May 18, 2018

To be a great power, India’s political weaknesses need to be redressed

The following article originally appeared in The Hindustan Times on 18 May 2018.

Following India in international affairs is a lot like following its cricket team. In the media and among the general public, successes are met with unquestioned adulation, and flag-waving. Just as easily, and often quite suddenly, setbacks result in woeful laments and self-flagellation. Meanwhile, old timers wax nostalgic about gentler days when India successfully held out for a stalemate. The reality is, of course, a mixed picture. As in cricket, India boasts considerable strengths relative to others in international relations. But its weaknesses need to be appreciated, understood, and — whenever possible — addressed. Despite the difficulties of such an exercise in a more polarised political environment, an objective assessment of India’s international power is necessary.

Fortunately, the Lowy Institute, a think tank in Australia, now provides a helpful resource in its online Asia Power Index. The Index painstakingly compiles data on 25 Asian powers — from the United States to Pakistan, Russia to New Zealand — along eight measures, 27 sub-measures, and 114 indicators. The impressively researched and delightfully presented online interactive effort offers some useful insights on comparative international power, although I would personally quibble with some of the indicators used. (Full disclosure: I was one of the dozens of experts consulted by the Lowy Institute on some of the qualitative assessments used in the index.)

What does the Asia Power Index tell us about India’s resources and influence? Overall, India ranks fourth in Asia in power (with a rating of 41.5), marginally behind Japan (42.1), but well behind the United States (85) and China (75.5). India also comes across as a relatively well-rounded power. It features fourth on overall economic resources, military capabilities, and diplomatic influence, and third in cultural influence.

Not surprisingly, most of India’s positive attributes relate to its sheer size and large population. India clearly benefits from having a large military force, conventional military capabilities, and nuclear and strategic missile programmes. India also fares positively in future projections, based on its economic trajectory, military spending, and growing workforce. Its large size also translates into military, diplomatic and cultural influence. India’s military partnerships — reflected in defence consultations, joint training and arms procurement — stand it in good stead. India also benefits from a wide diplomatic network, membership of major multilateral institutions and political leadership. Its cultural influence is also rated highly, largely as a result of its sizeable diaspora, English-language media and rich cultural heritage.

But the Index exposes some glaring weaknesses, primarily in three areas. The first concerns its anaemic economic influence. Barring overall gross domestic product, India fares poorly on most economic indicators such as international leverage (6th), connectivity (7th), and technology (14th) as a result of such factors as the lack of rupee reserves and transactions, poor productivity and low R&D spending. India ranks 6th in geo-economic security due to a high dependence on energy and raw material imports. And it features a woeful 11th in economic diplomacy due to a paucity of free trade agreements.

Second, while India’s military resources are undoubtedly vast and reasonably sophisticated, its military influence is limited in some respects. India fares particularly poorly in terms of arms transfers (7th), as a consequence of a feeble military-industrial base. Additionally, despite its large military capabilities, India’s ability to deploy them in Asia is ranked only 6th, a testament to its limited force projection capabilities. In one area in which Indians might differ considerably with the Index’s assumptions, considerable importance is attached to military alliances, which India eschews and perceives as limiting. Instead, India compensates in a growing network of robust military partnerships, where it rates far better (5th).

Third, India features particularly poorly in terms of institutional stability, which reflects such elements as government effectiveness, public health and civil unrest. Taken together, the fact that its measures of influence are less impressive than its aggregate resources means that India is deemed an underachiever by the Power Index. However, this applies equally to other large Asian countries whose per capita indicators are low, including China, Indonesia and Pakistan. It should be no surprise that countries that are well-resourced on a per capita basis — such as Japan, Singapore, Australia, and South Korea — are among the overachievers, that can more effectively translate resources into influence and thereby punch above their weights.

Just like its gifted batsmen and crafty spinners in cricket, India should appreciate and exploit its relative strengths. It boasts a sizeable military, is more resilient than in the past and is on a positive economic, military, and demographic trajectory. It wields reasonable diplomatic clout, benefits from a growing network of military partnerships and has an influential diaspora and media. But just as Indian cricket realised the need for a dedicated pace academy to produce fast bowlers, its international political weaknesses need to be redressed. This will require creating greater economic leverage through better connectivity, trade negotiations, and R&D investments; improving its military industrial base and power projection capabilities; and improving resilience through administrative, law and order, and public health reforms.