India: The In-Between Great Power

Commentary No. 450, June 1, 2017

I have the impression that, of all the “great powers” in the contemporary world-system, however one defines “great power,” India is the one that receives the least attention. I admit that this has been true of me, but it is true as well of the majority of geopolitical analysts.

Why should this be? India after all is rapidly approaching the point where it will have the world’s largest population. It is respectably high on most measures of economic strength and improving all the time. It is a nuclear power and has one of the world’s largest armed forces. It is a member of the G20 which is the imprimatur of being a great power. However, it is not a member of the G7, which is a far more restricted group and a far more important one.

It is one of the five countries known as the BRICS – Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa. But the BRICS, the rising force of “emerging” economies at the beginning of the new century, has now slipped in geopolitical significance, as their economies, with the exception of China, have suddenly weakened radically since the post-2008 decline in the world-economy. They are officially a member, with China and Russia but also with Pakistan, of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, but this structure has never seemed to become a major force in world politics.

India’s governments, whichever party has been in power, have spent much energy seeking a larger role in the world-system. In particular, they have sought to obtain support from other powers in India’s long-standing dispute with Pakistan over Kashmir. They have never seemed to achieve this goal.

In the days of the cold war, India was officially neutral and de facto closer to Russia. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, India has tried to improve its relations with the United States. But what it gained in terms of U.S. support, it lost in terms of Chinese policy. China has had serious armed conflicts with India over territory, and is angry about India’s hospitality to the Dalai Lama.

India has been a rare country in Asia to have a functioning parliamentary system, with shifts in electoral strength between the Congress Party (heir of the independence movement) and the Bharatiya Janata Party (a rightwing Hindu nationalist movement). This fact receives regular plaudits from analysts and political leaders in the pan-European countries, but doesn’t seem to have meant that they support India’s demands for greater recognition to any important degree.

One question one should ask is, “who really needs India?” The United States, especially since Donald Trump has come to power, wants India to buy more from it without however investing too much in return. Indeed, at the moment, the return of Indian internet technology personnel to India from the United States (and other western countries) is threatening the United States with significant loss of employment in one of the few sectors where the United States has been doing well up to now.

Does China need India? Of course, China wants the backing of India in any of its quarrels with the United States, but India is a rival for the support of countries in southeast Asia, not a partner in their development. Russia and Iran could use Indian support on Middle East issues, but India is hesitant to give too much support, even when they basically agree on questions concerning say Afghanistan, for fear of offending the United States. Southeast Asian nations believe that coming to terms with China will pay off more than coming to terms with India.

The problem, clearly, is that India is an “in-between” state. It is strong enough to be taken into account by others. But it is not strong enough to play a decisive role. So, as the other powers constantly juggle their priorities, India seems fated to be one that reacts to their initiatives, rather than one to which others react to Indian initiatives.

Will this change over the next decade? In the chaotic geopolitics of the present state of the world-system, anything is possible. But it does not seem too likely.