New Delhi: It is of great strategic moment that India has chosen to call the South China Sea the West Philippine Sea following the practise of the Philippines’ government. India is not known to venture in such bold directions and, hopefully, there will be no backtracking from it and no egregious chest-thumping. It marks, on the whole, India’s emergence as a power to reckon with in Asia, and it must be quietly and assiduously built upon.

Taking positions is part of the strategic great game. You cannot be a leader if you keep following others or indulge in group play. In that respect, Jawaharlal Nehru’s non-alignment was a timid and timorous affair. It provided space for equidistance from the growing Cold War rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union but did not thwart the more direct threat emanating from China and its proxy, Pakistan.

The limitations of non-alignment were fully exposed during Nehru’s lifetime itself when the 1962 debacle compelled him to plead with the United States for weapons. Non-alignment was no help in the 1965 war with Pakistan where India’s intelligent prior rearmament under Lal Bahadur Shastri prevented a worse denouement than a stalemate. In 1971, Indira Gandhi buried non-alignment properly by aligning with Russia with a friendship pact to dismember Pakistan.

Subsequently through various devices, including nuclear weaponization against China, India tried to make strategic advances. But in sum, they amounted to little. Economic growth from the 1990s spurred India on. But it did not meet the definition of a Great Power or even a rising one because it was not taking a leadership role. All Great Powers of history have assumed leadership roles at one time or another. India quested for that status but without daring to do what was absolutely necessary to do. Unless India challenged China and met the designed levels of success, it would never be taken seriously. This is the broad background to the West Philippine Sea gambit.

In the end, the Great Power game is a mind game. Joseph Stalin, Winston Churchill, Deng Xiaoping, Ronald Reagan, etc, were all victors in this power game. How could Churchill spiritedly oppose Adolf Hitler when continental Europe was reeling under the attack of the Wehrmacht? But he did. How could Stalin be sure that Hitler would meet Napoleon Bonaparte’s disastrous fate on the road to Moscow? He had confidence in the matchless fortitude of Russia and its merciless winter, the same winter Napoleon got to know from his own experience and from his contemporaneous reading of Voltaire’s history of Charles XII.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has played, in his turn, too, the psychological card with China. By recognizing the Philippines’ claim to the West Philippine Sea, he has committed sacrilege in the Chinese eyes of the equivalence of support for a Two China policy. In due course, that will also happen, if China persists with its expansionist drive in the seas to the south and east of the mainland. In tactical military terms, India’s new position would not translate into heightened hostilities with China along the border or elsewhere, although the Indian government would be prepared for Chinese mischief. But in the long term, China would understand and appreciate that India has taken a position from which it cannot resile without loss of face. The die is cast.

This step is enormously significant for India by itself and by virtue of its impact on relations with the states of South East Asia. These states will now feel emboldened to confront China on its expansion. Power projection can be physical as India occasionally does in South Asia. It could take a psychological dimension as well as the endorsement of the West Philippine Sea shows.

What’s in a name, you might ask. Everything, when it comes to the sovereignty question. India has challenged China at its portal. China has to begin to re-evaluate its manic support to Pakistan against India, though that can scarcely satisfy India anymore. Finally under Prime Minister Modi, India is making the moves of a Great Power. They are fraught with risks. But India has been preparing itself for just such opportunities. ‘...we must take the current when it serves, Or lose our ventures.’