Author : Harsh V. Pant

Originally Published 2020-06-29 11:20:30 Published on Jun 29, 2020
China, India and their Contending Visions of Global Order

Even as Indian and Chinese military officials were working towards reaching a “mutual consensus to disengage” from all “friction areas” along the Line of Actual Control (LAC), External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar was participating in a virtual Russia-India-China (RIC) Foreign Ministerial Meeting last week. He used that opportunity to reiterate India’s belief in the “time-tested principles of international relations” but argued that “the challenge today is not just one of concepts and norms, but equally of their practice.” Jaishankar made it clear that “respecting international law, recognising the legitimate interests of partners, supporting multilateralism and promoting common good are the only way of building a durable world order.”

Coming against the backdrop of India-China confrontation at the LAC which turned violent last week leading to the deaths of 20 Indian soldiers, it was clear at whom Jaishankar’s message was targeted at. This meeting succeeded Jaishankar’s previous phone exchange with his Chinese counterpart where he had blamed “premeditated and planned action” by Chinese troops for the LAC violence.

The RIC platform emerged in the immediate aftermath of the Cold War where the three states tried to make a case for multipolarity to keep the American unipolar moment in check. It was also a time when the three nations tried to coordinate their responses to global challenges such as western military interventions, climate change and global trade. All three, of course, kept their own channels to the US open, despite denouncing it publicly at every meeting. China was the greatest beneficiary as it expanded its material capabilities significantly during this period by enhancing its economic and trade linkages with the US substantively.

India too enhanced its ties with the US, unencumbered as it was by the structural constraints of the Cold War and its own imperatives of economic liberalisation. But where China used this time to build its internal capabilities, Indian elites remained diffident about engaging the US. Needless debates about the relevance of non-alignment continued in India even as it was China which enhanced its strategic autonomy by careful alignments. As the power differential grew between China and India, New Delhi’s foreign policy turned out to be neither strategic nor very autonomous. From RIC India moved into BRICS where China’s dominance was even more palpable and the limitations of other states even more pronounced. A lack of clarity on Indian moves was as less a function of Indian attempt to manage China’s rise but more of creating a false equivalence between the US and China in Indian foreign policy calculus.

The challenge for India became even more acute as Russia shifted its loyalties to China and despite fond hopes of some that eventually differences between them would pull them apart, a Sino-Russian strategic axis is now more pronounced than ever. It is not a natural partnership but stranger things have happened in the history of global politics. As Russia reassessed its foreign policy priorities through the prism of its growing antagonism with the West, Indian defence and strategic ties with Russia came under a cloud. And platforms like the RIC and BRICS became even more lopsided with China virtually dictating the agenda.

As a consequence, RIC has today become a talk shop in many ways where generic discussions on global issues has become the norm. This week’s RIC meeting saw New Delhi underlining the need for international affairs to come to terms with contemporary reality. Arguing that “the RIC countries have been active participants in shaping the global agenda,” Jaishankar expressed his hope that the three nations would “also now converge on the value of reformed multilateralism.”

Though Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, without any hint of irony, suggested that RIC should focus on maintaining the international system under the aegis of the UN and uphold multilateralism, it is unlikely that China, which remains determined in preventing India from getting its due on global multilateral platforms, will agree with India’s push towards reformed multilateralism.

Global political realities are rapidly evolving. India, rightfully, cannot be satisfied with the status quo which puts it at a disadvantage vis-a-vis China. But so far New Delhi has been reluctant to articulate its choices explicitly. Now that Chinese intentions not only towards India but also towards the wider global multilateral framework are out in the open, it is incumbent upon India to seek reliable partnerships to build multilateral frameworks among like-minded countries. Global order is more fragmented today than it has ever been in the recent past and platforms like RIC only have a limited utility for India.

Jaishankar was right in arguing that the challenge today is about the practice of international relations and so if India does not see some tangible utility from RIC and BRICS, it should not hesitate to junk them. The facade of common values among countries that have disparate global agendas has gone on for far too long. India should take the lead in dismantling it. It would be doing a great service not only to its own interests but also to the wider global order.

This commentary originally appeared in Mail Today.

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Harsh V. Pant

Harsh V. Pant

Professor Harsh V. Pant is Vice President – Studies and Foreign Policy at Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi. He is a Professor of International Relations ...

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