Coming on the back of an anyway unpredictable foreign policy, President Donald Trump’s decision to pull out of the Paris climate change agreement has established his administration as a significant risk to geopolitical stability. At this juncture the world order seems to be split vertically. In the top league are the United States, China and Russia. In the second league are a range of the so-called “middle powers”, from Germany and France – both of which Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited over the past week – to India, Japan, the United Kingdom, Australia, Saudi Arabia, and even Singapore and the United Arab Emirates.
To be fair this is an interregnum, not a long-term state. This is not classic multipolarity. The top league looks shaky. At least one of its members, Russia, counts only because it has military capacities that allow it to punch above its weight. Otherwise, in terms of an economic or demographic future, it has little to show. India and one or two of the other “middle powers” would want to climb into that top league in the coming decade.
For an India that has focused extraordinary diplomatic resources on the major powers over the past 15-20 years, the troika at the top are becoming unreliable and unpredictable. Whatever President Trump does in his four years, he is likely to leave America weaker as an anchor power in the global system. Given three successive prime ministers have invested heavily in the America relationship, Indian diplomacy now needs a somewhat more diverse investment portfolio.
China was never reliable but it used to be predictable. Today, it is the superpower that refuses to grow up. It obsesses with petty battles and rejects the enlightenment that usually comes with great power. As for Russia, it is moving inexorably into the Chinese zone. At a closed-door meeting a few weeks ago, a retired Russian official, with deep connections in the Moscow establishment, made it plain that on Central Asia and even Afghanistan, the Russians would adapt to Chinese cues.
Concerns about China and irritation or disappointment with America are being felt by different countries in different ways. Whether it is India or Germany or Japan, nations are responding as they can. Regional, sectoral and ad hoc partnerships, some of them intersecting with one of the big powers, some not – are being experimented with. A collective of broadly democratic middle powers are learning to work with each other without the certainty of American facilitation.
This is no grand alliance and never will be. It is a network of transactional arrangements that India can use for its own benefit. It also fits into an Indian approach that will look to tap American institutions others than the White House and administration in Washington, DC. For instance on climate change and adherence to Paris agreement benchmarks, India will find common ground with individual American state and city economies and leaderships, even if Mr Trump himself is not interested.
The trade conversation with Washington, DC, too may sour, with some speculation that the US could even target India as a supposed “currency manipulator”. Yet, the investment relationship with, say, pension funds in American states – hoping for robust and consistent returns from investment in Indian infrastructure – could grow.
A similar flexibility and pragmatism is beginning to inform India’s engagement with a series of fellow middle powers. India needs capital, technology and strategic/military capacities for its modernisation. There are about a dozen countries that can help India in this regard. Germany and France and Japan and Singapore course, but also the UAE and Canada as sources of long-term infrastructure capital. The UK too holds promise, provided the June election delivers a verdict that leads to a post-Brexit clarity,
A number of these middle powers are exiting the manufacturing game but are repositories of sensitive technologies that India can use and deploy for an effective Make in India strategy, or even to reimagine cities, waterways and public spaces and resources. Not all of these are technologies that democratic countries would easily share with China. On its part India has to be clear about what it asks for.
Finally, America’s vacation of space in the broader Indian Ocean region – from Southeast Asia to the Gulf – has got old friends alarmed.
China’s self-centred mechanism of dealing with radical Islam as well as ocean regimes has led to India being seen as a better long-run
partner. It has also led to countries such as Germany attempting to develop independent Indian Ocean expertise for the first time in a century.
India is a potential pivot of this loose middle-powers’ coalition. Modi needs to grab his opportunities.
(The author is distinguished fellow, Observer Research Foundation)