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Editorial Articles

Issue no 20, 12-18 August 2023

India in the New World Order

Charting a Course for Global Leadership


Harsh V Pant


Last year, India emerged as the world's fastest-growing large economy and replaced Great Britain as the world's fifth-biggest economy. The long-term trajectory of the Indian economy seems set with India expected to emerge as the world's fourth largest economy, overtaking Germany, by 2027. It would be even more remarkable as of the four top economies, three are expected to be in the Indo-Pacific by 2027 - China, Japan, and India.

Indian policy-makers too have underlined India's emerging role as the "second most important driver of global growth after China" with India's growth financed primarily by domestic savings. Compared to 18% for China and 16% for the US, India's share of global GDP already stands at 7%. This is happening at a time when the global economy has been facing negative headwinds as a result of rising food and energy prices, China's zero-COVID strategy that led to world-wide supply chain disruptions, and the Russia-Ukraine conflict. The Indian economy has continued to be resilient partly because of government intervention and partly because of its unique structure.

Indeed, there is room for improvement, and, as experts have highlighted, India's per-capita income lags significantly behind countries experiencing rapid economic growth. To sustain the current rate of progress and to avoid considering it as a mere post-COVID rebound, it is crucial to implement a focussed policy effort. Moreover, with some global destinations losing favour among investors, policymakers should capitalise on this opportunity.

This economic trajectory of India also gives it a distinct place in global politics today. There is a reason why the West, despite its differences with India over certain issues, has continued to substantively engage with New Delhi. In fact, India's ties with the West have grown significantly amidst all the negative press India has received in the West. Where journalists remain prisoners of their short-term outlooks, policy-makers in the West recognise the real story - the rise of India as a credible geopolitical and geo-economic player in the 21st century.

Nevertheless, even as India's friendship with the West thrives, it maintains enduring ties with Russia, showcasing a delicate balance in its international relations. President Mr. Vladimir Putin of Russia seeks to demonstrate to the West that he is not isolated despite facing Western sanctions, as both China and India stand by his side as prominent allies. For New Delhi, nurturing communication channels with Moscow is crucial due to their shared defense interests and regional security alignment albeit Moscow's strong alliance with Beijing. Recoginising the significance of its partnership with Russia is also pertinent for India so as to avoid the potential risks of an impenetrable Russia-China alliance.

Moreover, India presently finds itself in a "geopolitical sweet spot" with China encountering its unique set of difficulties. India, with unwavering determination, has taken a strong stand along the Line of Actual Control, effectively disproving the Chinese Communist Party's claim of unassailable dominance. India's resolute stance has had a far-reaching impact, inspiring a wider resistance to China's moves not only across the Indo-Pacific region but also beyond. This has further intensified China's internal challenges and underscored the need for internal consolidation within China itself.

This has given India a position of advantage that it must exploit prudently. New Delhi must capitalise on the current balance of power to advance its interests through meaningful external engagements and partnerships. Forging significant alliances not only contributes to India's growth and influence on the global stage, but also enables India to confront its adversaries effectively. The Indian government has successfully navigated this path in recent years, focusing on securing its interests and fostering meaningful relationships.

It has built partnerships with key global players and has been able to navigate some choppy waters effectively. Despite the Ukraine crisis and the seemingly different perspectives, India's ties with its western partners have only got stronger in the last few years. In fact, the relationship has continued to grow. India and the US have had different approaches on the Ukraine war with New Delhi being reluctant to publicly condemn Russian aggression and continuing to buy Russian oil. Yet Washington has been sensitive to Indian concerns and there has been a growing understanding of Indian constraints when it comes to Russia. The recent Modi-Biden joint statement called for "respect for international law, principles of the UN charter, and territorial integrity and sovereignty" while expressing concern over the conflict in Ukraine.

During Prime Minister Shri Narendra Modi's recent visit to the US, the two nations have charted an ambitious agenda covering a diverse range spanning semiconductors, critical minerals, technology, space cooperation and defense manufacturing and sales. The ease of their bilateral engagement today underscores their joint commitment to keep the big picture in focus and not allow tactical differences to derail the wide ranging consensus. For the US, it has taken some time to comprehend that as a non treaty alliance partner, dealing with India will require a different set of rules and expectations. For India, it has been a learning curve to ensure that New Delhi is not only critiquing the existing global order but is also a full participant in providing solutions for the management of global disorder.

Western governments seem to adequately comprehend India's challenges, and so, in an ironic way, the existing geopolitical crisis has provided the means to both New Delhi and the West to come closer and to engage each other more substantively.

There is, of course, the wider structural shift in the global balance of power. With the centre of gravity of global politics and economics now firmly located in the Indo-Pacific, China's actions in the region can no longer be brushed aside as a mere irritant that will self-correct eventually. China's aggression in the region has made it imperative for global powers to respond and come together seeking rules-based order in the region.

But the more significant element in this shifting approach of the West is not about the West at all but about India's response to its strategic priorities. Today's self-confident India has a new voice on the global firmament - clear, rooted to the domestic realities and civilisational ethos as well as firm in the pursuit of its vital interests. As External Affairs Minister Dr. S. Jaishankar has remarked, it is better to engage with the world on the basis of "who we are" rather than try and please the world. If India is confident about its identity and priorities, the world will engage with India on its terms. Over the last few years, New Delhi has not been averse in challenging its adversaries and in courting its friends without the ideological baggage of the past. From being the only global power to challenge Chinese President Mr. Xi Jinping's Belt and Road Initiative as far back as 2014 to responding to Chinese military aggression with a strong military push back, from trying to work with the United States without entering the full embrace of an alliance, to engaging the western world for building domestic capacities, India has been pragmatic to the core and willing to use the extant balance of power to its advantage.

India's global leadership has been about big ideas. Its G20 Presidency has aimed to move the world away from polarisation towards a greater sense of solidarity. Its own reality of being a multicultural democracy should guide it well in bringing together highly diverse stakeholders to cogitate, and act, on global challenges. The theme of G20 India 2023 - "Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam" One Earth, One Family, One Future - encapsulates India's conceptualisation of the global order and its own role in it. And New Delhi has shown that it does not dwell merely on rhetoric.

In 2020, as COVID-19 first surged, it insisted on the need for the international community to work together and help those struggling with the least resources, even as developed nations focused inwards, some of them hoarding enough vaccines to inoculate each adult five times over.

The G20 is unique in so far as it brings together the developed and the developing nations to discuss and create solutions to global governance challenges. India can effectively bridge this divide by forging consensus on key global issues. New Delhi has been vociferous in giving voice to the aspirations of the Global South, at a time when few global powers have neither the time nor resources to cater to the most vulnerable - occupied as they are with their own domestic woes.

The pressures of global disruption are being absorbed most by poorer economies and few powers are willing to consider their challenges with the seriousness they deserve. By hosting one of the highest-profile international gatherings ever at a time of great turbulence, New Delhi is signalling its readiness to think big and deliver big - something that much of the world had long expected from India.

This is an inflection point for the global order and for India. India is on the cusp of achieving something dramatic: Not only a top-tier economic power that is also a multicultural democracy, but also a top-tier geo-political player that can lead, not simply balance.

The choices that New Delhi will make over the next few years will define the contours of that rise.

(The author is Vice President - Strategic Studies and Foreign Policy, Observer Research Foundation. You can send us your feedback on this article at feedback.employmentnews@gmail.com)

Views expressed are personal.