India - A Power in Puberty

Posted in India , Asia | 23-Mar-05 | Author: Akshay Mavani

India, a potential global power in the making, consistently makes questionable diplomatic moves in order to showcase its growing political clout. India’s recent unilateral withdrawal from the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), exemplifies India’s aspirations to become a regional balance of power. Strategists in India like to claim that in the long run America needs India more than the reverse.

However, such flexing can only be described as tantrums of a power in puberty.

Such hubris only serves to alienate its ASEAN neighbours, shoving them (perhaps unwillingly) closer to China. India needs the support from these countries diplomatic immaturity is the last thing India needs to flaunt.

India is currently in a losing position in the race against China for power and global importance. This is echoed across the board, including energy resources, foreign direct investment (FDI) and diplomatic ties with its neighbours.

Indian businessmen continue to be bewildered with China’s progress, and also wonder why India does not receive the attention and respect that it deserves. The world sees India as a country that should take up the challenge to close the gap with China and effectively form a strategic balance.

India needs to market itself better internationally, and not expect to be considered without any assertive measures, to put itself in the eyes of the world. Save the IT sector, businessmen around the world are not familiar with India’s competencies.

The current political, economical and geopolitical trends in Asia, makes for a very advantageous platform for India to launch an aggressive marketing strategy. Southeast Asian nations are vary of China’s increasing clout and are increasingly afraid of losing their share of the limelight.

Political differences between China and the US over Taiwan, increasing Japanese animosity (leading to a greater push for Japanese rearmament) towards China, and problems with North Korea (a country that can now be assumed to have nuclear weapons) combine to form a great diplomatic opportunity for India.

However, India does not seem to be doing much at all. Current focus on obtaining arms from the US and countering Pakistan seem to be the dominant issues. Cricket diplomacy keeps India from making progress in other more important areas.

India – Japan bilateral trade stands at around 4 billion dollars. A disgrace given the fact that this was the same as in 1997-98 and compared with 13 billion dollars expected trade with China for the current fiscal year. Japan sees China as a strategic military threat, has energy ties with Iran and allies with the US on many aspects. All this should make ties with Japan a major focus for India. There is great potential for developing economic and military ties. Japan is long known for its construction prowess; an area in which India would benefit greatly. Given India’s steadily rising wealth, investments in this area would be very attractive to Japanese investors.

Indian military aspirations can also benefit from greater ties with Japan. Currently a large amount of American military technology stems from Japan. The US is also trying to push Japanese rearmament and looks ahead to Japan become a major exporter of weapons technology. It is no longer a matter of if Japan will rearm but when. Rearmament will lead to the creation of a power balance (to China) in Asia, something the world wants to see. This would further reduce India’s significance in the region and the world.

India – Southeast Asia relations are not as good as they could be. India’s recent change of policy towards the military rulers of Myanmar, is a positive signal that it is now willing to stop trying to act as if it was already a superpower. This change towards Myanmar has been largely due to India’s ever increasing energy requirements. Greater ties with economically advanced countries such as Singapore would greatly increase India’s importance in the region. Engaging, instead of alienating the Southeast Asian countries would serve to increase trade with India, as well as improve India’s reputation. India needs to start developing better relations with countries that are in the background but are developing rapidly, such as Thailand and Vietnam. Given Southeast Asian fears of China, one certainly wonders why India does not engage these countries more aggressively.

The eventual creation of the ASEAN + 3 (China, Japan, South Korea) free trade zone will create a market with almost 2 billion people. This should see countries in the ASEAN outpace India in growth. This will only serve to further isolate India. Although India is currently in talks to join the free trade zone some years after, it is really questionable whether it would be allowed to do so that soon.

ASEAN would be better served by creating better ties with the EU. It would also not serve China well to see another power rise and possibly start to tip the balance in Asia (Japan + India).

China continues to encircle India, developing strong ties with Southeast Asian countries. India’s acceptance that China is far ahead in the game, has lead to a lazy approach to progress. ‘We will become a superpower in time, whether we sleep or not’ seems to be the status quo. What India does not realise is that the world would prefer and that it would be better for them to take a much more proactive role, and become more visible in the world. Even through Chinese and Indian ties are increasing significantly, India still plays second fiddle and is not seen to be a near contender to China – yet. Local perception in China is still rose tinted towards the west and will remain thus in the near future.

India has yet to gain widespread acceptance as a country to learn from as opposed to a backward nation. This will certainly take time, but can be speeded up with more active (and modest) involvement in the international diplomatic arena, and greater and better marketing efforts by the government.

India needs to push ahead aggressively, forming bi-lateral ties with, Japan, and the Southeast Asian countries. Japan has traditionally been slow to accept foreign relations and thus need to be courted constantly. The impetus lies with India as an emerging economy to increase ties with mature Japan. As Japan’s largest recipient of low cost loans, India can leverage greater ties in order to increase FDI from and trade with Japan. Combining this with better relations with the other countries in the region, India would be able to make more admirable progress. A direct result of increased relations in Asia would be a marked increase in India’s importance vis-à-vis America. The US is steadily losing importance in Asia, which they would act to counter. India is strategically placed to be a major ally of the US.

However, India’s hubris as the future power balance in Asia, continues to expect the other countries to kow tow and approach India for favourable ties. India will certainly reach that stage, however, it is not there as of yet, and to speed up the timeline, India should realise that it needs to stop preening non-existent feathers and drop its arrogance.

Should this not happen, one cannot see India reaching any significant status in the lifetime of the current leadership.

Copyright A. Mavani 2005