India will have to make hard choices

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A recent policy brief issued by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace asserted that even in a pandemic world, India’s influence would enable it to become a strong counterweight to China. A cursory search of recent newspapers, policy statements, and even academic journals reveals this widespread belief.

One may be forgiven for thinking that this idea dates to contemporary watershed moments of military or economic strength —such as India’s economic reforms of the early 1990s or the nuclear tests of 1998 — but this would be wrong. Shortly after India turned independent in 1947, and the Chinese Communist Party came to power in 1949, The New York Times declared that independent India would become “a great counterweight to China”. Given that in the eyes of the world, India has apparently been in the process of becoming a counterweight to China for 70 years, it’s important to examine what this means. In other words, if India were a counterweight to China, what would that entail? And whom would it benefit?

The concept of one country being a counterweight to another, or “counterbalancing” as it is sometimes known, comes from realist and neo-realist theories in international relations. If there is one dominant power either in the world-at-large or within a region, the best chance of reducing the likelihood of war is for one country (or a group of countries) to counter it by acting as a balance. A counterbalancing country would take deliberate and assertive steps to match the dominant power in not simply size and population but in military spending and prowess, economic power, global influence, participation in international institutions, the strength of its alliances, and its reputation. This would make it risky for the dominant power to go to outright war with the counter-balancer. The father of neo-realism, Kenneth Waltz, famously declared that the most stable world was one that was bipolar, much like the Cold War world with the United States (US) and the Soviet Union counterbalancing each other.

Which brings us to the current post-Cold War world where the rise of China is a source of huge worry for the dominant power, the US. While the US’ capabilities and influence still outstrip China’s — simply put, it is a superpower and China is not (yet) — it is important for it to find allies with a common cause to counter China’s rise. Thus, when it comes to counterbalancing, particularly in Asia, the US thinks of India. This is partly because China and India are heavyweights in the region. It is also because India is a democracy, and the US, therefore, sees India as a country akin to it.

But as external affairs minister, S Jaishankar, pointed out just a few days ago, at a forum with US Vice President Mike Pence, China and India as rising powers needed to reach some kind of “understanding or equilibrium.” His statement hints at the reluctance that has always existed in the Indian government to become the US’ geopolitical tool.

It could move under a US security umbrella à la Japan and South Korea. It could move away from the US, and commit to non-alignment between any future American and Chinese poles. Or it could, in the least plausible scenario given the current climate, decide to take concrete steps that would lead to long-term rapprochement with China.

All of these actions come with costs and benefits. But, all else being equal, at some point India will have to make a difficult choice.

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