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Reports on Speech/Lecture

Name of Event:  First Sapru House Lecture
on “India and the Great Powers: Managing Strategic Triangles”
by Dr. C. Raja Mohan
Date:  31 August 2012
Venue:  Sapru House, New Delhi


The Indian Council of World Affairs organised the first Sapru House Lecture by Dr C. Raja Mohan entitled “India and the Great Powers: Managing Strategic Triangles” on 31 August 2012. Shri Salman Haider, former foreign secretary, chaired the lecture. A large audience comprising the diplomatic corps, research community, media, and university students, attended the lecture.

Ambassador Rajiv K Bhatia, Director General, ICWA, in his opening remarks emphasised on the importance of evaluating the broader picture of international affairs periodically. He placed the issue of India as a ‘great power’ and India’s choices in managing other great powers in context for the lecture.

Dr Raja Mohan observed that India is now in a triangle facing China and the US. This is not the only power triangle India had faced so far; even in the pre-independence days, India had to choose between opposing alternatives. The inter-war period is a marker for understanding the evolution of India foreign policy. The cruelties of the First World War were so profound that people had lost faith in the modern ideas of progress and scientific endeavour. It had left an indelible mark on the works of art and culture in the inter-war period, which depicted the horrors and futilities of war. A revulsion towards violence and war grew among many world leaders.

The impact of change in international politics from real politick to moral politick had also influenced India. At that juncture, the Indian national movement had debated about its choices on the ways to negotiate with the rest of the world. The international community’s distaste for war had a significant effect on India’s leaders as well. They started emphasising on the idealist principles – one which denounced power politics. There was a growing call for an alternative discourse, and insistence on moral politics in India. Parties across political spectrum dismissed power politics. They spoke of collective security, and passionately called for one world. The Indian leaders envisaged a world order which transcended the structure of power politics.

But the break-out of Second World War had put India in a perilous position of facing the dilemma of fighting fascist Germany and resisting the imperialist West. The tilting of power balance during the course of the war forced the political parties to take a position on this predicament. The Communist Party extended their support to the Soviet Union, and Congress denounced fascism. Despite opposition from different sections of the country’s leadership, India participated in the Second World War and had suffered tremendous losses.

In the post-Second World War period, moral politick gave way to real politick in the international political arena. But India remained committed to non-violence, and retained its faith in diplomacy as a tool to resolve disputes. The final years of its freedom movement had a deep influence on its foreign policy, especially the way India dealt with the declining Great Britain, and coped with the emerging balance of power between America and the Soviet Union.

As the Cold War unfolded, India found itself in a complex bi-polar world order. The capitalist countries aligned with the United States, and the socialist countries united under the Soviet Union. India adopted the national strategy of not taking sides. As Nehru had pointed out, it was about pursuing India’s own interests; it was about maintaining an equi-distance from both the poles. India benefited greatly from both the US and the Soviet Union during the early Cold War era. In1954, when US supported Pakistan with arms, it complicated the security situation for India. India turned to the Soviets for support to negotiate with situation. The shift in balance of power, whether there is cooperation or conflict, always has an effect on the regional balance of power.

However, to desist from engaging in power politics, and aligning with the power blocks, India had taken non-alignment as a foreign policy position as well as adopted it as a principle of action. Later, it transformed into Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) with the active participation of other states with similar views in 1961.The Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) was not an anti-west position. It was not a moral choice either, rather a nuanced real political option India had adopted then.

Following Ping-Pong diplomacy, the US-China relationship acquired a momentum, and they conjoined Pakistan to maintain the balance of power in the South Asian region. India signed the Treaty of Friendship and Co-operation with the Soviet Union in 1971 to counter the triangle. India’s privileged relationship and proximity with the Soviet Union had also its costs. The impact of Sino-Soviet rift affected Indo-Sino relations as well. But, when the Soviet Union started normalising the relationship with China, under Mikhail Gorbachev, India was concerned about its possible repercussions on its relationship with the Soviet Union.

Dr Raja Mohan observed that the emerging power triangle between India, China and US is fundamentally different from the one India faced during the Cold War with the US and the Soviet Union. On the economic side, Russia opted out of the global economic system. While China is an integral part of the world economy, the relationship between the US and China is that of interdependence, but the Soviet Union maintained its autarky. For the US, economic containment of Russia was possible, but the same would be an improbable choice with China. At the ideological level, Soviet Union was considered an ideological threat, but China is not seen as an ideological threat, as that of Red Capitalism. Geographically, China is a neighbour, but the US is a distant power. The dynamics of US-China relationship will be closer home than that of the US and the Soviet Union.

Dr Mohan prognosticated the various ways in which the US-China relationship can take shape: (a) there could be a possibility of a full-blown Cold War between China and the US; (b) there could also be a formation of collective security architecture; (c) the emergence of a China-centric order in Asia; (d) the US and China working together to shape the world order; (e) a multi-polar Asia, if the US decides to stay out of Asia, where many powers operate in the region; (f) the US being an offshore power, balancing strategy and power in Asia, something which Great Britain had done in Europe; (g) a concert of powers akin to post-Napoleon Europe; or (h) the future world order can be an amalgamation of all these possibilities.

In this triangle, it is difficult for India to maintain the status quo of not taking sides. The reason for this being is the location; China is in its neighbourhood. Moreover, the economic parity between China and India is widening, and China’s GDP is larger and continues to grow faster than India’s GDP. China’s defence expenditure is three and a half times more than India could afford for its military. Any attempts that India undertakes to rearrange the disequilibrium would affect the regional balance of power. Therefore, the choices that India makes, either siding with the external powers or simply depending on its own internal resources, or adopting both would be paramount for its future role in international politics. Besides, the regional balance of power also depends on China’s role and on the US course of action in this regard.

To cope with this emerging power triangle, India needs to be sensitive towards the changing international power politics. It can side with any of the powers or can also create a concert of middle powers. In this world of power politics, India also needs to have effective China, US and South Asian policies, or in other words, an effective neighbourhood and foreign policy. However, without growth, India’s options would automatically shrink. This requires strengthening of our own capacities. Further, there is also a need for a strong domestic leadership to implement strong foreign policies in today’s world order.

Maintaining the balance of power in the region and in the world is critical for India, but a great deal of it depends upon how the US and China act on it. This structure of power politics is different from the one India had faced in the last sixty years, and thus has to rethink many of its own principles and priorities. India would be affected by, as in the words of Dr Raja Mohan, “a giant that is rising in India’s neighbourhood”. The age of American capitalism is gone, and there is the rise of Red Capitalism. And India is at cross-roads.

A lively question and answer session ensued the lecture. Shri Salman Haider in his final remarks observed that China looms largely on the discourse of India’s foreign policy.


Report by:    Dr. D. Gnanagurunathan, Research Fellow & Ms. Sohinee Basak, Research Intern at Indian Council of World Affairs