The US-led global order is tottering. It is India’s time to shine as a balancing ‘third pole’

As India has grown stronger, the term ‘non-aligned’ has morphed into ‘neutral’. There is also no doubt today that whoever India backs will ultimately be the heavier side.

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PM Narendra Modi with US President Joe Biden during their bilateral meeting in Washington on 24 September 2021| Twitter /@narendramodi
PM Narendra Modi with US President Joe Biden during their bilateral meeting in Washington on 24 September 2021| Twitter /@narendramodi

The year 2022 has been eventful so far. Covid-19 endured. The 6 January attack on Capitol Hill undermined democracy and shook the foundations of the US-led global order. It was followed up by the ongoing Russia-Ukraine war. Energy and food prices spiralled while inflation spiked and debilitated Russia’s role in global affairs.

The recent meltdown of the British economy exposed the ruins of the once-powerful empire. The alacrity with which the Germans picked up their skirts and ran to China indicated the fragility of the economic powerhouse of Europe. The prioritisation of security over economic growth by China at the 20th-Party Congress in October is a foreboding intent of its continuing assertiveness. A politically stable India clocked impressive growth in this uncertain period and contributed to regional and international stability.

Change in global order inevitable

A change in the global order is in the offing. The US-led global order, which has served us well since the end of the cold war in 1991, is tottering. However, the US is pulling out all stops to retain its pole position as per its national security strategy. Chinese President Xi Jinping intends to establish a China-centric world order through the Global Security Initiative (GSI) and a burgeoning military despite a stagnant economy underscored by declining demographics and a draconian zero Covid policy. Russia is supporting Xi in this endeavour.

While there is clarity that two poles will compete, there is haziness about the resultant global order. In July this year, news publication Nikkei Asia articulated a ‘tripolar world.’ The third pole was envisaged to be of rising ‘neutral’ countries like India, Turkey, and a few others whose influence is expanding through balancing acts. However, that concept is too amorphous. A pole cannot be made of countries as divergent as Turkey and India. Interestingly, in 2011, economist Arvind Virmani articulated a tripolar world consisting of the US, India and China in an event at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Washington D.C. However, a rising India as the ‘third pole’ needs examination.


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India as a balancing, bridging third pole

 A country set to be the most populous with the third largest economy (in due course) needs to have a place in international affairs. Having said that, can it be a third pole? As the US and China intensely compete to establish their spheres of influence, the world is being driven to bipolarity. Reflexively, countries have started hedging as per their national interests so that they are not caught in a jam. In this environment, there is a requirement for a large country to balance these poles to enable other smaller countries to find their space. In these nebulous times, a rising India with its non-alignment experience can handle multi-sided engagements. It can be the ‘bridge and balancing’ third pole. Though not explicit, there is an emerging view, that India fits that role.

The New York Times is of the opinion that “India can use its unique leverage as one of the world’s largest countries that is a friend to both East and West to press Russia to end its war in Ukraine.” It goes on to cite India’s behind-the-scenes role when the United Nations negotiated to free up Ukrainian grain blockaded by Russia. Later, when international anxiety heightened during Russian shelling near the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant, India requested the former to back off. In another articleThe New York Times highlights that it was Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi who told Russian President Vladimir Putin that “it is no time for war” while Xi Jinping conveniently held back.

India has quietly tamped down tensions at pivotal moments. For The New York Times—a doyen of Western media—to articulate such views is recognition that the world needs India to solve its problems. This view is also echoed in an article by The South China Morning Post titled In the global power struggle, India is determined to remain a friend to all and to none. And it is interesting to see how a Turkish author advocated this view.


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Analysing the shift

This subtle shift needs more profound understanding. Till recently, the US-led democratic West increasingly saw India as a diluted democracy with authoritarian shades leaning away from it. India, a key member of China’s chosen platforms for global leadership, BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa), and the SCO (Shanghai Cooperation Organisation), substantiated this thought. To compound issues, the anti-West SCO is to be chaired by India next year. Despite this, India is considered a critical partner in the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue or Quad, and the Indo-Pacific construct.

It is also a key member of I2U2 (India, Israel, the United States, and the United Arab Emirates), which is being termed as the ‘Western Quad’. It has strategic partnerships with the US, France, Australia, Japan, UAE and Israel. India’s diasporic and cultural ties are deeply embedded in the West, its natural partner. However, it relies on Russia and other Central Asian SCO countries to secure its energy and cover up military deficiencies. It is indeed a tightrope walk, but not a new one for India. As the leader of the Non-Aligned Movement, India became adept at it. As India has grown stronger,  the term ‘non-aligned’ has morphed into ‘neutral’. There is also no doubt today that whichever side India weighs in will be the heavier one. Hence, the issue is more complex than ‘neutrality’.

Regionally, India’s neighbours—Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Nepal—once thought lost to Chinese influence, are coming back into balance. The Middle East is increasingly looking at India to diversify its strategic options. ASEAN (The Association of Southeast Asian Nations) and other East Asian nations are also expanding their engagements with India to balance out China and hedge their options. Most importantly, many in Pakistan, including former Prime Minister Imran Khan, often cite India’s success these days with envy. These developments only point to. India’s growing centrality in world affairs.

Many other factors contribute to India being the third pole: its geostrategic location in the Indian Ocean Region, economic strength, military capability, response during mega disasters like earthquakes and tsunamis, soft power, and diasporic strength. On most metrics, India is the only alternative in scale and strength to a declining China.

Containing China without India is well-nigh impossible. It is a spoiler to the regional and global ambitions of China. India is quickly emerging as a civilisational power, gradually shedding its colonial past. Despite all its shortfalls, the world knows what to expect from India. There is a trust and reliability factor as India is emerging as a true ‘neutral’ that can enable conflicting parties to settle issues.

A major factor that escapes attention is that India can make independent choices based on its interests and irrespective of other influences. India has done this many times when evacuating its citizens from conflict zones, like in Ukraine, where it followed a similar path to meet its energy requirements.

Also, India has developed the strength to weigh in with any side while prioritising its national interests. An example of this phenomenon is India joining the Quad after Chinese aggression along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in 2020. As one of the world’s fastest-growing economies and a populous country, India can influence global events with other like-minded nations based on shared interests. This was most visible during the pandemic. From successfully combating Covid to developing vaccines for helping other countries, India did it all. When seen in the larger context, it is truly emerging as the third pole.

A rising India spearheaded by its proven track record and stable polity has the potential to be the third pole. However, India’s success is predicated on some internal factors. As a global alternative to China, it must intelligently handle the dire consequences of pollution, water shortage and climate change. While India is politically stable, political consensus lags on many issues. Cultural, ethnic, and religious diversity is India’s greatest strength. However, the polarisation of this diversity often surfaces to debilitate India. India has one of the most professional and able militaries in the world, but it is drifting to neglect of Nehruvian proportions for reasons beyond comprehension.  India’s internal strengths are also its grave weaknesses.

For it to emerge as the third pole in international affairs, India must focus on its internal factors more than just external ones.

Lt Gen P.R. Shankar (retd) is former DG Artillery and presently professor at the Aerospace department, IIT Madras. Views are personal.

(Edited by Zoya Bhatti)