By Pradeep S Mehta and Abhishek Kumar
The opportunity may perhaps lie in the new foreign policy articulation from the United States.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi has placed India in an advantageous position on the world map by travelling incessantly. Coupled with that the external affairs ministry has been organising global events in India in partnership with think tanks: Observer Research Foundation (ORF) and Gateway House on strategic issues in Delhi and Mumbai respectively. Recently, Raisina Dialogue organised by ORF culminated its grand third edition in Delhi. It is India’s own event and a platform that gives India an opportunity to share and articulate its ambitions and aspirations with rest of the world.
The question as to why Raisina Dialogue matters to the world can simply be explained by the fact that balance of power has shifted from the West to the East where China and India are seen as two contending economies that can shape the new world order. The world views this as a contest between ideas based liberal order that India can guarantee and a more hegemonic order that China could lead.
The nervousness in the air is palpable because the fear is that if China is to have an unbridled march, the democratic values that have shaped the world order thus far may come under siege causing a massive disruption. There is also a good reason for this nervousness. China is much bigger in economic and military terms, and expanding its power aggressively, even across big countries like the US and Australia.
The same is not true for India. India is still a rule taker whereas it needs to be a rule maker. But just how is it to achieve that?
The opportunity may perhaps lie in the new foreign policy articulation from the United States. The US strategy for Asia under Donald Trump has been redefined under the rubric of Indo-Pacific as opposed to erstwhile Asia Pacific. This makes India a country of strategic importance not only for the US but also for Australia and Japan — the two other powers that form the “Quad” — a group of four that has understandably come together to check the rise of China but one that is still to find a strategic convergence.
Just as recent as late last year the four Quad countries presented separate statements after secretary-level meeting in Manila thus signalling that there is still work to be done for the Quad to be a credible challenge! Complicating the matters further was President Trump’s visit to China where the bonhomie between Mr Trump and Xi Jinping sent confusing signals.
Given this scenario and the fact that many smaller countries in South and Southeast Asia have gradually come to depend on China, India will have to capitalise its position right now, when the formations of future global order are being defined. It has to generate confidence in its partners that it can deliver. This on one hand may mean that India will have to emerge as a “big giver” in the neighbourhood while on the other hand it means to be ready to share burden of partnership with countries like the US. This sharing of burden may come in the form of additional responsibilities such as humanitarian aid in other countries in lieu of tangibles like transfer of technology from the US, which will help build India’s capabilities.
If India can do that, it may also qualify as a strategic ally of the US in its quest to make “America Great Again”. This is because at the heart of slogans like this or “America First” is the idea that the US will not spend its resources where others can or should. Therefore, the question is can India become that US ally and win from it?
If it is indeed to happen, India will have to bargain keeping in mind its strategic location, which has already been recognised under Indo-Pacific formulation by the US, its democratic values, concerns on terrorism and other imperatives like tackling poverty, job creation and climate amongst other. More often than not, it is because of internal imperatives like poverty that India has to often adopt a protectionist stance. Therefore, in pursuit of India’s ambition to become one of the key protagonists in the ushering of ideas based global order, it will have to do a careful balancing act. It cannot just wish to be there without fixing its domestic policies, human capital, ease of doing business, sustainability record and governance, amongst others.
To put this in a slightly unusual way, India will have arrived when it can convince the world that its biggest soft power export is called “yog” and not “yoga”, the Romanised version. In other words, the world will have to listen to India as if it were the last big hope of liberal and democratic values — the journey for which begins from within and from its neighbourhood.
And clearly, if the liberal order is to succeed it will not only be upon India alone rather it will have to be a result of a new configuration of which India will be a pivot.
The attendance of 10 Asean leaders on India’s Republic Day function on January 26 must bring out something concrete in the months to follow unlike the previous neighbourhood gathering four years ago. There are also signals of Trump administration’s softening stance on climate change and trade. These are just some of the opportunities we cannot afford to miss.
The authors work for CUTS International