Once again, New Delhi is back in the thick of global geopolitics of things — chairing summits, navigating tricky Manichaean choices, ducking geopolitical whirlwinds, and negotiating a place at the high table of global governance. The upcoming BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) summit in South Africa, from August 22 to August 24, will be an important stress test for Indian diplomacy, and a harbinger of the shape of geopolitics to come.
For sure, the ability of BRICS to reorder or steer the global economy in any significant manner is deeply suspect, its appetite to create economic agreements amongst its own members limited, and its historical capability to influence global geopolitics overestimated. And, as a bloc, it is hardly an attractive investment destination. More so, BRICS today sounds more revisionist and reactive, than proactive or clear headed, on what it wants to do. And yet, it could, going forward, become an entity capable of influencing the future of world politics. The geopolitical developments of the past year or so and the challenges faced by the United Nations system may have given another lease of life to BRICS. BRICS, after all, is also more globally represented than the UN Security Council (UNSC) and the G-7, though less than the G-20 which is dominated by the West. In that sense, the choices that BRICS makes at the summit and thereafter could have major implications for the international system.
Many paths to global governance
That global governance has failed, or that it reeks of deeply undemocratic practices, needs no repetition. If the deeply unrepresentative character of global governance institutions and mechanisms has led to their failure, and there is little possibility of a more inclusive system anytime soon, forums such as BRICS will invariably fill such important institutional vacuum, no matter how inadequate. That 40-odd countries have formally or informally expressed interest in joining an expanded BRICS, just five countries today, is reflective of the deeply-held sense of angst and anger in the global South countries about their place in the world.
At a time of global geopolitical uncertainty, with the global order going through a major churn, middle powers, regional heavyweights and the outliers that are weighing their options, exploring where they belong or trying to belong where they can, would want to utilise forums such as BRICS to make sense of global geopolitical headwinds, hedge or place their bets, and influence the geopolitics around them. For instance, the uncertainties arising out of the Ukraine war and the steady rise of China have clearly provided a new lease of life to the otherwise moribund BRICS.
Not that BRICS or the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) will lead to truly democratic global governance or multipolarity (perhaps nothing can); these forums too are replete with competing interests and calculations including inbuilt or unsaid hierarchies. And yet, these very forums could ignite a genuine conversation on making global governance more representative and inclusive. In global governance, more imperfect institutions reflecting the realities of today are better than one imperfect institutional structure that is alien to the world of today. International politics should not be the place for hegemonic perfection, but of democratic imperfections.
New Delhi’s dilemmas
For India, the geopolitical choices today are neither crystal clear nor easy to make. For one, where does India belong in the global geopolitical landscape? There is, for instance, a tendency in the West to view India’s membership of BRICS and the SCO in the context of the Ukraine war and the United States/West versus the standoff with Russia. An oft-repeated question is: “How can India be a part of the Quad [Australia, Japan, the U.S., India], G-20, G-7 and BRICS, SCO and global South at the same time?” That is a deeply ahistorical view. India’s active participation in non-western multilateral forums such as BRICS, SCO and global South must also be seen as India’s response to the undemocratic and inequitable governance structures of post-Second World War institutions such as the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and the UNSC. At the same time, India’s objective is not (and should not be) to create or belong to an anti-U.S./West bloc either.
Developmentally, historically and geographically, India belongs to BRICS, SCO, and the global South. But India does not only belong to them. More so, China’s overwhelming presence in them makes it a less than perfect geopolitical choice for India. Structurally and aspirationally, the G-20, G-7, Quad and the like are where New Delhi is headed. But India’s accommodation in the most influential among those forums is a long shot. India, as a result, is located right in the middle of an emerging geopolitical faultline with interests on either side, welcomed by either side, but fully belonging to neither. This could either make India a bridge between the great divides or its lack of loyalty to neither could make it a victim of emerging geopolitical contestations. The sharper the faultline becomes, the harder it will be for New Delhi to balance it.
One of the major dangers of the current churn in global geopolitics is the rise of competing blocs in the international system. With China and Russia aligning their global interests, the organisations they are part of whose membership they are attempting to enhance, are likely to be pitted against the status quo order led by the U.S. and its allies. India has traditionally opposed the creation of blocs as they go against the fundamental spirit of equitable global governance and multipolarity.
Multipolarity, in the Indian historical imagination, is about equity, inclusion and representation, not bloc rivalry, ideological or otherwise. However, even if New Delhi vehemently opposes bloc politics, it will continue to get drawn into it.
The China question
The question that New Delhi must ask every step of the way as it pursues a multipolar world and alternative mechanisms for global governance is whether (or not) it helps boost the rise of China globally. No doubt, a multi-polar world requires strong, alternative global forums, and perhaps even attempts at de-dollarisation. But those very forums will go on to aid the rise of China and the strengthening of the yuan. To think de-dollarisation would lead to strengthening of the rupee is delusional as is the belief that China and India share larger geopolitical interests. They may find value in the instrumental utility of non-western institutions, but their end goals are fundamentally divergent. Given its size, economic influence and the spread of the Belt and Road Initiative and diplomatic bandwidth, China will influence an expanded BRICS; and India, with its limited resources, would struggle to match this. Paradoxically, and perhaps tragically, the more India helps strengthen non-western institutions and frameworks, thereby weakening the post-Second World War order, the more it helps, albeit indirectly, China’s revisionist agenda. The challenge before India is to choose between a China-centric world order or a West- centric world order, or balance the two. If the latter is too preachy for India, the former is too Machiavellian. And balancing is going to get tougher.
India must, therefore, keep its eyes firmly fixed on its goal: promote a more representative and equitable global governance on the one hand and ensure that such an order does not end up undercutting its own national interests. While India must moderate the influence of China in non-western forums, in doing so, it must also make sure not to alienate other countries in the global South who may see merit in China’s efforts at expanding the membership of those forums.
The geopolitical predicament this poses before New Delhi is hardly an easy one to navigate: asserting itself in non-western global forums such as BRICS and the SCO, checking the steadily growing Chinese influence in them, and dealing with western normative expectations while negotiating a place for itself in Eurocentric forums such as the UNSC and the G-7. It must do all this simultaneously.
Happymon Jacob teaches at the School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, and is the founder of the Council for Strategic and Defense Research