Multipolarity and India

Author: Leonid Savin

Translator: Jafe Arnold 

The following is an excerpt from a forthcoming book…

Indian theories of multipolarity also deserve attentive study. The Indian political scientist Suryanarayana believes that multipolarity is conceivable as a stable principle of international relations only between states that have developed organically as “power houses.” Implicit in this notion is a criticism of colonialism, neocolonialism as well as the chimerical political culture vividly exemplified in the US which, with its strategic notion of the “Frontier” and historical statehood, cannot represent such an organic power house.

By engaging in economic reform,” it is assumed, “India will have the opportunity to develop and exploit its large population and economic opportunity to become a global power in an increasingly multi-polar system, thereby allowing for an ambitious foreign policy permitting India to protect its interests in South Asia and act as the preeminent power in the region.” It has also been noted that India has earned “high political credibility in most parts of the world on top of its growing economic stature, it seems reluctant to capitalize on this. Unwilling to break with the creeds that have guided its foreign policy since independence but, rather, trying to conserve them by adapting them to the emerging new multipolar order.” Upon attaining a new economic level, moreover, India will inevitably strengthen its military and political presence in the Indian Ocean.

University of Colorado Professor Peter Harris believes that multipolarity will be directly linked to a shift in the balance of forces in the Indian Ocean. Harris writes:

Today, centuries of relative unipolarity are giving way to noticeable multipolarity. India’s announcement of a base in the Seychelles is another important step in this direction—a sign that New Delhi is doubling down on its blue water navy and attendant power-projection capabilities.  From the Seychellois island of Assumption, which is already equipped with an airstrip, the Indian military—even if it is limited by geography to maintaining only a tiny military presence—will boast a central position in the Western Indian Ocean, close to the East African coastline and astride the important maritime trade route that runs from the Mozambique Channel to the Arabian Sea.

It is not just India that is beefing up its presence in the region, of course. Late last year, China announced the creation of its first permanent overseas base in Djibouti at the mouth of the Red Sea, and Beijing continues to expand its naval capabilities (most recently by announcing the construction of its first Chinese-made aircraft carrier). With the United States also present in Djibouti—as well as Bahrain, Diego Garcia and elsewhere—this means that at least three of the great powers are demonstrably seeking to expand their military reach in the Indian Ocean.  And middle powers such as Britain and France also boast considerable military assets in the wider region…

International Relations theory helps to delineate three scenarios that might play out. First, the great powers could cooperate to combat piracy, maintain geopolitical stability, and keep sea lanes open. This is the hope of liberal academicians, who see few conflicts of interest between the various powers in terms of their vision for the ocean’s future; on the contrary, a common stake in policing the commons should provide great impetus to maintaining regional stability. Second, however, the Indian Ocean could become the focus of great power competition and even outright conflict, as distrust and divergent interests push states to shun collaboration. This is the pessimistic prediction of most realist scholars.

But third, the Indian Ocean could become the scene of a new sort of world order—or, to put it more accurately, world orders—as rival great powers go about organizing their own spheres of influence that exist discretely and distinctly with one another’s. Such a world was outlined by Charles Kupchan in his book, No One’s World, in which the author argued that the coming international system will be characterized by decentralization, pluralism, and co-existence…

Whatever the form of international governance that emerges in the Indian Ocean, then, it will have to accommodate the reality that several great powers have vital interests in the region. Come conflict or cooperation, political order in the Indian Ocean will have to be multipolar in character — if, indeed, it is not already. The prospects for peace and harmonious cooperation under such circumstances are not altogether bleak, but they are not endlessly auspicious either.  In many ways, twenty-first century geopolitics begins here.

In their joint article, “The multipolar Asian century: Contestation or competition?”, Samir Saran, a senior research fellow and vice president of the Observer Research Foundation (India) and Ashok Malik, a senior research fellow at the Australian Lowy Institute for International Policy, also assign India an important place in the future world order and focus on the Asia-Pacific region as a possible source for the formation of a multipolar world. Saran and Malik suggest three possible scenarios:

Should the US choose to bequeath the liberal, international order to Asian forces, India will be the heir-apparent. India would not, under this circumstance, play the role of a great power — because Asia is too fractious and politically vibrant to be managed by one entity — but simply that of a ‘bridge power’. India is in a unique and catalytic position, with its ability to singularly span the geographic and ideological length of the continent. But two variables will need to be determined. Can the US find it within itself to incubate an order that may not afford it the pride of place like the trans-Atlantic system? And, can India get its act together and be alive to the opportunity it has to become the inheritor of a liberal Asia?

The second possibility for an Asian order is that it resembles the 19th century Concert of Europe, an unstable but necessary political coalition of major powers on the continent. The ‘big eight’ in Asia (China, India Japan, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Australia, Russia and America) would all be locked in a marriage of convenience, bringing their disparate interests to heel for the greater cause of shared governance. Difficult as it would be to predict the contours of this system, it would likely be focused on preventing shocks to ‘core’ governance functions in Asia, such as the preservation of the financial system, territorial and political sovereignties and inter-dependent security arrangements. Given that each major player in this system would see this as an ad hoc mechanism, its chances of devolving into a debilitating bilateral or multi-front conflict for superiority would be high — very much like the Concert that gave way to the First World War.

A third possibility could see the emergence of an Asian political architecture that does not involve the US. This system — or more precisely, a universe of subsystems — would see the regional economic and security alliances take a prominent role in managing their areas of interest. As a consequence, institutions like ASEAN, the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, the AIIB, the Gulf Cooperation Council and the South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation will become the ‘hubs’ of governance. The US would remain distantly engaged with these sub-systems, but would be neither invested in their continuity, or affiliated to its membership.

There also exists the point of view that India will represent the third pole of a multipolar world (besides the US and China) by 2050. Given that the author of this model is Hindu, such a theory is of a clearly prejudiced character. On the other hand, a tripolar system a priori cannot be multipolar. What’s more, India’s leadership considers Russia to be one pole of the multipolar world, as was stated by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi during his visit to Moscow in December 2015, who said that he sees in Russia a “significant partner in the economic transformation of India and the creation of a balanced, stable, inclusive, multipolar world.”

However, the Indian view of multipolarity implicitly harbors negative perceptions of China due to territorial disputes and, in a broader context, due to the civilizational competition between these two countries. Russia is also an often subject of criticism. For example, the retired Indian diplomat M. Bhadrakumar has remarked: “Russia and China give lip-service to their shared interests with developing countries and they profess ardor for a polycentric world order, ultimately they remain self-centered, comfortable in the knowledge of their assured veto power in the UN and their sequestered place within the discriminatory nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) regime. Unsurprisingly, they are paramountly focused on perpetuating their privileged position as arbiters of regional problems.”

Nevertheless, the understanding that the window of opportunities could expand considerably under none other than multipolarity continues to push India in this direction. As Amee Patel has pointed out in the context of India-China dialogue: “While improved relations could alleviate each nation’s challenges, a further motivation is given by India’s shared resentment toward the international system.”

 

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