By Monish Tourangbam

Power is an intriguing element of foreign policy concept and practice. While countries accumulate power, that allows them to achieve national objectives by making others do what it wants them to do, either by coercion or consent; the relative and relational nature of power always makes countries want more of it. Power is essentially, the bedrock of a country’s means to achieve ends in the international system. Power determines the structure of the global and regional order, defining and redefining polarity. There seems to be an apparent understanding that the world has, in conceptual and practical terms, entered a multipolar era. Given India’s preference for a multipolar world order, India’s interest is not preordained in a multipolar set-up and its national power will be better utilised in aligning its finite capabilities with its aspirations.

No Equilibrium in Multipolarity

The definition of a multipolar world order seems quite simple, in that, it represents a world not populated by one great power (unipolarity), two great powers (bipolarity) but by a number of great and potential great powers. However, such a definition belies the fact that multipolarity does not, in practice, mean that a handful of great or potential great powers inhabiting the international system, share a sense of equilibrium in the estimation of material capabilities. Debates abound regarding the relative decline of the United States and the rise of the rest, with China leading the pack. However, the United States is highly predominant in power estimation based on military capabilities and deployment. The gap seems to be closer at least between the United States and China in economic terms. However, there remains a big gap between China, the second largest economy in the world, and the other big economies, including India. 

So, what is the reality of the changing landscape of power in this multipolar world order? Multipolarity is not synonymous with power symmetry among the consequential powers. There is a hierarchy present in the multipolar system, and how India navigates the accumulation and projection of power in such a system remains a primary foreign policy challenge. India, with its growing material capabilities, is indeed, one of the significant poles of the emerging multipolar world order. However, when India’s national power is seen in relation to the two prominent poles, the United States and China, the gaps remain glaring

So, if the power gap is prominent, and will foreseeably remain so, what strategic realities should India keep in mind, while negotiating its global and regional aspirations, with its finite capabilities? At the end, one of the routes to an effective grand strategy would be to know the limits of one’s own power, and align that with what one could achieve. Power, essentially, ends up being compared and contrasted. India’s power has often been compared to that of China in some sort of a new ‘great game’ in a shared geopolitical space, even though a mere quantification of the economic and military capabilities shows an unmistakable gap in favour of China. So, can and should India get out of being straitjacketed in this sort of comparison? Are such comparisons healthy for India’s own growth internally and externally? Are powers doomed to this sort of comparison, without which, there will be no impetus to compete and grow? 

Dealing with Power Asymmetry the Indian Way

How does India make up for the gap in power, and in that sense, what is the future of Indian power in a multipolar world? Is Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s drive to engage with multiple centres of power in the international system a route to making up for that gap through diplomatic manoeuvring? Is India’s new partnership with the United States a way to undercut China’s ability to influence global and regional outcomes to India’s detriment? India’s soft power resources, seen in its widespread cultural influence and its democratic credentials, have attracted both academic and policy attention in terms of creating a public goodwill for India in a number of countries. However, to what extent they are translated into achievement of tangible foreign policy objectives remains ambiguous at best. Whether it is India’s immediate neighbourhood in South Asia or its extended neighbourhood in Southeast Asia and Central Asia, soft power can only be a force enabler to hard power, and will do little to ameliorate increasing Chinese footprints. It remains a paradox of power that its utility and outcomes are to be tested more in peacetime than in wartime. The question remains: how would India accumulate its military and economic capabilities; and project them in peacetime, without experiencing any unmanageable resistance from other countries? 

How India employs its military and economic capabilities in peacetime, to cement favourable position, wherever possible, and to pivot away from unfavourable situations, without being bogged down, remains a task cut out for Indian foreign policy mandarins. To do so, without inciting debates, of surrender or compromise to competing powers, will be the acme of Indian skill in diplomacy. For India to make the means to meet the ends, would require rebooting older tools and inventing new tools for the vagaries of the 21st-century geopolitics. How does Indian power translate into navigating the geopolitics of its immediate, extended neighbourhood and its great power engagement in the Indo-Pacific? Where India finds a power deficit, where does it borrow power? 

The emerging geopolitical scenario has required India to think of ways to go beyond the South Asian straitjacket. Increasing Chinese forays into South Asia through military as well as commercial engagements with India’s immediate neighbours have given rise to a discourse on China’s encirclement of India. The maritime and the continental aspects of China’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) have only accentuated these concerns in India’s continental space and its maritime neighbourhood in the Indian Ocean region (IOR). India-Pakistan rivalry in the western borders and China’s strategic interest in assisting Pakistan militarily and economically have been a pestering security concern for India. In this context wherein India’s ability to exert its power in its strategic backyard appears constrained by India’s capability deficit vis-à-vis China’s, can India leverage its relations with Southeast Asian countries in its extended neighbourhood to create traction in its immediate neighbourhood? Smaller and materially weaker countries find it geostrategically prudent to maximise their gains and minimise their losses by hedging their bets between/among bigger powers, both proximate and distant. So, be in its immediate or extended neighbourhood, how New Delhi responds to and manages the hedging behaviour of other countries remains a task cut out. 

The Dilemma of Choice in the Multipolar Era

India is an Indian Ocean power with Pacific Ocean aspirations and in that sense, an indispensable player in the Indo-Pacific, a relatively new geopolitical construct that straddles the space connecting the Indian and the Pacific Oceans. There are differing interpretations of the expanse of this geopolitical space, and how different countries approach it depending on how they define their respective national objectives and means to achieve them. However, there seems to be an apparent consensus that the Indo-Pacific is the geopolitical region of the future. Even as New Delhi tries to distance itself from any hard and fast game of checkmating China’s rise in the Indo-Pacific and tries playing its great balancing act, the Indo-Pacific, at its core, is predicated on the ways and means of counteracting China’s unilateral activism. Although countries often refrain from rank ordering its bilateral relationships and, for optics, tend to call every relationship as consequential in its own ways, some relationships are more equal than others. As far as the Indo-Pacific is concerned wherein the great power games of the multipolar era will play out, the partnership that India has been building with the United States is perhaps the most consequential one, by the sheer possibilities of the material benefits that India can derive from the United States. However, such benefits do not come without a cost, a short of opportunity cost that New Delhi has to pay for its great power engagements. As India attempts to chart a 21st-century relationship with China, by building on the positives, while managing and addressing the negatives, what cost would New Delhi have to pay in its ties with Washington? As India cements its partnership with the United States, in order to beef up its deterrence capabilities against the Chinese, and maximise its punching prowess in China’s immediate neighbourhood, what cost New Delhi would have to pay in its ties with Beijing? Is New Delhi adroit enough to understand its power deficiencies and devise a grand strategy to balance its national power with its aspirations in the brave new world?

Monish Tourangbam is currently a Senior Assistant Professor at the Department of Geopolitics and International Relations, Manipal Academy of Higher Education based in India. He is also a fellow at the Kalinga Institute of Indo-Pacific Studies. Previously, he was an Associate Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi. He was a South Asian Voices Visiting Fellow at the Stimson Center, Washington D.C. and a visiting faculty at the Department of Political Science, University of Cincinnati, Ohio, U.S.A. He holds an M.Phil and a Ph.D. from the School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.