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Examining the idea of an India-led middle power coalition

LiveMint logoLiveMint 12-06-2017 Kunal Singh

The recklessness of the US President Donald Trump is triggering some serious rethinking of strategic positions in capital cities ranging from Berlin to Tokyo. The US is no longer being seen as a reliable ally. Even if India was never a formal US ally, New Delhi had invested a lot in the bilateral relationship since the turn of the century. The arrival of Trump threatens the returns on those investments. Naturally, alternative strategic partnerships are being considered in New Delhi as well.

In a piece for Network 18, Ashok Malik of the Observer Research Foundation has argued for India to actively contribute towards building up of a “middle power coalition”. With the unpredictability of top level powers—the US, China and Russia—India will do well to explore complementarities with middle level powers such as the UK, France, Germany, Japan, Australia, Saudi Arabia, Singapore and the United Arab Emirates.

Others have also made similar suggestions even if not on such a grand scale. For instance, C. Raja Mohan of Carnegie India and Rory Medcalf of Australian National University have argued for India, Japan and Australia to come together to build “the first of multiple middle power coalitions for promoting regional resilience” in the Indo-Pacific. Amid these arguments has come a report of India rejecting Australian request to participate as an observer in the annual Malabar naval exercises which counts the US and Japan as India’s partners. Dhruva Jaishankar of the Brookings India had suggested earlier this year that the “quad” of democratic maritime powers must indeed be revived—the four countries had come together in 2007 before China’s rebuke disrupted the short-lived arrangement. It should be noted that Jaishankar’s argument included a role for the US but it was also made before Trump’s inauguration.

Balancing versus bandwagoning

All of these arguments and the latest development of New Delhi vetoing Canberra’s participation in joint naval exercises can be examined within theoretical frameworks of coalition building or alliance formation given by Kenneth Waltz and Stephen Walt among others.

When faced with a stronger power, the weaker power has two options: 1) to balance the stronger power, or 2) to bandwagon with the stronger power. The “neorealist” Waltz in his seminal contribution Theory of International Politics (1979) had suggested that balancing is the dominant behaviour observed internationally. The theory was further developed by Walt in his The Origins of Alliances (1987) who agreed with Waltz on predominance of balancing behaviour but argued that balancing does not happen vis-à-vis any stronger power but against a threatening power. This makes sense, as India is not looking to balance the US despite the latter being a stronger power but is definitely in constant search for partners to balance China which it sees as a direct threat.

Bandwagoning behaviour, in Walt’s theory, would be observed by especially weak powers who cannot add much to the strength of the coalition being built against the stronger power but would be vulnerable to the reprisals of the latter. To explain with a simple example, think of the behaviours of India’s neighbours from Bhutan to Pakistan vis-à-vis India on a spectrum of bandwagoning to balancing scale. Bhutan is too weak to balance India and Pakistan is too strong to bandwagon with India.

As Amrita Narlikar and Aruna Narlikar have pointed out in their provocative Bargaining with a Rising India: Lessons from the Mahabharata (2014) that if India were to follow Walt’s realist logic, its behaviour as a newly independent weak state should have been of a bandwagoning power. Its economic and geopolitical rise would then coincide with a transition to balancing strategy. However, according to constructivist tradition of thought—which prioritises norms and identity politics over and above power politics—a newly independent India would have displayed balancing tendencies and transitioned to bandwagoning behaviour as its power rises and its like-mindedness with other powers increases.

India however, argue Narlikar and Narlikar, did not follow either of the trends and has exhibited balancing throughout irrespective of its global status and level of power. (As is visible from the name of their book, their explanation of India’s behaviour comes from the Mahabharata.)

Examining different middle power coalition ideas

India’s straightforward objective is to create a multipolar Asia by means of balancing China. The idea of balancing China is straight from the realist playbook but if this is done through democracies—as Jaishankar argues—it would manifest constructivist thinking as well. Malik’s choice of ‘horses for courses’ ranging from Saudi Arabia to Australia is perfectly realist in nature. However, it is important to recognise that Malik, unlike Jaishankar, is not just thinking of balancing China but also tiding through turbulent Trump years. Raja’s and Medcalf’s objectives are similar to Malik’s but the duo still emphasise the common democratic political cultures of India, Japan and Australia. Raja and Medcalf are also borrowing from constructivist line of thought.

India’s incumbent foreign secretary S. Jaishankar has often argued in favour of India making the transition from a balancing power to a leading power. His is a distinction difficult to imagine with this theoretical backdrop because being a leading power does not mean that it cannot pursue balancing strategies against its perceived threat. After all, India’s role in the Non Aligned Movement (NAM) was a good example of New Delhi occupying a leading power position—albeit of a third bloc in a bipolar world—but hardly getting any benefit out of it.

NAM countries failed to condemn China’s aggression against India in 1962. Some of them, in fact, also took pro-China positions. The then President of Indonesia Sukarno, with whom India’s former Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru coordinated closely to build the NAM, saw in India’s dramatic defeat—as John W. Garver notes in his Protracted Contest: Sino Indian Rivalry in the Twentieth Century (2001)—“a decadent country” and in China “the strength of Asia’s ‘new emerging forces’”. Indonesia’s behaviour was consistent with Walt’s theory which predicts defection of members from an alliance in face of handsome victories being secured by the stronger power outside the alliance. Although Malik has put in caveats to avoid this comparison, his suggestion of a middle power coalition is closer to NAM than he realises.

Moreover Malik’s middle power coalition has little to bind its members together. While India and other Asian powers are threatened by the rise of China, the potential European members of the coalition are more concerned with Russian behaviour on their periphery. Walt’s logic of bandwagoning would then suggest that a lot of the members will jump ship at the first sign of danger from the country they don’t identify as the primary threat. It is no doubt that India could work with Germany on climate change, with the UAE on tackling terror, and with Japan on securing the sea lanes of communication but this can be done without an umbrella middle power coalition which builds false expectations and sends out the wrong signals to partners and adversaries.

Now, to Dhruva Jaishankar’s suggestion. The Indian administration has rejected the suggestion but that may not be, as Tanvi Madan of Brookings Institution took pains to explain on Twitter, due to fear of China. New Delhi’s bold step of absenting itself from China’s Belt and Road Forum last month has shown the former’s willingness to stand up to Beijing. But as Madan reminded, it was the Sinophile former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd who decided to withdraw Canberra’s participation in face of Beijing’s protests. The bandwagoning behaviour of Australia with China can be explained not just by one Sinophile prime minister but also by the lack of an active dispute with China—something that binds India and Japan together—and the power of Chinese money over Australian political processes.

A good analogy to understand the difference in utilities of Japan and Australia in balancing China is to study India’s history of relationships with Vietnam and the Philippines. While India and Vietnam do actively try (and both of them can do more) to balance China, the same level of partnership cannot be expected between New Delhi and Manila. Most of the world powers had come together to support the Philippines in its maritime dispute with China, but it was the Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte who in a typical bandwagoning behaviour chose to cut deals with Beijing.

India’s best choice

Even if Australia is unreliable in case a Sino-Indian conflict breaks out, a common interest partnership between India, Japan and Australia to secure the Indo-Pacific, as Mohan and Medcalf argue, is not a bad idea. However, these partnerships would do little to secure any of the participating countries if the US chooses to cut its own deal with China. No middle power coalition, no ‘quad’ and no transactional arrangement can succeed in balancing China without the blessings of the US.

The best approach would be, as Rajesh Rajagopalan of the Jawaharlal Nehru University has argued, to look beyond the Trump years. Whether Trump lasts for four years or eight years, Rajagopalan believes—and I agree—that India would continue to need the US much beyond that to balance China.

India needs to step up its partnerships with a whole host of countries on a number of issues but those engagements will still not substitute the need for a robust partnership with the US. Unlike Rajagopalan, I am not ruling out a Trump enlightenment in coming months and years. As the US secretary of defence James Mattis said at the recently concluded annual Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore: “Once we’ve exhausted all possible alternatives, the Americans will do the right thing.”

The author tweets @d_extrovert.

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