What India needs to do to be seen as a major global power

We need to plan for the long-term and be seen as offering strategic dependability to our friends.

 |  5-minute read |   22-09-2017
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US President Donald Trump’s address to the UN General Assembly was unique — he minced no words in conveying his intentions in respect of how he intended to use power in international dealings that threaten his government and its allies. That China has termed his threat to North Korea as "unhelpful" only goes to show that both nations are maintaining a posture of "strategic reliability" with their friends.


This is indicative of the behaviour of powerful nations in international power equations that have been traced by Henry Kissinger in his 2014 book, World Order. Analysing the fluctuating fortunes of nations, he writes: “In international affairs, a reputation for reliability is a more important asset than demonstration of tactical cleverness.”

These are wise words for India as it grapples with the flux due to the unpredictability of Trump, the resurrection of Russia and the muscle flexing of Xi Jinping as China asserts itself to be the numero uno. L’affaire Doklam was part of the chain of Depsang and Chumar-like events.

Though resolved now, historical evidence would say that it would not be the last test of India’s resolve. Militarily, India had the upper hand in the area. However, for the tactical success of the peaceful disengagement to translate to wider reputational gain would require India to build up a “reputation for reliability”.

That is an area in which India has been found wanting, as was seen when India’s friend President Mohammad Najibullah was hung by the Taliban in Afghanistan in 1996 or when oil purchases from Iran had to be curtailed following sanctions imposed by the West.

India’s default occurred due to lack of that intangible element called power, which is the ability of a state to create outcomes and, more importantly, sustain them. Reliability flows from possessing power and demonstrating the will to use it consistently; India has much distance to cover in its rise as a modern nation.

Historically, there are cycles of rise and fall of powerful nations and empires. These cyclical episodes arise from rising aspirations of a country which feels that its time has come for pre-eminence in world order; nothing wrong in improving one’s standing, except that its translation to attempted dominance usually results in bloodshed.

In the realist world, this has to be planned, so that one does not come across as being flippant in international interaction. To quote Kissinger again, history punishes strategic frivolity sooner or later. So, besides becoming a reliable power, strategic dependability is what India should be seen as offering to its friends. For that, there needs to be a strategy.



Strategy “is about getting more out of the balance of a situation than the starting balance of power would suggest”, writes strategist Lawrence Freedman. India has problems with its neighbours and must have a strategy to move on two tracks — one, vis- à-vis adversarial countries, viz, Pakistan and China; second, with respect to other nations that are hedging their bets between India and China.

Strategy requires continuous calibration of available means to achieve the desired ends. It does not end there since what would follow once the ends have been achieved would finally determine whether the strategy was successful or not. In the intervention in Sri Lanka, getting LTTE chief V Prabhakaran to sign the peace accord and induction of the IPKF were treated as a successful end state; in the event, failure to correctly foresee the subsequent events cost us dearly. The Indian strategy was, thus, found wanting in the long run.

The Indian government now has a new defence minister in Nirmala Sitharama. Much advice has come her way on what needs to be done to energise the ministry of defence to overcome the work backlog, especially weapon acquisitions, and to meet the multitude of threats lurking around the corner. From a macro perch, she has but just one priority — get the right strategy right as everything would flow from there.


The strategy needs to be resilient, born out of an assured supply of professional thought, skilled manpower, technology and manufacturing capability — these will determine the sub-plots of the strategy. It also needs to be adaptive to changing scenarios involving machinations of other nations — her interaction with US Secretary of Defence James Mattis next week would thus be pivotal in how events play out in the coming years.

It is abundantly clear that the US wants a more "involved" India in Afghanistan as a price for its support — and this could be part of the agenda that Gen Mattis is bringing to Delhi. Even as that would be in our interest too, one should remember that Nepal, Bhutan, Myanmar, Sri Lanka and Maldives are equally important.

So, even as India would want to be omnipresent in its neighbourhood, it would be prudent to remember what Kissinger had theorised: “In international affairs, a reputation for reliability is a more important asset than demonstration of tactical cleverness.”

We have our strong points — and shortcomings. Within these, India needs to plan for the long-term and be seen as offering strategic dependability to its friends. This is what is expected of an aspirant to a place at the top table of international power politics.

(Courtesy of Mail Today.)

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AVM Manmohan Bahadur AVM Manmohan Bahadur @bahadurmanmohan

The writer is a retired Air Vice Marshal and is a Distinguished Fellow at the Centre for Air Power Studies, New Delhi.

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