China, India, international affairs, Neighbourhood, Russia, Strategic Studies

The new world – shaped by self-interest

A series of far-reaching events are shaping the 21st century. The current conflict in Ukraine, while grabbing headlines and engrossing the G7 summit in Hiroshima, may not seem as pivotal if one is situated in a different part of the world. To most, this is still a festering neighbourhood conflict that Europe must manage. It does not animate lives everywhere; neither does it shape anxieties or future partnerships.

India, Africa and Latin America are not indifferent to the crisis in Europe. They simply have more pressing matters to attend to — the imperatives of nation building being the most urgent. That they now also must navigate the collateral impact of the war makes them all but an interested party.

The first lesson from global reactions to the war is geography still matters. East-West and North-South binaries may be captivating, but proximity and the neighbourhood are considerably more important. We may be hyper-globalised, but we are also more local than ever before. Social media, trends in technology and politics, and a host of other factors have bracketed us into narrow spheres of interest. Thus, while India respects Europe’s difficulties, for it the 2020s began not with Ukraine but with Chinese aggression, the virus from Wuhan and the surrender of Kabul.

Social media, trends in technology and politics, and a host of other factors have bracketed us into narrow spheres of interest.

The second lesson pertains to the UN vote condemning the Ukraine war. Of the 140 countries that voted and condemned Russia, only a fraction sanctioned Russia. Studying the list of countries that were the earliest to receive vaccines in the pandemic could prove to be productive. It might explain which countries have sanctioned Russia. It will also offer valuable lessons about globalisation, its hierarchy and therefore, its discontents. Those sanctioning Russia today are not merely the victors of World War II, but also of globalisation and development. Others are well within their rights to challenge the status quo.

It is often stated, unthinkingly, that India is on the fence. India is not on the fence — it is only standing its ground. It will choose its priorities just as every other country has done. The recent spate of visits by European leaders to China shows that value-based frameworks are untenable. Nations are driven by self-interest and in this case, the need to maintain lucrative economic relations. India is no different. Even as it confronts the Chinese on the Himalayan heights, trade continues where the economy needs it. Distance matters; interest matters even more.

The third lesson derives cumulatively from four recent events: The pandemic; the fallout of the Doha Agreement and the abandoning of Afghanistan; the Chinese aggression on India’s borders; and new sanction regimes and their impact on the loosely termed “Global South”. The Covid-19 outbreak saw the overt hijack of medical equipment and access to vaccines, and growing gaps in treatment capabilities.

Nations are driven by self-interest and in this case, the need to maintain lucrative economic relations.

Indeed, when the pandemic struck, there was no superpower, there was no great power, and there was no big power.  There were only selfish powers. Similarly, the Afghan people were betrayed and abandoned because it was expedient for higher powers to flee the country at a particular moment. And Chinese territorial incursions have provoked a range of self-serving responses from different actors otherwise keen to defend democracy.

Put bluntly, there is no moral high ground. All that remains is the ruthless pursuit of national self-interest. Two actors epitomised this approach in the 1960s and 1970s, one actor in the 1980s and 1990s, and several new voices have joined the fray in this century.

If meaningful international dialogue is to be conducted, nations must right-size some of their perceptions about each other and themselves. In this context, the tendency to frame the Global South as a possible bridge actor between competing positions has its merits. But the “Global South” is itself a deeply reductive term, which elides the group’s innate heterogeneity. Very few countries would like to be categorised as “southern” as they continue to rise and shape global systems. Five years from now, Brazil and India might bristle at such a label themselves.

The neatly packaged idea of the Global South fails to recognise that there will soon be far more decisive swings within the group than outside it. How the countries of the South organise themselves over the next decade will have a far more profound impact than the West on the global balance of power, and on the contours of the new world order. As this century progresses, an East and West will emerge within the Global North and South.

LLPs will come to constitute the geometry of politics, and countries will work together on specific issues, for specific purposes, and for specific outcomes.

Concomitantly, international engagements of the future will organise themselves around the standard operating principle of law firms — as limited liability partnerships (LLPs). LLPs will come to constitute the geometry of politics, and countries will work together on specific issues, for specific purposes, and for specific outcomes. With the transition to the new LLP ethos of geopolitics, we will not be burdened by the need to focus on anything other than the narrowly defined collaborative interest at hand, and can build relationships that are more strategic, if also more transactional. This is a gritty, realist world. We may not like it, but it’s here — and here to stay.

Eurasian Sudies, Great Power Dynamics, India-Russia, Indian Froeign Policy, international affairs, Quad, RIC, Russia, SCO

The US approach to the Russian federation will not determine the interaction of New Delhi and Moscow

India has been one of just few countries that’s managed to buy Russian weapons and avoid US sanctions. Nevertheless, anti-Russian sanctions sometimes serve as discouraging factor in Russian economic ties with other countries including China. Will India succeed in balancing between US and Russia, or the threat of sanctions will leave its mark on Russia- India cooperation?

Samir Saran: The sanctions on Russia are unilateral sanctions outside the UN system. While I do not speak for the government, India is unlikely to allow such sanctions to hurt its core relationships and objectives. Russia is India’s most important partner and US approach to Russia will not determine India’s engagement with Moscow. Our defence partnership and business relationships are vital and India will strive hard to ensure that these grow and strengthen. The US understands India’s views and concerns. The past year has seen the defence partnership with Russia grow stronger and I am confident that this will be the case in the future as well.

IzvAbout two years ago India joined the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation. So far, has the country felt any bonuses from participating in this organisation? Did membership in this club change anything for India?

SS: In my view these are early days for India at this club. India is currently settling in and is still finding its way about. The SCO if reimagined and designed can potentially have an important role to play in the Asian Century. It can be a group with Russia – India – China (RIC) at its core, from which contours of a political union in Asia can emerge. This will require major efforts and India will need to partner with Russia to make this happen. While the current impact of this membership is minimal, the potential of SCO to contribute to the future growth and stability of the region and continent (if developed appropriately) is immense.

IzvIn one of the interviews you suggested that the two crucial powers defining the future Asian Order are China and India. Though, to be sustainable the Asian order would need more players, including Russia. What role can Russia play in the region and in Asia? And from an Indian perspective where does Russia belong, East to the West?

SS: India sees Russia as a Eurasian power that straddles Europe and Asia. India also appreciates Russia’s role in the Asian continent and its leadership of the Asian century. An Asian order will be incomplete and impossible without a central role of and for Russia. Without doubt Moscow understands geopolitics and strategy better than most in the world and it is the single most decisive actor in that sense. Russia has to reconcile with its Asian identity and embrace the continent more robustly. There are signs that this is happening.

IzvIndia, just like Russia has been a supporter of a multipolar world. In the this context, is the US push for the quadrilateral alliance comprising Australia, India, Japan and the US an attempt to disrupt this multipolar order? Beyond the general talk about the need for the largest democracies to unite, does the Quad have any substance?

SS: The Quad is an outcome of a multipolar world, where many countries are creating multiple coalitions that serve specific purpose and interests. The Quad is not incompatible with any other plurilateral or multilateral arrangement nor with the idea of dispersed power centres collaborating on specific issues. Quad is in its infancy and will require more political investments from the four capitals if it is to be a significant institution.

Izv: This week India will be preoccupied with the Parliamentary elections with outcome being far from predetermined. Can we say that Russia is an weather friend and partner for India regardless of which party will be in power? Or there are some nuances?

SS: Yes – A strong Russian relationship is a multi-party consensus. And irrespective of which party assumes power in India, the bilateral will continue to receive highest consideration.

Interview originally appeared in Izvestia

China, Eurasian Sudies, India, Indian Froeign Policy, Russia, Strategic Studies

India’s balancing partnerships in Eurasia

Samir Saran, India, China, Indian foreign policy, Eurasia, Chinese technology, Belt and Road, US withdrawal, EU, nation building, technological growth, frontier technologies, sustainable growth

How do you judge China’s approach to Eurasia through the Belt and Road policies?

Samir Saran: China is the first country in recent times that has created a blue print which recognises that Europe and Asia are part of one single landmass. Beijing has created intermediate linkages for this “supercontinent’s” markets and communities. As China moves up the industrial value chain, it seeks wealthy European markets as a key consumer of high-end exports. On the other hand, it views smaller states in East Europe, West and Central Asia and South Asia as suppliers of raw materials, geographies for new transportation networks, and dependant markets for its exports of goods, services and labour.

China and Russia have one binding cause — disdain for the international order established by the West.

It has also found, not surprisingly, a willing partner in Russia — whose residual influence in Central Asia and Eastern Europe makes it a key player in an integrated Eurasia. Both countries have one binding cause — disdain for the international order established by the West. With Russia currently on its side (although this is not a certainty over the long term), the Middle Kingdom is able to set the rules of trade, economic development and security in these regions. Its sizable influence in regional organisations like the SCO, the 16+ 1initiative and the AIIB also provide China the institutional leverage to achieve this.

China’s attempts to integrate these continents, however, will not be free of political friction. Some of the sub-regions that inhabit Eurasia — think South Asia — already possess existing balance of power arrangements. In effect, China seeks to disregard these, and co-opt nation states into its Belt and Road network. Already, larger states, such as those in West Europe and India have voiced reservation and disapproval. In India’s case, such protestations led to a prolonged military stand-off in the Himalayas in 2017. These powers will gradually develop alternative propositions and arrangements for their sub-regions and indeed for the supercontinent. The implications of this contest, the changing coalitions and evolving politics and trade relations will define the coming decades for Eurasia.

Can India escape China’s orbit for economy and technology in the future?

SS: The resilience of the international system has begun to strain just as India is “emerging” as a global power. The erstwhile providers of security and global public goods, such as the US and Europe, appear to be looking inwards even as India requires technology and finance. China meanwhile, is in the midst of a multibillion dollar geo-economics thrust that is capable of both underwriting India’s economic growth and undermining its influence in regional and global affairs.

In the coming decades, India faces the proverbial catch-22 situation with China. New Delhi must learn how to stand firm against China in the political and security realm, while courting it for new investments and growth opportunities. So far the results are mixed on the latter. Bilateral trade remains a persistent irritant — with Chinese exports dominating the economic relationship. On the other hand, Chinese technology companies and venture capitalists are some of the leading investors in India’s budding technology industries.

Part of the answer will also lie in India’s domestic choices The returns from the economic reforms India undertook in the 1990’s are fast waning. India will have to undertake complex systemic reforms across its political and economic institutions if it is to reap the benefits of the fourth industrial revolution. And it will have to do so while providing employment and social mobility to the one of the world’s largest and youngest workforces.

India will have emerged as one of the worlds three largest economies by 2040, alongside the US and China.

The question therefore is not whether India can “escape China’s orbit.” By most estimates, India will have emerged as one of the worlds three largest economies by 2040, alongside the US and China. As it rises, Delhi will provide development solutions to the rest of the emerging world. The question therefore, is whether India can provide effective democratic alternatives for growth and development in the 21st century.

Can the EU contribute to India’s frontier technologies and sustainable growth?

SS: The EU can do much more than contribute to India’s economic and technological growth. Both these actors are geographical pillars of the Eurasian landmass, and invested actors in the Indo-Pacific. Both share a commitment to liberal democracy and market based economics (to varying degrees). And both actors believe in supporting a rules based international order through robust institutions.

The EU and India share a commitment to liberal democracy and market based economics.

These realties make India and the EU key partners in shaping a 21st century order. This realisation is already dawning on the EU. Just last year the bloc released its “elements for a strategy with India”— the first since 2004. And both sustainable development and innovation are key pillars of this strategy. While currently, India may not possess its own coordinated strategy for the EU, this is not likely to be a permanent state of affairs.

The overall state of the international order certainly adds a fresh impetus to the EU-India partnership. With both China and the US increasingly embracing their own unique forms of nationalism, the world is in need of ‘issue’ and ‘interests’ based alliances and coalitions capable of sustaining multilateralism. In fact, between the EU and India lies an opportunity to find common grounds and positions vis-a-vis both China and the US. Even as the EU and India can, for example, carry forward the Paris Climate Change agenda despite the US’ withdrawal, they can together address and moderate China’s state sponsored mercantilist economic policy.

We are currently in a moment in time, where the EU is roiled by populist politics and India itself is still a relatively small economy preoccupied with nation building. Nevertheless, long term trends favour a strong relationship between the two. It is time for both actors to act rapidly on this opportunity.