Green Technology, Research, security, Writing

All roads connect Delhi and Brussels

Co-Authored with Amrita Narlikar

Our text of ancient fables, the Panchatantra, speaks of “natural allies”. If there are ever natural allies in politics, the European Union (EU) and India should exemplify this relationship. Our cultural exchanges date back to ancient times; our languages have common roots; our borders are closer than ever via a human bridge that connects us: There are millions of Indians in the Middle East, and millions from the Middle East in Europe. Europe and India are a geographical continuum. And both the EU and India— “the world’s largest democracies”—face shared threats and challenges. All roads must now connect Delhi and Brussels.

Here, we lay out a map to address three key challenges: The green transition, the digital transformation, and the preservation of our shared geopolitical landscape. On all three issues, direct and close cooperation between the EU and India will not only be vital for these two major powers and their people—but also for the world at large. 

Green Transition

To address climate change, the EU and its members have been upping their domestic game. The European Green Deal is only one amongst several key initiatives that illustrate the seriousness with which the EU is addressing the existential threat of climate change. At the same time, there is much angst in Europe that these efforts will not suffice unless they are matched by China and India. While the concerns are understandable, a narrative framed in terms of “what will become of the world if every Indian has a car” is patronising and misplaced, especially when one compares the per capita fossil consumption in India to the EU members. In any case, specifically with respect to India, the EU is pushing through an open door on the issue of addressing climate change. India has led the way in international initiatives on the issue of clean energy, for instance, by creating the International Solar Alliance with France. India’s commitment to protecting the environment, moreover, does not stem from recent pressure exercised by Greta Thunberg or Fridays for Future. Contra western anthropocentrism in which activists advocate climate change mitigation for “our children’s future”, Indian philosophy teaches us that the planet belongs to humans, plants, animals, and all living beings. There are, therefore, deep-rooted and inclusive reasons for Indians to be committed to protecting the planet. This commitment should not be doubted. Instead, the EU needs to find ways to invest in this Indian cause and co-create solutions for our common future.

The European Green Deal is only one amongst several key initiatives that illustrate the seriousness with which the EU is addressing the existential threat of climate change.

To achieve this, we need actions and not words. It has taken a full-blown war in the heart of Europe for Germany to recognise the risks of over-dependence on Russia for energy purposes; diversification is proving to be far slower and more complicated than many would like. In light of this experience, it is perhaps even more unreasonable than before to demand that India “phase out” coal at the click of a finger. The EU will have to put its money where its mouth is if it is serious about addressing the global problem of climate change. The Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanism, for example, should be more than a “poverty tax”, as it is seen in India; it should be a tool to finance and incentivise the green transition in globally integrated sectors in the emerging world. Technologies vital to low-carbon growth will need to be co-created and co-owned by Europe and partners like India. European capital must be given a nudge to flow into climate-conscious investment in the emerging world. It is up to the EU to make sure that India’s efforts pay off—through significant European financing in key sectors, via public-private partnerships.

Digital Transformation

The EU is leading the way in setting people-centred standards on digital governance via GDPR. India’s Aadhaar Card scheme has shown the pioneering role that digitalisation can play in empowering the poor and facilitating development. There are also already several worrying examples of the pernicious effects of digital technology: Surveillance of local populations by authoritarian states, as well as the manipulation and control of infrastructure and security systems by external actors. To preserve the individual liberties of their people, and strengthen digital sovereignty, European and Indian cooperation will be key.

Research collaborations on dual-use technology, public-private partnerships for implementation and marketing of these innovations, and working jointly and through like-minded coalitions to establish rules for data governance and cyber-security are essential.

These two democratic powers will also be well-served to collaborate on diversifying away from their dependence on China, for e.g., on 5G technology and infrastructure development. Any trade agreement between the EU and India should prioritise this key consideration. Research collaborations on dual-use technology, public-private partnerships for implementation and marketing of these innovations, and working jointly and through like-minded coalitions to establish rules for data governance and cyber-security are essential. Neither the EU nor India can get left behind in a game that is dominated by the boardrooms in the US and party headquarters in China. India and the EU need to enter into a technology partnership that allows for all of this, and for ensuring reliable and integrated supply chains.

Shared geopolitical landscape

Our shared geopolitical landscape—extending beyond geographical proximities and including the Indo-Pacific—has been under extreme stress in recent years. The EU has a war triggered by Russia on its borders; India and its neighbours have had to put up with Chinese adventurism on the Himalayas and in their maritime neighbourhood.

Research collaborations on dual-use technology, public-private partnerships for implementation and marketing of these innovations, and working jointly and through like-minded coalitions to establish rules for data governance and cyber-security are essential. 

This is a time for both the EU and India to be working together to help restore balance in the region. The EU will need to jump off the fence with respect to China; the European mantra of “partner, competitor, rival” is highly inadequate in dealing with a China that has signed a “no-limits” partnership with Russia. India will also need to rethink its own dependencies. The two democracies have now very real incentives to develop closer economic and military ties.

Sanctimonious lectures about morality will need to be replaced by a shared empathy of the like-minded. And all this will require the use of not only Europe’s favourite tool of “soft power”, but also the use of hard power through infrastructure projects, green investment, and military cooperation. Re-aligning their economic and security cooperation with each other will enable both the EU and India to stand up for the values that they both hold dear: Democracy and pluralism.

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China, Research

The world is in flux. Self-reliance is vital

Three contemporary developments have challenged India’s engagement with the world and its security concerns in the past 24 months. The first was the decision by China’s Xi Jinping to pick a line from a map in imagined history and send 100,000 troops and more to alter the current political equation in the Himalayas. This was a whimsical and perverse exertion of power that resulted in a bloody clash and a still continuing face-off between Indian and Chinese troops. Xi’s actions then were no different from Vladimir Putin’s in recent days, both yearning for the expanse of empires past or even mythical. The global reaction, though ostensibly sympathetic to India, was timid when compared to the current aggressive response to a similar Russian effort to change the politics of Europe.

Continuing economic engagement with China and appeasement of the Dragon to the detriment of its partners and allies defined the western world’s response. The differential between geopolitics in Europe and geopolitics in Asia has been underscored again in stark terms. The frenzied media coverage and careless commentary continue to reinforce how values and ethics vary when ethnicity and geography change. This must affect the assessments of the West’s partners in the East.

Next, in August 2021, the world’s mightiest superpower, the United States (US), finalised an unethical and tragic arrangement with a band of terrorists, and deserted Afghanistan overnight. Women rights, individual freedoms and the “values” that were propagated while waging the so-called liberal war against terror, were all discarded in favour of what was expedient. The professors of democracy and the radical Taliban found common cause and sent Afghanistan back to the 1990s. For India, terrorists armed with American weaponry were no longer just a threat scenario but a reality at its door — one it would have to handle by itself.

The differential between geopolitics in Europe and geopolitics in Asia has been underscored again in stark terms. The frenzied media coverage and careless commentary continue to reinforce how values and ethics vary when ethnicity and geography change.

And now, Putin has decided to go one up on Joe Biden and take Europe back to the early 20th century. Russian troops invaded a sovereign country to enforce a political writ driven solely by the desire to preserve Russia’s influence over geographies that increasingly disagree with the politics and propositions of the Kremlin. While Russia’s fears of the purpose and method of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)’s expansion must not be discounted, use of force and violation of a country’s sovereignty cannot be acceptable as an expression of disagreement.

The invasion of Ukraine has put India in an unenviable position of choosing between what is right and what it believes is right for itself. India’s tough words on Russian action in its statement at the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), even as it abstained from voting, demonstrated this. Yet this is insufficient for many in the liberal West who seek India to be part of the normative liberal order, as well as of a performative chorus against Russia.

The invasion of Ukraine has put India in an unenviable position of choosing between what is right and what it believes is right for itself.

What is more striking than India’s predictable vote is the mood on the street and views of the commentariat. It seems that the memories of the feeble support on China and the shenanigans in Afghanistan are still fresh.

The US invasion of Iraq in 2003 had triggered loud political debates and voices against India’s then position on American intervention. This time, the convergence across the normally sharp political divide is palpable and must be a moment for reflection for many.

Several questions confront New Delhi. First, does strategic autonomy equal neutrality, or is it the freedom to choose what is best for the country at any given time? Can we disregard growing strategic expectations from partners? What are the dependencies that are being created by our economic and security choices? Which of them are inimical to our interests? And, how can we integrate this aspect as we make choices in a multi-layered world?

Finally, there is a question for the trans-Atlantic order. Its tough line on Russia’s military adventurism, gaming of economic relations, and cyber and information operations have been compelling. Will it hold this line when it comes to China’s actions? Or will the happenings in Asia continue to be appraised through a “dollar”- driven values framework?

Trusted connectivity, diversified sources of materials and components and resilient financial and trading arrangements are no longer buzzwords but a strategic imperative requiring all of India’s consensus, including within its business community, lawmakers and all stakeholders.

But the single most important learning through the pandemic years and the three geopolitical developments that have created turbulence for India is the burial of the post-war assumptions of the century past that undergirded our modern societies and indeed the global project that was born around the same time as India’s Independence.

Between China, the US and now Russia, we have witnessed the weaponisation of everything. Innocuous supply chain components for electronics, minor supplements for medicines, components for vaccine packaging, energy and gas grids, SWIFT system and currency and minerals and sundry materials have all been used for political coercion, waging war, or for undermining others’ interests.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s call for Aatmanirbharta (self-reliance) has acquired a new salience and ironically, achieving it requires astute global interlinkages and perhaps even more dense global networks for a country that houses a sixth of humanity. Trusted connectivity, diversified sources of materials and components and resilient financial and trading arrangements are no longer buzzwords but a strategic imperative requiring all of India’s consensus, including within its business community, lawmakers and all stakeholders.

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China, Indo-pacific, Raisina Dialogue, Research

Walking the walk of values-based diplomacy

Co-Authored with Amrita Narlikar

The talk of values is not new to German foreign policy-makers. But the Russian invasion on Ukraine seems to have finally led Germany to walk the walk. The last week has been both frenzied and path-breaking in German politics.

On 22 February, Germany’s Chancellor, Olaf Scholz—a Social Democrat from Hamburg—called for a halt to Nord Stream 2, in response to Russian President, Vladimir Putin’s, provocations in Eastern Ukraine. This was dramatic at several levels: Germany’s energy dependence on Russia had tended to make some politicians—including Scholz’s predecessor, Angela Merkel (a Christian Democrat)—wary of pulling the plug on the pipeline project. Scholz deserves even more credit for having made this break with Germany’s Russia policy in the context of party politics: The Social Democrats had come under critique in the past for being too soft on Russia (Russlandversteher).

Germany’s difficult past had led it to ban the export of weapons to conflict-zones; in keeping with this practice, the country had blocked Estonia from sending arms to Ukraine last month.

Since the outbreak of war in Ukraine on 24 February, Olaf Scholz has taken three further remarkable steps. First, after some hesitation, he has agreed to the inclusion of a ban on SWIFT transactions with Russia. This is a strong and costly signal to send to Russia as it will also have financial implications for Germany. Second, Germany’s difficult past had led it to ban the export of weapons to conflict-zones; in keeping with this practice, the country had blocked Estonia from sending arms to Ukraine last month. Olaf Scholz engineered an unprecedented shift. In a stirring speech at a special session of the German Parliament on 27 February, Scholz stated that Germany, by supporting Ukraine, will stand on the side of Europe, democracy, and the “the right side of history”. Amongst the concrete measures he outlined, sending military supplies to Ukraine was key: “Russian invasion marks a turning point. It is our duty to support Ukraine to the best of our ability in defending against Putin’s invading army”. Germany will now be supplying anti-tank weapons and Stinger missiles to Ukraine. And third, just as significant is Germany’s announcement to increase its NATO defence spending, thereby signaling the emergence of Germany as a security actor.

In a country where deliberative democracy is exalted (sometimes to a point where it amounts to being a strategy to doing nothing or muddling through), and the burden of history is high, the swift turn towards taking greater responsibility through action cannot be underestimated. Scholz’s leadership has been critical to this development, though he is undoubtedly helped by his coalition partners in the Green Party, who have come to power on a platform of principles and values. Germany’s proactive role is invigorating for us to observe, and is perhaps also serving as a catalyst for the European Union: Witness the unprecedented decision by the EU to purchase weapons for Ukraine.

One could still take issue with the timing of all this: It would have indeed been better to signal such resolve to Putin before his attack on Ukraine, thereby, deterring war in the first place. But at a time when Germany seems to be finally walking the walk of values, it is time to not look behind, but fare forward.

Germany’s proactive role is invigorating for us to observe, and is perhaps also serving as a catalyst for the European Union: Witness the unprecedented decision by the EU to purchase weapons for Ukraine. 

It is clear that Scholz has understood the importance of hard power, in a way that his predecessors had not. As a dedicated European, he also knows that the Putin’s aggression towards Ukraine is a threat to European security as a whole. The question remains though, will he be able to extend his gaze to the global stage, and exercise much-needed leadership there? Putin is not the only authoritarian with grand designs in his neighbourhood; President Xi has been displaying similar adventurism towards Taiwan. The Ukraine crisis has brought these two players even closer, thus far. Will Scholz be the Chancellor to break out of the European platitudes of “partner, competitor, and rival” and finally call out China, just the way he has with Russia? As Mayor of Hamburg, Scholz was able to successfully attract Chinese investment to his city. As the Chancellor of Germany, he now has the onerous task of building a governance architecture that will secure the continent—and like-minded, democratic partners—from Chinese expansionism.

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China, Digital India, Media, Research

The shaky ground that digital democracies walk on

A decade ago, the Arab Spring levelled the divide — even if briefly — between the Palace and the Street. Powered by social media, the age of digital democracy was upon us. Technology has since become the mainstay of civic activism. Not only are more voices heard, but elected governments are also more responsive to them. And indeed, in many countries, more people are participating in politics than ever before. From attitudes and approaches of platforms and governments to the proliferation of intrusive technologies that invade personal spaces, the gains of the past decade are nevertheless being undermined. The past year or so has made us acutely aware of the weaknesses and threats to digital democracies. Some of these need a coordinated global response.

First, the very platforms that have fuelled calls for accountability often see themselves as above scrutiny, bound not by democratic norms but by bottom lines. The fact is acquisition metrics and market valuations don’t sustain democracy. The contradiction between short-term returns on investment and the long-term health of a digital society is stark. If hate, violence, and falsehoods drive engagement, and, therefore, profits for companies and platforms, our societies are indeed on shaky ground.

To make technology serve democracy, regulation will have to be completely rethought. Big Tech boardrooms must be held to standards of responsible behaviour that match their power to influence and persuade. Moreover, any accountability framework must be global. The global south lives with and depends on technology platforms designed in the north. These platforms have been visibly taken to task by lawmakers and institutions in the countries of their design. Does the larger cohort of users in the developing and emerging democratic world have recourse to such action? And is this denial tenable and fair?

Most democratic constitutions around the world, while protecting expression, do so with safeguards that are meant to secure peace and co-existence in societies that have histories longer and more storied than America’s.

Second, much of Big Tech is designed and anchored in the United States (US). Understandably, it pushes American — or perhaps Californian — free speech absolutism. This is in conflict with laws in most democracies — including in the US after January 6. Most democratic constitutions around the world, while protecting expression, do so with safeguards that are meant to secure peace and co-existence in societies that have histories longer and more storied than America’s.

This American approach to freedom of expression imposed on other democratic societies, at velocities facilitated by technology, is a formula for serious disorder. If American Big Tech wishes to emerge as Global Tech, it must adhere to global democratic norms. Its normative culture must assimilate and reconcile, not prescribe and mandate. In the absence of such an understanding, a clash is but inevitable. It must be emphasised that the fault line would be social norms, not the benefits of technology.

If global democracy and global tech are to coexist, the global south must sit at the high table when regulations are designed and as ethics are embedded in algorithms. Today, the global south’s participation in policy and design decisions that shape our tech future is like the map of vaccinations in our pandemic world — significantly underrepresented in democratic Africa and Asia.

Finally, the greatest danger to the freedom our democracies enjoy is from authoritarian regimes that exploit our liberties and turn them against us. In the real world, Peng Shuai is under house arrest. But in the virtual world, she is presented as being free and happy. Wolf warriors have given a whole new meaning to the phrase “virtual reality”. Recently, an Indian speaker at a transportation conference in China found her microphone turned off because she questioned the Belt and Road Initiative. We are in an unprecedented political landscape where authoritarians weaponise our debates even as we are silenced in theirs. Would any country allow another to open an embassy if it did not have reciprocal rights in the other capital?

The global south’s participation in policy and design decisions that shape our tech future is like the map of vaccinations in our pandemic world — significantly underrepresented in democratic Africa and Asia.

We are living in that perverse reality already. China’s media and government handles conduct aggressive diplomacy in our digital public sphere while we are denied the right to do so in theirs. Beijing and other authoritarian regimes are omnipresent in our digital lives. Their handles bombard us; their chosen narratives besiege and colour the truth. How can we prevent such regimes from gaming the public sphere, and from this perversion of institutions, academia, media, and tech platforms? Their presence on our platforms represents a systemic challenge and a security risk. It must be responded to.

The alleged disruption of America’s elections in 2016 will be child’s play as compared to what may happen in 2024. That year, India, the US and the European Union Parliament will all hold elections — the first such coincidence in the age of digital democracy. We face a perfect storm of misinformation and manipulation. Confronted by wolf warriors, the rest of us can’t be lambs to the slaughter. Open societies have always stoutly defended their borders. Now, they must safeguard these new digital frontlines. At the Summit for Democracy — called by President Joe Biden and addressed by, among others Prime Minister Narendra Modi, it was apparent to all that the democratic world needs to get its house in order. Even as democracies attend to this they need to ensure that other’s don’t burn the house down.

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Books / Papers, BRICS, China, COVID-19, Research

Stocktaking and Recommendations for Consolidation: Joint Academic Paper by ORF and RIS

As the BRICS passes through a crucial milestone of its existence, celebrating 15 years of its formation, this report examines the initiatives launched since inception and makes recommendations for consolidating and streamlining the agenda.

The BRICS remains a prominent grouping in the global governance architecture due to the individual influence of each member-state and the collective size of their economies. The confidence in BRICS from within and the perceptions outside the grouping are shaped by its successes in institution-building and resource mobilisation. The highlight of BRICS’s success is its strong focus on issues of financial stability and global governance reforms, particularly in areas related to macroeconomic stability. These are supplemented by attention to sustainable development issues backed by finance and technology.

The BRICS agenda has witnessed a steady expansion of its scope ever since its inception. During the initial years, the agenda was focused on responding to the trans-Atlantic financial crisis with a special focus on multilateralism, particularly the need to reform the international monetary and financial architecture. Subsequently, the BRICS established the New Development Bank and the Contingent Reserve Arrangement, two flagship financial initiatives that remain the biggest success stories of the plurilateral to date. Notably, with the outbreak of Covid19 in 2020, there has been a special focus on responding to the pandemic and coordinating recovery.

Given the expanding scope, there is a need for consolidation and streamlining of the BRICS agenda. This will help address structural deficiencies and facilitate the smooth coordination for building consensus on key issues. To realise these goals, a thorough review of the BRICS cooperation mechanisms is necessary. This joint academic study presents an assessment of the various tracks under the BRICS framework, such that the grouping can better pursue the collective agenda of economic cooperation and sustainable development.

The year 2021 has been significant, with the Indian presidency underscoring ‘BRICS@15: Intra-BRICS Cooperation for Continuity, Consolidation and Consensus’ as the theme. The aspect of ‘consolidation’ received special attention. The Indian presidency also helped in concretising several action areas that had remained dormant. A case in point is the Agriculture Research Platform proposed by India at the 2015 Ufa Summit with a memorandum of understanding signed during the Indian presidency in 2016. This was launched in the virtual format in 2021, again during India’s presidency.

India’s presidency of BRICS in 2021 has set a definite example for streamlining of the BRICS agenda. As the agenda consolidates, future presidencies will find room for emerging themes that require urgent attention. Consolidation does not always only mean weeding out weaker sprouts, but to have comprehensive approaches towards setting common goals so that even relatively weaker initiatives can be scaled with resources. A preliminary assessment of the initiatives launched by BRICS is presented in this report.

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Columns/Op-Eds, Politics / Globalisation, Writing

Banking on each other: India, Russia and the new era of global politics

This article was first published in The Economic Times Magazine

The narrative of a widening strategic gap between New Delhi and Moscow has been prevalent for some time now. Even within the strategic communities of Russia and India, there is an ongoing assessment of the importance of this bilateral engagement. Ahead of the upcoming India-Russia summit, this article delves into what is working for the relationship between the two nations, and what needs to be worked on.

It would be fair to say that the essential glue keeping the two together is strategic legacy. It is supplemented by a contemporary strand of political convergence in a world where both South Block and the Kremlin are actors, but also being acted upon.

One of India’s primary objectives in the coming decades is to prevent China’s hegemony in Asia. A multipolar world and a multipolar Asia are in its interest. Russia will strongly endorse this, and, for differing reasons, seek it. In its calculus, it would position the US as the principal protagonist to thwart. The Russians would not want to curtail China if that ends up enabling US influence. Therefore, there is a big picture convergence on a multipolar world order, even as India and Russia differ on relative roles of the poles shaping this order.

As of 2020, Russian weapons systems and equipment accounted for about 60 per cent of the inventory of the Indian armed forces.

This could change dramatically if Russia were to reach the conclusion that it is happy to sit in the court of the Emperor in Beijing as a junior partner. India sees this as unlikely. It hopes for a more independent Russian worldview that would not hesitate to differ with others, including China, in defence of its own interests. New Delhi is, therefore, continuing to invest substantially in this relationship, and in a number of areas.

The first and biggest is defence. As of 2020, Russian weapons systems and equipment accounted for about 60 per cent of the inventory of the Indian armed forces. While India is determinedly diversifying sourcing of military hardware, Russia remains a strong legacy player. Much of this is driven by spares and component upgrades. However, there have also been significant new ventures. These include the S-400 missile contract (on track for first deliveries this year); manufacture and co-production of four Project 1135.6 Frigates; manufacture of the world’s most advanced assault rifle – the AK-203 – under the ‘Make in India’ initiative; and additional deliveries of T-90s, Sukhoi-30 MKI, MiG-29, MANGO ammunition and VSHORAD systems. Russia is more involved with the ‘Make in India’ initiative in defence equipment than any other country.

Simultaneously, exercises have also increased in numbers and sophistication. As he demitted office as Indian Ambassador in Russia, DB Venkatesh Varma pointed out that the two nations were exploring different formats – including mobilisation of forces and their transportation across long distances, impact of drone technology on modern warfare, and impact of cyber on future of conflict. The landscape for doctrinal coordination and understanding is ever expanding.

India aims to increase import of oil from Russia, currently 1 per cent of all imports, to 4 or 5 per cent in the next five years.

The second area of convergence is energy. This includes not only hydrocarbons (oil and gas), but also nuclear. While India does import gas from Russia, a rapid increase is on the cards. If successful, the Vostok negotiations will bring India into one of the world’s biggest energy projects. India aims to increase import of oil from Russia, currently 1 per cent of all imports, to 4 or 5 per cent in the next five years. Another avenue is petrochemicals, where a Russian investment in the Paradip cracker plant and an Indian investment in Arctic LNG-2 are being explored.

With India announcing its net zero target date, the need to transition to greener energy sources has become imperative. A new Gas Task Force will bring in Russia as a major partner, including in the field of hydrogen.

The third area of mutual interest is high-technology. A proposal to establish a Joint Commission on Science and Technology Cooperation is being explored. It would encompass hi-tech areas like quantum, nanotechnology, cyber, AI, robotics, space and bio-technology. Pharmaceuticals, digital finance, chemicals and ceramics are all potential economic drivers of the relationship. Each of these is at the core of the fourth industrial revolution.

The fourth area of significance is food security. India leasing land in the Russian Far East, and cultivating it with Indian labour, offers a tantalising prospect. Russia is going through a demographic crisis and has notable human resources deficits. China has leased thousands of hectares of land in the Russian Far East. This is cultivated by Chinese farmers, whose produce is partially sold in the Russian domestic market and partially exported to China.

A proposal to establish a Joint Commission on Science and Technology Cooperation is being explored. It would encompass hi-tech areas like quantum, nanotechnology, cyber, AI, robotics, space and bio-technology.

A similar strategy can be followed by India. The government could negotiate an enabling arrangement with Russia but leave it to the private sector to execute. The Chennai-Vladivostok maritime connectivity corridor enhances scope for such cooperation.

This strategy would be a genuine win-win. India would contribute to its food security by reducing load on its resources (land, water, electricity) and providing opportunities to its excess farm labour. For Russia, dependency on China would come down, giving Moscow the strategic leverage that it needs and wants.

And here is where India needs to answer a strategic question. Is it willing to invest in the Russia story just as we celebrate Russia’s engagement with “Make in India”? India must write itself into the development text of the Far East and other parts of Russia through investments and expertise. There could be no stronger foundation for the relationship.

There is also an urgent need to overcome some recent angularities. The first is Afghanistan. At least till 15 August 2021, India and Russia had a serious disagreement, with Moscow unabashedly flirting with the Taliban. While both countries want stability in Afghanistan and curbs on export of terrorism and drugs, the perception in New Delhi is Moscow’s negotiators with the Taliban ended up become negotiators for the Taliban. That is a credibility problem for Russia to ponder.

India must write itself into the development text of the Far East and other parts of Russia through investments and expertise.

The second divergence is on the Indo-Pacific. It boils down to lack of trust. Russia does not trust India vis-à-vis the US, and India hears Russia reading from China’s script. This is a challenge to be addressed. Either country is the other’s flexibility mechanism, an arrangement that has stood the test of time. Russia’s ‘Greater Eurasia’ project and the Indo-Pacific are complementary and describe the same emergence: Of a new political moment and of a political geography that will seek a new alignment of interests and actors. Even as India and Russia carve new relationships, their sturdy partnership is a bank guarantee for both.

President Vladimir Putin’s visit to India is only his second trip abroad since the beginning of the pandemic. The first was to Geneva earlier this summer, for a summit with President Joe Biden. Coming to New Delhi to meet Prime Minister Narendra Modi is hugely symbolic and strategic. It indicates that the President knows India allows him a more equal partnership with China, even as Russia offers India room for its own endeavours.

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Energy, Research, Writing

India’s Coal Transition: A Market Case for Decarbonisation

This report was co-authored with Vivan Sharan.

Progress as the world has designed and defined it requires material production which, in turn, requires energy. Historically, therefore, fossil fuels like coal were key in economic growth across geographies. Today the developed economies stand on the edifice of fossil fuels, carbon-intensive industries and lifestyles that have resulted in global warming. The same growth path is now being questioned, and the poor and developing countries are being asked to build, find and fund newer low- and no-carbon models to lift their people out of poverty and achieve their development goals.

Consequently, there are growing calls for India to declare a net-zero year: to offset its carbon emissions by various processes of GHG absorption and removal. India is aware that such calls are irrational, and despite international pressure, has avoided making pledges or setting hard targets, beyond its commitments at the Paris climate conference in 2015. Indeed, “net zero” is not possible with India’s current levels of reliance on coal. Its shift away from this fuel will depend largely on the quantum of additional money and resources that can be invested into alternative energy. However, as global climate finance has both under-performed and been subject to clever redesignation, countries such as India remain in dire need of green financing.

In August 2020, UN Secretary-General António Guterres urged India to give up coal immediately. He asked that the country refrain from making any new thermal power investments after 2020, and criticised its decision to hold auctions for 41 coal blocks earlier that year. Similarly, in March this year, in a message to the Powering Past Coal Alliance  Summit, the Secretary-General urged all governments to “end the deadly addiction to coal” by cancelling all global coal projects in the pipeline.[1] Pre-pandemic, India had the second largest pipeline of new coal projects in the world. He also called the phasing out of coal from the electricity sector “the single most important step to get in line with the 1.5-degree goal of the Paris Agreement.”[2]

For much of human history, photosynthesis was the primary source of mechanical energy.[3] Human and animal muscles powered by food and fodder, made the world go around. Photosynthesis was also at the root of heat energy derived from burning wood. Eventually, coal replaced wood as the dominant source of heat energy, but still represented the energy of photosynthesis stockpiled over hundreds of years. The advent of the steam engine in the 17th century helped humans change the heat energy released from coal, to mechanical energy.

This development also upended the paradigm of material production. According to a recent estimate, coal was accounting for well over 90 percent of energy consumption in England by the mid-19th century, owing in large part to the steam engine.[4] For long, researchers had been divided over the question of whether coal was pivotal to the industrial revolution. Scholars such as Wrigley (2010) regarded the switch to coal as a “necessary condition for the industrial revolution,” while others like Mokyr (2009) held that the “Industrial Revolution did not absolutely ‘need’ steam…nor was steam power absolutely dependent on coal.”

A November 2020 paper by Fernihough and O’Rourke might just have settled the question: Using a database of European cities spanning the centuries from 1300 to 1900, the authors found that those located closer to coal fields were more likely to grow faster.[5] Those cities, the researchers wrote, “located 49 km from the nearest coalfield grew 21.1 percent faster after 1750 than cities located 85 km further away.”

It is no wonder then, that in March this year, International Energy Agency (IEA) chief Fatih Birol said it will not be fair to ask developing nations like India to stop using coal without giving international financial assistance to address the economic challenges that will result from such a move.[6] He noted that “many countries, so-called advanced economies, came to this industrialised levels and income levels by using a lot of coal,” and named the United States, Europe, and Japan.

This article explores this line of enquiry by examining the consumption of coal across developed and developing countries, and mapping it against key metrics of energy transition. It finds that countries such as India—with their high dependence on coal and a simultaneous growth spurt in renewables—can be the most effective location for climate finance. This is plausible given that per capita coal consumption in India is still far below that of the developed world, and economic transitions are both inevitable and required to be ‘green’.

To be sure, India is struggling with a coal shortage, which has the potential to derail its post-Covid-19 recovery; the same is true for China.[7] Consequently, there is growing scepticism in developed countries, that both India and China will double down on coal and increase production to overcome supply challenges in the future. While such concerns are not unwarranted, they are not unique to the developing world.

Germany, for instance, in the first six months of 2021 ramped up its coal-based generation, which contributed 27 percent of the country’s electricity demand.[8] Three factors contributed to this rise: increase in energy demand amidst the successive waves of the Covid-19 pandemic, increased prices of natural gas, and reduction in electricity generation from renewable energy (particularly wind.)  Coal is often the bedrock of energy generation, and its use is impacted by complex market processes that cannot be reduced to normative choices.

Energy Use and Coal 

Countries of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) are using progressively less energy to power their societies. Multiple factors can contribute to this trend, at least in theory. First is the technical improvements in energy efficiency – i.e., the use of less energy to perform the same tasks. Second is the “activity effect”, or the changes in energy use because of changes in economic activity. This would also encompass a “structure effect” which relates to changes in the mix of human activities that are prompted by changes in sectoral activity, such as transportation. And finally, there could be weather-related changes in energy use – for instance, more temperate weather can reduce the need for heating or cooling.

The IEA quantifies these effects, and consistently finds that the reduction in energy consumption in the OECD countries is largely a result of technical improvements in energy efficiency. This means that the reduced use of energy in advanced countries is not on account of any significant changes in consumer behaviour—otherwise, the activity effect would be the primary determinant of the fall in energy use. While energy efficiency improvements have driven this fall, the IEA finds that the current rate of improvement is not enough to achieve global climate and sustainability goals. Consequently, the Agency has advocated for “urgent action” to counteract the slowing rate of improvement observed since 2015.[9]

Conversely, developing countries have seen a rapid rise in energy use owing to the activity effect (see Table 1). The increase in economic activity in the developing world is also directly correlated to improvements in life spans and socio-economic progress. While energy use has approximately doubled in countries like India and China from 2005, a large share of global energy efficiency savings is also driven by technical improvements in these countries.  However, in the aftermath of the 2008-09 global financial crisis, China implemented a stimulus package that “shifted its manufacturing sector to more energy intensive manufacturing.”[10] A similar trend may emerge in China’s recovery from the pandemic, that may reduce efficiency gains in the future.

Table 1: Total Energy Consumption (Exajoules)

Source: BP Statistical Review of World Energy, 2021[11]

Equity in Coal 

It would appear that OECD countries have managed to cut their dependence on coal over the last 15 years quite precipitously. In particular, this seems true of countries like the US and EU members. Japan, meanwhile, is an outlier, having turned to coal to provide base-load power to substitute nuclear energy. In most years between 2005 and 2020, the fall in coal consumption in OECD countries has outpaced the decline in total energy consumption. In 2020, for instance, coal consumption dropped by around 18 percent whereas total energy consumption fell by around eight percent. 

While China has begun to reduce its dependence on coal, it still accounts for the largest share of coal consumption among all nations. China is also home to over half of the world’s thermal power plant pipelines – with around 163 GW in pre-construction stage, even discounting the 484GW worth of cancellations since the Conference of Parties at Paris in 2015.[12] China is also one of the last of the biggest providers of public finance for overseas power plants with over 40GW of projects in the pre-construction pipeline. 

Simultaneously, coal consumption has remained relatively stable at just under 40 percent of primary energy consumption among non-OECD nations (see Table 2). In these countries, coal consumption tends to mirror total energy consumption. India’s dependence on coal has also remained unvarying. These trends suggest that non-OECD countries such as India require to do much more to contribute to a global reduction in coal consumption and therefore towards net-zero GHG emissions. However, there is more to the OECD’s reduced coal consumption than meets the eye. 

Table 2: Share of Coal in Primary Energy Consumption (%)

Source: BP Statistical Review of World Energy, 2021 and authors’ own calculations

Since the Earth Summit in 1992, India and other developing nations have argued for an equity-based approach to GHG reduction, commensurate with domestic capabilities and historical emissions. This approach has often been subject to cross-examination by OECD experts. For instance, in a 2019 report by the Universal Ecological Fund, high-profile experts including a former White House Adviser and a Harvard professor, ranked national climate commitments based on absolute emission curtailment targets.[13] The report clubbed developed and developing countries together in its assessment of the general insufficiency of climate pledges to meet the Paris Agreement’s goal to keep global warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrialisation levels.[14] This should not be a surprise, however, as it is only in consonance with the overall trend of Western academic discourse seeking to dilute the equity principle. 

It is a principle that should not be set aside just yet, given the persistent differences in per capita fossil fuel consumption between the developed and developing worlds. Despite near doubling over 2005-2020, India’s per capita coal consumption is still below the global average (see Table 3). The global average, in turn, has remained static around this period because the decrease in the per capita consumption of coal in OECD countries has been partially offset by an increase in the per capita consumption in non-OECD countries. However, the per capita consumption of coal in OECD countries still exceeds that of non-OECD countries, despite much higher levels of wealth and, therefore, greater capability to transition to renewables and other fuels.

Table 3: Total per capita Coal Consumption (KWh)

Source: BP Statistical Review of World Energy, 2021; World Bank and authors’ own calculations

Indeed, a large share of the decrease in per capita coal consumption in OECD countries is driven by transition to fuels such as natural gas, that are used to generate electricity, particularly in countries like the US. It accounts for around a 34-percent share of primary energy consumption in the US, and 25 percent in the EU, compared to seven percent in India (and a similar share in China). In contrast, the share of gas in India’s energy mix is among the lowest in the world. Even as Prime Minister Narendra Modi wants to more than double the contribution of natural gas to 15 percent of India’s energy mix by 2030, the Petroleum Secretary has said that the country cannot rely on natural gas.[15] There are several reasons, including high landed costs relative to coal, complex domestic pricing mechanisms, a lack of pipeline infrastructure and stable supply/ import linkages, and the inability of financially stressed electricity distributors to enter into “take or pay” contracts.[16]

India, therefore, requires relatively greater and more aggressive investments in alternative sources of energy than its developed country counterparts that have had decades to transition to fuels like natural gas. Such financial flows to India can prove to be much more effective vehicles for a net-zero trajectory, compared to similar investments in other parts of the world with higher per capita exposure to coal and relatively slower transition pathways to renewables.

Around 72 percent of India’s GHG emissions are linked to its energy sector.[17] It is clear, that if OECD countries are aiming to accelerate a global reduction in GHG emissions, they will need to help India finance its energy transition and overcome the many resource-linked barriers to the wide-scale adoption of renewables. The high costs associated with renewable energy storage and grid upgrade requirements, are related resource challenges. Since developed countries are unlikely to be satisfied with per capita equity, they would do well to help India hurdle some of its obstacles.

Financing Energy Transition 

According to India’s Central Electricity Authority’s (CEA) Optimal Generation Capacity Mix, the country’s installed capacity will increase to 817 GW with an additional 27GW of battery storage, by 2029-30 (see Table 4). Of this, firm capacity will contribute approximately 395 GW while renewable sources, around 445 GW.  Additionally, a July 2021 study has concluded that more efficient use of existing thermal resources could lead to 50 GW of excess coal capacity with respect to current needs of the system.[18] With limited expectations from nuclear and gas resources and deteriorating coal economics, investments in renewable energy storage options are crucial for managing India’s base load requirements. This requires unlocking of financial and technological flows from the OECD, particularly since there are several uncertainties associated with the cost of battery storage technology. These include risks linked to supply chains and exchange rates.

Table 4: Optimal Electricity Generation Mix (2029-30)

Source: Central Electricity Authority; The cost trajectory for battery energy storage system is assumed to be reducing uniformly from 7 Cr in 2021-22 to 4.3 Cr (with basic battery cost of $75/kWh) in 2029-30 for a 4-hour battery system

Experts point out that the more renewable energy is introduced into the grid, “the harder and more expensive it will be to use” because of inherent factors such as intermittency.[19] This will need to be offset by investments in a grid that is able to accommodate variable and increased flows of electricity across different regions. The IEA estimates that annual investments in electricity grids will need to “more than double” by 2030 in a conservative scenario where developed countries achieve net zero by 2050, China around 2060, and other emerging and developing economies, by 2070, at the latest.[20] India will also need to explore much wider scale of privatisation of state distribution companies, which now owe generators around USD 20 billion.[21]

The capacity utilisation of India’s coal assets has also witnessed a significant decline over the past decade, with power plants running at 53.37 percent plant load factor (PLF) in FY 2020-21 compared to 77.5 percent in FY 2009-10.[22] Several factors have contributed to this, including the rapidly expanding share of renewable energy generation. India’s coal story is beset with additional challenges including planned decommissioning of older coal plants (approximately 54 GW of coal plants by 2030).[23] Research indicates that the cost of retirement ranges between[24] USD 0.41 – 0.59 million per MW, with older thermal units relatively cheaper to decommission. Consequently, maintaining India’s coal fleet also requires around USD 106 million in investments, to retrofit existing thermal power plants with Flue Gas Desulphurization units. The deadline for doing so has been extended several times in the past decade and has finally been fixed for 2022 for plants located in populous areas.[25] The combination of underutilised coal plants, increasing costs of plant maintenance and reduction in costs of renewables, provides a unique opportunity to galvanise investments and strategic attention towards a low-coal pathway.

The technologies that will pave the way to such low-coal path are developing rapidly, with significant progress in renewables, battery storage, and green hydrogen, among others. They each require, however, large financial outlays. Moreover, India is still highly dependent on expensive bank lending, which is now hitting sectoral exposure limits, whereas long-term capital is required to finance energy infrastructure. As of April 2020, the exposure of banks and non-bank financial institutions to India’s power sector was already around USD 160 billion, roughly the lending necessary to finance the country’s renewable energy targets for 2030. [26]

According to the Government of India’s ‘Energy Compact’ submitted to the UN in September 2021, the country required a total investment of USD 221 billion to set up 450 GW renewable generation capacity, including associated transmission and storage systems.[27] However, other research has pegged this investment much higher at USD 661 billion, to build both renewable energy systems and transmission and distribution systems.[28] The IEA also estimates that India requires a total investment of USD 1.4 trillion for clean technologies to help achieve a sustainable development path till 2040.[29] In comparison, developed countries managed a transition away from coal over a longer period of time and with different costs. Investments for clean energy in the Global South need to be consistently and significantly higher to help achieve the simultaneous goals of SDG 7 (Affordable and Clean Energy) and other development targets.

Advanced countries would do well to recognise that long-term institutional capital is urgently required to help India transition from coal to renewables at scale. What is needed is far more than lip service; nor will change happen only through negotiations at Glasgow at the COP26. Overall, mainstream sources of international climate finance such as the Green Climate Fund and the Global Environment Facility have managed to provide just over a billion dollars in finance for national projects.[30] While there is enthusiasm around green bond financing, the absolute value of issuances towards relevant segments such as renewable energy, is still relatively low at around USD 11.2 billion since 2014.[31] To put it in context, the global issuance of green bonds totalled over USD 305 billion in 2020 alone, specifically for climate-related and sustainability projects.[32] 

A high sensitivity to the cost of capital means that other sources of institutional capital are needed to fill the gap, even as the Indian private sector learns to raise green bonds and co-develops green taxonomies with relevant parties.  Most OECD financing towards renewables in developing countries is conducted through debt instruments. According to the International Renewable Energy Agency, cumulative transactions and financial flows from the OECD countries towards renewables development in the rest of the world reached USD 253 billion between 2009-2019, of which around USD 228 billion was in the form of debt. India accounted for just under USD 11 billion of the amount, which is less than five percent of the cumulative debt finance by OECD countries. 

Table 5: Cumulative Transactions by OECD Countries into Renewables (2009-2019, %)

Source: International Renewable Energy Agency

OECD members must aim to redirect institutional investments towards India. For instance, their sovereign funds and pension funds must adjust to new business models around energy storage and distribution. There are also many possible designs of new financial instruments that could be explored. These could recognise the different capacities and capabilities in developing countries at the outset. For instance, grants and debt funding could be combined in multiple ways to subsidise loans. The scale of grant involvement could be directly proportionate to relevant environmental, social and governance factors, and therefore could incentivise more aggressive low-carbon paths. Similarly, new kinds of investment management and rating modalities could be employed to scale up investments where they are most required to offset planetary risks. The availability of innovative long-term finance for India is critical to any meaningful realisation of global net-zero ambitions. India, for its part, must bite the bullet on large-scale power sector reforms, to improve distributional efficiencies and facilitate inward financial and technological flows. 

Conclusion 

India’s current per capita coal consumption is three-fifths that of the OECD average, and one-fifth that of China’s. This low per-capita coal consumption in a coal-rich country can and must remain the key feature of India’s growth, going forward. This article demonstrates, that for India to keep its coal in the ground, more and better financing is needed.

A market case for a green transition in India already exists. The last few years have demonstrated India’s appetite, among the public and the political class, for a move towards cleaner growth. What it requires now is what this essay calls for: a higher flow of capital towards crucial green sectors—in particular, a higher level of foreign capital inflows towards these sectors, and a better texture of such capital, moving towards a more patient and equitable finance.

This brief was first published in ORF’s monograph, Shaping Our Green Future: Pathways and Policies for a Net-Zero Transformation, November 2021.


Vivan Sharan is a Visiting Fellow at ORF.

Samir Saran is the President of ORF.


Endnotes

[1] “UN Chief Calls for Immediate Global Action to Phase Out Coal”. Unfccc.int. UN, March 2, 2021.

[2] T. Jayaraman, and Tejal Kanitkar. “Reject This Inequitable Climate Proposal.” The Hindu. The Hindu, September 18, 2020.

[3] Tony Wrigley. “The Industrial Revolution as an Energy Revolution.” VOX, CEPR Policy Portal, July 22, 2011.

[4] Wrigley, “The Industrial Revolution as an Energy Revolution”, 2011

[5] Alan Fernihough and Kevin Hjortshøj O’Rourke. “Coal and the European Industrial Revolution,” The Economic Journal, November 4, 2020.

[6] “IEA Chief Backs India on Coal, Says No Exit without Financial Support,” The Economic Times, March 3, 2021.

[7] Laura He and Manveena Suri. “China and India Face a Deepening Energy Crunch,” CNN, October 12, 2021.

[8] Deutsche Welle. “Germany: Coal Tops Wind as Primary Electricity Source,” DW.COM, September 13, 2021.

[9] “Energy Efficiency 2020,” IEA, 2020.

[10] “Energy Efficiency 2020”, 2020

[11] “Statistical Review of World Energy 2021,” BP, 2021.

[12] “China: Home to over Half the World’s Coal Pipeline,” E3G, September 14, 2021.

[13] “The Truth behind the Climate Pledges,” FEUUS, n.d.,

[14] This goal requires a 50-percent reduction in global GHG emissions by 2030.

[15] “High Prices Could Slow India’s Transition to Gas,” The Economic Times, October 20, 2021.

[16] M. Ramesh, “Why Gas Is Not Just Hot Air,” The Hindu BusinessLine, May 30, 2021.

[17] Angela Picciariello, Sarah Colenbrander, Amir Bazaz, and Rathin Roy, “The Costs of Climate Change in India – Cdn.odi.org.” ODI, June 2021.

[18] Karthik Ganesan and Danwant Narayanaswamy, “Coal Power’s Trilemma,” CEEW, July 2021.

[19] Jonathan Kay, “Tangled Wires: Preparing India’s Power Sector for the Clean Energy Transition,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, August 4, 2021.

[20] “Financing Clean Energy Transitions in Emerging and …” IEA. IEA, 2020.

[21] IEA, “Financing Clean Energy Transitions in Emerging and …”, 2021

[22] “Power Sector at a Glance ALL INDIA.” Ministry of Power, October 21, 2021.

[23] Aditya Lolla, “India – Peaking Coal?” Ember, February 16, 2021.

[24] Vaibhav Pratap Singh and Nikhil Sharma, “Mapping Costs for Early Coal Decommissioning in India …” CEEW, July 2021.

[25] “Flue Gas Desulphurisation: A Rs 80,000 Crore Investment Opportunity,” The Financial Express, June 11, 2020.

[26] Alan Yu, Kanika Chawla, and Rita Cliffton, “Renewed U.s.-India Climate Cooperation,” Centre for American Progress, February 18, 2021.

[27] “SDG7 Energy Compact of the Government of India … – Un.org.” UN, September 22, 2021.

[28] Rohit Gadre, Atin Jain, Shantanu Jaiswal, Vandana Gombar, and Dario Traum, “India’s Clean Power Revolution.” Bloomberg, June 26, 2021.

[29] “India Energy Outlook 2021,” IEA. IEA, 2021.

[30] “GCF Data- Interactive Map on Programme and Project-Level Data by Country,” Unfccc.int. UNFCCC, n.d.; “India at a Glance,” Global Environment Facility, August 24, 2016.

[31] Shreyas Garg, Rishabh Jain, and Gagan Sidhu, “Financing India’s Energy Transition through International …” CEEW. CEEW, August 2021.

[32] Mark D. Holmes and Elena Millerma, “Energy Transition: How to Finance the Race to Net-Zero,” White & Case LLP, August 5, 2021.

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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.

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Research, Writing

‘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.

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Research, Writing

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.

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