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What 'Star Trek' Can Teach India And China About Being A Great Power

02/10/2015 8:10 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST
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For a few weeks now, I have been watching Star Trek: The Original Series, a TV show so innovatory and far reaching in its inspiration in the 1960s that it impacted a whole generation of people to dream of exploring the unknown. Starting with an exciting tag line -- "Space the final frontier, these are the voyages of the Star Ship Enterprise... to boldly go where no man has gone before", the series exposes us to stimulating political ideas amid its themes of owning responsibility to manage the space system, mutual cooperation with alien species, withstanding asteroid attacks, and spread understanding of the earth species amongst alien populations in deep space. And most importantly, to take responsibility in maintaining freedom of space for all to enjoy and utilise for their own benefits in an inclusive manner.

So, how is this space story connected to aspirations of Great Power status, much sought after by countries like India and China? In more ways than one, I think. I will get to that later.

There are a few clear criteria that make countries great. Two of the well-established ones are military and economic power.

"China has the military and economic power to shape the global system but it appears to be far more imbedded in its own nation-building process..."

According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) yearbook 2015, the United States continues to lead the pack with a gross military expenditure of USD610 billion followed by China with USD 210 billion. India's military spending is also rising with USD 50 billion. With conflicts ranging from Ukraine to the rise of ISIS in West Asia, there is little possibility that the US Budget Control Act of 2011 would limit spending or that the US Overseas Contingency Fund will slow down as was predicted in 2012-2013 due to sequestration.

In economic data available and debated worldwide, the US led again with a USD 18.1 trillion economy, followed by China at USD 11.2 trillion. India's economy also entered the trillion club at USD 2.3 trillion.

With regard to nuclear weapons, it was Russia that led with approximately 8400 warheads followed by the US (7600), UK (225), China (240), India (110), etc.

Other criteria that matter as much are demographics, education and employable population pool equipped with skillsets. In this, Asia leads the pack, with China taking top place with a population of 1.4 billion, followed by India with 1.2 billion. Demographics, that too when young, skilled and educated, can bode well for a country's future. India with a youthful population of 356 million has the world's largest followed by China with 269 million, Indonesia with 67 million, US with 65 million, Pakistan with 59 million, etc. These youthful bulges are viewed as the "demographic dividend" that can propel China and India to lead the world in innovation, capital and start-ups. Already, the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi's courting of the Indian diaspora is well documented, including his push for a Digital India in his recent visit to the United States with major tech giants like Google, Tesla, Facebook and Apple meeting with him. Chinese President Xi Jinping also met up with major multinational companies during his US visit promising to clear obstacles to further reform in China. China and India are aspiring for more power and influence at the world stage, to which end India is bidding for a UN Security Council seat.

So let us now get back to the narrative of responsibility that Star Trek highlights frequently, and how it ties into what it means to be a Great Power in the present international context. For one, it means taking responsibility to maintain the international system, including ensuring that Global Commons like Sea Lanes of Communication are free for use of all, contributing to the building of norms and adhering to universal standards of behaviour. In this, how do China and India, two of the foremost contenders for Great Power status, meet up?

"India seems to be a reluctant player when it comes to taking global responsibilities in maintaining the international system."

China has the military and economic power to shape the global system but it appears to be far more imbedded in its own nation-building process, evident in its claims to islands in the South and East China Seas, Taiwan, and some parts of Indian territory. As a result, instead of maintaining and leading a peaceful regional system, it has thrown up risky security challenges in its regional vicinity, including its declaration of an Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ) in the East China Sea and its land reclamation activities in the South China Sea. These policy postures by China reflect that it is very keenly aware of its asymmetry of power with the United States, the lead player in the system. China continues to therefore engage in brinkmanship vis-à-vis the US, while aggressively demonstrating its power to smaller neighbours like the Philippines and Vietnam. Consequently, its influencing power is limited by its tactical proclivity for demonstrating its growing power. I wonder deeply how much of Sun Tzu's advice of action-positioning-knowing-vision (in the realm of strategy) are actually followed by Chinese leaders -- or do we misappropriate Sun-Tzu's wisdom to the present generation?

India seems to be a reluctant player when it comes to taking global responsibilities in maintaining the international system. While it wants to enjoy the benefits of being thought of as a Great Power, it still continues to fight for inclusion in international forums, and feels vindicated when perceived by the United States as a power of eminence. I believe such recognition already exists; we do not need further joint statements reminding us of our shared values and that our democratic systems bring us together. What we require now is the real deal: Indian capacity.

So the question that stares India in the face is this: does it have the naval systems that enable it to play the role of a Great Power in the oceans? Does it have capacity to fight rising threats emerging from West Asia like ISIS? Does it have the capability to deploy its forces to stop the spread of transnational terrorism? And finally, is it willing to stake its resources to maintain a rules-based international system. For long, India kept citing its desire for strategic autonomy to carve its own path, and this confused many. The lack of a white paper on its foreign policy strategy and goals kept many in the dark.

It appears India is adopting a multi-alignment strategy which is focused on ensuring its own internal development while taking up very little responsibility for the health of the international system, the peaceful maintenance of which is directly linked to its own internal prosperity and growth. Significantly, Asia is fast emerging as a core world region, vital to the health of the international system. Therefore, countries like China and India, with their aspirational societies and their exciting economic growth stories, will inexorably find in their paths to greatness the responsibility to maintain an inclusive space in their vicinity and beyond; how they achieve this skilfully will depend largely on the leaders they choose to lead their political systems.

And as James T. Kirk, Captain of the U.S.S Enterprise stated, "You know the greatest danger facing us is ourselves, an irrational fear of the unknown. But there's no such thing as the unknown -- only things temporarily hidden, temporarily not understood."

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