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India Straddles Both Poles of a Multipolar World
Modi’s foreign policy faces a hard test
By: Salman Rafi Sheikh
India’s complicated foreign policy scenario explains why it is simultaneously a member of the anti-China Quadrilateral Security Group (QUAD) – comprising India, the US, Japan, and Australia as its members – and BRICS, which includes China alongside Brazil, Russia, and South Africa and India itself. Prime Narendra Modi in fact was in an international BRICS conference in South Africa ahead of India prior to hosting a G20 summit in Delhi next month.
If the QUAD’s core purpose is to tackle China, BRICS exists to challenge the US-led global order. Instead of diversifying India’s foreign policy options, India’s participation in these contradictory forums makes New Delhi’s choices even more complicated and vulnerable to geopolitical vagaries.
For instance, on August 15, India and China held the 19th round of Corps Commander-level talks to manage their border dispute. The joint press release struck a very positive note saying that both “sides had a positive, constructive and in-depth discussion on the resolution of the remaining issues along the LAC in the Western Sector. In line with the guidance provided by the leadership [Xi and Modi], they exchanged views in an open and forward-looking manner.”
It is safe to infer that the message conveyed to Beijing from New Delhi would have emphasized the imperative of avoiding conflict and tensions. Indeed, the 19th round of talks shows both countries’ resolve to stay at the negotiating table rather than confronting each other militarily on land.
But can India, a relatively smaller power trying to recover its territory from China, trust Beijing? China, on the other hand, has no delusions about India being a competitor. Its perception of India and Delhi’s lack of trust in Beijing are only confirmed by India’s participation in the Malabar naval exercises between the United States, Japan, Australia, and India at the same time the China-India round was taking place.
Part of the QUAD grouping, the exercise is an element of the overall effort by Washington to militarize the alliance and get up China’s nose in the Indo-Pacific, providing, in the words of Vice Admiral Karl Thomas, Commander of the US Navy's Seventh Fleet, a “foundation for all the other nations operating in this region.”
This foundation is being expanded, evident by the recently announced pact between the US, Japan, and South Korea. The agreement which was announced after the recent trilateral meeting in Camp David requires the US, Japan, and South Korea to hold annual talks, expand joint military exercises, and establish a three-way hotline for crisis communications.
With this as an addition to the QUAD and AUKUS pacts, the entire region appears to be rapidly transforming under the weight of military alliances. Given this, the question is: how much choice India would have to operate independently, or maintain an autonomous position vis-à-vis China, in a region flooded by such alliances?
India as an active member of one of the Malabar exercises, in the context of Indo-Pacific’s military transformation, builds on the perception that India sees China in terms of an adversary. Indeed, Delhi’s recent decision to support the 2016 Arbitral Award on the South China Sea nullifying the legitimacy of China’s so-called “nine-dash line” is a major break with the past that might have pushed the QUAD allies in Canberra and Washington to conclude that a decisive change has taken place in New Delhi’s position vis-à-vis Beijing and that the QUAD is now all ready to increase its level of naval sophistication and overall military coordination.
But no such change has taken place, as India’s Modi, after shaping the said Corps-Commander level talks, is all set to attend the BRICS summit in South Africa alongside Xi and to seek to build on the relative peace both sides have established on the border.
But how is India seen within BRICS? It is a puzzling question for policymakers in New Delhi. It is not hard to conclude that China does not trust India. Russia, too, understands India’s deepening defense ties with the US, which recently became India’s largest arms provider after decades of obtaining the bulk of its supplies from Moscow.
This comes against the backdrop of active Chinese and Russian attempts to expand the BRICS. With more than 40 countries wishing to join BRICS and with India’s foreign policy seen tilting towards Washington, New Delhi risks becoming a marginal player in the politics of building a new, alternative world order.
Can India afford that? One of the ways in which Modi’s India is different from non-Modi India is perhaps the degree of emphasis the former puts on India’s ambitions to achieve global power status.
But achieving that requires supporting countries trying to build a new order. This is imperative because India cannot achieve that status within the old, West-dominated, and US-centered world order. Therefore, India cannot afford to risk becoming a marginal player within BRICS.
What is the best strategy that India should deploy to navigate this very complicated – and changing – global geopolitical scenario?
Ever since capturing power in 2014, India’s foreign policy appears to be geared toward distancing itself from non-alignment, with Modi’s absence from Non-Aligned Movement summits becoming the new norm. Perhaps discarding the NAM would have made sense in a unipolar world. But China’s rise, Russia’s assertiveness, and its alliance with China to push for a new and multipolar world order requires a return to non-alignment as an official foreign policy practice as a sophisticated way of navigating the complex world order without letting any side shape India’s foreign policy.
If the world is becoming multipolar, India’s best choice might be to revive the non-aligned movement and help it become a ‘pole’ to withstand the pressure for joining blocs. In that sense, India might be able to claim the global leadership role it seeks. But multipolarity is hard to navigate. This is especially true for countries that have their foreign relations complicated by geographical factors and global ambitions.