|Name of Event:
Sapru House Lecture
on “India and the Great
Powers: Managing Strategic Triangles”
C. Raja Mohan
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
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
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
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
Report by: Dr.
D. Gnanagurunathan, Research Fellow & Ms. Sohinee
Basak, Research Intern at Indian Council of World Affairs