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January 2, 2011

Co-operating for power

Co-operation is the watchword of world’s military powers. Everything from the two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, a global financial meltdown, and even Wikileaks have demonstrated over the past decade that co-operation is the remedy for the nasty side effects of globalisation—the importation of strategic risk. What happens in one country is often felt most acutely in another. In this context, India has a greater role to play in the future of global security, if it so chooses.

Indeed, India has had longer experience than most with this phenomenon. Despite this, however, it remains something of a bit player in global security. Given the fairly recent end of the Cold War and the military dominance of NATO powers, it is not surprising that developing nations such as India still see themselves a passengers in the world of global security.

The security of the world’s oceans are still guaranteed by the United States. Few fear another world war, thanks in large part to the Americans. The world today is a largely stable place. Even in a region as unstable as the Middle East, countries carry on relatively unmolested. In the case of the Arabian Peninsula, they prosper.

That is changing. The United States is reassessing its presence in the world, an effort that will continue regardless of whether Barack Obama is president. NATO is an increasingly poor tool for global security. Its sole expeditionary effort in Afghanistan has been a failure. The Western world’s greatest armed forces are decreasing in size and power, and are being reconfigured to accommodate greater integration with allies. They are looking to their regional partners to pick up the slack.

Enter India and China. As the foremost rising powers in Asia, these two stand to gain the most by the retreat of the West. Regardless of how carefully or slowly the United States and its allies attempt to reconstitute the framework for regional security, gaps will emerge to the dismay of smaller nations. If they so desire, both India and China can move from being potential to actual superpowers. But superpowers are more than simply economic giants, they must also be willing to project their power.

China is slowly realising this. Its foreign policies, though immature, are evolving, and that has translated to a more forceful international political and military presence. Yet, what China has begun to learn, India seemingly has yet to understand.

In India, China’s broadening role in the world is mostly seen as a threat on its borders. The country’s close ties to Pakistan, in particular, are considered ominous, as they no doubt should be. However, China’s ambitions extend well beyond the sub-continent. India’s should as well.

They have, to some extent. India is looking East and its presumed accession to the UN Security Council is another step towards a broader role in world affairs. However, as India looks outwards, it has seemingly neglected its own neighbourhood.

This is partly due to the intractability of the problems. India’s dispute with Pakistan, for example, is hardly the simmering conflict it once was, but the removal of imminent threat have not made the solutions any easier. There is too little pressure on both sides to make the difficult compromises for peace.

With India’s focus on a UN seat and a greater say in economic affairs, it seems to be attempting to leapfrog its way into becoming a world power. The result has been lost opportunity.

The Gulf is perhaps the most striking example. The UAE alone is India’s largest trade partner, that is before you count oil. This oil trade drives India’s stellar economic growth. Millions of its citizens remit billions home to their families, at times keeping entire communities afloat. Yet, India seems somewhat perplexed that these massive economic ties have not translated into great influence.

New Delhi is partially to blame for this. Its largely benign foreign policy has not leveraged these ties into closer relations. Given India’s role in shaping the philosophy of the non-aligned movement, it is hardly surprising that it is seen by Gulf states as more acquaintance than friend.

India may not aspire to regional leadership or dominance, but it should at least aspire to having a stake in regional decision making. The bilateral traffic in political and military leadership is more pantomime than anything approaching true co-operation. The West, Russia and China all realise the vital importance of stability in the Gulf and wider Middle East as well as the potential for mutual prosperity. For them that means they must get their hands dirty; for India, it does not.

But India cannot be left behind. That is why the leaders of the United States, Britain, France, Russia and even China have all made their way recently to New Delhi. The attention paid by the United States is particularly instructive. The agreement that led to India’s implicit membership in the nuclear powers club was the first step. It was an acknowledgement of India’s importance, not simply its potential to help rescue America’s flailing economy.

That seems lost on India. During President Obama’s visit to India, he was cast as a threadbare, if loveable, leader begging for rupees and jobs. That was not the case. It was an outstretched hand and an invitation to take on some of the responsibilities that come with great power.

There is an undoubtedly cynical aspect to the world’s interest in India. The world’s powers need India to take on a role it is not yet prepared to do. Realistically, the potential for India to pick up the slack left by the West is limited. India cannot play the same role in the region as the United States or even Britain, because of the fear held by countries of importing conflict.

That is why it is vital for India to pay as much attention to its neighbourhood as it does to the limelight. It cannot fall victim to the flattery of great powers that it is something it has yet to become. Unless it is able to show leadership among its neighbours, it cannot hope to show leadership abroad.


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