India Shines Bright in a Time of Rivalries

Photo of India's flag

This year on September 9-10, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi had the crucial task of hosting the leaders (at least most) of the world’s developed and developing nations for the 18th G20 Summit, marking a first for India. The G20 is a forum accounting for over 80 percent of the world’s economic output, 75 percent of world trade and two-thirds of the world population.

India assertively assumed G20 presidency in December 2022 and that of SCO presidency in September 2022 for a year at a time that was expected to be a fragile period as geopolitical faultlines emerged due to the Russia-Ukraine war, the devastating COVID-19 pandemic and the great power rivalry. The SCO represents half of the world population and one-third of the world economy with India, China, and Russia as members. New Delhi conducted 220 meetings at 60+ destinations during its presidency of G20; hosted 134 events under its SCO presidency, and the 23rd SCO Summit was held on early July, where Iran was granted full member status.

Making the Most of Opportunity

If the current fragile environment of world politics is serving in India’s favor, the year 2023 marks an opportunity year for India. New Delhi has a clear vision: To become one of the superpowers of multi-polar world politics. And this, in the eyes of India, is a well-deserved and belated status. The scenario that India is likely to have a voice in world politics is indeed attainable, but to become a superpower sounds more like over-optimism, even if not impossible, as it is subject to surpassing China as well as reaching some kind of equal hegemon-power/perception with the U.S.

For sure, India is making great strides in boosting its prestige. It overtook China in April to become the world’s most populous nation. India’s economy surpassed the UK in 2021-22 to become 5th largest economy after Germany, Japan, China, and the U.S., and is set to be the third-biggest economy in just a decade, behind the U.S. and China; but it still remains much smaller than China’s, which is about five times bigger. On August 23, India became the fourth country to take a walk on the moon, behind the U.S., China and the former Soviet Union; becoming the first country to successfully land a spacecraft on the moon’s south pole. But even if India achieved extraordinary economic growth and demonstrated an ambitious infrastructure and development success and made inroads into scientific-technological progress, it still has high levels of poverty and falls flat in developing science and technology to power economic growth.

Further, India looks a leading light in world politics. New Delhi has subtly navigated the Eurasian war and ingeniously leveraged the U.S.-China competition to its advantage. Through its inclusive approach, most nations have explored options to join India-led projects, leading to India enjoying partnering all sides.

However, the composition of its deft all-sided partnering diplomacy raises complex and challenging questions. In South-East Asia, for example, out of practical concerns over improving security in its bordering North-Eastern States, India’s engagement with Myanmar’s junta undermines ASEAN’s position not to engage or any way normalize the regime. In West Asia, India shares a cordial partnership with Iran, with which it is part of a security pact with China and Russia, while also boosting its close ties with the U.S. and Israel. Or while growing closer to Armenia and Greece, pretends to skip Türkiye, a key player in the region beyond compare. The equation of New Delhi’s bonhomie with its Western partners and Russia, and tense geopolitical relations with China and Pakistan, along with China-Russia convergence and China-Pakistan all-weather friendship, is complicated to say the least.

Pursuing Multilateral Discussions

Access to various multilateral fora is crucial for New Delhi to pursue its geopolitical and geo-economic interests as a rising great power. For India, the decision to participate to the SCO was based on the logic: Take advantage as much as one could, trying to improve its Eurasian outreach even though SCO is more about China (and Russia). Consensus on countering radicalization and digital transformation reflects decent gains in a divided forum, but India has fallen through on its intent to modernize the SCO for more inclusive regional growth. Rather, the SCO must be navigated with the intertwined complex equation between China, Russia, and India, hanging in delicate balance.

New Delhi had wished to manage its China factor with the help of Russia via mostly the SCO platform or with U.S. help. But the latter also risks India moving into the U.S.’ orbit. Fortunately, New Delhi is aware of this and the scenario of entering into formal military alliances with the West is not an expected one in the foreseeable future. While the stars by all indications may be favorable for India, India is treading on thin ice.

At Symbiosis International in late February, Foreign Minister Jaishankar said, “India’s G20 Presidency is a special responsibility in a difficult moment in international relations…What India could do, will do in this one year, to make a significant difference to world politics…India is a civilization state, reclaiming its place.” It is fair to say that India is one of the oldest civilizations in the world and is bent on regaining its place with an astute effort. But to make a significant difference in world politics is a far horizon for India, still.

India’s assertive unifying G20 presidency theme was “Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam”, which means the world is one family, but the Presidents of Russia and China skipped the G20 Summit; Moscow’s reason was the Ukraine conflict, while no reason was given by Beijing. And this was perceived as an attempt to undermine India, and as a rising superpower trying to show India “its place”. That also explains why New Delhi kept the SCO summit in a virtual format.

Though, India was a successful G20 Summit host. As one of the two most key outcomes of the Summit, the unexpected Delhi Declaration was adopted after softening the language on Ukraine, in which also Türkiye’s efforts on the Black Sea grain deal were appreciated. As to the other, India met its objective of expanding the membership of G20 to include the African Union, which is a symbolic and psychological victory, and which turned the G20 into G21, and reflected Modi’s words that “Africa is a top priority”. Further, the India-Middle East-Europe Economic Corridor project also launched, but time will show its credibility and feasibility as it is not the first time Washington has initiated pledges on such kind of projects. And while Modi remarked “connectivity projects should respect territorial integrity”, the subtext was actually sending a message to China.