Author : Harsh V. Pant

Originally Published NDTV Published on Dec 28, 2023
The Year India Engaged The World On Its Own Terms

As we bid adieu to the year 2023, we are witnessing a global order that has been fundamentally reconfigured - politically, economically and diplomatically. Trends that were simmering below the surface for the last few years have burst into the open, revealing in the all their complexities the challenges that are becoming difficult to manage by extant frameworks and institutions. There is an intellectual void at the very heart of international relations and it is being filled by the overuse of the term "disruption." Whatever the world can't seem to grapple with or come to terms with is being labelled "disruptive." Indeed, this is an inflection point but the underlying forces shaping it had been there with us for some time now. 

The world is grappling with the fundamental transformations brought in by shifting power balance, technological overreach, and institutional decay. These underlying shifts have been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic and wars in Eurasia and the Middle East, resulting in global inflationary pressures, food and energy crises, and widespread economic downturn. Nations are frantically scraping their coffers to provide for their citizens' basic needs, and we are standing farther from achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

The post-COVID international landscape has been marred by increasing geo-political and geo-economic tensions. In the Indo-Pacific, the central theatre of global competition, several of these have culminated to present India with a series of challenging questions. These include navigating great power rivalry, conflicts, economic crises, deglobalisation, and adverse climate events, all against the backdrop of a weakening multilateral order.

However, each of these challenges is equally offset by opportunities for India. Most notably these include the chance to regain trust and leverage in its neighbourhood, gain from the relocation of global supply chains, expand cooperation with the west, push its agenda for clean energy transition and solidify its credentials as a global leader while steering international discourse and cooperation. Successful navigation of these challenges and opportunities by India in the Indo-Pacific has the potential to elevate its status in the global order and ultimately provide it with crucial strategic gains.

This year saw India taking on the global leadership role with aplomb as its G-20 presidency gave New Delhi a chance to shape the agenda for global cooperation in a world emergingfrom the shadows of the COVID-19 pandemic. For India, this was an opportunity to underline its emerging status as a "leading power." The G-20 is unique in so far as it brings together the developed and the developing nations to discuss and create solutions to global governance challenges. New Delhi used this platform 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 the 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 and managing to forge consensus among key global stakeholders despite fragmentation, New Delhi signalled its readiness to think big and deliver big-something that much of the world had long expected from India.

This is in sync with India's desire to play a larger global role by not only participating in key global alliances and multilateral for a but also creating new ones, thereby demonstrating its commitment to collaborative and inclusive global governance in areas as diverse as climate change, sustainable development, global health, and peacekeeping. As a responsible global stakeholder, India's role as the "first responder" during natural disasters or conflicts has been key in enhancing its global profile. From being a persistent naysayer to a nation willing to share responsibility for global governance has been one of the most striking trends in Indian foreign policy. 

The second trend visible this year was India's continuing ability to balance its key partnerships. New Delhi's ties with major global powers continued to grow despite challenges. The Ukraine war did not create a rupture in India's ties with the West, something that was anticipated when the conflict had begun last year. Instead, these relations continued to grow and evolve. Despite the US accusations pertaining to the planned assassination of a Sikh separatist leader and US citizen Gurpatwant Singh Pannun, Indo-US ties have retained their momentum with cooperation on critical and emerging technologies emerging as a key driver. The dramatic resurgence of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue - the Quad - is the strongest manifestation of this new reality where the US and India are willing to forge a new partnership based on emerging realities. At the same time, India has been able to maintain its close defence and strategic ties with Russia.

The final aspect of India's external engagement this year has been a growing realisation that there is no substitute to building domestic capacities in critical sectors. Only a strong and self reliant India can take on an increasingly belligerent China and sustain it through regular systemic disruptions. If COVID-19 alerted India to the need for self reliance in critical infrastructure, the Russia-Ukraine war made it aware of the challenges that lie ahead with an acute dependence on other actors for defence supplies. In 2023, India clocked its highest defence export value of Rs.15,920 crores or roughly $5 billion-10 times more than the Rs.1,521 crores it garnered in 2016-17 for defence exports. This is a pivotal moment for the country's burgeoning military-industrial complex, while also significant for the government's larger 'Atmanirbhar' Initiative, where the defence industry is arguably leading the transition. In the economic realm, this has translated into a greater openness to forge substantive trade partnerships with like-minded nations. 

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 geopolitical 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.

This commentary originally appeared in NDTV.

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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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