their book “Arming Without Aiming,” India practices a policy of strategic restraint on security matters. Even after a complete victory over Pakistan during the liberation of Bangladesh, India did not press for a solution to the Kashmir problem. China, however, is extremely assertive on issues it considers vital to its sovereignty. Tibet, Xinjiang, Taiwan, Diaoyu and the South China Sea are manifestations of China’s acute sovereign anxieties. The threat of the use of force if disputes are not solved amicably has been a constant in China’s narrative. From the time of Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister, New Delhi has always relegated force to the backdrop.
However, the influence of India’s democratic dividend should not be exaggerated. Two factors can complicate India’s peaceful rise.
First is the role of increasing power capabilities. India is still not powerful enough to be a serious threat to other dominant powers. Whereas China has achieved a degree of relative autonomy in global affairs, India’s growth trajectory is dependent on other states. Because India’s power capabilities are still underdeveloped — at least compared to China’s — few states consider it a serious threat. By the same logic, Indian decision-makers also desist from openly challenging the current world order, even when their worldview is at odds with the West’s, as evident in the impasse on Doha Development Round and India’s criticism of interventions in the Middle East.
India’s current strategy is to bandwagon with other liberal democracies to ensure its ascent. The history of international politics tells us, though, that rising states often turn aggressive. Wilhelmine Germany and contemporary China fit this bill. If India’s rise continues, delusions of power may lead it to be assertive in its neighborhood and around the Indian Ocean. Pakistan’s apprehension toward India’s continuous growth is not without reason, and other smaller South Asian countries are courting China to counterbalance India. In fact, the narrative of rising power is slowly percolating in New Delhi as it pursues a colossal military buildup. Remarks by the chief of the Indian army in the aftermath of Osama bin Laden’s death, indicating that India has the capability to undertake U.S.-like surgical strikes in Pakistan, are a case in point. As India’s power grows, so will its appetite for power projection — and other states’ anxieties.
Second, when power and nationalism collide, the results are often explosive. India’s democracy does not shield it from deleterious nationalism. India’s nuclear weapons tests are an apt example. Although the 1974 nuclear test aimed primarily to bail out an incompetent and corrupt government by fomenting nuclear nationalism, the 1998 tests were motivated by the Bhartiya Janta Party’s desire to brand itself as the symbol of a muscular — Hindu — India. The “maximalists,” as eminent Indian scholar Kanti Bajpayee calls them, believe in an open-ended nuclear arsenal to deter the U.S., as well as China and Pakistan.
The recent rise of Hindu extremism and nationalism threatens the secular and democratic fabric of the Indian state, as illustrated by the 2001 Godhra riots and killings of minority Muslims in Gujarat state. Pakistan and China have been the primary targets of India’s right-wing nationalists, but the U.S. has also received flak for its terror policies and for cajoling China at India’s expense. If India’s economy stagnates or religious polarization accelerates, the increasing hold of right-wing Hindu fundamentalists on domestic politics may result in an overtly hostile foreign policy.
To sustain its peaceful rise, India needs to shield itself from the ill effects of delusional power and crude nationalism. The time has come for a rising India to think thoroughly about its role in the future global order and the peaceful mechanisms it must employ to achieve its desired ends.
Yogesh Joshi is a graduate student at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, and a CSIS-Pacific Forum Young Leader.
Photo: Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Chinese President Hu Jintao at the BRIC summit, June 2009, Yekaterinburg, Russia (photo by the Web site of the president of the Russian Federation).