These are times when the global community is undergoing a churn. Multipolarity is the new dictum, where nations are balancing their act to ensure their individuality as a people.
The world has passed through immense turmoil and turbulence over the last few years.
The Covid-19 pandemic which hit the world at the beginning of 2020 was the worst health crisis to have befallen the global community in more than one century, the last calamity of such magnitude having been the Spanish flu in 1919. The pandemic resulted in serious adverse consequences for all countries in the world in health, both physical and mental, economic and social spheres. Because of the intense and sustained lockdowns over extended periods, most countries suffered huge job losses and decline in their GDPs and earning capacities of their populations.
Even before the world was able to come to terms with the pandemic, it was struck by the impact of the Russia-Ukraine conflict. Although the war is taking place in a relatively small area in Central Europe, it has led to the death of several thousands, and destruction of multi-storied buildings, hospitals, schools and other infrastructure in Ukraine, and displacement of about 8 million Ukrainian women and children from their homes. They are living as refugees in the neighbouring countries. In addition, the war has resulted in disruption of supply chains, acute global shortages of food, energy and fertilizers, steep inflation, job-losses and soaring debt in many countries. Developing countries have been the most adversely affected by these crises.
On account of the bold and independent policies, both domestic and foreign, pursued by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government, India has been successful in dealing relatively effectively with the challenges posed by these crises.
Although India’s economy suffered a huge decline of 6.8% in 2020-’21 because of the protracted lockdowns, it was able to more than adequately redress this shortfall over the next two years. Because of the visionary policies of financial inclusion, digital payment infrastructure, digital identity, food grain support for more than 800 million people, and many more far-reaching decisions adopted by the government, India has been able to emerge with a GDP of $3.5 trillion and an economy which is the fifth largest in the world. It is expected to become the 3rd largest economy after displacing Germany and Japan by the end of the decade or early next decade. On the health front, not only was India able to manufacture the Covishield vaccine in collaboration with Oxford AstraZeneca as soon as it became available around the end of 2020, but was also able to invent its own Covaxin vaccine so that the nationwide vaccination programme could take off with a bang across the country for front-line workers on 16th January, 2021. Four days after that, India launched its Vaccine Maitri (Vaccine Friendship) initiative to supply millions of doses of vaccines to its neighbours and other countries, mostly developing nations, for starting the vaccination of their own vulnerable populations.
In the middle of confronting this once in a century challenge, India also had to face the incursion of about 50,000 Chinese troops with heavy weaponry on the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in violation of the long-standing bilateral Agreements to maintain peace and tranquility on the border. India lost twenty of its brave soldiers in a violent clash at the Galwan valley in June, 2020, the first casualties on the LAC in 45 years. The forward deployment and standoff between the Indian and Chinese forces at the LAC recently entered its fourth year!
The Russia-Ukraine conflict
On the ongoing war between Russia and Ukraine, India has adopted a balanced and principled stand. In all its pronouncements at the UN Security Council of which it was a non-permanent member till December last year and in the UN General Assembly, India has strongly espoused the principles of the UN Charter and the imperative need to safeguard the territorial integrity and sovereignty of member states. However, keeping in view its historical relations with Russia and its heavy dependence on it for meeting its defence requirements and spares, India has abstained from directly condemning Russia for its aggression (although PM Modi did tell President Putin on the sidelines of the SCO Summit in Samarkand in September, 2022 that ‘’this is not an era of war’’). India has consistently and staunchly advocated the path of diplomacy, dialogue and peace.
The twin crises of the pandemic and the war have led to huge shortages and rise in prices of energy worldwide. On account of India’s acute dependence to the tune of more than 85% of its requirement of crude oil and 45% of natural gas on imports, India significantly increased its imports of oil and fertilizers at concessional rates from Russia over the last several months. This decision has been necessitated for India to provide energy at affordable prices to its population and to safeguard its energy security and national interest. India has firmly stood by its conscientious stance in spite of the enormous pressure by the West, including the US, to change its position. Because of the unwavering and well-argued stand adopted by India, the West has grudgingly accepted the merit of India’s rationale. This has helped India to sustain its time-tested partnership with Russia which is critical for it for geo-strategic as well as economic reasons. Although Russia’s dependence on and embrace of China has been getting tighter on account of the inimical ties of both these countries with the west, particularly USA, it is imperative for India to maintain robust ties with Russia to balance its contentious ties with China, to some extent if not completely.
In the midst of the above-mentioned rapid geo-political flux, India’s relations with the United States and other major powers of the West are expanding at a rapid pace. Over the last eight years, the US has emerged as India’s most significant and consequential partner. It is India’s largest trading partner with bilateral trade of US$192 billion last year. Both countries enjoy a comprehensive, global, strategic partnership covering almost all areas of human endeavor, driven by shared democratic values, convergence of interests on a range of issues, and vibrant people-to-people contacts. They interact regularly and frequently in the more than 60 bilateral Dialogue Mechanisms covering a multitude of areas spanning education, renewable energy, cyber-security, counter-terrorism, high technology, trade, S&T, Space, health and many more. India’s active engagement with the Quad comprising of Australia, India, Japan and USA has significantly expanded the mandate of this Grouping and transformed it into a ‘’Force for Global Good.’’ The two countries instituted a 2+2 Annual Ministerial Dialogue Mechanism between the Defence and Foreign Ministers of the two countries in 2018. The fourth meeting in this format took place in 2022. Both PM Modi and President Biden have committed to significantly expand the bilateral partnership in over-arching political, security, economic, commerce, defence and strategic spheres. The two leaders have met frequently in recent months and are scheduled to meet often in the coming months including in the US, Japan, Australia and India. Both leaders have invested considerable political capital to take the bilateral partnership to new heights.
Relations with Japan, Australia, France
India’s relations with Japan, Australia, France and other members of the West continue to grow rapidly. The positive state of bilateral ties can be assessed from the fact that Prime Ministers of Japan and Australia visited India on bilateral tours recently. They will be coming to India again for the G20 Summit in September, 2023. PM Modi will be travelling to both Japan and Australia for the G7 and Quad Summits respectively in the very near future. On the invitation of the French President Macron, he will be attending the French National Day on 14th July in Paris as the Guest of Honor.
Presidency of G20 and Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO)
India assumed the Presidency of the prestigious G20 and SCO for the current year. It has taken a number of unique initiatives in both these Organizations to make their deliberations and decisions more effective and relevant. In the G20, India organized a Voice of the Global South Summit so that the concerns of developing countries could receive full attention. It also decided to make the G20 into a mass movement in India by organizing 200 meetings in 59 cities all across the country. For the SCO, India has proposed that in addition to the Delhi Declaration, Four Documents on De-Radicalization, Millets, Lifestyle for environment (LiFE) and Digitization be adopted at the Summit in July, 2023.
Challenges for India
The most serious challenge for India going forward will be to deal effectively with the hostility and push-back by China on myriad fronts, particularly economic and security. As mentioned above, the faceoff in the Eastern Ladakh sector shows no signs of going away. In addition, China continues its provocations by renaming several places in Arunachal Pradesh in Chinese language and rapidly developing/modernizing its infrastructure in the border areas. Its all-weather partnership with Pakistan continues unabated. In the post-pandemic and zero-Covid phase, China has become much more active globally to present a softer image after the damage suffered on account of its wolf-warrior diplomacy. Its success on the Iran-Saudi front and its confident overtures to bring peace in the Russia-Ukraine conflict are harbingers of China’s growing political and diplomatic influence. This could reduce India’s maneuverability in promoting its interests. On the economic front, although India is the fastest growing major economy today, the gap with China’s GDP continues to grow rather than shrink. India has to offer itself as a viable alternative to China’s economy if it is to make a dent in its global dominance. This doesn’t seem to be possible in the foreseeable future.
The other increasingly intractable challenge for India is to simultaneously manage its relations with the US and Russia. This will require all the diplomatic finesse at its command. It has been able to do this successfully so far but the difficulty will only grow as the Russia-Ukraine conflict gets prolonged further. India needs to preserve its strategic autonomy while deepening and expanding its partnership with the US. At the same time, it will have to increasingly diversify its defence purchases and increase domestic manufacture of defence equipment to reduce its considerable dependence on Russia for defence supplies and spares. This is easier said than done. Moreover, India will have to soon find alternative, affordable sources for its energy imports from Russia which have shot up immensely over the last one year making Russia the largest source of oil imports by India today.
Effectively dealing with the all of the above challenges and more will demand sophistication from India. Thus far it has acquitted itself well. It is a moot point what the future holds.
The world is undergoing a momentous transformation. Nothing like this has been witnessed since the Second World War more than 75 years ago. This geo-political churn presents immense challenges as well as huge opportunities for India. In the midst of this swirl, a New India is emerging which is Confident, Resolute and Benevolent. India has surfaced as a partner of choice for most countries of the world. Its participation and contribution is considered indispensable to seeking solutions to some of the most critical challenges like climate change, terrorism, health, achieving the SDGs etc. confronting the world.
To occupy its rightful place in the global community, India’s economy needs to grow at a sustained pace of 8-10% for the next 20 years. It also needs to ensure peace and stability domestically as well as on its borders. In this context, China will continue to be India’s most formidable challenge for the foreseeable future. A rapidly growing economy, internal peace, a nimble-footed policy of multi-alignment and strategic partnerships with USA, the Quad and other like-minded countries will stand it in good stead in meeting the challenges it faces and advancing its interests.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Ambassador Ashok Sajjanhar is Executive Council Member, Mahohar Parrikar Institute of Defence Studies and Analyses; President, Institute of Global Studies; Distinguished Fellow, Ananta Aspen Centre, and former Ambassdor of India to Kazakhstan, Sweden and Latvia.