With China’s antagonism rising, the Western world has sought to hedge against the worst instincts of the rising superpower with India emerging as the favoured option. However, now increasing concerns about India’s own ambitions and its commitment to the “rules-based order” have reared their head.
India has been widely identified as the last great hope of the post-Second World War geopolitical and economic order as it seeks to balance the increasing power and ambitions of Beijing and its growing web of partner nations committed to bringing about the end of the US-led world order.
For Australia, this approach to “strategic hedging” is part of the nation’s status quo for strategic planning, beginning with the British Empire, Australia’s relationship with the global power paradigm, then dominated by the imperial powers of Europe made sense, as the young colony sought the safety of the world’s superpower.
Following the disastrous collapse and routing of imperial British power in the Indo-Pacific at Singapore in 1942, Australia began to look for a new great power strategic benefactor.
Looking out across the vast expanse of the Pacific, Australia turned to what would become the world’s “indispensable nation”, the United States, emerging from its period of self-imposed isolation in the aftermath of the devastating attack on Pearl Harbor in late 1941 to become the world’s pre-eminent industrial, political, and strategic power at war’s end and the cornerstone of Australia’s strategic outlook.
While the British would continue to play an important role in Australia’s future strategic planning, the withdrawal of British forces East of Suez in the early 1970s effectively heralded the end of Britain’s pivotal role in Australia’s military planning, the US continued to entrench itself as the nation’s premier strategic partner.
As the world adapted following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Australia, like many nations, began to embrace the optimism and hope represented by theories about the “End of History” and the peace dividend, leaving the US as the world’s sole and unquestioned superpower.
However, as we now know, this new paradigm was far from the promised “End of History” as Russia limped away, licking its wounds, and China began its rapid ascendency to rival the post-Second World War order.
China isn’t alone in its position of ascendency, nor is it alone in having its own ambitions and designs for the post-Western world order we now appear to be stumbling towards in light of the domestic and international decline of both the US and European powers.
India, like China, is one of antiquity’s other ancient powers and has emerged to become one of the world’s pre-eminent economic, political, and strategic powers, now the fifth-largest economy in the world, according to the International Monetary Fund, when measured on nominal gross domestic product, with GDP per capita still lagging dramatically, the rising power ranked 139th globally.
A ‘new’ India?
At the centre of New Delhi’s renewed push for global prominence is the ambitions of Hindu nationalist Prime Minister Narendra Modhi to position the rising power as the Vishwaguru or “Guru to the World” as part of a broader rebrand and “opening” of India to the world, in a similar manner to China’s own attempts to entrench itself as the “Middle Kingdom” and the centre of the 21st century world.
While much has been made of this clear grounds for competition between the two Asian behemoths, much has been made of India’s democratic credentials and its historic linkages to the Western democratic world as a true hedge against the ambitions of Xi Jinping’s China, or is it?
By now, it is no secret that the world’s largest “democracy” is also positioning itself as a central player in the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) economic and political bloc, which itself is rapidly evolving into an anti-post-Second World War order bloc, actively engaging in the undermining of the US-dollar-centric international order, and the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO).
This has been reinforced recently by Australia’s former ambassador to the US, Japan, and Indonesia, and high commissioner to India, John McCarthy, who has warned it is time for the West to “get real” about India.
McCarthy explains this, stating, “In the past few years, India’s attraction for the West has increased because of its size and wealth. It is now the most populous nation globally, and in purchasing power parity terms has the world’s third highest GDP. Its attraction has grown as concerns about China have multiplied.”
Reinforcing this however, is Pankaj Mishra in a piece for Bloomberg, titled, Don’t expect Modi’s ’new’ India to be a friend of the West, where he states, “Take, for instance, the booklet, Bharat, the Mother of Democracy, presented by Modi’s government to visiting dignitaries at the G20. According to it, ancient Hindu sages and kings were partisans of equality, inclusivity, and harmony. Even modern feminism was anticipated by the 5,000-year-old bronze statue of an ‘independent and liberated’ dancing girl. Such claims are part of an elaborate narrative that is decisively shaping the outlook of many Indians today – one in which a once-dynamic Hindu civilisation was ravaged by vicious Muslims and exploitative Westerners.”
Yet, for all this rhetoric about this “new” India, Modi’s central promise and rallying cry rests very firmly on the past and emphasises the sins of the past to unite and rally India’s masses in a unifying vision, with specific focus on the 250 years of British colonisation. But this isn’t a new phenomenon in Indian politics, despite Modi’s meteoric rise.
“Such millenarian bombast – also echoed in the speeches of Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping – belongs to a longer tradition of anti-Western demagogues proclaiming themselves heirs to distinguished ancient civilisations, including the Germans and Italians who sought to build the Thousand-Year Reich and the Third Rome, respectively,” Mishra explains.
These points are further expanded upon by Ashley Tellis, Tata chair for strategic affairs and senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, writing for Foreign Affairs, highlights the central role India’s policy of independence plays, along with the equally pivotal role of Indian self-interest in its approach to domestic and international political, economic, and strategic affairs.
“Washington’s current expectations of India are misplaced. India’s significant weaknesses compared with China, and its inescapable proximity to it, guarantee that New Delhi will never involve itself in any US confrontation with Beijing that does not directly threaten its own security. India values cooperation with Washington for the tangible benefits it brings but does not believe that it must, in turn, materially support the United States in any crisis – even one involving a common threat such as China,” Tellis explains.
Don’t be shocked if India’s friendship … disappears
Despite much of the optimism surrounding India’s involvement in the Quad and its support for pushing back against China’s antagonism in the Indo-Pacific, not is all as it seems, particularly given India’s ongoing support for Russia’s skirting of global economic sanctions and oil production.
Front and centre is India’s handling of its relationship with Russia over the invasion of Ukraine and broader relationship with the post-Second World War, liberal world order, with McCarthy adding, “Moreover, India will differ radically from the West on some questions. True, as the Ukraine war has progressed, India has put some daylight between itself and Russia. But it declines to impose sanctions on Moscow. Both countries benefit from Russia’s sales of oil to India.
“And never a proponent of the Western-inspired liberal international order, India is also a leader of the disparate – but re-energised – global south, effectively the developing world.”
Ultimately, it becomes clear that India’s approach to relationships is far more transactional than is our own, or even that of the United States, with the rising power actively viewing their own self-interest as being of paramount importance for their policymaking and long-term decision making.
Referring back to Mishra’s previous comments about the ethnic and racial basis of India’s historic grievances as the basis for Modi’s approach to geopolitical and strategic thinking in this era of great power competition, Mishra adds, “Those hoping to recruit Modi’s Bharat as a Western ally should consider the plain historical fact that, as the scholar Nirad Chaudhuri wrote in 1954, the most ineradicable aspect of Hindu nationalism is ‘xenophobia, both personal and ideological.’ The sentiment may be muted ‘when and where the military and political strength of the foreigner’ is overwhelming but nevertheless thrives on an ‘incessant campaign of slander and denigration’.”
This is expanded upon by Mishra, who adds, “Thus, there was nothing extraordinary about an Indian official effectively taunting Western countries on X, formerly known as Twitter, for the G-20’s failure to condemn Russia’s assault on Ukraine. Sweeping denunciations of the West as selfish and arrogant, deserving of a comeuppance, are now routine in India.”
Equally, another central area that is often advertised as cause for furthering our great collaboration and integration with India is the “shared values” of the world’s democracies, and by association, their shared interest in preserving the post-Second World War global order.
McCarthy explains, “The problem is that Modi’s government can only lend itself to highly qualified identification with democratic principles. Elections in India are generally fair, and Modi’s sway is vigorously contested by the main opposition party, by Congress and by regional parties. That’s good.
“However, Modi remains an unabashed Hindu supremacist whose political machine largely disregards the aspirations of Muslims and other minorities. It reacts vengefully to criticism and scores badly on most of the international indexes that measure democratic freedoms. To some, India is an illiberal democracy; to others, it’s an electoral autocracy. But, for sure, it is not a liberal democracy,” he explains further, highlighting the clearly ethnic bias and lens through which Indian public policy and strategic thinking is framed and formulated.
It is increasingly clear that Australia needs to embrace its own attitude and variation of “transactional realism”, one where our policymakers view the world as it is, rather than as we would like it to be, based on a thorough understanding of the historic, cultural, and societal differences between the emerging and established powers of the Indo-Pacific.
After all, we can see nations across the Indo-Pacific, and indeed, more broadly on the global stage beginning to make decisions in their own self-interest, particularly in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic and the impact on “just in time” global supply chains.
As the old saying goes, failing to learn from history leaves you doomed to repeat it. This is particularly important as Australia’s primary strategic benefactor, the United States, continues to stagnate in comparison to the world’s emerging great powers like China and India, while other regional powers like Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam, and the like, continue to grow and exert their own influence and ambitions for the region.
This is not to say that Australia should go it alone, our alliances have always allowed us to punch above our weight, we do, however, require a radically new approach to engaging with others, preparing ourselves for future challenges and clearly articulating and protecting our values and interests at home and abroad.