Correlli Barnett, British military historian wrote in The Collapse of British Power, that national power “consists most of all in the nation itself, the people, their skills, energy, ambition, discipline, initiative, their beliefs, myths and illusions.” Correlli’s definition of power was amalgamation of internal and external strength encompassing both tangible and intangible elements of a nation state. Similarly, Indian author and honorary Adjunct Professor at the Savitribai Phule University, Shrikant Paranjpe wrote in India’s Strategic Culture: The making of National Security Policy that “protection of core values and, therefore, of national interest is dependent upon the national power of the nation-state. National power is dependent upon the material and nonmaterial elements that contribute to power.” Thus, both the scholars, among many others, have concluded that national power is not just about military capability; rather, the military is only an element just like economic resilience, contributing to the national power of a state. This article aims to examine the status of India’s national power over two pillars – economic and technological, by comparing India to other prominent nations worldwide, considering the rapidly evolving geo-political landscape characterised by emerging economic, political and military alliances that have disrupted the existing global order. In this fiercely competitive geopolitical environment, achieving national interests has become an arduous challenge. Hence, it becomes imperative to conduct an analysis of India’s national power, as it will decide the future of 1.4 billion Indians, their aspirations and the desire of this ancient geography.
The Economic Capability
The primary component that is inherent in national power is economic capability. Throughout history, there have been a number of instances when mighty empires declined and eventually disintegrated due to their inability to establish robust economic prowess. Today, India is being portrayed as a viable alternative in global supply chains to China and has successfully garnered substantial investments in the last few years, particularly under the Production Linked Incentive (PLI) scheme. The Foreign Direct Investments in India increased from $62 billion in 2018-2019 to $83.57 in 2021-2022. Similarly, the number of unicorns has grown from 18 in 2018 to 38 in 2020, further climbing to 71 in 2021 and reaching an impressive count of 107 in 2022. On an even more positive side lies the macro economic outlook of the Indian economy which is both optimistic and exciting.
Several national and international organisations have reposed faith in the Indian growth story. For instance, US-based Morgan Stanley in “Why This Is India’s Decade” says that “India will be one of only three economies in the world that can generate more than $400 billion annual economic output growth from 2023 onwards and this will rise to more than $500 billion after 2028”, with “per capita income rising from $2278 to $5242” and “11 percent growth at the Bombay Stock exchange” while Chinese Shanghai Stock exchange is expected to grow at 6.1 percent. According to Chennai-based Sundaram Alternate Assets, “the number of households earning more than $35,000 per year is likely to rise five-fold in the coming decade, to over 25 million”. This growth mirrors the Chinese boom of 2007-2012. Similarly, Bloomberg Economists expects that, “the nation’s per capita income to pull even with some developed countries in that span, putting the Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s goal within reach. Potential GDP growth will gradually peak at about 8.5 percent early next decade, propelled by corporate tax cuts, incentives for manufacturers and privatisation of public assets.” The Centre for Economics and Business Research predicts India to become a $10 trillion economy by 2035.
This unprecedented economic growth can possibly lift India from the fringes and place her at the centre of the global economic order. This economic growth will also change the global balance of power as recently recorded by Brookings Institution in a report, “China and India: The future of the global consumer market.” The report says that “the global consumer class (those spending more than $12 a day in 2017 PPP) was a Western concept…..but, today, more than half of the world’s consumers live in Asia, led by the momentum in India and China. These two countries now make up a third of the world’s population, a third of the global consumer class and approximately a quarter of global consumer spending (in PPPs).” The report notes that India has around 473 million in consumer class while China has 899 million, Demographically, India is light years ahead of China and geographically, China has a far better organised urban class with 705 million compared to India’s 241 million. These differences between India and China need to be carefully studied and shall be weeded out by the executives, as given Chinese military designs, it is unlikely that the India and China relations will normalise anytime soon.
Indian policymakers must also keep in mind that India is only standing on a threshold of phenomenal economic growth and, therefore, requires tremendous efforts from both private and public sector to achieve these goals. Hence, Indian growth should not be accepted in a casual matter; rather we should continue with long-term reforms in our micro and macro economics policies and structures, in particular to those related with the land and labour laws.
Another aspect of Indian growth is the impact it is expected to have on India’s arch rival – China. Antara Ghosal Singh, an outstanding observer of China, presented a paper for the Stimson Centre, China’s Evolving Strategic Discourse on India and wrote, “It is well understood within Chinese strategic circles that India’s cooperation can secure Chinese gains of vital geo-political and economic consequences and its non-cooperation can pose the biggest hurdle to China’s South Asia strategy and advancement of its Indian Ocean footprints.” This paper disclosed the ambiguity within Chinese grand strategy planners, which include three schools of thoughts all clashing with each other over relations with India. One school of thought wants to have a stable relationship, while the second wants just a working relationship in which India remains neutral between the US and Chinese competition, while the third one or better referred to as Xi Jinping School of thought believes in putting India into a box similar to Mao’s doctrine of ‘teaching India a lesson’. It is a no brainer which school is ultimately winning as is evident by the Chinese invasions at DBO, Spungur gap, Demchok and Galwan valley.
In another paper, written for New Delhi-based ORF titled ‘In China’s own words: an analysis of Chinese Strategic Discourse on Tibet’, Antara Ghosal Singh concluded that China views India as a key state for its continued rise and sustainment using land-locked Tibetan Plateau and connecting it with warm water ports of the Indian landmass. This hypothesis is also verified by the fact that all major projects of Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) have India as a key state including the China Pakistan-Occupied-Kashmir Economic Corridor (CPOKEC), which intends to connect with India, Iran and Kyrgyzstan. Before April 2020, even some Indian commentators were naively calling for India to join the BRI on the “Eastern and Western flank”, which is least to say would have been a giant betrayal to our freedom fighters as India joining of any project of BRI – BCIM, would have legitimised the illegal occupation of the resource-rich Gilgit and Baltistan (an important read) and the Saksham valley by Pakistan and China respectively.
The ambiguity in China over India will continue to exist as Xi Jinping is practically an emperor for life and, therefore, he will try everything to prove himself better than his internal critics say. This may not fare well for India as it increases the chances of border clashes, but if clashes begin, and India shows political will instead of the ignorance and pusillanimity of 1962, then China will potentially suffer more than India.
The economic rise of India is slated to be the greatest event of the 21st century, another being the rise of China and will decide not only the future of the Indian Republic, but also the global balance of power thus uplifting strategic heft of India. However, India’s rise will not be in an era of neo-liberalism where cooperation preceded conflict or economic inter-dependence was believed to be a means to spread democracy and liberal values. Rather, India will expectedly face economic isolation and diplomatic cold shouldering, which is even predicted by Shyam Saran, former Foreign Secretary in his book How India sees the World: From Kautilya to the 21st Century. Shyam Saran’s sentiments were verified by Walter Russell Mead, although on an entirely different issue, in 2014, in – The Return of Geopolitics – published in Foreign Policy, where he wrote, that the West “to be dragged back into old-school contests…….also changes the character of international politics”. He further wrote, China, Russia and Iran are trying to alter the International order and making “forceful attempts”. These attempts will ultimately restrict the foreign policy options for India making her to choose permanently rather than aligning which would depend on national interests.
In conclusion, it can be written that India today is definitely not a ‘great’ economic power, but India has the potential to be an economic giant, which would ultimately depend upon the committed political leadership, dynamism of youth and international outlook among others.
Technology: A Deciding Factor In Balance Of Power
Sci-fi writer Arthur C Clarke said that, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” His statement encapsulates the essence of advanced technology and its impacts over a nation and its dwellers. Recently, a report was released by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) titled, “Critical Technology Tracker Project” which ranked leading countries in 44 different technological domains. This project found that China is leading the globe in 37 out of 44 critical technologies and the US is leading in just seven. This project also focused on the global flow of research talent and ranked countries on the basis of their abilities to acquire and retain talent. In this Index China, majorly, is close second to the US while EU ranked third and India although ahead of Australia, Brazil, Iran and Japan, is still underperforming. India, on a whole, is ranked in the top five nations in 29 technologies, but the percentage of Indian edge in futuristic technologies is slim which mostly hovered at around five to seven percent. The ASPI report highlighted the gross underperforming of India in future technologies and the humongous gap that China has put vis-a-vis India and other nations.
China leads the world with the highest monopoly in nano scale materials and manufacturing, coatings, advanced radio frequency communications including 5G and 6G, hydrogen and ammonia for power, super capacitors, electric batteries, synthetic biology and photonic sensors. This monopoly of China is underlined by its control over 55 to 60 percent high impact technological developments. This single-handed domination of China is creating ripples across the globe particularly in the Western nations who have dominated technological development since the heydays of the Industrial Revolution. The US, which has involved itself in the Ukraine conflict, is also lagging behind even though it attracts some of the most talented students from India and China. This technological edge of China is due to its decades of investments in Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics (STEM) subjects and its focus on quality education.
As per the Forbes Magazine, China had 4.7 million graduates in STEM subjects while India had 2.6 million and the US 568,000 graduates in 2016 while total graduates in India were 78 million exceeding China’s 77.7 million. However, these statistics fail to provide an idea of the quality of Indian graduates. The QS World University ranking included 71 Chinese universities behind 91 from the UK and 201 from the US in its global ranking. The QS ranking also found that “eighteen Chinese universities are among the world’s top 100 for research impact. Only the US has a larger share (22)”. This is the silent revolution that China was having which propelled Chinese universities to top in STEM subjects. Even Ben Sowter, QS Senior Vice President acknowledged this transformation and said, “No higher education system has improved as impressively as China’s has over the last decade. Until 2018, there was not a single Chinese university in the top 20.”
India’s performance, given its potential, in the rankings was extremely dismal; only three Indian institutes made it to the top 200 with the best one, IISc, Bangalore ranked at 155. The Indian institutes are mired with humongous problems such as funding and the Indian government’s policy of “affirmative actions”, which hinders merit while promoting ‘social justice’. The funding to Indian educational institutes is largely driven by the government which spends around 2.9 percent of GDP on education, even though 2020’s National Education Policy recommended six percent spending of GDP. Other forms of funding are by industrialists and endowments from the alumni network. However, these are woefully inadequate to ensure the high standards of Research and Development (R&D).
On top of this, the Indian government’s budgetary allocation to R&D is 0.65 percent of GDP, which is among the lowest in the world, translating into $43 per Indian according to the UNESCO Institute for Statistics, while countries such as Brazil spends $173 per person. Thus, it is no wonder when India imports critical defence equipment from countries such as Israel and South Korea as both of them spend close to five percent of GDP on R&D. This neglect of research makes a deep imprint over Indian national standing as leading nations rarely look towards India for R&D co-operation, which was also evident in the UK’s choice as it decided to cooperate with Japan and Italy instead of India on the sixth generation aircraft.
In August 2022, China tested a nuclear-capable hypersonic glide vehicle, which circumnavigated the globe ‘in Low Earth Orbit and manoeuvered in flight’, this test, as per Western news sites, has shocked the US intelligence agencies. The Financial Times quoted, “We have no idea how they did this.” This test was the latest addition to the phenomenal military technology rise of the China. India, on the other hand, has also successfully test-fired the Hypersonic Technology Demonstrator Vehicle (HSTDV) in 2020, making it the fourth nation after the US, China and Russia to achieve this. India’s Brahmos hypersonic cruise missile is one of the finest in the world and can be equipped with both conventional and nuclear warheads.
Nevertheless, China is moving extremely fast with the development of Loiter munition, stealth technology – in both naval and aerial weapons, drones, UAVs, conventional and nuclear capable missiles, transport aircraft and Kamikaze drones. The annual report of the Chinese Aerodynamic Research and Development Centre (CARDC) of the year 2021, which is the latest available, highlighted some of the research projects of the CARDC. The first one was the “development of one million heterogeneous cores and 300,000 homogeneous cores for large passenger aircraft with a shape of 10.5 billion grids.” The Journal of ACTA AerodynamicaSinica carried a detailed submission which deliberated “the concepts of zone and interface involved hybrid simulation….and then the data structure and implement strategy…finally, two supersonic numerical examples 2D cylinder and 3D double ellipsoid cases verify the feasibility of hybrid simulation in NNW-PHengLEI software.”
Although this development was not the best in the world, it was a major milestone in development of homegrown civilian aircraft. In this direction, China has also successfully developed “the processing and manufacturing of T130 unmanned aircraft” in 2020. The CARDC also reported that China has successfully tested the “first large amphibious aircraft in low speed wind tunnel”. This project has since been upgraded to include ‘the world’s largest piston-driven shock wind tunnel, which can simulate “more than 33 times the speed of sound”.’
The edge in the enhancement of the wind tunnel capability is the crux of hypersonic missiles technology, which some experts believe is singularly dominated by China with a comprehensive lead of ‘decades’. Even the ASPI’s critical technology tracker recognised Chinese monopoly in advanced aircraft engines particularly in hypersonics with 48.49 percent, while the US languished at 11.69 percent and with 6.96 percent, India remained a distant third. China also recorded success in designing, “small-scale turbojet engine, CT-500, for super cruise propulsion”, which exceeded the “TRI 60-30 engine…which was once the top STE…in aero thrust”. The turbojet engines have huge military applications in form of cruise missiles, target drones and UAVs. The CARDC in 2021 also leaped ahead in fundamental research over “numerical simulation on aero-engine, transition from hypersonic boundary layer, compressible turbulent boundary layer research, research on fine display of flow and non-contact measurement techniques in high performance wind tunnels, engine turbulent combustion, shock waves, Silicon Carbide (SiC) in high-enthalpy plasmas with water species” and many other key concepts of fundamental physics. These developments are propelling China into the next era of unparalleled technological growth and domination.
India Requires Change
India needs to get her house in order by making significant changes in the existing R&D activities. The first change should be in India’s recruitment procedure, which has failed to attract the best minds as many leave for foreign shores due to the cumbersome Indian public service system. In this chronology, India needs to start the process of recruiting directly from college campuses by offering salaries as per skills and existing standards of the Industry. Second, it is no brainer that 0.65 percent of GDP is not going to make India a superpower, even in a hundred years. We need to increase our funding on a war footing to at least two percent of GDP. Third, the private sector should be incentivised to work on R&D projects similar to the PLI scheme in the manufacturing sector. A public-private partnership is the best case scenario for Research in India. Fourth, the school curriculum needs to be altered to equip students to learn and think over the technological advancement of our time instead of being forced to cram concepts. This changed approach will motivate students to read books and articles out of their obsolete school curriculum. These changes once made, will show results in at least a decade, which means that the political leadership will be required to be visionary and patient.
In the technological domain, India is nowhere close to the high standards of China and the US, but given the demographic dividend, India surely has a greater chance to match these advanced nations. However, India will be required to make the above mentioned changes to truly become Aatmanirbhar Bharat else we will continue to be a net importer and a lower rung power even after 100 years.