India wants constructive engagement with multiple nations. But will it succeed in an increasingly Tri-Polar world? In fact, the challenge is not how much India wants to be part of any one group. Rather, it seems to be how much they want India to be part of them, and the extent of co-operation, reconciliation (and arm-twisting) they do!
Tri-Polar troika! USA was the sole superpower after the bipolar Cold-War ended with Soviet Union’s demise. Then, China started flexing its geopolitical muscle using its manufacturing boom-led foreign exchange corpus to woo developing nations. It is fast expanding its military presence in its neighborhood. Russia has also become assertive now in expanding its influence in Eurasian and Middle East regions, backed by the might of its defense establishment. It is quite a coincidence that the superpowers are often the biggest producers and exporters of defense arms. This troika may represent how the world’s polarity will shape in coming years. USA continues to be backed by key allies in Europe and Asia-Pacific, though its ties with a Sunni Muslim ally is in doldrums. Russia is aligning with Shia Muslim nations, and reining together CIS nations as a Eurasian block. Its military adventures in Ukraine made the West skeptical; who placed economic sanctions to sort-of control its ambitions. China is a game-changer and making the US establishment most insecure. It has substantial economic partnerships with Asian and African nations, where it is building ambitious transport and energy infrastructure through engineering-cum-funding deals. This is also creating long-term consumer markets in those nations for China’s vast production output. Its military excursions in regions like South China Sea and South Asia are causing concern amongst the incumbent powers, even as they maintain friendliness on the surface.
India’s approach! India’s Modi has rightly maintained a multi-aligned stance, and has spent effort to win partners in each group. In fact, the challenge is not how much India wants to be part of any one group. Rather, it seems to be how much they want India to be part of them, and the extent of reconciliation, co-operation (and arm-twisting) they do!
USA has been working to recognize India as a partner of equal status, despite being pro-Pakistan during the Cold War. This about-turn in US approach to India is in contrast to how Nixon-Kissinger viewed India, and shows the extent of reconciliation the USA is willing to do to adapt to changing times. Its ties with Pakistan hit a low due to issues relating to Pakistan’s handling of terrorists. USA is trying to step up its defense partnership with India including arms exports and technology transfers, possibly as it is the only country in this region that can balance China. Given its size, India remains lucrative for US businesses, although offshoring remains contentious. Partnering with a secular India is a good bet to combat a rise of radical Islamization. However, the US condemnation of India for testing a submarine missile still shows a higher-hand attitude. India has to be watchful that this reconciliatory approach from USA does not cost India its defense. Bringing India to its side can help US break the BRICS unison, which gives BRICS the strength of size. India cannot allow this. Thus, a multi-nation approach can help India eke the best terms for economic partnership!
Russia was dominant in India’s defense supplies, and its co-operation is extending to transfer of critical technologies. Even the US has hesitated on this with Korea, its close ally. USA is insisting on end-user agreements with India, but Russia is becoming agreeable to partner without such agreements. Also, Russia’s exports are of latest technologies. The extent of leeway it is willing to give India in its terms is startling. While defense exports may help Russia prop its own revenues given lower income from oil exports, India needs to watch it does not compromise on its benefits or on any of the terms. Thus, a multi-nation approach can help India eke the best terms for defense procurement!
Modi has made efforts to create inroads with China. While it has opened doors to Chinese companies, China wants deeper access into India. It has been vying for the BCIM Corridor and extending Nepal railway link into India. Given China’s links with Pakistan, India has been cautious not to compromise national security in hastiness. While China and India moved towards areas of co-operation, there seems to be some arm-twisting to make India agree to its terms. Both nations know China’s influence over Pakistan is the best bet to control militancy from Pakistani soil to India, given Pakistan is disproportionately dependent on China. This seems a pawn China is indirectly playing. While several countries and UN branded Pakistan-based outfits as terrorists, China has been selective. China blocked India’s appeals against Maulana Azhar and Zaki-ur-Rehman Lakhvi, citing UN provisions. It is opposing India’s entry to the UNSC and NSG, despite the world agreeing. These tactics seem to reek of ‘agree to our terms or we will oppose what you want’! If India comes on China’s side, it may use its influence over Pakistan to rein in terrorists. One cannot say if this is true or a fancy, but China’s expanding assertiveness to dominate Asia raises questions. India fears if it agrees to China, it may mean a lifetime of paying Chinese debt at their rates, and a free-flow of cheap Chinese imports which cannibalizes India’s production, something nations disproportionately dependent on one country can face. Thus, a multi-nation approach can ensure India does not pay a price by disproportionately engaging with one group!
In conclusion, this multi-aligned approach may show India as a “swing-state”. But in a world of selfish superpowers, India needs to create adequate supplies at best-prices for the investments, technologies and critical imports it needs.
Originally published in Eurasia Review USA