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At a September 2023 think-tank event in Washington, India’s Foreign Minister S. Jaishankar stated that while India was ‘Non-Western’, it was not ‘Anti-Western.’ This is a very important distinction because it means that while India seeks to re-orient the extant world order with a view to advancing its own overarching objective of development with security, it does not intend to be a party to its replacement. This is in keeping with India’s innate approach to world politics, where deep relationships are privileged over power constructs. The content and even form of such relationships will evolve with time as a rising India leverages them for economic prosperity and to spread its own ideas about civilization, but New Delhi’s statecraft would never seek to undermine the rules-based order itself. Understanding India’s peculiar Weltanschauung is also the key to deciphering its place in a world riven by American and Chinese bloc mentality as well as New Delhi’s continued embrace of Russia.
India has long rejected the zero-sum bipolar mentality. And it will do so even more emphatically in today’s world where it is in a better position structurally than during the Cold War. Indeed, India’s economic potential and growing capabilities are allowing it to follow what it calls a ‘multi-alignment strategy’ wherein it looks to shape multilateral groupings from within. This strategy aims to ensure that India does not get blindsided by decisions made elsewhere, while simultaneously creating a web of compartmentalized relationships that advance its own interests related to climate change, global finance and international security. Ergo, India’s simultaneous membership of both the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and the ‘Quad’ Group of Countries. Interestingly, other nations, especially in the global south, are now receptive to India’s way of doing things and are actually emulating this strategy. The recent induction of six new countries, including Saudi Arabia, Iran, UAE, Egypt, Ethiopia and Argentina into the BRICS grouping is a case in point. During the Cold War most of these countries did not have the wherewithal and determination to avoid succumbing to bloc-driven geopolitics. But today, they clearly have the confidence to pursue multi-alignment strategies of their own and they seem to be in consultation with India on this front. If India was a leader of the Non-Alignment Movement during the Cold War, it seems to have become a lodestone for multi-alignment today.
Rejection of the Eurocentric view
Now, India’s multi-alignment strategy is not a typical global middle power play where the country simply seeks to get the best out of both worlds, if it can. Contrary to conventional wisdom, nothing illustrates this better than India’s support of Russia’s economy via massive oil purchases subsequent to the latter’s invasion of Ukraine and the Western sanctions that act has attracted. That India has done so despite risking Western opprobrium has much less to do with either India’s dependency on Russia for military spares support or with New Delhi looking to vacuum up cheap oil at a time of inflationary pressures – the two popular reasons advanced to explain India’s behaviour in the West. Rather, India’s decision has everything to do with remaining steadfast in a longstanding relationship. India is therefore signalling to the world that it will not allow one of its key strategic partners, Russia, to be isolated over the war in Ukraine just because the West considers a European conflict to be of greater significance than those on other continents. This rejection of a Euro-centric view has also found resonance in the broader Global South as evidenced by the fact that countries representing nearly half the World’s population chose to abstain during the October 2022 UN Vote condemning Russia for its illegal annexation of Ukrainian territory.
«India is signalling to the world that it will not allow one of its
key strategic partners, Russia, to be isolated over the war in Ukraine just because the West considers a European conflict to be of greater
significance than those on other continents.»
To be sure, India is not comfortable with Russia looking to overturn the rules-based order either. And so, India has been sending civilian aid to Ukraine on top of being in regular touch with that country’s leadership. India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi also famously told Russian President Valdimir Putin during a bilateral meeting on the sidelines of the SCO Summit last September that «today’s era is not of war.» In New Delhi’s view of things, India’s Ukraine policy gives it the space necessary to emerge as an honest interlocutor that might be able to bring opposing sides together if need be. Keeping Russia engaged is also part of India’s policy of not letting the Kremlin drift any further towards Beijing than it already has. Moreover, it is also now well-known that India’s purchases of cheap Russian oil have benefitted Europe as well, with a lot of it being re-exported as diesel and jet fuel from large Indian refineries since they have the flexibility to handle different grades of crude.
In fact, India’s refining capacity and capability have served to underline its rising geoeconomic importance. Especially, since the fulcrum of India’s growing engagement with the West also lies in geoeconomics. Once again, in contrast to present day group-think, I posit that Indo-Western convergence is not driven in the main by a mutual need to balance China. While shared security concerns about China matter, what is really driving the relationship is the Western need to bring a new deflationary force in the form of the Indian worker into play, and India’s need for external markets to industrialize faster. It is only India that can ultimately provide the scale required to ‘de-risk’ global supply chains – a bet that key US companies such as Apple are increasingly willing to make. Naturally, India’s own large-sized market is always a draw as well.
Apart from the hyped notion of the West in general and America in particular courting India as a strategic counterweight to China, the official rhetoric about shared values is also a fraught proposition. For years, India’s anglophonic elite and Westminster-influenced democracy gave the US a sense of superficial commonality in terms of values. However, as the years went by this same anglophonic elite also exasperated Washington by keeping it at an arm’s length. In the second decade of the 21st century the US initially saw India’s more nativist elements, as represented by the BJP-regime, as willing to make a break with the past and agree to a strategic embrace. But that was not the case, with India’s Ukraine policy being representative of the country’s continued adherence to strategic autonomy. What is more, the nativist elements in India’s polity have turned out to be rather allergic to contemporary progressive trends in the West and the cultural divergence despite India’s ‘diasporic bridge’ has become undeniable. Unsurprisingly, the Western press is full of musings about ‘democratic backsliding’ in India and even ‘transnational repression’. India on its part sees such Western discourse as quite hypocritical given the ‘War on Terror’ and the Anglosphere’s continued relationship with Pakistan despite that country’s pursuit of terrorism as State policy.
As such, India remains somewhat wary of Western objectives, with the memory of technology-denial regimes playing a major role in shaping New Delhi’s strategic culture. Indeed, the one way for, say, Europe, to build deep strategic trust with India would be to be more open in terms of technology co-development. In that context, the EU’s decision to form a Trade and Technology Council with India is a step in the right direction. It is also a recognition of the role technology can play in deepening Europe’s relationship with India. In Europe, France has long understood this aspect and its traditional engagement with India’s strategic technology development sectors has been the core around which a relationship of deep mutual trust has been built. This is also why India will not abandon Russia. Importantly, any deeper European technology-led engagement of India will not be a one-way affair. The success of India’s moon mission Chandrayaan-3 serves to underline what India brings to the table in key technological domains such as space and computing today.
Incidentally, the US itself has recognized this potential and is now pursuing much closer cooperation in domains such as artificial intelligence, quantum-related technologies, 5G and 6G communications, space as well as high-performance computing via the Initiative on Critical and Emerging Technology. India is also becoming a laboratory to the world with an ever-growing number of both North American and European transnational corporations choosing to locate global capability centres (GCCs) on its soil. These centres also serve to further people-to-people ties between India and Europe in ways different from the usual connection created by the Indian diaspora. Moreover, the further invested European companies become in this domain, the more likely it is that Indian intellectual property governance norms will reflect their concerns. From the Indian perspective, GCCs serve to enmesh India in international technology development networks in a manner that will serve as a bulwark against any future move to subject India to technology controls as has been the case in the past.
Simply put, India seeks to ensure that it always has a place on the technological high table and is able to shape conversations with respect to global regulatory and control frameworks related to the same. After all, India’s pursuit of a multi-alignment strategy is predicated on what it brings to the table in terms of techno-economic capability. New Delhi understands that it cannot match China’s financial outreach in places such as Africa for the time being. But then India does not need to do so anyway. For one, unlike China, it is not looking to create client states by burdening them with loans that are not transparent to observers. Yes, India’s lines of credit to African countries are certainly growing, but India seeks to offer support in ways that may actually be more beneficial to the cause of economic growth. A key example would be the so-called ‘India Stack’ which is a set of ‘open application programming interfaces and digital public goods that aim to unlock the economic primitives of identity, data, and payments at population scale.’ Interestingly, elements of the India Stack are finding favour not only in developing countries but in advanced economies such as Singapore as well.
Non-Western instead of anti-Western
Another core capability that India is leveraging for its global outreach is of course its pharmaceutical sector, which is now moving beyond generics and is focusing on developing solutions on its own. India’s position as the world’s largest vaccine producer allowed it to engage in credible ‘vaccine diplomacy’ during the pandemic. But it should be noted that India did not merely support its partners with license-produced vaccines but exported indigenously developed vaccines as well to several countries in the Global South. The pursuit of domestic capabilities under the rubric of ‘Atmanibharta’ or ‘self-reliance’ is in itself a core element of how India is positioning itself in the world. However, Atmanirbharta should not be misunderstood as an old-school import substitution policy. Au contraire, it is closely linked to India’s ever more liberal foreign direct investment regime and its country-level tie-ups with foreign partners for co-development and co-production.
Naturally, India’s Atmanirbharta doctrine has a special emphasis on its defence sector which has increased its exports manifold in the past few years. Self-reliance on the military-industrial side of things is seen as a sustainable foundation for India’s strategic autonomy at a time when America has made sanctions a key weapon in its geopolitical arsenal. Defence exports also help position India as a stabilizing factor in certain parts of the Global South that are worried about both the selective disruptive tendencies of the US and the expansionist nature of China.
It must be said though, that India also intends to serve as a bridge between the Global South and the West. India’s credentials as being not ‘anti-western’ but merely ‘non-western’ help it to play this role better than others can. A clear example of this would be India’s recent success in getting the African Union inducted into the G20 group of nations. Another noteworthy development that is emblematic of an India-inspired ‘collegial approach’ to geoeconomics that also involves the US is the move to create an ‘India-Middle East-Europe Economic Corridor’.
While India is leading a global current to create a new non-bloc architecture for globalization, it is certainly much better disposed towards the West than it is towards China. With respect to China, Indian policy has undergone a shift in that economic relations will no longer be compartmentalized from border tensions. India is now assiduously rebuilding its deterrence posture vis-a-vis China and it will obviously be much more amenable to Western overtures that constrict Chinese strategic plays.
The remainder of this decade will likely see a world more eager to engage with India as the country registers faster GDP growth rates than other major economies. India’s challenge, however, lies in keeping competing domestic majoritarianisms at bay and preserving its own democratic ethos even as it rises on the world stage.