The paradox of India’s global rise, its regional decline

This dichotomy has profound implications for New Delhi’s global aspirations

May 04, 2024 12:16 am | Updated 12:58 pm IST

‘India’s influence is declining in South Asia’

‘India’s influence is declining in South Asia’ | Photo Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

One of the deeply perplexing paradoxes of contemporary Indian foreign policy is that a globally rising India is also a regionally declining power. While India’s global rise is a function of growth in absolute power, peer accommodation and a conducive ‘chaotic’ international situation, its waning regional influence is caused by diminishing relative power (vis-à-vis China), loss of primacy in South Asia, and fundamental changes in South Asian geopolitics.

India’s aggregate power has grown over the past two decades — evident in robust economic growth, military capabilities, and a largely young demography. Its inclusion in key global institutions such as the G-20, as an invitee at G-7 meetings, and active participation in multilateral groups such as the Quad, BRICS, and the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation further highlight its geopolitical significance and its powerful presence globally, even if it is not a member of the United Nations Security Council. There is a lot more peer accommodation of (except from China of course) of India’s claims to be a globally significant power. India’s global rise is also aided by growing international attention on the Indo-Pacific, a theatre that is pivotal to global strategic stability, where India has a central position, geographically and otherwise.

Extraneous factors

Despite this global rise, paradoxically and worryingly, India’s influence is declining in South Asia. When compared to India’s influence in the region during the Cold War or in comparison to China’s influence in the region today, India’s power and influence in the region has sharply declined. This comparative decline, not an absolute one, caused by several extraneous factors, will have an impact on India’s global position over time.

Paradoxically, again, some of the factors that have led to the decline of Indian influence in the region are also the reasons behind India’s global prominence. Consider the following. The American withdrawal from the region and China filling that power vacuum have been disadvantageous to India. But that is, at the same time, a major reason why the United States and its allies are keen to accommodate India’s global interests including in order to push back China in the region. In the case of the Indo-Pacific, while interest in the Indo-Pacific has increased, India’s global prominence as an indispensable Indo-Pacific power, New Delhi’s focus on the great power balance in the Indo-Pacific may have stretched New Delhi a bit too thin in the continental neighbourhood.

If India’s global rise stems from the growth in absolute power and the geopolitical choices made by the leading powers of the contemporary international system, India’s regional decline is a product of the dynamics of comparative power, and geopolitical choices made by the region’s smaller powers. To that extent, overlooking the balancing acts by the region’s smaller powers to focus on the great power balancing might become counterproductive.

The rise of China and what India must do

But the rise of China explains India’s regional decline more than anything else. Today, India is more powerful than it has ever been in nearly two centuries. And, yet, it is, comparatively speaking, the weakest it has ever been in history vis-à-vis China. Faced with a rising superpower next door for the first time, India is facing stiff geopolitical competition for influence in South Asia. China’s rise will, therefore, mean that India may no longer be the most consequential power in the region.

The arrival of China in South Asia, the withdrawal of the U.S. from the region, and India’s tilt to the Indo-Pacific have shifted the regional balance of power in Beijing’s favour. Sensing this new power equation, South Asia’s smaller powers, India’s neighbours, are engaged in a range of strategies: balancing, bargaining, hedging and bandwagoning. India’s smaller neighbours seem to find China as a useful hedge against India, for the moment at least. It is also important to keep in mind that a great deal of this regional balancing results from shifts in the regional balance of power, not merely from insufficient Indian outreach to the neighbourhood.

While the presence of a rising superpower at its doorstep for the first time is at the heart of this paradox, the growing obsolescence of South Asia as a geopolitical construct adds to India’s diminishing hold on the region. For India, meeting the challenge posed by this paradox is essential as China’s rise in South Asia will mean that India may no longer be the most consequential power in the region.

To begin with, New Delhi must revisit some of its traditional conceptions of the region, ‘modernise’ its primacy in South Asia, and take proactive and imaginative policy steps to meet the China challenge in the region.

First of all, we must accept the reality that the region, the neighbours and the region’s geopolitics have fundamentally changed over the decade-and-a-half at the least. Not willing to acknowledge there is a problem will only make matters worse.

Second, New Delhi must focus on its strengths rather than trying to match the might of the People’s Republic of China in every respect — the latter is a fool’s errand. Fashioning a new engagement with the region that reflects India’s traditional strengths and the region’s changed realities is essential. Reclaiming the Buddhist heritage is one such example.

Third, India’s continental strategy is replete with challenges whereas its maritime space has an abundance of opportunities for enhancing trade, joining minilaterals, and creating new issue-based coalitions, among others. New Delhi must, therefore, use its maritime (Indo-Pacific) advantages to cater to its many continental handicaps. Doing so could involve including India’s smaller South Asian neighbours to the Indo-Pacific strategic conversations. Many of them are maritime states but not serious players within the Indo-Pacific project. India and its partners (the U.S., Japan, Australia, the European Union, and others) must find ways of engaging and partnering with Sri Lanka, the Maldives, and Bangladesh as part of their larger Indo-Pacific strategy. In other words, New Delhi should try to wean them away from the China-led regional grand strategy by making them a key part of the Indo-Pacific grand strategy where India and its partners hold significant advantage over China.

Fourth, there is today an openness in New Delhi to view the region through a non-India centric lens. This also means that New Delhi is no longer uneasy about external powers in its neighbourhood as it used to be during the Cold War. As a consequence, there is a desire to join hands with external friendly partners both in the Indian Ocean and South Asia so as to deal with the region’s common challenges. This openness in New Delhi, and the desire of the external actors to engage the region, must be utilised to address the difficulties arising out of New Delhi’s regional decline.

Tap soft power

Finally, New Delhi should make creative uses of its soft power to retain its influence in the region. One way to do that is to actively encourage informal contacts between political and civil society actors in India and those in other South Asian countries. For instance, there is a need to encourage informal and unofficial conflict management processes in the region especially when and where the Indian state is hesitant about being involved directly in a conflict — Myanmar is a case in point.

The dichotomy between India’s global rise and regional decline has profound implications for India’s global aspirations. It is a legitimate question to ask whether a country that is unable to maintain primacy in its periphery will be able to be a pivotal power in international politics.

Happymon Jacob teaches at the School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi and is the founder of Council for Strategic and Defence Research

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