India has been playing the power dynamics game without a long-term, consistent and constructed narrative or at least, there is not enough evidence of this being so. Secondly, India has perhaps been more of a playground of global power play for so long that she has not been able to transition to become the global power player that she should or could have. Given that, India will maintain the highest youngest population of all major countries of the world for the next 15 years or so, it is time for India to become a global player instead of becoming the playground of global power games.
We are now in a penta-polar world. Welcome to 21st year of the 21st century! There are at least five centres that are vying for global power – the United States (US), China, Russia, the European Union (EU) and the Islamic World led by Turkey. One can add Japan and India to this list as well, though both these nations may still be reactionary powers focused more on self-defence and pure economic development while wriggling within the rising waves of power dynamics. The US-led uni-polar world of the 1990s has given way to an emergence of players that will remind one of the 19th century and early 20th century, when the British-designed industrially revolutionise duni-polar world transitioned to a multi-polar world composed of the Soviet Union, Germany, USA, France and Japan that ultimately led to two World Wars in the 20th century.
The new emergent penta-polar world order was forecast by this author in 1998 in a workshop called the “Battle Scene in Year 2020”. The paper titled “Future of Warfare – A Search for Military Doctrine” , explains, “Most experts believe that we are moving towards a multi-polar world. The possible cooperation between China and Russia as a front against the US, will lead to strengthening of China. By the next 20 years or so, China will be considered as a power centre to challenge the US – a pole in the penta-polar world composed of the US, European Community, Japan, China and Russia. The players may be different from these five. For example, we may find Russia falling way behind the others due to failure of its economic and social systems. India may come out as a strong power pole if economic, technological and social capabilities of our people are fully exploited. Also, Japan may take the road to military power rather than solely depending upon its economic capabilities.”
The transitioning world power opens up decades of potential geo-political upheavals that may create conflicts at multiple levels.
The Industrial Revolution and World Power Transitions
History repeats as they say, yet it does not repeat exactly. It varies in its constituent elements, their interactions and the means through which these interactions take place. A future emerges that cannot be discerned exactly either from history or the dynamics underlying the elements and their interactions. Scientists from different fields call these multi-dimensional feedback loops as complex systems or a complex system of systems which exhibit non-linearity and stochastic city that the tools, models, logic and theories available to classical science are insufficient to explain. There is a play involved – non-separability of the dance from the dancers – that not only changes the structure and dynamics of the world, but also expands the substrate of what we call the world.
Within the contours of a set of dynamic conditions, overall patterns can, however, be discerned. Power is a great and grave intoxication. Its ever-expanding quest in humans provides Mother Nature an instrument to change our carefully crafted world. That is true for great civilizations and the world structures designed by great powers. The world is ordered as set of nation states in various forms, shapes and cultures, since the 17th century. The first Industrial Revolution gave Britain an unprecedented lead over others. Britain attained a global superpower status even as Germany, Russia (later USSR), France, the US and Japan started industrialising. As the world was in the process of getting industrialised, Britain’s share of the pie got bigger. In his 2013 book, “War – What Is It Good For?”1, Ian Morris writes, “Britain the then globocop, could wage trade wars on rivals, wage shooting wars on them or make concessions. All three options for Britain were net-loses, from their current globocop status.” Britain made US its deputy, gave concessions to Japan and gave the Middle East to France. The focus was shifted to Germany perhaps as it was the biggest unknown of all See Fig 1)
In a recent book, “Russia and America – The Asymmetric Rivalry”2, Andrei Tsygankov lists five world orders and transitions since 1815, when Russia ruled and France was defeated. Then in 1856, the world wide transition led by France and Britain subordinated Russia. Next two transitions emerged after the two World Wars as Britain and France led to subordinate Germany in 1919, and the US, USSR and Britain led in 1945 again to subordinate Germany. The US-USSR Cold War gave us a bi-polar world that paved way to a uni-polar world – led and driven by the US since 1993. In this new world order, the USSR was subordinated and also divided into several “new” nations – Russia being one of them.
Is This A Transition Or A New World Order? – The Penta-Polar World
Is this transition to the new world order driven by a rising and more assertive China? Reading the Chinese defence White Papers (from 1998 to 2019) one can see how China has indicated the shift towards multi-polarity since 1998 and also its own role as a power centre in the multi-polar world. In the author’s earlier article, the Chinese evolution is explained, “One should read the White Papers to see how China increasingly became confident, calibrated and convinced in the movement towards its so-called “peaceful rise”. However, we should have no doubt that China is in a deeper, long-term and strategic game of re-ordering of world power to be controlled and commanded by China at the pole position.”
India should minimise the probability of becoming the playground of the great game.
As near peer or regional competitors started emerging, the US – the globocop, started offering what Britain gave to its rivals in the 19th century – trade wars, shooting wars or concessions. China played out the game to perfection – as a possible candidate where the US could “export its democracy” through concessions, rather than getting into a trade or shooting war, as unlike with Russia. The realisation of China’s “Hundred Year marathon”, that the US needed, came in the form of Trump administration when it unleashed the trade war. The disruption of the 21st century by the COVID-19 pandemic during the ongoing trade war, has exacerbated the world power transition to a much more even power polarization where new players are emerging as power centres of their local or regional arenas. For example, the emergence of Turkey in this decade as a strategic power player and its role in helping Azerbaijan win the 45-day war against Armenia in 2020, is an illustration of new dynamics. Russia has created and expanded its asymmetric capabilities and used it in the regions and arenas where its perceived interests were being compromised. China has used its fundamental strengths and ability to build infrastructure quickly and on a large scale to create its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) which some commentators have explained as ‘debt trap diplomacy’.
There is an Islamic leadership conflict that is underway between Turkey-led Islamic countries versus the established Saudi-governed structure that is closer to the US and Israel interests. The US wooed India for Quad and named the Indo-pacific as the arena to combine the power of the four democracies against revisionist China and Russia. The Russia-China-India Triad that emerged against the US-led uni-polarity was weakened through Quad. Please see author’s article on Triad Vs Quad, which explains, “One change however visible in the emerging superpower rivalry between China and USA, compared to US and USSR, is the emergence of a kind of multi-polar world with intricate connections between various poles in multiple dimensions. Each of these powers has unique capabilities – be it economic power, military power, technology power, soft power, smart power or sharp power.”
In 2021, key indicators are already visible of the transition, as Joe Biden takes over as the President of the US. There is a landmark EU and China investment treaty that snubs the US and of course, dilutes the pandemic unleashing responsibility of China. India has mentioned categorically that it has an independent foreign policy, especially with regard to purchasing S-400 Air Defence System from Russia. The Iranian supremo demands that the new Biden administration lift the sanctions imposed by Trump. And then the activities of the outgoing US Secretary of State appear to be the last gasp of an imperial power.
Is India a Player or the Playground?
The transitioning world power opens up decades of potential geo-political upheavals that may create conflicts at multiple levels. The Azerbaijan-Armenia military conflict will continue and similar conflict zones may surface across the world. The suppressed decades-old perceived or real injustices may emerge in the vacuum that the contest of global power play creates in specific time periods ahead.
India has traditionally been a so called “soft-power”. A reactive nation, trying to maintain its democracy under great duress of its inner contradictions and yet minimising the possibility of conflicts with global powers. For seven decades after independence, India has pursued and been able to sustain itself despite different dimensions of global power and greatgame played around and within. One key aspect of the great power game should be clear by now. The great power game requires players – nation states, different types of trans-national organisations, private players and geo-political, economic, military and even technology and entertainment- such as movie actors to play out the dynamics. A recent book, ‘The Ultimate Goal – A Former R&AW Chief Deconstructs How Nations Constructs Narratives’3 by Vikram Sood explains how the US and other big powers create narratives to fit in the world events and indirectly create the substrate on which to play out the global power games in military, economic and geo-political dimensions. He states that although Russia and China also try their great narratives and use these to orchestrate an amenable reality, they are not as successful as the West, especially the US – in building a perception of global power capability.
India has been playing the power dynamics game without a long-term, consistent and constructed narrative or at least, there is not enough evidence of this being so. Secondly, India has perhaps been more of a playground of global power play for so long that she has not been able to transition to become the global power player that she should or could have. Given that India will maintain the highest youngest population of all major countries of the world for the next 15 years or so, it is time for India to become a global player instead of becoming the playground of global power games.
Winner of the Global Power Transition – 2030–2035
It may look strange, but history does give us certain lessons. The previous power transition in the conflict between most unknown power – that is Germany and the Britain driven world – conflicts emerged between the rising power of Germany and existing power of Britain. The powers of both these nations reduced so much after the two World Wars that, not only were there new powers available, but countries such as China and India emerged from their slumber or subjugation by 1950. The winning powers of the world power order and transitions of the previous world were not the main players but the US and USSR, who played the power games of the global superpowers as supporters of both sides and waiting for their own profit or opportunity till the last moment to side against the Axis Powers.
We are getting into a variant of the past as history never repeats itself exactly. If India plays its game as a global power and does not allow itself to be the global power playground alone, there are certain capabilities and strengths within India that are indicative that once the world churns out the new global power plays and runs through the emerging penta-polar conflicts in the economic, technological, informational and intelligence dimensions, India can potentially be the net emergent global power, just as the US was in the 20th century (See Fig 2). To be there in 2030-2035, India needs to play out the penta-polar world dynamics through a multi-alignment strategy backed up by a future narrative of her own, even though she will continue to be the playground as well.
Above all, India should minimise the probability of becoming the playground of the great game. The only way India can do so, is by being a player of the global power game. It is time to be the pole.