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India Maneuvers for Big Power Status
As Delhi rises economically, it seeks a multipolar world
By: Salman Rafi Sheikh
India, its expansionist cap firmly in place, is straining impatiently to join the ranks of big-power nations, having just surpassed the United Kingdom as the world’s fifth largest economy, thanks to the shock the Russia-Ukraine war has delivered to the UK, and the damage it has done itself through Brexit.
While the war and its enormous effect on the cost of living has debilitated the UK’s economy, it has had the opposite impact on Delhi, which, as Asia Sentinel’s John Elliott reported on the day Queen Elizabeth died, began erasing some of the last “symbols of slavery” left over from the British Raj including the name of Delhi’s revamped ceremonial road from the presidential palace to India Gate.
The Modi administration, seeing the West’s vulnerability and its inability to impose foreign policy choices on its allies outside of the Transatlantic Alliance, is charting a course of action the primary purpose of which is to raise India’s global profile, a dream that India, ever since independence in 1947, has been chasing and which now appears, at least in New Delhi’s calculation, achievable.
India three times has abstained from UN resolutions condemning Russian actions in Ukraine. In June, Minister for External Affairs S. Jaishankar categorically called the Russia-Ukraine war a “Europe’s problem,” a comment in response to increasing Western pressure to support Western effort by imposing sanctions on Russia and stopping buying Russian oil. In response to this pressure, Jaishankar was quick to remind his audience at the GLOBSEC 2022 Bratislava Forum that “Europe has to grow out of the mindset that Europe’s problems are the world’s problem.”
Not only did Jaishankar refuse to identify India with the West, but he also defended India’s right to buy Russian oil. As could be expected, India has emerged as one of the largest buyers, with Russian exports to India jumping from 0.66 million tonnes in the first quarter of 2022 to 8.42 million in the second.
India’s continuing purchase of Russian oil thus directly counteracts Western plans to ‘kill’ the Russian economy. New Delhi has been able to execute this despite the fact that it has a newly growing alliance with the US and is part of the US-led Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QUAD), a regional grouping that includes the US, India, Japan, and Australia seeking to counter-balance China in the Indo-Pacific region.
Having said that, even the anti-China underpinnings of the QUAD proved ineffective in terms of preventing the ‘assertive’ Modi administration from doing a fresh agreement with China to resolve its border conflict, agreeing last week to step back in the Gogra-Hot Springs area, the last of the friction points in the Ladakh sector of the Indo-Tibetan border.
Importantly enough, New Delhi did this agreement regardless of various US promises to shore up its role in the region and work alongside regional countries to protect their interests against China. But New Delhi shunned the US-led multilateral approach in favor of a bilateral solution, severely shrinking the US's ability to shape, or interfere in, regional issues.
The agreement is vital in itself, with Jaishankar reinforcing ‘peace’ between India and China as vital for the ‘Asian century’ to emerge in the truest sense of the word. Its terms indicate how ‘Asianness’ might be prevailing.
Both Beijing and New Delhi agreed to “cease forward deployments in this area in a phased, coordinated and verified manner, resulting in the return of the troops of both sides to their respective areas.” In addition to dismantling previously built infrastructure, they also agreed to refrain from initiating any unilateral changes in the status quo, and that both sides will “take the talks forward and resolve the remaining issues along LAC and restore peace and tranquillity in India-China border areas.”
With India now in a joint quest with China for permanent peace, a pertinent question is: why would New Delhi participate in the QUAD and be willing to activate it as an anti-China security organization when it has other – and verified – mechanisms of conflict resolution? There is a big reason for the West, in particular, the US – to worry.
The agreement comes ahead of the upcoming Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit that Modi will attend and where he is expected to meet China’s Xi Jinping. This has set the stage for a meeting that could pave the way for re-writing rules of bilateral engagement.
Beyond China, participating in the SCO summit is also crucial for India to reinforce itself as one of the largest economies in the world. A fully active SCO has a lot of economic potential, as the grouping covers about 40 percent of the world’s population and 30 percent of GDP.
Indeed, this is crucial for India to attain the next milestone i.e., overtaking Japan in the next decade or so to become the world’s third largest economy.
Even though China’s rise itself complicates India’s own ambitions, it has not prevented India from restoring ties with its neighbor. Rivalry notwithstanding, both New Delhi and Beijing have an interest in challenging the idea of a US-led unipolar world order. While China sees that world order as a constraint, policymakers in New Delhi believe that only within a multipolar world can India actually attain a big power status.
Within a unipolar world and playing second fiddle to the US in organizations like the QUAD tends to limit, in the Indian calculation, India’s ability to flex itself politically, economically, and diplomatically. The Russia-Ukraine war has allowed India to do precisely that.
While it doesn’t mean that New Delhi is in the process of distancing itself permanently from the US, India’s refusal to support the US against Russia has disturbed the equation, leading the US to redefine its ties with India’s top regional rival, Pakistan, which is reportedly allowing the US to use its airspace to help Washington conduct its “over the horizon” i.e., targeted aerial strikes such as the one that killed Ayman al-Zawahiri, strategy in Afghanistan.
More recently, the US agreed to sell parts of F-16 to Pakistan to help Islamabad revamp its fleet, a decision that New Delhi did not obviously like.
Pakistan’s cooperation with the US in Afghanistan comes at a time when both Russia and China are slowly deepening their foothold. If a cardinal objective of the US foreign policy is to counter Russia and China, it is evident that New Delhi is not offering that support in any meaningful way i.e., beyond occasional participation in the QUAD meetings.
The regional equation is, therefore, changing, with New Delhi finding strong traces of using the overall global situation in ways that boost its global profile regardless of whether it leads, directly or indirectly, to the US redefining its ties with Pakistan. For India, the potential cost of this assertion very largely outweighs the benefits. It is the sort of rational calculation that most states do but few can implement.