Opinion | Comment

The middle path for India in the new world disorder

(From left) External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar, Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, and China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation Foreign Ministers’ meeting in Moscow, Russia. While many governments, including India, Russia and China, welcome multipolarity, the U.S. remains the world’s most powerful military power. File

(From left) External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar, Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, and China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation Foreign Ministers’ meeting in Moscow, Russia. While many governments, including India, Russia and China, welcome multipolarity, the U.S. remains the world’s most powerful military power. File | Photo Credit: AP

Since the end of the Second World War, the global order has seen two major transitions. After the War, a bipolar world, led by the U.S. and the Soviet Union, emerged. Following the disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991, unipolarity replaced bipolarity, with the U.S. being its centre. There have been discussions for the past several years whether American unipolarity has passed. Now, there are more signs, from China’s rapid rise to Russia’s aggressive foreign policy, to suggest that the global order is undergoing another (third) transition. 

While many governments, including India, Russia and China, welcome multipolarity, the U.S. remains the world’s most powerful military power. But the U.S.’s ability to shape geopolitical outcomes is clearly in decline, as was seen in its withdrawal from Afghanistan after 20 years of war or the Russian invasion of Ukraine, challenging the post-Cold War security equilibrium in Europe. These changes actually leave the world in a flux. There’s a lack of clarity on which direction the world is headed, which makes policymaking harder for middle powers like India.

Non-alignment success 

When India became independent, the Cold War was still in its early stages. For a newly free country with enormous challenges in an ideologically and geopolitically divided world, managing its foreign policy itself was a daunting task. But a long view of India’s foreign policy trajectory would tell us that India, which adopted non-alignment as a foreign policy doctrine, did well in managing most of its challenges. The conventional wisdom about India in the Cold War period was that it was too idealistic. But that is a simplistic way of reading India’s foreign policy choices. India has actually been flexible in readapting itself to the changes in the global and regional equations.

If in the 1950s, Jawaharlal Nehru had opposed Zhou Enlai’s proposal for a permanent Afro-Asian Secretariat saying it would create yet another bloc, the same Nehru would support turning non-alignment into a movement in the 1960s, after CENTO (Central Treaty Organization) and SEATO (Southeast Asia Treaty Organization) were formed. If in the 1950s and 1960s, India maintained equidistance from both blocs, living up to the true spirit of non-alignment, in the 1970s, after China fell out with the Soviet Union and started moving closer to the U.S., it started tilting towards the Soviet Union, but stayed out of any Soviet-led military alliances. When the Soviet Union collapsed, India sought to transform its ties with the U.S. and integrate itself with the global economy in the new era of globalisation. But it also maintained close defence and strategic ties with Russia and built a vibrant economic partnership with China.

Present tense

But in making choices, India faces an entirely new set of challenges in the new global disorder. If the centre of the Cold War was Europe, the arena of the looming U.S.-China great power contest is Asia. It is unfolding right in India’s neighbourhood, and even if it stays out of it, it will feel the heat. 

Second, during the Cold War, India didn’t have hostile relations with any of the opposing superpowers. Today, India would be tempted to join the American bloc as it faces the China problem. The power imbalance between India and China, which shared similar economic clout in the 1970s, has widened in recent years. China has also developed a strategic partnership with Pakistan, and is raising its influence in other South Asian and Indian Ocean countries. Besides, the decades-long border peace between India and China collapsed in 2020 when Chinese troops attacked Indian soldiers in the Galwan Valley in the Himalayas. So on all fronts, India faces the heat of China’s rise. And with China and India rising further, this friction is likely to get more heated.

There is a convergence of interests between India and the U.S. when it comes to China. The U.S. sees China as a long-term threat to the liberal international order. India sees China as a close competitor whose rise is changing the regional balance of power. So it makes sense for India to build deeper ties with the West, particularly the U.S., in tackling the China challenge. But Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has complicated India’s options further. 

Russia is a traditional partner with which India has deep defence ties. As the West has moved to isolate Russia with heavy sanctions in response to its aggression in Ukraine, India is under huge pressure from its partners to take a more critical position on Russia’s actions. Besides, India also worries that the West’s move to isolate Russia in Europe would push the country further into the Chinese embrace. Any policy decisions should factor in these delicate changes under way in global politics.

Learning from China

Primarily, India should prepare itself for a prolonged strategic competition with China. India could perhaps learn a lesson from what China did in the 1970s. The Soviet Union was China’s ideological brother and neighbour. But China did not want to play second fiddle to the Soviets. It broke away from the Soviet communist fold and built a quasi alliance with the U.S. and helped the ‘imperialist bloc’ defeat the Soviet communists. And once it acquired enough economic and military power, China started gradually challenging the U.S., which has led to today’s open contest

Likewise, India’s primary focus should be on transforming itself economically and militarily. It should stay focussed on its rise and bridging the gap with China. It should present itself as a natural stabilising power in South Asia and the Indian Ocean Region, and a source of prosperity at a time when China is making inroads into the region. This cannot be achieved unless India keeps its social cohesion intact and continues to grow.

Continental nuances 

However, China is not the only problem India faces. It’s a continental and maritime power in Asia. While China poses serious challenges to India’s maritime influence, in continental Asia, India sees a different set of challenges, especially after the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan and the Taliban’s return to power. To address its continental security challenges and manage its inroads into Central Asia, India has to work with Eurasian powers such as Russia and Iran, both of which are at odds with the U.S. So, abandoning its strategic autonomy and joining a U.S.-led bloc would, in fact, limit India’s options in the new world, besides provoking China. Managed friction on the border might be the new norm but an open conflict with China doesn’t serve India’s strategic interests.

Furthermore, even if a new cold war breaks out between the U.S. and China, the global order is unlikely to be bipolar. During the Cold War, the world was divided into two ideologies and two systems. Today’s world is much more diverse ideologically and integrated economically. While the U.S. is trying to drive a narrative of democracies versus autocracies, especially against the background of the Ukraine war, it has not gained traction outside the U.S.’s traditional western alliances. There could be many power centres in the new world order and India should opt for multi-engagement (not multi-alignment as some experts have suggested) for a multipolar world. Instead of being sucked into any bloc, it should aim to create new pillars of the new global order through engagement and partnership with middle powers.


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Printable version | May 31, 2022 9:45:45 pm | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/the-middle-path-for-india-in-the-new-world-disorder/article65479476.ece