Expert Speak Raisina Debates
Published on Jan 26, 2022 Updated 26 Days ago
As a major beneficiary of economic globalisation, India must actively prevent a breakdown of the international economic order
India and the Post-Pandemic Geopolitics

This piece is part of the series, India@75: Aspirations, Ambitions, and Approaches


The rise of China and its expansionism, the reassertion of Russia, the reordering of US global priorities, and the breakdown of the post-Cold War global political and economic order have opened up unprecedented challenges and opportunities for India. If Delhi’s deepening conflict with Beijing underlines the new challenges, the growing intensity of India’s strategic cooperation symbolises the new opportunities. Further, India’s emergence as a power of some consequence has improved New Delhi’s ability to take advantage of new possibilities and limit some of the negative fallout. India’s success now depends on how quickly it can restructure its traditional worldview. As the COVID-19 pandemic persists two years after it enveloped the world, the pre-existing strategic trends in international politics have accelerated. The pandemic has not only increased the awareness of the dangers of overdependence on China for manufactured goods, including pharmaceutical drugs and medical equipment, but also triggered political calls for greater resilience in the supply chains. Moreover, China’s growing influence in multilateral institutions such as the World Health Organisation has been brought into clear focus. The US trade disputes with China have led to a new recognition in Washington that America needs to strengthen its domestic industrial and technological capabilities.
India’s emergence as a power of some consequence has improved New Delhi’s ability to take advantage of new possibilities and limit some of the negative fallout.
The US pushback against China in the security domain, which began well before the pandemic, has now acquired a sharper edge. The Biden Administration in Washington has fully embraced the Trump Administration’s initiatives in the Indo-Pacific and reinforced the Quadrilateral Forum (that brings together Australia, India, Japan and the United States). Biden took a step forward in unveiling the AUKUS–a new military partnership between Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States. It involves the transfer of nuclear-powered submarines to Canberra by Washington and London as well as trilateral cooperation on emerging strategic technologies like cyber and artificial intelligence. Meanwhile, there has been no resolution of the military crisis between India and China triggered by Beijing’s aggression in the Ladakh region in the spring of 2020. The military friction between India and China in the high Himalayas boiled over into a deadly clash between the troops of the nations in June 2020—the first in many decades. Despite continuous engagement at the military, diplomatic and political levels, Delhi has been unable to persuade Beijing to vacate the aggression and restore the territorial status quo ante in Ladakh. As it comes to terms with Chinese hostility and unwillingness to abide by the terms of bilateral engagement negotiated earlier, Delhi had no option but to reassess its China policy and adapt to the new geopolitical dynamic triggered by Beijing’s rise. In the immediate post-colonial period, India tended to reject the notion of geopolitics and its emphasis on the enduring primacy of power and its distribution in shaping international relations. India’s unique brand in world affairs was defined by universalist notions such as “One World,” and calls for co-existence amongst rival blocs in the Cold War, peaceful resolution of disputes, opposition to alliances, anti-imperialist solidarity with the post-colonial world, and campaigns against apartheid and for nuclear abolition.
Despite continuous engagement at the military, diplomatic and political levels, Delhi has been unable to persuade Beijing to vacate the aggression and restore the territorial status quo ante in Ladakh.
However, it was never easy to sustain this ambitious framework amidst the pulls and pressures of the real world. Within the neighbourhood, New Delhi sought to preserve the subcontinental sphere of influence inherited from the Raj. The 1962 war with China shook the idealism of the 1950s, and Jawaharlal Nehru turned to the US for military assistance. As shifting great power relations shaped India’s regional security environment, Nehru’s successor, Indira Gandhi, turned to Soviet Russia to balance the Sino–US entente. For India, it remained a persistent struggle to reconcile its declared idealism and the foreign policy practice that demanded compromise and realpolitik. Overarching this tension was something far more consequential: India’s relative economic decline and, with it, the strategic salience, as it turned inward and limited its commercial engagement with the world. Finally, the change of domestic economic orientation in the 1990s reversed India’s relative decline. As high growth rates since the turn of the 21st century put India on the path to becoming the third-largest economy, New Delhi began to rethink the nature of the post-Cold War world and its own place in it.
For India, it remained a persistent struggle to reconcile its declared idealism and the foreign policy practice that demanded compromise and realpolitik.
India’s self-perception as a champion of abstract norms and universal principles began to change in favour of a more realistic appreciation of power and its role in shaping the global order. To cope with the unipolar moment in the 1990s, India joined Russia and China to promote a multipolar world, even as it opened up to a rapprochement with the US. Eventually, as China’s rise began to seriously constrain India’s regional and global advance in the 21st century, New Delhi moved closer to Washington. The persistent border crisis on the China frontier helped Delhi overcome the enduring hesitations on a strategic embrace with Washington. As it intensifies its security partnership with Washington, Delhi is also complementing the US partnership by trying to build a coalition of middle powers that could limit the turbulence generated by the rivalry amongst the US, China and Russia. This is particularly important in light of the uncertain trajectory of domestic politics in the US and the potential surprises in China. India has begun to devote greater energies to the development of strategic partnerships with middle powers such as France in Europe and Japan in Asia. The collaboration amongst the middle powers of special importance comes at a time when the US is rethinking the role of its alliances in Europe, the Middle East and Asia. While President Donald Trump castigated US allies for being “free riders”, Joe Biden has underlined the importance of alliances in restoring US leadership in the world. But Biden is also looking beyond alliances to like-minded partners to take on greater responsibilities for regional security. Biden is also shifting focus from the prolonged interventions in the Middle East to coping with the China challenge in the Indo-Pacific. In the east, America wants its allies to contribute more to regional security.
India has begun to devote greater energies to the development of strategic partnerships with middle powers such as France in Europe and Japan in Asia.
While many of the US treaty allies are dismayed by a potential American resizing of its post-war global commitments, India is in a position to approach this in a positive framework.  The readjustment of the US security role in Europe and Asia provides an opportunity for India to take on more responsibility in terms of security in its neighbourhood and beyond. This would require that India transcends its traditional temptations to act alone and find ways to work with other powers on regional and international security, through bilateral, plurilateral and multilateral mechanisms. As a major beneficiary of economic globalisation, India must actively prevent a breakdown of the international economic order, now strained by the tensions between the world’s two largest economies—the US and China—as well the disruptions triggered by new technologies and the impact of climate change. Instead of responding to the new global economic challenges within the old North–South perspective, New Delhi must contribute to the construction and maintenance of a new consensus amongst the major economic actors for sustainable global growth and fair distribution of benefits and costs. The post-pandemic world has seen India’s political engagement with emerging ideas on cooperation amongst democratic states, on building resilient supply chains, and strengthening ad-hoc security coalitions such as the Quad (involving India, US, Australia, and Japan).
Instead of responding to the new global economic challenges within the old North–South perspective, New Delhi must contribute to the construction and maintenance of a new consensus amongst the major economic actors for sustainable global growth and fair distribution of benefits and costs.
As India responds to new global opportunities, the constraints on the country are more internal than external. Without a more rapid and higher-quality growth, India’s international performance will remain underwhelming. Equally important is the need to maintain internal coherence. The vast diversity at home has long complicated India’s nation-building challenge. In this regard, internal political divisions will not only reduce New Delhi’s ability to benefit from global possibilities, but also invite external meddling in its domestic politics.
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Contributor

C. Raja Mohan

C. Raja Mohan

Prof. C. Raja Mohan is Director Institute of South Asian Studies National University of Singapore. He is the contributing editor on international affairs for the ...

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