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There is an asymmetry at the heart of India’s complex engagement with the world

India is in the vortex of the multiple transitions the world is going through. We have entered a new decade of its own mix of promise and peril.

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The Centre for Policy Research will convene the second in its series of annual CPR Dialogues on 2 and 3 March, 2020. The world is going through multiple transitions — political, economic, social and technological. India finds itself in the vortex of these transitions. It is influenced by and simultaneously influences these transitions in significant ways. 

For this reason, it is important for India to invite perspectives from other key actors on the international stage even as it brings its own perspective on key issues of the day on the table. We have stepped into a new decade that will have its own mix of promise and peril.

While new vistas of progress open before us with unprecedented advances in technology, we are also being brought face to face with the acute vulnerabilities spawned by an intensely inter-connected and globalised world, where a rampaging virus born in China is literally going ‘viral’ across the world. Will this threatened pandemic reinforce the trend towards reassertion of nationalist and parochial sentiments that have seen an upsurge recently? Or will the world finally acknowledge that there may be no alternative to reviving the spirit of internationalism and seeking multilateral approaches to resolving cross-national challenges such as a pandemic or climate change? 

The coming decade offers multiple trajectories and decisions that emerging powers like India will make, which could nudge the world in different directions.

Also read: The era of data-globalism is over. Where does this leave India?

Keeping the balance

India’s posture towards the changing geopolitical terrain, however, may appear to be inconsistent and contradictory. It is continental in the extent of its geography and in the size of its population. It is now the world’s fifth-largest economy and even with slower growth, its profile in the global economy is destined to grow. Its energy choices as it seeks to fuel growth will impact most directly on global energy security as well as climate change. And yet, in terms of per capita incomes and the indices of human development, India remains a poor country. This is the asymmetry that lies at the heart of its complex engagement with the world.

On the one hand, India is conscious of its weight on the global stage, demanding that it sit among the rule-makers shaping a new world order. At the same time, it is a demander, seeking access to global public goods and differential benefits as a still developing country. 

India’s decision to stay out of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) speaks to the latter compulsion. Its demand to seek permanent membership of the UN Security Council and be accepted into the Nuclear Suppliers Group reflects the ambition of an “emerged power”.

India wishes to be benchmarked with China politically, but it must seek to be differentiated from the latter when it comes to economic and trade issues. Where must the balance lie? This is the challenge and bears deeper reflection.

In this context, it is necessary to take a strategic perspective of the momentous visit of US President Donald Trump to India. Behind the hype and spectacle surrounding this visit, there is no doubt that a deeper India-US relationship is becoming an enduring and increasingly significant factor in the changing geopolitics of Asia and the world. The US sees partnership with India as an assurance of its continuing pre-eminence. India sees the US as an indispensable partner supporting its own rise in Asia and in the world. But anxieties remain on both sides.

The US remains wary of Indian claims to strategic autonomy that it conflates with the earlier assertions of a non-aligned policy, which often appeared directed against the US. It is sceptical of India’s ability to overcome its economic and security vulnerabilities to be able to play a more effective role in countervailing Chinese power. India, for its part, remains anxious that in pursuit of its global agenda, the US may downgrade its relations with India to seek a grand bargain with China. 

US interests on India’s western flanks do not always converge with India’s, and we see this unfolding in Afghanistan. Then there is the trade and commercial relationship that continues to be the persistent fault line with the potential of upending other more positive strands in the India-US bilateral relationship.

Also read: Modi’s foreign minister Jaishankar has a situation on hand – tackling angry US

A new decade with new opportunities

And then there is China, which remains the one country impinging most directly on India’s strategic space. The expansion of Chinese presence in India’s own periphery has been relentless and assertive, and India simply does not have the resources to match China’s deep pockets. It has to fashion asymmetric responses to maintain its centrality in the Indian subcontinent and the Indian Ocean.

India may have to enter into partnerships with countries such as the US and Japan to counter Chinese influence, but that will mean sacrificing some of its own pre-eminence in the region. There may be some relief because of China’s preoccupation with a debilitating health crisis, which is also affecting its economy and trade. Will India be able to recover some lost ground in the ensuing months?

Also read: Modi should know India’s status as a nuclear weapon state demands responsible leadership

A new decade beckons India with fresh opportunities, which only a period of change can offer to an emerging power.

The author is former foreign secretary and a senior fellow at the Centre for Policy Research, Delhi. Views are personal.

This series of articles is a curtain-raiser to the CPR Dialogues, an international conference on public policy, to be hosted by the Centre for Policy Research on 2 and 3 March in New Delhi. is the digital partner for the conference. Read all the articles in the series here

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  1. India has to manage its different interest in different ways. For standing up to China in Indo Pacific, we need USA for various defense equipment and Russia as well. For land border with China (and Pak- we have to assume anyway that China arches over us through Pak as well), we need equipment from Russia, France, Israel and US. So we are multi aligned for our security requirements. As regards trade, we have to protect our domestic market and hence, mindless free trade agreements cannot be signed under RECP or with US. Of course, this is more due to our policy inaction in changing cost and efficiency structure of our economy and is mainly a politically self inflicted pain! As regards India’s standing in geo politics, it will depend on overall economy and how other countries are able to benefit from our markets and economic growth. Here again, outdated political choices have limited our options. As regards a seat at UNSC or NSG, it is not going to happen anytime soon but we are fine with it for now. So there is no big deal about it, but this is a good topic for diplomats (particularly the retired ones) to organize international seminars and round tables and talk endlessly (and aimlessly)! Hope this upcoming conference bill is not by MEA!

  2. With a per capita income of $ 2,000, we cannot afford to run ahead of ourselves on the global stage. India is being rerated globally, for both its economy and the evolving nature of its internal politics. Not just by the US in relation to our asymmetry with China but even by our small neighbours in South Asia. Should emerging trends continue, India will no longer be well received in the comity of nations. Organising the Raisina Dialogues will not change that reality.

  3. Poor productivity of the labor force trumps low wages in India. US has no illusion about it as does the entire world.

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