Search for a report, a publication, an expert...
Institut Montaigne features a platform of Expressions dedicated to debate and current affairs. The platform provides a space for decryption and dialogue to encourage discussion and the emergence of new voices.

India: The Other 21st Century Asian Giant

India: The Other 21st Century Asian Giant
 Dominique Moïsi
Distinguished Senior fellow

The West has been completely fixated on China and its increasingly dominating role. India, China’s largest neighbor, will soon become the most populous country on the planet. It should not be neglected. Though exact opposites, India’s power is still consolidating due to its internal weaknesses, writes Dominique Moïsi.

"Don't forget India, it's the other giant of Asia. Don't put all your eggs in the Chinese basket," experts were arning as early as the 1990s. At that time, they were not to miss out on the economic opportunities offered by the Indian subcontinent.

Today, as Asia is at the center of global tensions, the expression "Don't forget India" has taken on a more geopolitical dimension. The obsession, legitimate given the rise in power of an ever more ambitious China, makes India a coveted partner in a classic game of balance of power. But is India ready to take on this role?

A rising giant

In 2011, I had a long interview in Delhi with Shivshankar Menon, then National Security Advisor to Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. "To understand India's relationship with the world," he told me at the time, "you have to compare it with the US after the First World War. It is a rising giant, from which the world expects a lot, but which does not feel ready to assume all the international responsibilities expected of it."

In contrast to yesterday's China or Britain, India does not spontaneously view the world through the lens of domination, even if it is much less modest in 2021, under Narendra Modi, than it has been since its independence in 1947.

Would it also experience uncertainty when it comes to defining its priorities? Is China India’s main challenge? Or is it its pakistani nuclear neighbor? Or is it, as Menon writes in a remarkable book published this year India and Asian Geopolitics, the internal priorities of its development? Under Narenda Modi’s initiative, India now seems tempted, like China, to aspire to a greater global status. To do this, should it present itself to the world as America's main ally in this region? Or should it, following the tradition of Jawaharial Nehru, Prime Minister from 1947 to 1964, rediscover the concept of non-alignment in all its purity?

A new non-alignment 

In a world dominated by a Cold War scenario between China and the US, should India, followed by Europe, redefine a "third way"? 

Going forward, could India’s calling be to become the vanguard (if not the driving force) of a new non-alignment adapted to the realities of the 21st century? In a world dominated by a Cold War scenario between China and the US, should India, followed by Europe, redefine a "third way"? To hear Indian experts speak of the "strategic autonomy" of their country-continent, one cannot help but be struck by the parallelism that seems to exist between India's ambitions and those of Europe according to Emmanuel Macron.

In 1962, in the aftermath of the Chinese attack on India, Nehru could only turn to the United States. But to maintain his freedom of maneuver, most important to him, he simultaneously turned to the USSR for support and military supplies. Could this faraway episode appear today as a sort of premonitory path to balancing China, without depending exclusively on an increasingly uncertain America?

Poverty and illiteracy 

Those in India who nostalgically evoke the tradition of "non-alignment" are in fact pursuing two objectives. The first one is to condemn the excesses of Prime Minister Modi's pro-Trump religious nationalism. The second and more important one, is to emphasize what should be India's real priorities, namely poverty, illiteracy, and development.

China is certainly a real threat. But it is probably less so than all the internal challenges India faces today. India's foreign policy priority should be to accompany (if not facilitate) the pursuit of its domestic goals. How can India claim to be "the world's teacher" as per Narendra Modi, when such a large percentage of its population is uneducated? Pursuing the quest for global status to bring India closer to China fails to address the daily needs of Indians citizens. Why should India prioritize asserting its nation’s greatness at the expense of its people’s happiness?

Above all, India’s ambition must be to remain a pluralist country [...] as well as a democratic one - in short the complete opposite of China.

Above all, India’s ambition must be to remain a pluralist country, tolerant of all its confessions, as well as a democratic one - in short the complete opposite of China.

Murderous insanity 

In this first-half of the 21st century, Asia’s great powers must be careful not to fall back into the mistakes made by 19th century European great powers. China and India - who easily employ the word "humiliation" to denounce the behavior of Great Britain during the Raj period for India, or to evoke the Sack of the Summer Palace in 1860 by French and British forces for the Chinese - are increasingly behaving like Germany, France, Great Britain, and Russia at the end of the 19th century.

Need we remind them that this policy led Europe to suicide through two world wars? Will the 21st century be the century of Asia or the century of Asian wars?

In this geopolitical context the following question arises: should France supply nuclear-powered submarines to India? Balancing China's growing power in the Indo-Pacific area is one thing. Contributing to the fact that Asia will drag the world into its murderous insanity tomorrow, as Europe once did, is another.

"Do not forget India" is a common sense geopolitical and economic imperative. But the pursuit of this objective requires a reflection going beyond the interests of our arms industries. It is not simply a question of rebalancing our accounts after the loss of the Australian market, but rather that of defining a long-term Asian strategy.


Courtesy of Les Echos, where the article was originally published in French on October 11, 2021. 


Copyright: Punit PARANJPE / AFP

Receive Institut Montaigne’s monthly newsletter in English