Security Studies Program Seminar

India’s Emergence as a Great Power: Implications for U.S. Policy in Asia

David J. Karl
Asia Strategy Initiative

October 21, 2009


Speaker’s Remarks:

Question & Answer Session

Q: India has two things going for it that you did not mention.  First, India’s enormous middle class, and, second, a possible coming “accountability transition” in India as the middle class continues to sway the context for accountable governance as it captures more parliamentary districts.  Couldn’t these factors outweigh the constraining factors you emphasized in your talk?

A: There are certainly some reasons for optimism.  I might even agree with your two points, but I doubt the state capacity problems will be surpassed as quickly as many believe.

Q: Hasn’t India been making some considerable education reforms under the current government?

A: The new minister strikes me as very dynamic and reform-minded, but education in the Indian system is a state matter, not a national one, which makes crafting national reform considerably more challenging.  Similarly, shoddy private schools operate outside of the purview of official reform entirely.  There are business-firm indexes ranking these schools to encourage accountability, but this cause for optimism is currently quite limited in its impact.

Q: Is the comparison between India and China today fair?  Couldn’t one argue that India is just farther behind on the same trajectory, making a comparison to China in the 1970s as perhaps a fairer equivalent?

A: Chinese reforms first began in the farming sector, but India has not pursued the same approach.  Sixty percent of India’s workforce is in this sector although it only produces roughly 17% of its GDP – this sector is in serious need of reform.  To become a great power, India needs to be able to shift that enormous labor force into more productive economic sectors, but it cannot because of parochial interests resistant to reform and the country’s restrictive labor laws.  Yes, India started at reform later than China, but I think the drag on India now is much greater than the drag on China when it first launched economic reforms.

Q: Isn’t primary education a much greater source of India’s problems than tertiary studies?  Also, doesn’t our choice of terminology about what sort of big power we care about prejudice our findings?  The USSR was not a superpower in internal dimensions either, but we considered it one nonetheless.  Shouldn’t you focus more on military capacity and nuclear weapons for determining what constitutes a great power?

A: Sure, it is crucially important to fix the primary schooling sector.  I wouldn’t dispute that.  India also needs to develop its manufacturing sector.  Almost all of India’s manufacturing is capital intensive in nature, which is odd considering that labor should be India’s comparative advantage.

Q: Could you talk a bit more about natural resources in India?

A: India has to import considerable amounts of petroleum products.  Electricity is also a major problem in India.  The one thing India does have is a great deal of latent hydropower that could solve some of its energy problems.  However, being a democratic country, the NIMBY problem is a huge impediment to building dams that will displace population.

Q:  Isn’t it a bit unfair to suggest that the Bush Administration’s overly bullish attitudes toward India are reflective of the mood in Washington when we have a new president sitting in the White House and new personnel sitting in the Pentagon and Foggy Bottom?  Isn’t there more than a hairsbreadth of difference between the current administration’s understanding of India’s capabilities and constraints compared to the previous administration, and, if so, could you describe where those differences lay?  What do we know thus far about the Obama Administration’s read of India, and, alternatively, what do we not yet know?

A: The Bush Administration’s assumptions with regard to India have embedded themselves in the discourse in Washington.  George Bush overrode a sluggish bureaucracy to get the civilian nuclear agreement done.  Prime Minister Singh went so far as saying that the Indian people loved President Bush.  There is some anxiety in India about whether President Obama shares his predecessor’s commitment to U.S.-India partnership.  Certainly the current Secretary of State shares a strong focus on India – as strong as Condoleezza Rice and George Bush.  Whether or not she can persuade President Obama to spend more time on India is an open question.  It was a highly symbolic gesture that President Obama’s first invitation for a state visit to Washington was issued to Prime Minister Singh.  You also see it in the mil-to-mil relationship – the U.S. wants to sell India a huge fleet of jet fighters.

Q: Little is known in my home country, Japan, about India.  What are the prospects for an alliance between India and the United States?  And what about Indian sensitivities about sovereignty?

A: I and many others avoid the term alliance with regard to this relationship.  People think of it in terms of being a strategic partnership.  The Japan-U.S. relationship was forged when U.S. power was at its apogee and Japanese power at its nadir.  Supposedly rising India is determined not to be incorporated as a junior partner and it will likely stand firm on this point.  The China factor is going to be a key driver of Indian choices in this regard.  Indian choices about alignment with the U.S. will in considerable part be driven by whether or not Indian elites view Chinese intentions and actions as threatening or as benign.

Q: With India needing water desperately, how long will it take them to jettison its treaty with the U.S. in order to utilize their Thorium resources?

A: Actually, India is permitted to use its indigenous Thorium resources.  The U.S. just does not trade Thorium with them.

Q: Don’t India and China have different approaches to governance?  And isn’t U.S. policy toward India in part driven by an attempt to peel it away from its historic relationship with Russia?  And how would the U.S. like to integrate India into the reconstruction process in Pakistan and Afghanistan?

Q: Similarly, some suggest that Pakistan is cozying up to the Taliban in order to prevent possible encirclement by both Afghanistan and India.  How can we dampen the India-Pakistan dispute?  Is it possible to get India’s cooperation under parameters on Afghanistan’s alignment and India’s involvement in order to get Pakistan’s willingness to go along with Indian cooperation?

A: Indian-Pakistani cooperation and peace is the holy grail of U.S. diplomacy toward South Asia.  India worries that its commitments on Afghanistan would not be reciprocated by Pakistan because the civilian government in Islamabad does not call the shots on Afghanistan.


Rapporteur: David Weinberg

back to Wednesday Seminar Series, Fall 2009