Students’ pro-peace artworks on a street in Mumbai earlier this year © Rafiq Maqbool/AP
India’s response to the war in Ukraine did not pan out the way many in the west might have hoped. As Russia’s tanks poured across the border in February, US officials pushed Prime Minister Narendra Modi to condemn Moscow. New Delhi had different ideas.
Over recent decades the US and India have enjoyed a steady deepening of diplomatic ties. But Russia and India have long been friends too, with a relationship forged during the cold war and sustained more recently by steady trade in energy and weapons. Much to the west’s frustration, Modi refused even to criticise President Vladimir Putin, let alone countenance sanctions.
Within the next decade India is likely to overtake Japan to become the world’s third-largest economy. Many western leaders place closer security ties with New Delhi near the top of their geopolitical priority list, viewing India as a critical member of a new coalition of nations willing to stand up to China and uphold the existing global order. But events in Ukraine have raised uncomfortable questions. Just how reliable a friend might India prove to be? And what kind of great power will it eventually become?
Three recent books shed light on these questions from differing perspectives. Shyam Saran’s timely and thoughtful How China Sees India and the World examines how China’s rise complicates India’s own security position. Many factors have brought the US and India closer, from the latter’s economic reopening during the 1990s following four decades of statist protectionism to the subsequent rapid growth of its US-based diaspora. But arguably most important of all is the duo’s shared concern over rising Chinese power.An Indian army convoy on the Zoji La mountain pass bordering China last year © Yawar Nazir/Getty Images
Saran knows China well, having lived there twice, including in the mid-1970s during Mao’s cultural revolution. His subsequent career saw him rise not only to become India’s most senior foreign affairs civil servant but also one of its most eminent China-watchers.
Although India and China are neighbours, he suggests mutual understanding between the two Asian giants has historically been limited. To some extent that is now changing out of necessity, as China grows more powerful and as simmering diplomatic tensions become more pronounced over the duo’s disputed 3,500km border. The two nuclear-armed nations are at present on notably bad terms following violent Himalayan border clashes in 2020, which could easily have turned into a full-scale military conflict.
Saran covers a good deal of ground in trying to understand China’s intentions, ranging from Confucian philosophy in antiquity to the more contemporary “China Dream” of President Xi Jinping. As a result, his book often focuses less on how China sees India, and more on how India should grapple with its neighbour’s rise.
China and India both say they support a new multilateral world order, in which neither the US nor any other power is globally pre-eminent. But Saran doubts China’s sincerity on this point.
Drawing on historical sources, he shows China has often sought to dominate in its own region. He is critical, too, of Beijing’s narratives, in particular over diplomatic claims that have scant historical basis in areas ranging from the South China Sea to the Himalayas. He predicts Xi will ultimately seek the same kind of global dominance over the next century that the US enjoyed during much of the last.
“An imagined history is being put forward to seek legitimacy for China’s claim to Asian hegemony,” he writes. “China would like to see India slotted into a subordinate role in an Asia dominated by itself. India will resist a hierarchical order in Asia and a world dominated by China.”
Such statements are likely to be welcomed by western leaders. Even so, it is often hard to understand what India’s intentions amount to in practice. To take one example, Saran includes a timely afterword that examines the Ukraine crisis, and notes parallels between Russia’s invasion and a potential future Chinese military move against Taiwan. But he gives no hint as to what role India might play diplomatically or militarily in that scenario.
Russia’s recent actions have kicked off a renewed debate within Indian foreign policy circles too. Following independence in 1947, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru fashioned a cold war policy of non-alignment between the superpowers, creating in the process a vision of India as an unusually peaceable and constructive player in international affairs.
Under Modi, India has shifted decisively away from that non-aligned heritage, including by edging closer to the US. Yet the idea still holds an important place in its sense of its own security identity. Now, in the early stages of what many view as a second cold war, India faces a familiar choice, namely whether to resurrect some new form of non-alignment for an era of Sino-US competition or to continue to throw its lot in more closely with the US and its allies as a counterweight to China.
To see which way India might jump it helps to understand the country’s deeper foreign policy instincts, a topic investigated in To Raise a Fallen People: The Nineteenth-Century Origins of Indian Views on International Politics, a collection of historical writing brought together by academic Rahul Sagar.
India’s view of its place in the world draws on ideas formed either in antiquity or after 1947, Sagar suggests. Debates among Indian thinkers from the 19th and early 20th centuries are often ignored.
To correct this, he has scoured the archives to assemble an impressive and illuminating anthology of essays and extracts on topics spanning everything from the politics of imperialism to the morality of the opium trade, foisted on China by the British empire. A handful are from well-known authors, such as future independence leader Mahatma Gandhi and the poet Rabindranath Tagore, but most are written by figures who would be unknown to contemporary Indian and western readers alike.
Sagar’s contention is that these debates can provide a clearer sense of the kind of policies India may follow as it retakes its position as a top-tier global player. “Put another way . . . we want to know whether India will henceforth behave like a traditional great power by concertedly developing its capabilities and advancing its national interests,” he writes in the introduction.
Taken together, Sagar’s collection unearths useful new perspectives on India’s intellectual heritage, just as Saran’s research into China’s historical worldview provides insights into Beijing’s present thinking. Some of the most interesting extracts discuss how India should respond to the “Great Game”, the 19th-century diplomatic confrontation between Britain and Russia, as the latter’s influence spread through Afghanistan up to India’s border.
Many of the writers featured bemoan India’s inability to defend itself, too, echoing contemporary concerns about the country’s weak military position vis-à-vis China. “India must somehow or other be made capable of punishing her wrongdoer herself, if possible without necessarily relying upon any great foreign help,” civil servant and intellectual Dinshah Taleyarkhan wrote in 1886, in an extract entitled “Russia, India and Afghanistan”.
Sagar’s own sympathies are reasonably clear: namely that India should once again behave as a traditional great power. “For the past century, the security umbrella provided by the British Empire, and subsequently the Nehruvian policy of nonalignment, allowed Indians to more or less avoid the question of whether their country should enter, with all seriousness, into the rough and tumble of great power politics,” he writes in his introduction. “We are in the waiting room of history.”
Quite how this history will unfold depends crucially on the relationship between India and the US, examined by journalist Meenakshi Ahamed in A Matter of Trust: India-US Relations from Truman to Trump. First published last year and recently released in paperback, Ahamed’s book also uses archival research to paint a readable but in-depth picture of the ups and downs of ties between the two nations’ leaders.
These relationships have often been frayed, most notably during the 1970s under Nehru’s daughter Indira Gandhi, whose statist instincts led her to suspect the US and who drew India closer to Russia. Nehru himself had notably frosty relations with both presidents Harry Truman and John F Kennedy. That suspicion was often mutual: “I can smell these communists a mile away,” Ahamed quotes Truman as saying, “and this man Nehru sure looked like a communist to me.”
Ahamed is sanguine on the claim that common values make the two countries natural partners, not least given a decline in India’s democratic, secular institutions under Modi. “Seventy years of India-US relations has shown that despite the two countries being democracies, not only are they far apart culturally but the intersection of their critical interests is relatively modest,” she writes. “The only time when the relationship has developed any real momentum is when one of the leaders has been willing to make a leap of faith.”
There are reasons to doubt this claim about the critical importance of leadership. US President Joe Biden does not appear to have an especially warm relationship with Modi, but India and the US have continued to develop closer economic and military ties nonetheless. More important is India’s changing sense of its own self-interests as it grows in power.
India’s position is far from simple, however. It finds itself having to manage the contours of potentially destructive Sino-US competition, much in the same way that it had to navigate the original contest between the US and Russia. New Delhi shows no inclination to become a formal western ally, as for instance Japan has become, and is clear-eyed on the likely future of western strength. “It is unlikely that the long-term decline of US and western power in general can be reversed,” as Saran writes.
Even today some of its old debates have not been definitively settled. “Nehru’s policy of non-alignment may still be the gold standard that plots a safe course for India through the uncharted waters that lie ahead,” Ahamed contends. On balance, however, there are better reasons to think, as Sagar and Saran appear to do, that India will increasingly behave much as other great powers have done throughout history, acting forcefully in international affairs and guided by what it perceives to be its own interests.
In the short term, India and the west have a good deal of common cause over China. But, as Ukraine shows, this only goes so far. And in the long term, what Ahamed dubs the intersection of critical interests between India and the west may well turn out to be narrower and more transitory than it currently appears.
How China Sees India and the World by Shyam Saran, Juggernaut £20.32, 304 pages
To Raise a Fallen People: The Nineteenth-Century Origins of Indian Views on International Politics by Rahul Sagar, Columbia University Press £28/$35, 352 pages
A Matter of Trust: India-US Relations from Truman to Trump by Meenakshi Ahamed, HarperCollins £25/$18.99, 560 pages
James Crabtree is executive director of the International Institute for Strategic Studies Asia, and author of ‘The Billionaire Raj’
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