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A New Delhi View on the World Order

A New Delhi View on the World Order
 Happymon Jacob
Academic, columnist and commentator based in New Delhi

The contemporary international system is going through major systemic shifts. It is no longer defined and structured by Western preferences. Happymon Jacob, Associate Professor of Diplomacy and Disarmament at the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), offers insights on India's conceptions of this new world order, for Ukraine Shifting the World Order. He also examines India's identity as a future ally.

India and its conceptions of the world order 

India's view of the world is intimately linked to how it views itself. Broadly speaking, this is composed of its geopolitical location, its sense of its own history and culture, the bitter colonial experience, and the nationwide freedom movement to break free from colonial Britain. From 1947 onwards, all these variables shaped the newly independent India’s political and strategic culture.

First, India is a developing country with serious challenges of misgovernance, corruption and poverty. It is located within a largely hostile neighborhood. This had a defining influence on India's sense of self. Second, even though the modern Indian state emerged in 1947, India views itself as a civilizational state with a great history and culture. This sense of greatness influenced its worldview and its place in it. It is also instructive to note that India considers itself the successor state of the British Empire in South Asia, which ensured Indian primacy in the region decades after the colonial masters left the subcontinent. Third, even though India viewed itself as the legatee state of the British Empire in the region, it harbors deep sensitivities about its colonial past, and as a result any attempts by Western nations to condescend to India are met viscerally. And finally, in order to understand the Indian conception of the international system, we must understand New Delhi's foreign policy priorities. Two key priorities include securing its neighborhood (its Achilles' heel), and the need to ensure the welfare of its huge population (a considerable number of which struggle to afford a decent livelihood).

At the risk of oversimplifying, India's view of the current world order can be summed up in three words: unequal, discriminatory and unrepresentative.

At the risk of oversimplifying, India's view of the current world order can be summed up in three words: unequal, discriminatory and unrepresentative. India traditionally shied away from the global balance of power games - both to ensure that its periphery, South Asia, remains free of Cold War politics, and due to lack of capacity. And yet, there were times when India did engage in balancing: against China by reaching out to the US after the 1962 Sino-Indian war and signing a treaty of peace and friendship with the USSR during the Bangladesh liberation war in 1971. Put differently, India engages in contingent balancing, as Pratap Bhanu Mehta, an Indian scholar, puts it. 

India also considers global institutions, in particular the UNSC, as deeply unrepresentative. As India’s External Affairs Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar stated in 2019, "If you have a United Nations where the most populous country in the world - may be in 15 years - with the third largest economy is not in the decision-making process, I grant you, it affects the country concerned. But I would also suggest it affects the United Nations' credibility". References by Western states about a "rules-based order" never fail to ignite a debate within the Indian strategic community: "whose rules?", "whose order?", are the often-repeated questions that one hears. As a result, growing concerns in the US and the West about the breaking down of the rules-based global order do not register much sympathy in India, as it finds itself on the margins of such an order. And yet, over time, New Delhi had grown accustomed to living with the imperfections of an imbalanced global order, and it would still prefer an imperfect world to a deeply chaotic one. In other words, while New Delhi prefers change, it prefers orderly change. 

In general, India prefers to have strong global institutions (like the UN). However, it is reticent about regional organizations which take on global mandates (such as NATO) and is also increasingly less sanguine about organizations that are not representative (such as the UNSC of which India sought membership but never found). 

Even though New Delhi truly supports multilateral institutions to regulate the behavior of states in the international system, it is circumspect about those that tend to interfere in the domestic affairs of sovereign states, such as the OHCHR. There is therefore an aversion towards humanitarian interventions (unless absolutely required) and democracy promotion. India has also traditionally supported a multipolar world as opposed to a bipolar or unipolar world. Addressing the Conference on Interaction and Confidence-Building Measures in Asia (CICA), a grouping advanced by Kazakhstan in 1992 for enhancing cooperation in Asia, the then Indian foreign secretary HV Shringla said in June 2021 that, "India values a multipolar international order, underpinned by international law, premised upon respect for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all countries, resolution of international disputes through peaceful negotiations, and free and open access for all to the global commons". India’s desire for a multipolar world is due to its inherent unease with the balance of power, arms race and subsequent complications.

New Delhi’s views of bipolarity were shaped by its Cold War experience even though it unfolded far away from the Indian subcontinent. More so, for a civilizational state that prides itself as moral power, India did not want to be playing second fiddle to either of the two superpowers in a bipolar world. After the end of the Cold War, India's unease with unipolarity (or US dominance) was due to US behavior in the international system. This is despite the fact that even though it had its reservations about unipolarity, India benefited a great deal from US dominance. For instance, India's nuclear mainstreaming (waiver at the Nuclear Suppliers Group and the India-specific protocol offered by the International Atomic Energy Agency) was facilitated by the US’ overwhelming power in the international system. 

Today, New Delhi believes that the world is moving toward a multipolar international system explaining its allusion to multi-alignment, a term coined by Shashi Tharoor, the country's former Minister of State for External Affairs. The underlying belief is that bloc rivalry can be harmful to its interests and that as a country with economic and other needs, it requires all the help it can get from various major powers. New Delhi wishes for a multipolar world because it thinks, in the words of former Foreign Secretary Shringla, that a multipolar world would be "underpinned by international law, premised upon respect for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all countries, resolution of international disputes through peaceful negotiations, and free and open access for all to the global commons".

Today, New Delhi believes that the world is moving toward a multipolar international system explaining its allusion to multi-alignment, a term coined by Shashi Tharoor.

This is India's view of the multipolar world order. In reality, a multipolar world may not be one characterized by respect for international law and national sovereignty, but rather one marked by additional chaos and conflict. More so, there is no certainty that a multipolar world would be more beneficial to India. 

Indian responses to various de-dollarization attempts (that could theoretically lead to a more multipolar world) can serve as an example. New Delhi is looking at Chinese and Russian de-dollarization attempts with mixed feelings. Some in India think that the de-dollarization of global trade is not necessarily a bad idea given how the US and its allies have weaponized globalization, trade and the dollar to arm-twist other countries. India has in the past suffered due to US sanctions against Iran and it could again suffer due to those against Russia. Others however point out that de-dollarization would be disadvantageous to India in the long run since any non-dollar alternatives are likely to be dominated by China.

A recent Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) report noted that, in the past, India has expressed interest in jointly exploring (with Russia and China) an alternative to SWIFT to enable trading with countries under US sanctions. There have been talks about India considering linking with a financial messaging service developed by Russia (SPFS, or System for Transfer of Financial Messages, Russia's SWIFT equivalent) after the Crimea invasion of 2014. Reports also indicate that SPFS could eventually connect with China’s CIPS (Cross-Border Interbank Payment System, the Chinese version of SWIFT). While India is not averse to SPFS as it would help evade sanctions on Russia, its difficulty arises from China’s CIPS. 

Russia and China have also tried to get more support for de-dollarization at the Shanghai Cooperation Organization which is a China-dominated forum (both India and Russia are part of it, too). For instance, two years ago, SCO members discussed the importance of using national currencies for trade among themselves and even deliberated on the possible establishment of a development bank and development fund.

While in the short run, de-dollarization would help India evade sanctions on countries like Iran and Russia, it could in the long run lead to a chaotic global financial system (besides the fact that this system will eventually become more China-centric). Under normal circumstances, New Delhi would have welcomed alternative payment forms as these would provide it with more options. But it realizes that rushing into a non-dollar system would eventually hurt its interests given the China angle. This underlines how multipolarity comes with inherent complications. India faces a double dilemma. First, because of the US/Western sanctions on Russia, it would find it hard to trade with Russia (also if it continues its economic engagement with Russia, it could face second-order sanctions from the US). And second, if India uses SPFS (Russia’s SWIFT equivalent) to work with Russian firms, it would eventually expose India to a China-led monitory system that India wishes to categorically avoid. That said, the widespread belief in India about the imminent arrival of a multipolar world is a mistaken one. Rather, we are looking at the slow emergence of a bipolar world order, this time dominated by the US and China. The issue of de-dollarization is just one example. 

Ukraine war and India's alliance choices 

If China's rise as an aggressive superpower already pushed India to rethink traditional alliance choices, Russia’s Ukraine war has brought further complications. As pointed out above, India traditionally avoided entering into alliances except when there was a contingency. However, the rise of China and its aggression on the line of actual control (LAC) with India has led to a need to get closer to the US and its allies through the QUAD, Indo-Pacific, and other formats. Ukraine will likely lead to more rethinking in New Delhi about strategic alliance. Over time, the war and its consequences are also likely to gradually decouple India from Russia, bringing New Delhi closer to the US and its allies.

The most significant reason for New Delhi to decouple from Russia is the nature of strategic realignments in the broader geopolitical landscape.

If the Ukraine war is likely to cause a potential decoupling between India and Russia, it might be useful to examine how such a consequence will come to be. The most significant reason for New Delhi to decouple from Russia is the nature of strategic realignments in the broader geopolitical landscape. consider the following. China and Russia are today closer than ever; it is a matter of time before China raises objections to a war-fatigued Russia's (so far) strong strategic partnership with India especially if skirmishes between Indian and Chinese forces recur on the LAC, and/or if New Delhi gets too close to the US.

If the growing Russia-China partnership (a subset of which is the warmth between Russia and Pakistan today) is a function of the global balance of power considerations, so is the ascendent India-US relations. In other words, even if Moscow and New Delhi make a serious effort to stay in the relationship, the structural constraints are bound to drive a wedge between them. Russia’s Ukraine war quickened this process.  

The above analysis means three things. First, India and the United States (and the latter's allies) are closer than ever before in their history. Second, for two nuclear weapon states that clashed at the Ussuri river in 1969, Russia-China relations have never been this good. And finally, India-China relations are not only at their lowest point since 1962, but the border clashes of 2020 fundamentally transformed the Indian strategic community’s view of China from an example to be emulated to an Indian national security existential challenge. The unavoidable conclusion one might draw from this is that the Russia-India decoupling is inevitable.

In the immediate wake of the Ukraine war, it appeared that by refusing to fully ally with either side yet maintaining good relations with both, New Delhi was experimenting with the tenets of strategic autonomy (which it long professed but struggled to practice). However, a line of thinking today states that the longer the war persists, the more negative consequences it will have for India. If Russia is weakened as a result of the war, China could be geopolitically advantaged. This could push India towards the US and its allies. 

The Ukraine war will quicken the fundamental transformations already seen within Asian geopolitics. It is only a matter of time before the rest of Asia becomes China-centric. The US withdrawal from Afghanistan, its current focus on Russia and Ukraine, the further weakening of Russia, and Beijing's proactive outreach in the region with money and muscle will eventually lead to the end of Indian primacy in the region, accelerating a China-centric Asian geopolitical order. As a result, it is possible that when the Ukraine war is over, India will be relegated to a weaker position in the region than it was prior to the war. Ideally, in the longer run, India would like to have both the West and Russia on its side. But given how this war is unfolding, and the way Beijing is acting, New Delhi may indeed find it harder than ever to manage the growing contradictions between the West and Russia.

What kind of an ally will India make? 

India is unlikely to become a treaty ally in the classical sense. In all probability, it will be a reluctant ally for a number of reasons. First, due to its military/economic incapacity to be a heavy lifter in global politics; second, because of the realization in India that it is geographically proximate to China and getting too close to the US/West can attract Beijing’s ire; and third, related to the country's political culture of non-alignment. Even though much of its non-alignment articulation is mere rhetoric today, the country is still not convinced of the need to be allied to any power or bloc. So despite being a reluctant ally, India’s non-aligned approach to specific cases might still continue.

India's Quad approach is illustrative of the way it perceives alliances. In the past, India was somewhat unenthusiastic about the Quad. As China’s next-door neighbor, it wanted to avoid any confrontation. However, the Chinese attack on India in the summer of 2020 changed this approach. India's soft-peddling of the Quad in the hope that this will assuage China didn't work. So it decided that it is better to work with other like-minded states to fend off the Chinese threat rather than appeasing Beijing.

Despite being a reluctant ally, India’s non-aligned approach to specific cases might still continue.

Second, there have been doubts about the utility of such an alliance since India already has a trilateral with Japan and the US, and Australia and Japan, and the Indian strategic culture of non-alignment. This political hesitation has been abandoned today. Third, until the last few years, New Delhi was uncomfortable working closely with the US, (perceived as an imperial power in elite circles), but recently both PM Modi and Foreign Minister Jaishankar have been changing that attitude. 

Another reason behind the Quad revival is that apart from India, the three other members are already treaty partners. The Quad is only adding India which is at the heart of the Indo-Pacific to their existing network. Japan and Australia are US treaty allies. The US struck the AUKUS deal in September of 2021 to help Australia acquire nuclear-powered submarines. India and Australia are rapidly enhancing their security cooperation and recently signed a free-trade agreement. The US surpassed China as India's biggest trading partner in 2021-22. We are hence witnessing an effort to sideline China without really saying so. 

And yet, despite new enthusiasm in New Delhi about the Quad, India wants to ensure it does not become an alliance-like structure. It is the group's only country that shares a border with China (albeit a disputed one). Distancing itself from an overtly "anti-China" arrangement is thus key for New Delhi. Secondly, South East Asian states could be fine with cooperating with a non-military Quad or Quad plus, but they might resist any cooperation with a Quad that has military or alliance undertones. More significantly, New Delhi believes that the region's well-being benefits more from non-military platforms given the array of concerns it faces (i.e. terrorism, climate change, shortage of infrastructure, etc). Addressing these requires a forum that inspires confidence and cooperation from countries in the region.

As a result, even though New Delhi is keener on the Quad today, it is still very circumspect when it comes to choosing words and phrases to project the initiative. One could make the argument that the Quad exemplifies what India has come the closest to in terms of an alliance, despite its limited military connotation or the fact that it lacks a secretariat or a structured program. While India wishes to have a more multipolar and equitable world order instead of a unipolar or a bipolar one, the emerging system may become too chaotic and conflictual for its liking. Given the aggressive rise of China and its aggression toward India, New Delhi will be forced to relax its adherence to strategic autonomy and move closer to the US and its allies. 


Copyright: Kevin Dietsch / Getty Images via AFP

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