India’s balancing act

New Delhi must be nimble-footed in a multipolar 21st century

Monish Tourangbam

Belt and Road, Trade and industry, International relations, National security | Asia, East Asia, South Asia

24 July 2018

From Eurasia to the Indo-Pacific, Indian policymakers have their work cut out for them in balancing between bilateral and multilateral strategies, Monish Tourangbam writes.

Geopolitical and geo-economic trends in the 21st century are leading to an interdependent multipolar world. This global reality means that leaders must skilfully manage not only bilateral relations but also multilateral arrangements.

The recently concluded Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) summit in Qingdao, China, was the first attended by India as a full-fledged member. It also heralded a new dimension in India’s practice of strategic autonomy.

The SCO summit came close on the heels of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s keynote speech at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, where he put forward a nuanced approach to managing “a world of inter-dependent fortunes and failures.”

Some may accuse India of going soft on China, in contrast to US Secretary of Defense James Mattis, who went all guns blazing at the same forum against China’s aggressive postures in the Indo-Pacific, particularly the South China Sea. However, what transpired in Singapore, more than silver-tongued rhetoric, was a move on India’s part to balance its great power relations and multilateral engagements.

More on this: What the US gets wrong – and India gets right – about the Indo-Pacific

New Delhi is invested in the Quadrilateral initiative with the United States, Japan, and Australia – an initiative that aims to combine capabilities and intent for a “free, open, prosperous and inclusive” Indo-Pacific. By and large, this effort is seen as a deterrent to China’s rise in the region.

Many criticised India’s decision to block Australia’s participation at the recently held India-US-Japan Malabar exercise as a fatal blow to the Quad. However, the Malabar exercise is not the Quad. At a time when the Quad is still at an exploratory stage, it is unwise to confuse it with a military exercise that has been sustained for 22 years between India and the US, with and without Japan.

Moreover, in their separate official statements, all four countries which make up the Quad have referred to their Manila and Singapore meetings as consultations among the four countries, rather than a Quad meeting. It is therefore too early to blame India alone for going soft on China and harming the Quad.

At the same time, India has embraced its new membership and role in the SCO, which has been further cemented by Modi’s outreach to Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin through the informal summits at Wuhan and Sochi respectively.

There has been an avalanche of commentaries on a ‘reset’ in India-China ties following the Wuhan summit, with calls for initiatives like India-China economic cooperation in Afghanistan, as well as the Chinese envoy to India showing momentary enthusiasm by proposing an India-China-Pakistan trilateral.

More on this: Four questions for the Quad

There is some truth to this reset narrative, as both Delhi and Beijing have made visible efforts to steer the relationship away from further derailment, as reflected not only in their recent bilateral chemistry but also in multilateral forums, of which the SCO is a prime example. However, it would be unfair to say that New Delhi has been kowtowing to Beijing – India made its displeasure of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) quite clear during the SCO summit.

The Sochi summit between Modi and Putin attracted an equal if not greater share of attention, specifically in the context of how Delhi would balance its defence ties between Moscow and Washington.

In response to alleged meddling in the 2016 presidential election, in April the US Congress slapped sanctions on Russia through the Countering America’s Adversaries through Sanctions Act. This comes at a time when India is looking at buying the Russian-made S-400 Triumf missile defence system. India has claimed it will go ahead with the purchase despite the US sanctions and will maintain India and Russia’s “time-tested” defence ties, even as it tries to firm up its defence relations with the US under the India-US Defence Technology and Trade Initiative (DTTI).

India’s close engagement with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) through its Act East Policy is guided not just by economics, but also by concerns about China. Delhi’s approach here shares the same purpose as America’s engagement with ASEAN. However, India’s membership in multilateral arrangements, such as the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) grouping and the BRICS New Development Bank, is predicated on reforming the global financial system led and managed by the West.

More on this: India’s expanding security sphere

How to balance India’s security and economic interests – and deciding with whom to partner and for what purposes – will remain a prominent challenge for India’s foreign policymakers.

While the emergence of the Indo-Pacific narrative has hogged much of the recent limelight, some in the Indian strategic community have highlighted India’s deficit in continental Eurasia. This gigantic region has been the traditional theatre of Great Power politics and is also an area where China has been making strategic inroads. China’s ambitious BRI covers both the maritime and continental pathways into Eurasia and has given more urgency to India’s need to recalibrate its approach to the practice of strategic autonomy.

This means that India should be open to maritime partnerships in the Indo-Pacific but should also not be allergic to dealing with continental powers in Eurasia. India’s foray into 21st-century geopolitics will, therefore, be determined by how it adjusts its role in the maritime Indo-Pacific as well the Eurasian landmass.

Both these mega-regions are entwined with India’s economic and security interests. India must be nimble-footed in balancing its roles and responsibilities and executing an ‘India first’ foreign policy – one which takes full advantage of both bilateral and multilateral arrangements in the multipolar world order.

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