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Can Responsible Power India Hold Friends Accountable?

Vineeth Krishnan

1 November 2022

India is today a responsible great power. However, 2022 posed unprecedented challenges regarding how India will deal with its friends when they step out of line. With great power comes great responsibility and in IR, this necessitates India hold the USA and Russia accountable for disturbing global peace and stability.

Can Responsible Power India Hold Friends Accountable?

What does it mean to be a responsible power? What are the expectations? Is it merely to stand by idly and watch as another great power breaks all established norms and actively provokes other states? Sure, it may be easy to do so if the great power takes on a far weaker opponent and particularly if the theatre of conflict does not threaten to drag one into it. It may be easier still if the erring great power is an ally or a friend while the adversary is a potential threat to one’s national security. There may even be a domestic audience that wants the adversary to get a bloody nose and would want the state to stick by the ally/friend just for parochial reasons. However, does that make one a responsible power?

India may have gained much since the post 2000s bonhomie with the USA. Indeed, it is Washington which went to bat for India’s non-proliferation credentials and gave it the tag of a responsible, de facto Nuclear Weapon State. Since the announcement of the Next Steps in Strategic Partnership in 2004, the MoU on civil nuclear cooperation a year later and finally with the culmination of the 123 Agreement or the Indo-US Civil Nuclear Cooperation Agreement of 2008, the two states have indeed walked the walk, as far as deepening ties into a true strategic partnership with the potential to be a "force for good" for the entire world. 

However, does the same tag of responsibility that the USA enshrined on India mean that New Delhi says and does nothing when it perceives its friend making a grave miscalculation? Does the USA lauding India’s rise, opening doors to enter what had previously been exclusive clubs closed to it, give it a free pass? Is toeing the proverbial line and looking the other way a ‘responsible’ behaviour from India, which has been well-acknowledged as being as close one can get to a figurative moral compass in international relations? For three major reasons the answers to all these questions should be an emphatic and resounding NO.

1. Being a responsible power means making difficult judgement calls when they are needed. When someone is wrong, no matter who it is, the conviction to call them out is important and expected of a responsible power. India rightly understood Russia’s point of view and made the call that what is essentially a European war fuelled by missteps on both sides should not be one for India to take a stance on. It rightfully condemned any loss of life and bloodshed and called on all parties involved to come to the negotiating table and to end the conflict as quickly as possible.

A quick aside, here, anyone who argues the Ukraine invasion is merely a bilateral war (or an unilateral invasion) is severely undermining the role of Europe’s biggest powers, particularly Germany and France, which were legally tasked to ensure negotiations in good faith between Kiev and its separatist regions. Similarly, the role of the USA in covertly triggering the Maidan revolution and then stoking Ukrainian ambitions by promising military sales of such a magnitude that no responsible power should ever give to another state, further added to the deterioration of things on the ground. 

India understood Russia’s redlines just as it understood the predicament of the Ukrainian people and did the best it could in that situation. India has hardly ever strayed from its long-stated policy of non-intervention in the internal affairs of others and continued this trend in what is essentially a regional war. This is as much as could be done once the war was underway.

Could India have done more in light of the massacre in Bucha and the continued nuclear sabre-rattling from Russia, particularly from the point of view of playing a mediator role? India is well-served by a strong diplomatic cadre in the region and their efficiency in pulling out stranded Indian citizens through both the European and Russian corridors was a remarkable feat witnessed by the world. In this light, once Operation Ganga was completed, could/should India’s diplomatic core have been re-tasked to act as interlocutors to the conflict? 

There certainly is no clear answer to this question and one can see it either way. Perhaps doing so would have been an overreach of what is expected of a responsible power which is by no stretch of the imagination a party to this conflict. Certainly, it is a clear example to show how difficult a task it is for a country’s leadership to act on its potential capability to mediate peace without overstepping its bounds. The benefit of the doubt definitely should be accorded to India’s government in deciding to stick with its time-honoured non-intervention principles.

However, in the aftermath of Nancy Pelosi's damaging and frankly befuddling visit to Taiwan, India should have acted with far greater conviction. It has taken three full months for the first notable dialogue of any sort between these two powers to recommence. Even now, such talks remain embittered and the general peace and stability across the Taiwan straits remains strained, to put it mildly. The ties between the two states, already perceived to be in a New Cold War by many keen geopolitical analysts, are bound to shape international relations for the coming decades. For students of IR, the memory of what (nearly) took place in 1962, the last time two powers engaged in a Cold War had a major breakdown in communications, is never too far from recollection.

Considering this, India as a responsible power in world affairs, must call out Pelosi for very deliberately provoking Beijing when all the world knows that Taiwan is China's biggest redline. Otherwise, would it not want any power in the world to stand in its corner if one fine day any great power, let’s say China, dictates that Pakistan Occupied Kashmir is not occupied but an integral part of Pakistan? Indeed, given the hue and cry India has made about the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, the answer to that question is that unequivocally India would want the world to condemn such a statement. In that case, considering the USA and India have both formally agreed to the One China Policy, the right, nay, responsible thing to do would be to call out Pelosi and enquire of its friend in Washington as to how could it act so irresponsibly?

2. Secondly, the immortal dictum, no permanent friends or enemies, just interests is something to keep in mind. Sure, the USA and India may be converging on many aspects now. Certainly, the USA and India see China as a threat currently. But it is also equally true that India from day one has been making an earnest attempt to work with every state and build peace and stability, rather than take the easy route of going to war on every small issue.

The great American thinker John Mearsheimer, whose views on many other areas I completely agree with, makes the point of intent to use force as being a key component of great power status. A counter to this view, though, is that having the strength to not take the easy option and enter into mindless wars is equally a sign of a mature great power. The USA's own recent history makes this abundantly clear. What was achieved by going to war in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya or Syria other than the further eroding of global peace and stability? It takes military might to go to war. It takes courage, maturity and responsibility to not go into unjustified wars as well.

3. For the very same reasons that then US Secretary of State John Foster Dulles termed India’s non-aligned actions during the Cold War as ‘immoral’, any perception of India selectively choosing the instances where it calls out the great powers for wrongful actions would lead to questions being raised of its ‘responsible’ tag. If India condemns China acting in violation of UNCLOS for example, it should have the conviction to similarly call out the USA, particularly in a situation which could easily escalate into an unnecessary kinetic conflict that would demand of New Delhi to choose a clear side.

Make no mistake, if China is pushed into a corner, it will go to war over Taiwan. A research paper using prospect theory to study the behaviour of China’s presidents’ when provoked by external threats clearly shows that they have been more risk taking than risk averse in such situations. Let us please not underestimate China’s resilience or just how strongly the state feels about the Taiwan question. For any reader from India, a clear parallel is how Indians feel on the question of getting back every inch of Kashmir illegally occupied by both Pakistan and China.

The USA (assuming the chatter on Pelosi’s visit being against the Biden administration’s wishes is mere rhetoric) is clearly on the wrong here. It is against its own adherence to the One China policy. It is difficult to say whether the USA truly understands Asian powers and the value these states put on respect as a key component of its national and cultural identities. If the USA had any doubts, perhaps it should have learned its lessons in Afghanistan. Pelosi's visit shows it certainly has not. India must have the conviction to call out the USA to nip the possibility of any escalation before it begins.

Disclaimer: The article expresses the author’s views on the matter and do not reflect the opinions and beliefs of any institution they belong to or of Trivium Think Tank and the StraTechos website.

Vineeth Krishnan


Vineeth is the Editor - Politics and Strategy, of StraTechos. He is a Co-founder and Director of Trivium. He is currently a Ph.D. candidate at the Department of Geopolitics and IR, Manipal Academy of Higher Education and a recipient of the Dr. T. M. A. Pai Fellowship. His doctoral thesis is on the emerging dynamics in space security, analysing the prospects and challenges for cooperation among the major spacefaring nations.

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