“Can India be Cunning”

The above was the title of a talk at the Subbu Forum, at IDSA, this evening by the West’s go-to Asian savant, Kishore Mahbubani, former Foreign Secretary of Singapore and currently Dean of the Lew Kuan Yew School of Public Policy. There was a big audience because everybody expected something novel, but they’d have been disappointed. “Cunning”, a word Mahbubani conceded in the Indian context is “by definition evil”, in his telling, turns out to be an inapt word to describe what in essence and substance is nothing more than hard-headed realpolitik that a few of us have been advocating for well nigh two decades now. His choice of the word cunning apparently serving his purpose of being “provocative” rather than being otherwise useful. His thesis that India needs to wisely use the geopolitical space that’s opened up with the international system poised between the ending of the 200-year old era of Western dominance and the emergence of an Asia-on-top world order by befriending China and not getting in too thick with the declining West is an unoriginal take on the unfolding global drama and the historical power shift to the East. His example of cunning: China’s supporting the US invasion of Iraq, winning President Bush’s gratitude enough for Washington to put the clamps on Taiwan’s move to declare itself a sovereign state while Beijing opened up access of the Taiwanese people to mainland China, thus solidifying China’s position on Taiwan and affording Beijing ten years of “peaceful rise” even as the US was got more and deeply embroiled militarily in the worsening Iraqi mess of its own creation. He suggested India adopt a similar strategy with Pakistan — open up people-to-people relations, and separating this from the govt-to-govt ties. Yes, fine, but will Islamabad allow this? A 2nd example of “cunning” — Japan’s nonproliferation rhetoric combined with the acquisition of capability that can beget Tokyo nuclear weapons in a few weeks. But this is well known.

His main theme was that New Delhi should cultivate both China and the US & the West, and play them off against each other using “cunning” (the word he repeated relentlessly until grated on the ear!) and that this would fetch India geopolitical “dividends”, But such policy is what the Manmohan Singh government and the NSA Shivshankar Menon helming its foreign policy can reasonably claim they have been pursuing in the past decade!

A more practical recommendation by him published in today’s Indian Express, which he repeated, is for India to jettison its efforts to gain membership to the UN Security Council as member of the Group of Four (India, Germany, Japan, and Brazil) for the obvious reasons that China’d veto Japan and the UN General Assembly would consider Germany’s inclusion (in addition to UK and France) excessive representation for Europe — precisely the reason, he said, why London and Paris are pushing for it, guaranteeing the failure of any such attempt to enlarge the SecC. Anecdote-wise, he recalled from his time as the Singaporean Permanent Representative at the UN HQrs in New York, how his Italian counterpart, Paolo Pucci (?) exasperatedly shouted in the meeting of the Open-ended Committee for Restructuring the Security Council, in the context of Japan’s and Germany’s membership membership case gaining some traction in the mid-1980s, that Italy too deserved a permanent Council seat because “ït too lost the War”!

Mabhbubani felt that India stands the best chance if it campaigned for a reconstitution of the council with 7 members — US, Russia, China, European Union (UK and French seats being merged), India (to join China as a second Asia rep), Brazil to represent Latin America, and Nigeria the continent of Africa. And another 15 states — such as Pakistan, Argentina, South Korea, Germany, Japan, South Africa, Egypt, etc accorded the status of semi-permanent members (chosen by population, GDP, etc), each of whom will thus be assured a Council seat every eight years, giving them a stake in this new UN system and making them more agreeable to supporting such structural changes.

About Bharat Karnad

Senior Fellow in National Security Studies at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi, he was Member of the (1st) National Security Advisory Board and the Nuclear Doctrine-drafting Group, and author, among other books of, 'Nuclear Weapons and Indian Security: The Realist Foundations of Strategy', 'India's Nuclear Policy' and most recently, 'Why India is Not a Great Power (Yet)'. Educated at the University of California (undergrad and grad), he was Visiting Scholar at Princeton University, University of Pennsylvania, the Shanghai Institutes of International Studies, and Henry L. Stimson Center, Washington, DC.
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5 Responses to “Can India be Cunning”

  1. Shaurya says:

    This cunning et al, may help Mr. Madhubani sell more mediocre books. At a more practical level, what we ought to be doing is to consolidate our power in the region starting with co-opting of Pakistan (copyright: Mr. Bharat Karnad) :). The question is will we get a leadership in New Delhi that is ready to play ball and use India’s strengths to do so by addressing real issues that in the eyes of the Pakistani military addresses some of their fears, which would open up more space for the civilian and even the geographical lockdown India faces over land – yet at the same time bump defense spending to 3% levels and push indigenous production by doing a herculean sweep of its existing structures vested in the DPSU’s, DRDO and HAL.

  2. Atul says:

    I wouldn’t read too much into Dr Mahbubani’s arguments. The express article was not a Eureka type piece, IDSA one was fairly similar. Singapore with a majority Chinese population and Chinese-dominated/ruled government can afford to align with China. India simply can’t afford it.

    1. About “cunning behaviour”, the world is a small club of nations, only 200 of them. So being cunning would be stupid whereas hard-nosed strategic thinking and realpolitik will definitely help. Indians will have to first let go of their emotional thinking in international relations. First, we all wanted to become Soviet Russians but it collapsed and we saw the reality behind soviets. Then in last decade, we all tried to become Americans en-masse which Khobragade jolt helped us get out of it. In the case of Japan, hope that we won’t repeat our mistakes and not harbour any emotional, megalomaniac expectations.

    2. Contrary to Dr Mahbubani, its time for India to follow internal balancing with sprinkles of external balancing maneuvers. A strong government at center will ‘have to’ take some strong and urgently needed steps in economic and military spheres. The economic reforms have stagnated and they need another boost, much similar to 1992 tour of Deng Xiaoping. In military sphere, integration, interoperability and re-invigoration of military-industrial complex need some serious attention.

    3. Indian clout in global politics is fairly limited, for example, during US-Syria/US-Iran/US-N Korea talks, neither India was invited nor it could get even a minuscule role, despite American propaganda of being “natural partners”. So, instead of begging support for UNSC seat from every tom, dick and harry visiting New Delhi, we need to stop and do some rethink. Lets get into comprehensive national power building mode and until we reach a comfortable stage globally, we need to follow just one policy. Participate everywhere but abstain from any decision which is not related directly to Indian national interests.

  3. Surojit Chattopadhyay says:

    Sir can you please tell me what is the implication of a good russia china relationship to USA?

    • Sino-Russian relations, should they take off, would be a major problem for the US because it’ll marry up the two strongest powers with the capacity to dominate the Eurasian landmass, of course, but Moscow is sufficiently alienated by Washington, then to have its Pacific Fleet join up with Chinese East Fleet to become a maritime threat to American interests.

      • Surojit Chattopadhyay says:

        but why Russia is not inclining to China?Russia can understand that China’s condition is better than US,and China is a fresh superpower.Moreover China Russia shared same type of political view in past.

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