Category Archives: international affairs
Why India is key to 21st century multilateralism
Four watershed events since 2020 — a short period, but with apologies to Lenin, decades have happened in this time — have established India’s credentials as one of the last major bulwarks of a rules-based order, open and fair trade and economic arrangements, and the rule of law. These are critical elements if we are to build a new world order that is balanced, inclusive and fair.
The first event was the capitulation of western powers in Afghanistan. The triumph of the Taliban was not a victory by just war but the defeat of a people by deceit. Liberals around the world were kept in the dark as a Faustian bargain was struck by major powers that sought expediency over ethical diplomacy. Today, American supporters of the infamous Doha Agreement — ironically called the Agreement for Bringing Peace to Afghanistan — express concern about Afghan women. Their hypocrisy is naked and jarring. The Doha deal could never have turned out any differently. India kept a principled distance from that pernicious deal. Appreciating fully the true nature of a prospective Taliban regime, it continued to seek an elected and pluralist government in Kabul. India was a lone voice. Yet it did not compromise. Today, India continues to support the people of Afghanistan without recognising the regime that tyrannises it.
American supporters of the infamous Doha Agreement — ironically called the Agreement for Bringing Peace to Afghanistan — express concern about Afghan women.
The second is the war in Ukraine. The measures and countermeasures by Russia and Ukraine have resulted in bloodshed and mayhem, ultimately perpetuating the conflict. India’s position of principled independence, while advocating cessation of violence and pursuit of diplomacy, is recognised as the only meaningful way forward. The Indian stance has resonated across the G20 and beyond. The G20 Bali Leaders’ Declaration echoes Prime Minister (PM) Narendra Modi’s approach when it speaks of the “need to uphold ….. the multilateral system that safeguards peace and stability”, the importance of “peaceful resolutions of conflicts”, and the vital role of “diplomacy and dialogue”. Furthermore, India has consistently argued for respect for sovereignty and investigation of crimes against humanity, including those possibly committed by the Russian army.
Third, in the technology domain, India has long championed an open, free and fair digital order. However, with the United States (US) pressing for narrow benefits for Silicon Valley in the past decade, India was reluctant to endorse instruments that sought free data flow without sufficient accountability from actors responsible for storing and transporting such data. Much to the US’s chagrin, India appeared to restrict cross-border data flows, sought regulation of non-personal data and contested monopolies, and restricted cartelisation attempts of the US’s payments and e-commerce companies. It made no secret of its distrust. Having dispelled coercive pressure to enter into digital handshakes on unfavourable terms or sovereign commitments on a future digital services tax, India has now eased its stand on data localisation. The reason: There is no longer any pressure from the US because even domestic actors in America want greater regulation and accountability from Big Tech. India is exploring sharing data with “trusted geographies” while seeking surgical data protection for specific sectors. An inclusive, equitable internet remains a core priority.
With the United States (US) pressing for narrow benefits for Silicon Valley in the past decade, India was reluctant to endorse instruments that sought free data flow without sufficient accountability from actors responsible for storing and transporting such data.
The year 2021 signalled India’s fourth landmark moment. At the 26th round of the Conference of the Parties (COP26), India demonstrated extraordinary commitment to the planet by announcing its goal of reaching net-zero by 2070. It voluntarily imposed on itself a timeline for climate action, although its emissions per capita were well under two tonnes – about one-eighth those of the US. PM Modi’s Panchamrita road map for 2070 includes interim targets for boosting non-fossil energy capacity, using renewables, and reducing carbon emissions and the economy’s carbon intensity. PM Modi also later launched India’s LiFE (Lifestyle for Environment) Mission. He emerged as one the earliest world leaders to state candidly that climate action would require changes to individual lifestyles, taking steps to initiate those changes. By contrast, an international survey of 10 countries, including the US, the United Kingdom, France and Germany — published to coincide with COP26 — found few citizens willing to make significant lifestyle sacrifices. In fact, 46% of respondents believed there was no real need for them to do so. Take the facile but heated domestic debate around a potential ban on gas stoves in the US. Even as US diplomats have long championed “clean cookstoves” for the developing world, it appears there is little interest in following good climate practices at home.
India’s natural influence as a democracy and sincere interlocutor that can engage the political spectrum of nations gives it unique moral authority. Indeed, 21st century multilateralism needs more Indias. The G20 — with its mix of developing and developed countries — offers the perfect platform for India to infuse partner nations with foundational ideas. The world has much to learn on putting humanity first, adopting a pro-planet orientation, promoting peace, and placing equity and inclusion at the heart of internationalism. With its ethos of One Earth, One Family, One Future, India could show the way.
India will prioritise data for development at G20
At the G20 Leaders’ Summit in Bali last month, Prime Minister (PM) Narendra Modi pledged that the principle of “data for development” will be integral to India’s G20 presidency. New Delhi’s commitment to this principle and its vision of strengthening it through international cooperation are already apparent. The first side event of the G20 Development Working Group under the Indian presidency, held in Mumbai on Tuesday, addressed the theme “Data for development: The role of the G20 in advancing the 2030 Agenda”. Amitabh Kant, India’s G20 Sherpa, emphasised that the country’s strategic use of data for governance and public service delivery in its aspirational districts, for instance, has, in three years, wrought a transformation that would otherwise have taken six decades. Data has also powered India’s pandemic response, innovations in education, health care, and food security, and enabled digital financial inclusion at a near-population scale.
As a group composed of developed and developing nations, the G20 presents a microcosm of what a concerted global effort to achieve Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) might resemble. If the G20is to help accelerate progress towards SDGs, it must vigorously pursue two kinds of data-driven interventions: Rejuvenating legacy datasets using Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Big Data analytics, thus converting data to intelligence; and using cutting-edge emerging tech — including drones, geospatial mapping, and AI — to generate futuristic new datasets.
The country is about to launch a major data initiative as a part of which it will share anonymised data sets collected under the National Data Governance Framework with the AI ecosystem, and the research and startup communities.
In both areas, India has much to offer the world. The country is about to launch a major data initiative as a part of which it will share anonymised data sets collected under the National Data Governance Framework with the AI ecosystem, and the research and startup communities. This vast database will be used to train AI models, catalyse innovation, and craft more effective policy and on-ground solutions. In May, NITI Aayog launched the groundbreaking National Data and Analytics Platform to democratise access to public government data by making datasets accessible and interoperable, and providing accompanying tools for analytics and visualisation. Each of these initiatives builds upon the PM’s vision of a Digital India characterised by a digitally empowered society and tech-enabled knowledge economy.
The creation of entirely new datasets is also exploding in India. Drones are scanning the country’s terrain in minute detail, and this aerial footage is being combined with other kinds of data to create extraordinarily detailed maps. Data generated by drones is also revolutionising agriculture and helping transform existing cities into smart cities. The World Economic Forum estimates that the new data economy resulting from drones could boost India’s Gross Domestic Product by $100 billion and create nearly half a million jobs in the coming years.
Indeed, India is rapidly emerging as a world leader in the geospatial sector. Addressing the United Nations World Geospatial Information Congress in Hyderabad in October, PM Modi emphasised that geospatial technology is a “tool for inclusion” that has been “driving progress” and established itself as an enabler across development sectors. In fact, this is a space in which India has already begun to support its South Asian neighbours with communications and connectivity.
Across nations, data must be emancipated from its current silos, and progressively larger volumes of data must be made public and easily discoverable.
As India and its G20 partners forge collaborations centred on data for development, they should adhere to certain core principles. Across nations, data must be emancipated from its current silos, and progressively larger volumes of data must be made public and easily discoverable. To be used effectively, data must be simple, high-quality, and offered in real-time. A culture of experimentation and innovation must be fostered around data operations, and countries must invest in tools for analysing datasets in creative ways. To enhance outcomes, constructive competition could be promoted among stakeholders in the data ecosystem.
Two crucial tasks lie before the G20. Its members will have to try and arrive at a common understanding of sensitive and non-sensitive data, and to reflect on frameworks that could help share data across borders. There is an in-principle consensus that open repositories should be built where nations can store public-value data. But a prudent balance will need to be struck between the imperatives of data sovereignty and protection, and the notion of a data commons that could benefit the global community. Ultimately, the G20’s data regulations should embed the norm of reciprocity — nations should be able to share and benefit from development data.
A culture of experimentation and innovation must be fostered around data operations, and countries must invest in tools for analysing datasets in creative ways.
As 2030 nears, the Indian presidency could be an inflection point for the G20’s deliberations around data for development. Since 2019, the theme’s importance has been consistently reaffirmed by G20 leaders, and the recent Japanese, Saudi Arabian, Italian and Indonesian presidencies have all recognised that the wealth of data produced by digitalisation must be harnessed. But government-to-government dialogue must increasingly be supplemented by systematic engagements with the private sector, civil society, women and young people, if data-led empowerment is to be mainstreamed. This is a key element India could underscore in the G20 playbook, thus shaping past achievements and present priorities into what could become a part of the grouping’s legacy to the world.
India takes charge on the world stage
In a historic moment, Prime Minister (PM) Narendra Modi unveiled the logo, theme, and website of India’s Group of 20 (G20) presidency on Tuesday. The vision and objectives he outlined for India and the world have raised the already massive expectations from the presidency and further entrenched India as an architect of the global agenda. India’s assumption of the G20 presidency is consonant with the PM’s mission of undertaking leadership roles on the international stage that will allow the nation to steer change, engineer sustainability, champion the causes of emerging economies, and advance growth.
With PM Modi framing India’s imminent interventions at the G20 within the ethos of vasudhaiva kutumbakam (the world is one family), there is every indication that the qualities of inclusiveness and cooperation for the common good will prevail. Major Indian climate initiatives have recently been set into motion with the invocation of Mata bhumiah putroham prithiviyah, signifying that the earth is our mother, and we are her children. Similarly, the names of initiatives, such as the One Sun, One World, One Grid programme that India will build upon with partners at G20, reflect a spirit of unity and a shared future. As the PM observed while unveiling the G20 logo, the lotus represents shared knowledge, prosperity, and hope. These ideas stem from India’s tradition of building consensus through dialogue.
The names of initiatives, such as the One Sun, One World, One Grid programme that India will build upon with partners at G20, reflect a spirit of unity and a shared future.
The very colours of the Indian flag on the logo assume a certain symbolic significance. Saffron has traditionally been associated with strength and courage, and these qualities are amply borne out by India’s pragmatic, bold stand on climate action. The PM has set about dismantling the West’s hollow and fitful climate commitments. His newly launched mission, LiFE (Lifestyle for Environment), aims to promote sustainable and healthy lifestyles. It will democratise efforts to tackle the climate crisis, going beyond policymaking and encouraging every individual to contribute to the climate response. PM Modi has become perhaps the first political leader to state upfront and honestly that climate action will require lifestyle changes and sacrifices. Hitherto, heads of government across the world, particularly in the West, have provided glib assurances of zero lifestyle and consumption compromises while still promising to fight the climate crisis. For that courageous mindset change alone, India’s G20 leadership provides hope.
The green of the Indian Tricolour symbolises the fertility of the land and the richness of its biodiversity. Equally, it appears to reflect the seriousness with which India has approached its green commitments. India’s annual per capita carbon footprint is well under 2 tonnes, about a fourth of China’s and one-eighth of that of the United States. Nonetheless, the country pledged ambitious Nationally Determined Contributions, committing to reduce the emissions intensity of its Gross Domestic Product (GDP) by 45% from 2005 levels by 2030, and, by the same year, install around 50% of electric power from energy resources that are not fossil-fuel-based.
Even as much of the global discourse around climate response continues to focus on mitigation, India’s G20 presidency will allow it to push the adaptation agenda. This will be especially important for developing nations as they struggle to adapt to emissions already released by industrially advanced countries. India must continue to counter the tendency of developed nations to hold their lessadvanced counterparts captive to their caprices. Climate justice and equity must become the norm.
India must continue to counter the tendency of developed nations to hold their lessadvanced counterparts captive to their caprices.
Reimagine the blue chakra (wheel) at the heart of the Tricolour as a blue earth in silhouette. The World Economic Forum has argued that G20 must promote a sustainable blue economy. Oceans, coasts, and the resources they harbour could act as engines of economic growth. G20 nations — which make up 45% of the world’s coastline and 21% of its exclusive economic zones — are extraordinarily well placed to foster blue development. As India leads the G20, its farsightedness about the blue economy could prove exemplary. India is finalising its national policy on the blue economy, a holistic plan to optimise all maritime sectors and develop coastal areas sustainably. Once ready, the policy could well serve as a model for other G20 nations.
Finally, India’s G20 presidency comes at a moment when the country is well on track to become a $5-trillion economy, despite the multiple challenges to growth caused by the pandemic. Technology is working for and with citizens to unleash unprecedented value and entrepreneurial potential. The resulting model is uniquely Indian. Not only has the nation emerged as the world’s first and largest truly digital democracy, but it is also catalysing the evolution of digital public goods, and citizens are producing value using them.
Digital payments in India could reach $10 trillion by 2026, and the country’s digital economy alone is expected to cross $800 billion by 2030. Boosting the global digital economy has been a core G20 objective. Helmed by India, the group will be able to draw on a wealth of cross-sectoral experience, technical expertise, and innovations that can be applied at scale.
Driven by political will, spurred by technological breakthroughs, and fuelled by an unusual optimism, 2023 will be a watershed year for India. There could not be a more consequential time to lead the comity of influential nations.
India leads: Two to Tango with in 2023
It is a busy season on Raisina Hill as India assumes stewardship of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) and takes charge of the Group of Twenty (G20) in December. Leading these two plurilateral groups will be complex and challenging. The groupings have divergent goals, purposes, and memberships even as they grapple with Covid-19’s disruptive impact on the global economy and conflicts during and after the pandemic. India will need to ensure that the concerns of developing countries are not relegated to the margins by the European conflict.
At the heart of the endeavour lies the challenge of dialogue and conversations with all, even as a subset of like-minded countries invest in frameworks that respond to decadal objectives. “Talk to all and work more with some” will have to be India’s mantra for 2023 as it has a rare opportunity to make two distinct agendas align with its own.
At SCO, China’s dominant position is inescapable, and it overwhelms the preferences and perspectives of others. Here, India and Russia may share a common imperative to balance China and make SCO focus on a broader policy and development agenda. As Prime Minister (PM) Narendra Modi pointed out during the SCO summit last month, this is not the time for war. Moving away from conflict to attend to the frailties of the economy may be beneficial for SCO and less contentious too. Many in the group are uncomfortable with the Russia-Ukraine conflict and would rather see this group focus on the development and human challenges the region is saddled with. India will have to reset the playing board skillfully. If China is playing “go”, and Russia is playing “roulette”, New Delhi will need to play smart chess.
Many in the group are uncomfortable with the Russia-Ukraine conflict and would rather see this group focus on the development and human challenges the region is saddled with.
However, the nature of SCO and its purpose will ensure that politics takes centre-stage. In Samarkand, the Indian PM showed the way. Niceties need to be dropped, and hard questions must be posed, including on sovereignty, the expansionist tendencies of some countries, including China, and terrorism emanating from Pakistan.
Simultaneously, India must inject its growth imperative around technology, sustainability and green transitions into discussions and state its concerns over cyber security, online malfeasance, and white elephant infrastructure projects, among others. At SCO, India would do well to initiate debates on these issues, irrespective of the outcomes, and create space for discussions that may not have Beijing’s blessings.
Diplomacy sometimes misconstrues the role of the host country to imply benign or agnostic participation. India, however, must maintain its determination to have an assertive foreign policy that seeks to shape and steer conversations towards the outcomes it desires.
All of this cannot be starkly divergent from India’s G20 agenda. There needs to be a bridge linking what we aim to achieve through SCO and G20, although the methods and formulations used in each forum may differ. G20 requires a different type and style of hosting. India can leverage its experience to communicate with all actors involved and curate conversations that cater to diverse constituencies. “Sabka Saath, Sabka Vikas, Sabka Vishwas and Sabka Prayas” (inclusive development for all, everyone’s trust and efforts) is an all-encompassing Indian approach that fits G20.
India can leverage its experience to communicate with all actors involved and curate conversations that cater to diverse constituencies.
Here, India will need to ensure that the clouds of war that loom over Europe do not pour down on its presidency. India must make it clear to its western partners that it will view any attempt to reduce the impact of its G20 presidency seriously. At the same time, New Delhi must make clear to Moscow that steps towards de-escalation are essential from its end.
External factors will inevitably distract the grouping from anything that is discussed within it. The agenda that is engaged with and outcomes delivered at G20 may be bold (unlikely) or sub-optimal (more probable). However, thanks to G20’s structure, global action will always be evolutionary. India’s efforts must draw from Indonesia and deliver to Brazil and then South Africa.
PM Modi’s reiteration of the importance of “democracy, diplomacy, and dialogue” at the SCO Summit is a message that the G20 leaders should also remember as they prepare to engage at the upcoming G20 Summit in Indonesia and beyond. G20’s ability to navigate through economic and social crises should not become hostage to regional or bilateral politics.
India must make a clear and robust case to address larger goals in the spirit of cooperation. It must focus precisely on what it wants to achieve from each working group at G20 and aim to create a legacy and a futureoriented architecture, which will lend continuity to what it incubates.
The unravelling of Pax Americana
The “war on terror”, launched two decades ago, epitomised the peak of America’s unipolar moment. The jets crashing into the twin towers were seen by most as an attack on the soul of globalisation, a project promoted and designed by the United States (US) and its partners in Europe. The near-universal commitment to this war, within the P-5 and outside, was a demonstration of America’s real power. That was a different time and a different world.
Since then, the US has been implicated in the global financial crisis of 2008. Its flawed domestic landscape and divided democracy have been a public spectacle for global audiences since 2016, from the swearing-in of President Donald Trump to that of President Joe Biden. Both individuals were and are legitimate leaders for only half their nation. America’s botched and self-serving response to the Covid-19 pandemic only hastened the decline of its ethical and moral positioning. Hot on the trail of these events, the hasty and bungled exit from Afghanistan is not just a political event, but part of a continuum, one that points to the momentous unravelling of Pax Americana.
The jets crashing into the twin towers were seen by most as an attack on the soul of globalisation, a project promoted and designed by the United States (US) and its partners in Europe.
It is not the US’s material power alone that has suffered; the institutions undergirding the liberal order are on shaky ground as well. The partisanship of its media and academia are visible to all. It is a nation where trolling as a way of life has replaced a broad national consensus. Morally tinged lectures about the international liberal order are likely to fall on deaf ears for those who witnessed the West’s callous indifference to billions in the developing world still in need of vaccines, or towards the thousands of Afghan interpreters who risked their lives to fight America’s war.
Those watching from capitals in Asia, gearing up for a new era of conflict and competition in the Indo-Pacific, will be even more sceptical. Some among them will be the first victims of the Taliban’s willingness to shelter and nurture terrorist groups. More importantly, the fall of Kabul will serve as a dire reminder of the fate that may befall them if they get mired in great power competition.
For instance, if one lived in Japan, going nuclear may be a sensible option. If you were a resident of an Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) country, your neighbourhood bully would seem a more predictable and acceptable proposition. No spin can change this. America today is less attractive to many. This is a heavily mediated exit from a partnership and the damage is far greater than any of its other follies.
As these geographies rediscover one another, everything in between becomes a shared problem; refugee surges from countries mired in civil conflict, the climate crisis, and flows of finance, infrastructure and technology.
One could even argue that the US’s Indo-Pacific project has already faced its first significant setback. The idea that the US will now focus on China with greater intensity is naïve and suggests a poor understanding of politics. Land frontiers still matter and the US has ceded South and South-West Asia to Beijing. Chinese State media have lampooned and mocked the US’s withdrawal all week.
What role China will eventually play in Afghanistan is uncertain, but it has plans to fill the void that exists. The Chinese model is different and is based on the extraction of value from resources in the host country and providing lucre to the rulers who facilitate this. Tribes and feudal societies tend to work with this model better than the alternatives that seek to turn them into liberal nations and free markets. In the short term at least, China could well emerge as a powerful shaper of the economic and military arrangements in Af-Pak and West Asia.
This episode will have repercussions for the Quad, an ostensibly “counter-China” alliance in the Indo-Pacific. It is time to face up to some home truths.
First, for too long, policymakers in DC have relied on maps that mark the East Indian Ocean as the Indo-Pacific boundary. India’s perspective on Afghanistan, Pakistan, and West Asia has been dismissed time and again. This must change, or India will work with other arrangements to manage the threats that abound. The US must realise that dealing with the influence of China in Afghanistan and Pakistan are a core Indo-Pacific challenge. Ceding these to China defeats the Western Pacific project as well.
Countries have learnt to assess the US by what it does, not by what it says. Efforts to shape and design regions to suit their own narrow interests are likely to be resisted.
Second, even as DC learns to re-imagine the expanse of the Indo-Pacific, it must internalise that Europe and Asia are merging through the efforts of Beijing. As these geographies rediscover one another, everything in between becomes a shared problem; refugee surges from countries mired in civil conflict, the climate crisis, and flows of finance, infrastructure and technology. The US cannot afford to ignore this region if it is to remain relevant at the end of the 2020s.
Third, India will continue to assess the US as its most important partner. A declining superpower is easier to do business with. The Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CATSAA) sanctions and sermons on “values” could be shrugged off more quickly. Countries have learnt to assess the US by what it does, not by what it says. Efforts to shape and design regions to suit their own narrow interests are likely to be resisted. Its reliability and trustworthiness will be measured as per its capacity to contain China’s rise without disrupting the determination of states in the region to seek growth and development on their own terms. A transactional America will now encounter transactional friends.
This commentary originally appeared in Hindustan Times.
‘Global Britain’: G7, COP26, Indo-Pacific and the Commonwealth
This commentary originally appeared in Journal of Governance Security & Development.
The rise of the European Union (EU) witnessed continental Europe’s gradual disengagement from the non-Atlantic world. A post-colonial ‘Little England’ struggled to maintain its relevance even while retreating from lands across oceans and seas. Pax Britannica, once global, ceded place to a trans-Atlantic compact in which Britain was one of many voices, often drowned out by the voices of others.
The Maastricht Treaty ensured Britain was just another member-state of the EU whose sovereignty, to some extent, rested not in London but Brussels. Brexit was aimed at reclaiming that bartered sovereignty and regaining the power—within and beyond Europe—Britain had surrendered between 1946 and 2016; it took four years to formalise the separation, and for Prime Minister Boris Johnson to re-hoist the banner of ‘Global Britain’. This coincides with the ongoing post-pandemic rearrangement of the international order, Britain’s stewardship of the G7 and the COP26, and its enduring role as the premier financial centre of the world through all the trials and tribulations.
Admittedly, Mr Johnson’s ‘Global Britain’ faces challenges because Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ‘Atmanirbhar Bharat’ too faces challenges. If the former’s ‘Global Britain’—leaving the “safe harbour of the EU … at a time of heightened global risk”—is set to sail into previously avoided turbulent seas, so is Mr Modi’s ‘Atmanirbhar Bharat’ negotiating a new passage.
For both Britain and India, it is not about changing partners and allies but stating new purpose and intent in a profoundly changed world where pre-pandemic truisms and certitudes have been rendered meaningless. It is about rationalising international engagement. Furthermore, it is about seizing the moment to emerge as a major player in crafting the new order necessitated, in large measure, by a declining America and a rising China. Britain and India must define their role in refashioning the global landscape in which a new continent, Eurasia, and a new water body, the Indo-Pacific, dominate. India has made its move; Britain, too, must.
The Strategic Rise of the Indo-Pacific
The possible blueprint for a future whose geo-political, geo-economic and geo-strategic landscape is not dominated by the Middle Kingdom is obvious to all, even to those in Europe discomfited by Beijing’s seemingly inexorable continued rise and yet who are unwilling to stand up and be counted. The prospects for a future unburdened by one overwhelming power would appear brighter if nations were to forge partnerships—bilateral, minilateral, plurilateral—within and across geographies. This is already happening: The Indo-Pacific theatre offers the best and, perhaps, most dramatic example.
The political churn in the Indo-Pacific region began even before the pandemic. It gathered speed and gained purpose after the virus disrupted what were perceived to be settled global arrangements and brought to the fore the unfillable cracks that had, till then, been papered over. This churn has thrown up an indisputable fact: India is pivotal to the Indo-Pacific geography and, along with partners, will be defining the future Quad-centric ecosystem. This need not mean adding more members to the Quad comprising the US, Australia, India and Japan. As in the case of building resilient supply chains, it may only amount to specific conversations and initiatives with specific outreach partners. On issues such as climate finance, the UK is a natural Quad cousin.
Having set sail from the ‘safe harbour’ of the EU, Britain must now navigate its way to this geography where it is neither a stranger nor an intruder. Historically, the UK has been present in the Indo-Pacific region, and Britain has a sense of the nations there. Colonialism waned, but Britain’s partnerships waxed—some of its most important partnerships are in these waters; most notably, Britain has strong partnerships with individual members of the Quad, including India.
Historically, the UK has been present in the Indo-Pacific region, and Britain has a sense of the nations there. Colonialism waned, but Britain’s partnerships waxed—some of its most important partnerships are in these waters; most notably, Britain has strong partnerships with individual members of the Quad, including India
Now is the time for the UK to leverage those partnerships and demonstrate that it did not meander its way out of the EU maze directionless, but did so with firm purpose. The forces that shaped Brexit are a powerful wind in Britain’s sails, no longer constrained by either Brussels or Berlin. Johnson’s ‘Global Britain’ can and must disprove those who believe it has set itself adrift with neither shore in sight nor destination in mind, by navigating towards the Indo-Pacific region, which accounts for 50 percent of global economic growth—a share that can only increase in the coming times.
Refashioning and Reviving Existing Partnerships
Besides the Quad, Britain and others have a useful and dynamic collective that could be refashioned—the Commonwealth. It is time to reimagine this grouping and give it purpose and new energy. One possibility would be to create a group of eight within the Commonwealth comprising Britain, India, Bangladesh, Kenya, South Africa, Australia, Canada and Singapore. These eight countries have an influence on and are implicated by the developments in the Indo-Pacific. These countries are crucial for the SDG and Climate agenda, and all of these nations are regional trade hubs and technology centers. These eight can put together a vision for growth, sustainability, technology, and global norms and rules for our future and give teeth to a grouping that has been adrift and make it contemporaneous. Global Britain needs new clubs, but, first, it must explore the opportunities that reside in old partnerships.
Indeed, this provides the perfect fit for the central core strengths of ‘Global Britain’ and the legacies of Great Britain: From finance to the green economy, from technology to knowledge, from education to creative urban design—London leads the race by miles. The British economy is structured in such a manner that other economies stand to benefit from it; there is a mutuality of commercial interest and commonality of political purpose. Unlike the EU, ‘Global Britain’ does not need to offshore its economy.
The strategic importance of ‘Global Britain’—for the UK and the world—cannot be overstressed. That importance will gain traction and draw attention as Glasgow prepares to host COP26, perhaps, the most important event on the global calendar in the post-pandemic year. Britain has the capability to finance a rising nation’s transition to a green future; India and South Asia have the capacity to absorb green investments by Britain as it prepares to transit from the old to the new. Climate partnerships will prove to be the most resilient partnerships of the future, and Britain must know this and act accordingly. The City of London is a natural fit for this endeavour, but it is by no means the only candidate. An enlightened approach, including technology and access to it, can work to mutual and planetary benefit. It is for Britain to demonstrate that its approach is strategic rather than tactical. Released earlier this year, the ‘UK Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy’ is an excellent document. It needs to be put into action quickly.
The strategic importance of ‘Global Britain’—for the UK and the world—cannot be overstressed. That importance will gain traction and draw attention as Glasgow prepares to host COP26, perhaps, the most important event on the global calendar in the post-pandemic year
‘Global Britain’ should not mean Britain’s World. It should rather signify Britain with the world. Through effective engagement, backed by its very own Indo-Pacific strategy based on the twin principles of prosperity and security, it can help reinforce a “sustainable rules-based order in the region that is resilient but adaptable to the great power realities of the 21stcentury”. In all this, the centrality of India is beyond debate or doubt, which only serves to underscore that Britain should naturally invest in and with India. Yet, Britain comes into the contemporary Indo-Pacific as a latecomer, its historical role notwithstanding. It has to add value to the Quad template and India’s own evangelising of the Indo-Pacific; it cannot presume to be a leader by default or based on the past.
Modern Geopolitics: A Race Through Chaos to Stability
Originally published in The Valdai Club. Co-authored with Aarshi Tirkey.
The third decade of the twenty-first century has compelled the world to face its most intractable challenge yet—offering a coherent, collective and equitable response to the COVID-19 pandemic. This has tested the faith of the most ardent internationalists, and is part of a deeper churn in the global order that was underway even before the first COVID-19 case was reported in Wuhan in 2019.
US hegemony has all but come to an end and the rise of a multipolar world has effected a redistribution of power at the global stage. American leadership, that would have been essential to catalysing collective action against the pandemic, bordered on wanting to island itself from the rest of the world much before former US President Trump launched the “America First” campaign. The utopian vision of interdependence and global cooperation had already taken a beating in Europe when Brexit demolished the ideological and institutional underpinnings of the European Union. And China, the other great power, was engaged in its project ‘Pax Sinica’, determined to make globalisation beneficial for its Communist party.
Global institutions had weakened, and the benefits of investing political will into their mechanisms had greatly receded. The coronavirus further exacerbated this: While nations scrambled to respond to this fast-spreading disease, their immediate reaction was to look inwards, go at it alone or with trusted partners, and engage with the international community only for self-serving purposes. At the end of the day, all were ‘Darwinian’ and privileged their own survival without consideration and care for others. This is typified by the perverse ‘Vaccine Access’ world map.
Global institutions had weakened, and the benefits of investing political will into their mechanisms had greatly receded. The coronavirus further exacerbated this: While nations scrambled to respond to this fast-spreading disease, their immediate reaction was to look inwards, go at it alone or with trusted partners, and engage with the international community only for self-serving purposes. At the end of the day, all were ‘Darwinian’ and privileged their own survival without consideration and care for others. This is typified by the perverse ‘Vaccine Access’ world map.
As such, the postwar liberal international order—underwritten by the West under US leadership—had been facing an existential crisis since the turn of the century, with wars in South and West Asia and the Financial Crisis all challenging the old arrangements and aiding the rise of `China as a new revisionist power. And then the Virus from Wuhan exploded on the world stage, accelerating the processes that were already influencing modern geopolitics, a few of which are discussed here.
The 3 R’s of Modern Geopolitics
The first is readjustment, as countries are grappling with the impact of the rise of new regional and global actors. The American century has waned, and the rise of the Asian century—home to the growing economies in the world—is well on its way. The biggest challenge to the global balance of power comes from China, which is set to be the first major economy to rebound after the pandemic With the launch of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), China’s close integration with global supply chains, and its advancements in civilian and military technologies—Beijing’s rise appears to be an inevitable reality, howsoever much its international behaviour instills distrust among many, particularly the US and some of its allies.
A contest is, therefore, inevitable. In President Biden’s interim National Security Strategy Guidance, the rise of both China and Russia is treated as a challenge to a stable and open international system. President Xi Jinping—for his part—recently declared that Beijing will never allow any foreign forces to bully, oppress or enslave China and the focus of the party would be “the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation”. Will the two global powers head for a confrontation or choose to opt for a peaceful coexistence with limited and contained disagreements? The outcome of the US-China rivalry remains to be seen, and countries caught at the intersection of this evolving dynamic must take into account how they readjust their approach to this new age of geopolitics. Russia too will be asked some tough questions and will have to make some difficult choices. Can a positive Biden-Putin engagement play a stabilising role in the 21st Century? Or is a China-Russia nexus inevitable?
The outcome of the US-China rivalry remains to be seen, and countries caught at the intersection of this evolving dynamic must take into account how they readjust their approach to this new age of geopolitics. Russia too will be asked some tough questions and will have to make some difficult choices
Second, the hard-won consensus on the frameworks underpinning multilateralism and globalisation is undergoing a dramatic restructuring. The 2008 global financial crisis, followed by the COVID-19 pandemic, have exposed the fragility of global economic interdependence. The growth of hyper-nationalism and populist politics assess globalisation and multilateralism as arrangements that impinge on the sovereign choices of a state. As such, there is potential for the creation of a ‘gated globalisation’—a globalisation that is less free and less open than before. Economic policies are no longer solely dictated by economic principles; they are now guided by strategic considerations, political trust, climate, health and technological threats. Countries, such as the UK, US and India have introduced trade restrictions, investment screening mechanisms, sanctions and monetary policies to reflect these new considerations. China had already perfected their own model of perverse global integration.
The disillusionment with multilateralism can be directly attributed to institutional inertia, lack of reforms and capture by vested interests, which continue to hamper decision making before these organisations. Countries are, therefore, leaning towards smaller groupings to forge fluid, issue-specific partnerships, which can expedite cooperation between like-minded countries. While this can be one way to overcome the malaise of multilaterals, they may hamper the development of broader and cohesive international strategies for ‘global bads’—from COVID-19 to climate change—which require the participation and commitment of all. The pandemic is not over till all are vaccinated and secured and the threat of climate change is not going to recede by unilateral actions of any single state. The ongoing restructuring calls for the need for new arrangements that can redress the inefficiencies of multilateralism and globalisation, without diminishing their larger benefits. Can a ‘consortium of plurilaterals groupings’ agree to a common minimum framework to address the challenges that confront us all even as they engage within their own clubs to maximise their economy and security?
In the midst of this churn, geopolitics has been reoriented to accommodate new actors, and emerging factors and considerations. Modern geopolitics is increasingly influenced by geoeconomics and geo-technology. Important works, such as War by Other Means, talk of the systemic use of economic instruments to achieve geopolitical objectives—a form of statecraft that was present during the Marshall plan, and is present today as well through China’s ‘chequebook diplomacy’ and more generally the BRI.
Modern geopolitics is increasingly influenced by geoeconomics and geo-technology. Important works, such as War by Other Means, talk of the systemic use of economic instruments to achieve geopolitical objectives—a form of statecraft that was present during the Marshall plan, and is present today as well through China’s ‘chequebook diplomacy’ and more generally the BRI
If the medium is the message, then technology is the future of our politics. The advent of the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) has resulted in the development of technologies that can be both a boon and a bane for humankind. While America was at the forefront of technological leadership in the recent past, this is being challenged by China as it invests heavily in emerging and dual-use technologies such as Artificial Intelligence, Quantum Computing, and biotechnology. First movers may not only take the mantle of technological leadership, but will also become the providers for other countries, creating asymmetric dependencies. ‘GeoTech’ opens a new realm of interstate competition, where concerns of national security and strategic autonomy implicate technology choices and arrangements. In an increasingly digital world, the capture of data—and not territory—and the compromise of critical information infrastructure—and not state borders—are the new security challenges for nations. As an individual’s attention, eyeballs and personal data become the coveted political prize, will the next domain of conflict be the human form and how we will protect it?
New Actors, New Geographies
While the above factors remain at the heart of this churn, new actors and geographies are influencing the conduct of geopolitics. Though the coronavirus hearkened the return of the ‘nation-state’, communities across borders represent a robust challenge to this primary unit of Westphalian sovereignty. The concentration of economic resources and power in global technology companies, from Twitter to Tencent, has driven home the fact that states are no longer the primary actors in the world. Hate, tribalism and irrational ideologies have returned with new vigour, riding on the reach and amplification of digital technologies. Technology giants are now the arbiters of economic and political choices and are challenging the writ of the older political systems.
The emergence of new geographies, such as the Indo-Pacific, Eurasia and the Arctic—in which all regional and global powers have stakes—demand the genesis of new norms, institutions and partnerships. In a universally parochial world, there is limited appetite or leadership to shape and create these. In sum, the pandemic confirmed the decline of the US as a superpower and sharpened questions on Beijing’s moral and political capability to step into the void. Even with its attendant equity and efficiency losses, the importance of‘multi-polarity’—first ideated by Primakov through the Russia, India and China trilateral mechanism—received a resolute confirmation. It has urged that we appreciate this shifting nature of global and domestic affairs to be able to adapt to an increasingly complex world, that is no longer tethered to a conventional understanding of geopolitics.
While the ability to project power globally resides with the US, the world is steadily moving towards political, economic, technological and normative multipolarity. The evolving contours of modern geopolitics is still in a state of flux, and there is wisdom in accepting the notion that the end result is perhaps indeterminable. The age of disruption is here, countries that thrive on disorder may do well in the short term, while nations who invest in stability may well define the future of globalisation and, indeed, the new world order.
Communist Inc: The Pandemic and China’s World
Co-authored with Akhil Deo
The Communist Party of China will celebrate the 100th anniversary of its founding this July. This marks the first significant milestone in Chairman Xi’s “China Dream”, a project that will ostensibly culminate in 2049, the 100th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic, with associated aspirations of China cementing its position as a global power. In our book, Pax Sinica, we had detailed three instruments that are crucial to these ambitions: Leadership over global institutions and processes, a conducive environment for achieving “discourse power”, and the construction of new international coalitions. China seeks to control global institutions and rule-making processes, grease and dominate the media and public sphere into a favourable disposition, and enter into perverse partnerships with other nations, described as a “loan for sovereignty” arrangement in one of its avatars.
The onset of the pandemic has made many of these strategies more visible, even as it highlighted the opportunities and challenges that lie ahead for China.
China’s global dominance strategies
For the past decade or more, China has pursued a dual strategy of co-opting post-war institutions while simultaneously pursuing its own brand of multilateralism through the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and an assortment of formal and informal fora, such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation. Three approaches guide China’s strategy: Building global influence and prestige; shaping and/or altering key norms, standards, and processes; and creating the capacity to withstand pressure for selectively disregarding international rules.
The fruits of these efforts were visible amid the pandemic, most controversially at the WHO, which struggled to balance its commitment towards transparency and accountability, and its operational reliance on and systematic infiltration by China. Under cover of the pandemic, China has made more significant inroads as well. In April 2020, China was appointed to the influential United Nations Human Rights Council (HNRC) consultative group, which plays a crucial role in selecting global monitors for free speech, arbitrary detention and forced disappearances—the very rights that Beijing crushed in Hong Kong and Xinjiang.
One aspect of this ploy of the Communist Party of China (that effectively and absolutely owns the country) that often goes unnoticed in India is China’s leadership in technology standard-setting organisations. Over the past decade, Beijing has improved its representation in, and submissions to, the technical committees and sub-committees of organisations like the International Organisation for Standardisation and the International Electrotechnical Commission. In March 2020, China’s Standardisation Administration published an innocuous document outlining the elements of a more ambitious strategy known as China Standards 2035. The 15-year blueprint will chart a pathway for China to dominate standards in emerging industries, giving it the ability to set the terms of international trade and even define the relationship between technology and society globally.
Augmenting China’s influence in international organisations and standard-setting bodies is its global media and narrative management strategy—an essential facet of “discourse power”
Augmenting China’s influence in international organisations and standard-setting bodies is its global media and narrative management strategy—an essential facet of “discourse power”. Chairman Xi alluded to this in a recent speech, calling for China’s media to develop an “international voice”. The research in our book highlighted what scholars called China’s policy of “borrowing a boat to go out into the ocean”. In other words, China’s use of paid inserts and large advertisements in newspapers allows it to propagate its narratives. Two recent reports provide insight into how significantly these efforts have evolved and intensified.
The first, by the Associated Press and the Oxford Internet Institute, describes China’s use of bots and fake social media accounts to amplify its “wolf warrior” diplomats and their proxies online. While China has previously used these tactics in Taiwan and Hong Kong, such operations have taken on a global scope amid the pandemic. Beijing’s appetite for misinformation, exemplified famously by Zhao Lijian’s claim that the coronavirus originated outside China, only exacerbated the challenge. The second, from the International Federation of Journalists, posits that Beijing’s strategy of syndication appears to be paying off. Over the year, its inserts into local media, increasingly in vernacular, along with a more engaged diplomatic community, have bolstered its visibility in the developing world.
Beyond its media strategy, China continues to fund educational institutions through opaque means, sometimes with attached costs to academic freedom. The Communist Party also increasingly hosts foreign diplomats and security officials for training programmes on “information management” and sponsors ruling party politicians around the world to attend training sessions on party building and governance. In 2020, under pressure from Western scrutiny, Beijing rebranded its infamous Confucius Institutes and handed over operations to a ‘non government organisation’ defined by the party. However, the US and Europe aren’t necessarily the targets of its educational and cultural investments. A report from Aid Data in 2018 revealed that countries that are more aligned with China’s foreign policy receive the bulk of its largesse. While it is unclear yet what gains have accrued to Beijing from such initiatives, they represent a formidable institutionalised apparatus to export its ideology and political practices.
The Communist Party also increasingly hosts foreign diplomats and security officials for training programmes on “information management” and sponsors ruling party politicians around the world to attend training sessions on party building and governance
Backdoor entry into the EU
Finally, we had highlighted China’s strategy of building new coalitions and undermining existing ones. Nowhere was this more apparent than Europe, where Beijing’s 17 + 1 platform for engaging with Central and East European (CEE) nations had triggered concern about its “divide and rule” tactics. To some extent, China’s investments in the region have paid off— with countries like Greece and Hungary scuttling the EU’s efforts to criticise China’s violations of international law in the South China Sea and the passing of the national security law abuses in Hong Kong.
2020 dampened this momentum for China—and demonstrated that large powers can still secure their peripheries. Several East and Central European leaders expressed dissatisfaction with the pace of investments and many were no-shows at the China-led forum. Many have also signed onto the US’s Clean Network Initiative, intended to prevent the entry of China’s 5G companies into key markets. The Baltic states, meanwhile, were more apprehensive about Russia than they were keen on Chinese investments.
Nevertheless, the 17 + 1 platform is but one instrument in China’s more global “perverse diplomacy” toolkit, and writing it off is premature. It marks a permanent presence that China now enjoys at the EU’s doorstep, one that the CEE can always leverage for better terms from Brussels. At the very least, China is now a voice in domestic EU debates.
China also hosts a web of high-level forums and summits in nearly every part of the world, including the Arab states, Africa, Latin America, and the ASEAN. Beijing’s vaccine diplomacy has won it praise in most of these geographies—especially in the face of Western absence and selfish acts of the past year. These forums augment and bolster various initiatives, ranging from China’s infrastructure investments to promoting its technology propositions. And its economic presence and investments are buying it diplomatic support as well. For instance, the support of African states has been crucial for China when its record in Xinjiang and Hong Kong was questioned in the UN in 2020 and 2019.
When looking at the pandemic in retrospect, Chinese leaders will likely see parallels to the 2008 financial crisis—one more milestone in the long decline of the West, and China’s rise. Beijing robustly managed the pandemic at home and stepped up to provide global public goods. To be sure, it faces new headwinds: Public opinion of China has plummeted in the West, the Biden administration is gearing up for great power competition, the EU has ‘frozen’ its latest investment deal with China, and institutions like the G7 are stepping up to offer alternatives to the BRI.
Public opinion of China has plummeted in the West, the Biden administration is gearing up for great power competition, the EU has ‘frozen’ its latest investment deal with China, and institutions like the G7 are stepping up to offer alternatives to the BRI
Elsewhere, the message from China over the past year is resilience and continuity. It remains committed to an alternative form of globalisation via the BRI. Its influence over international institutions will only grow, proportional to its wealth and power. Beijing’s media is increasingly savvy in projecting and protecting its core interests. Further, contrary to the perception that China is “friendless”, it can call upon nations to support it when it matters. And even when there is pushback, it is often haphazard. The recently announced “Build Back Better World”, while grand in intent, struggles with the contradictions within the group on their assessment of the Middle Kingdom. Key countries have chosen trade over security and valuations over values in their engagement with China.
The future of the Indo-China relationship
Where does this leave India? Our book warned that Doklam was unlikely to be the last border confrontation between the two Asian powers. We argued that it opened a new tense period between India and China—an Asian Cold War. The Galwan Valley Clash confirmed the advent of a new era of high altitude faceoffs with possible ramifications in the oceans as well. This rift has only grown wider amid the pandemic. China’s belligerence in the Himalayas, and India’s restriction on Chinese technology platforms as well as its alignment with coalitions competing with China have all but cemented contestation. This will drive engagement in the years ahead.
New Delhi will confront a more fundamental dilemma: On the one hand, political tensions with China will remain high. But on the other, it is dependent on trade with China for its economic objectives—a dependence that will likely remain given the adverse economic consequences of the pandemic. Indeed, data published by Chinese customs officials revealed that trade with India boomed in 2021, even as Beijing appears to be consolidating its position in the Himalayas. How India resolves this contradiction and builds a security posture that accounts for this will indeed define the relationship.
New Delhi needs clarity of thought and a national consensus on China. In the coming days, it will have to take a leaf out of the Chinese playbook and engage in trade with the one that seeks to do it harm. Its economic engagement must be alive to this and its security considerations immune from these entanglements. It must realise that it cannot trade or talk its way into a better relationship with Beijing. These are important but essentially sideshows to the principal theatre of engagement. Deceit and political muscularity is the new grammar of the bilateral that China has proffered. With limited recourse available, the time for India’s legendary ambiguity is long past.
PAX SINICA: Implications for the Indian Dawn, by Samir Saran and Akhil Deo, is available here.
Just deserts? Western reportage of the second wave in India exposes deep schisms in relations with the East
Co-authored with Mr. Jaibal Naduvath
This article is a continuation of a previous article written by the authors, Revisiting Orientalism: Pandemic, politics, and the perceptions industry
In Lord Byron’s poem, Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage (1812), the protagonist Harold, contemplating the grandness of the Colosseum, imagines the condemned gladiator, dignified yet forlorn, butchered for the entertainment of a boisterous, blood lusty Roman crowd out on a holiday.
Public spectacles of suffering are integral to the discourse of power. The perverse imagery and messaging surrounding the suffering seeks to intimidate and suppress the subaltern’s agency to perpetuate ethnic dominance and social control. It pivots around an elevated moral sense of the ‘self’. In his seminal work, When Bad Things Happen to Other People, John Portmann argues that it is not unusual to derive gratification over the suffering of the ‘other’, particularly when the native feels that the suffering or humiliation of the ‘other’ is deserved. The suffering then becomes fair recompense for transgressions real and imagined, and the accompanying sense of justice and closure brings forth feelings of gratification.
India is reeling in the aftermath of the second wave of COVID-19. As death reaps rich dividends cutting across class and covenant, the country is engaged in a determined fightback. The developments have made global headlines, and, in equal measure, triggered global concern. Apocalyptic images of mass pyres and victims in their death throes, replete with tales of ineptitude, profiteering and callous attitudes, have made front page news and have become television primetime in much of the trans-Atlantic press, conforming to reductive stereotypes that have informed three centuries of relations with the Orient. The ‘self-inflicted’ suffering is then ‘fair recompense’.Continue reading