India is, more than ever before, in an era of high complexity. As the country tries to cope with all these complexities, it is finding that it needs cross-domain expertise, people who could look at an issue from an interdisciplinary lens.
Whether it is challenges in the field of politics, economics or technology, information, health, or traditional military affairs, these are all getting interlinked. And this is not a stray one-off kind of change coming about in our security environment, but it is becoming more of a norm.
India experienced the first shock of this game during the 2008 financial crisis, when the Finance Ministry, Central Bank and regulators became frontline warriors overnight as the global economy and the financial system teetered on edge.
And the same thing happened during the two COVID crises, when doctors, health administrators, or health regulators suddenly found themselves sucked into the geopolitics and the security risks associated with COVID. Therefore, nations are coming to the realisation that you need other skill sets to deal with what the future throws at you.
Words that we were familiar with are fast losing their relevance; globalisation is one such word that we do not hear of much as in the past when it was considered the panacea of all global ills. There is also less mention of phrases like ‘regime change,’ ‘colour revolution,’ etc. The lingua franca of geopolitics is now changing, and we hear more frequently of ‘supply chains,’ ‘weaponisation of trade, finance and energy'.
INDIA’S FOREIGN POLICY CHALLENGES
The current global insecurity can be traced back to the acute rivalry within the P5 of the UNSC, the ‘custodians of the global order’ who were supposed to actually manage international security.
Today, outsiders like India and the other 190 countries are basically bystanders, in the acute confrontation and contestation between these five countries. So, if the core is melting, then what happens to everyone else? Which is that institution or platform where we can go with the hope of looking at problems that the vast majority of the world faces; it is a foundational crisis.
The world is heading into a multipolar world with two or three poles which is not yet certain. However, it is reasonably certain that another pole is rising, whose boundaries are common with India’s. While the world faces a host of crises, a few deserve closer examination. One is the leadership crisis, where the world lacks a leader to guide it, one who can command the confidence of most nations, and one who takes the lead in addressing and resolving global problems and deficits. The unceasing war in Ukraine is a clear example of this deficiency of global leadership.
Another crisis is one of trust and confidence, and this trust deficit is growing between nations and between leaders. In its presidency of the G20, India will attempt to bring it all back in terms of some kind of consensus. Whether India will succeed or not, we will come to know after one year as India’s tenure ends.
On the economic front, there is volatility and slowdown. There is a move across nations, especially the prosperous Western ones, towards onshoring and greater insularity. This is manifested in the American and Chinese programmes for development in the next two decades and closer home in India’s Atmanirbhar push.
Under the overhang of the European face-off with Russia, we see a hardening of the alliances that were forged during the Cold War, the revival of European unity and NATO in terms of its cohesion, visibility and aggressiveness. This has also been manifested across geographies in the Indo-Pacific and the Russia-China axis.
But there is a dichotomy - along with the geostrategic confrontation, the other reality is of very significant economic interdependence. This dual-track approach to dealing with other nations is also becoming more visible. This is clearly visible in the US-China relationship, where the balance between competition and cooperation with China will determine the shape of their relationship and, therefore, the impact on the rest of the world.
Increasingly, the same duality is visible in the Sino-India relationship. The business sector and trade have a certain approach to China, while the security apparatus in India has a very different approach. This leads to internal differences of opinion and the challenge of finding a unified policy towards China.
The challenge is how to deal with this new emerging pole-China, which cannot be wished away. The template of the Cold War is no longer applicable. Another quandary confronting Indian policymakers is the nature of the transatlantic alliance and European unity. But when you try disaggregating the dynamics within the alliance, there are serious problems. China sits on India’s land borders, and India has a direct stakein what happens in and to China. The nature of the Chinese policy adopted by the U.S. and its European allies is critical for India’s policy formulation vis-a-vis China. Decoupling with China, so often spoken of, seems unlikely; a $700 billion trade (between the U.S. and China and an equal amount with Europe) cannot be wished away.
Looking from the Chinese lens, there is also a debate going on within China about India. There are different voices in China. One which looks at India on its merits as a neighbour with the four thousand plus kilometre boundary on the Tibet plateau and deals with India as a civilisational state. But there is another section of the Chinese establishment which has, for all practical purposes, written off India as an American ally. While they may not yet consider India as a proxy state of the U.S., they look at India through the U.S. lens.
There is also a strategic disconnect between India and the collective West on Russia and China. We must arrive at some kind of consensus on India’s most pre-eminent threat, which requires greater dialogue between India and the West.
India has not and is unlikely to subscribe to any ‘cancel Russia’ project as prevalent in the West. While the West will make all deals with Russia more challenging in the future, India may not subscribe to that view again. However, dealing with Russia will become more difficult due to various reasons.
The power differential between China and Russia is rapidly growing, and with every global crisis, this differential seems to get only bigger. This was visible in 1991, in 2008, in 2021 after COVID, and of course, after the Ukraine war. Today Chinese economy stands at about $18 trillion and going steadily up.
For various reasons, today, the expectations of friendship from India among all parties are very high. For different reasons, the U.S., EU, Russia, and China would like India to be on their side. From an Indian perspective, this is an opportunity to maximise India’s strategic gains and advantages.
India is now part of not just all the global problems, but also part of most solutions to these problems, and therefore, the responsibility on India to scale up globally is going to be even higher as we go along. Increasingly, self-interest will drive the Indian interface with the global community. India is not unique on this account, as almost every other single power in the world is pursuing this policy. India will capitalise on its market and demographics and the inherent growth impulses of India. This is reflected in the degree of optimism visible in India, which contrasts with the situation in Europe, the United States, and Russia.
The problem is that while these are good things for India, we also have internal challenges. India must manage the basic issues of internal stability and regional imbalances of employment generation. So, even if it is not a black-and-white picture, on the whole, the gigantic Indian economy is definitely on the move.
Because of this reason, and because of our economic imperatives, in the medium term, there is no question that Indian economic development and technology needs will drive it closer to the integration of the Indian economy with Western supply chains.
Also, the technology path India chooses is again something that is up for debate within the Government of India. For example, this was seen in the telecom and the energy sector, where the dilemma was whether to stop all technology imports from China and switch 100 per cent to Western technologies or increasingly develop our own technologies.
In the telecom sector, India has, over the last 2-3 years, put in place a comprehensive mechanism to certify trusted technology sources in the telecom sector. In addition, India has successfully developed an indigenous 5G solution. Technology decisions, like technology itself, are dynamic, sector- and region-specific.
Today, the discussion in India on the shape of its relations with Russia revolves around natural resources, energy supplies, the Arctic region and Russia’s Far East - in all these, Russia figures prominently because of its geography. With China already pitted against India, the last thing that any Indian policy-planner would want is a hostile Russia. Therefore, if India appears ambivalent in choosing between the West and Russia, it is not accidental but deliberate.
India is also concurrently actively engaged with the U.S., the EU, the BRICS, and the Central Asian region. India is trying to develop and evolve an Indian way of dealing with the world, not a Western, Chinese, or Russian. There are no precedents to this and no Bible to follow. With a population of over 1.4 billion, India must think for itself, and even if mistakes are made, it cannot mortgage its judgement to someone else or copy other models of the past or present.
Is India the next China, or is China the next U.S.? These are theoretical questions, as no two countries can be the same. India is India; it is neither China nor the U.S. Indians, and foreigners must accept this.
What are the determinants of India’s future growth trajectory? India must start by developing its internal strengths, and a good starting point is manufacturing. The pandemic laid bare the fact that manufacturing is not an old-fashioned word- if you could not make masks, PPE etc. and in huge quantities and quickly, it is an economic challenge.
In the medium to long term, India must protect itself from greater financial, trade and investment weaponisation. Besides technology, India has to look at critical resources, materials and new energy forms - all that will determine Indian national power.
Major reforms are taking place in the defence and space sectors. These may take time, but at least the process has well and truly begun. There is a greater awareness of what needs to be done in the future to keep up with the rest of the front-runners in the world.
“Short of getting into the Security Council, India is today much more visible in all global platforms and coalitions and groupings than we were in the past. And you will see that happening more and more. So, it is not as if we are holding back waiting for that day when we become a Security Council Member. The Ukraine conflict has proved the Indian point about the bankruptcy of the current Security Council in either trying to anticipate or to prevent or to solve a crisis of this magnitude. If there is any organ in the world today which has failed in its duties, it is the UNSC because it is mandated to uphold international security. So, the last place to go for a resolution of this war is the Security Council. The need is to have different stakeholders and to recognise that we are not in 1945.”
*Remarks based on a Synergia Breakfast Series discussion led by Ambassador Pankaj Saran, Convenor, NatStrat in Bengaluru, on April 5, 2023.