Currently, the major centres of world power are self-absorbed. The United States (US) is preoccupied with the possibility of President Donald Trump’s impeachment by the House of Representatives. The United Kingdom is in the throes of deliberating its withdrawal from the European Union, with implications for the rest of that 28-country bloc. China continues to witness demonstrations in Hong Kong, while experiencing the adverse effects of massive tariffs by the US.
Amid these developments, questions are being raised about India’s role in international affairs. Where does India stand on supporting or opposing what has, in recent years, been a US-led international order? Is India willing, and able, to assume a leadership position of its own, at least on certain issues and in certain areas?
At the outset, it should be clear that Indians, by and large, do not view a US-led international order with the nostalgia of many Americans or Europeans. The Cold War was a trying time for India, and even when it was in the right — as on disarmament, decolonisation, or managing rivalries — it often lacked the power to impose its will upon the world. For India, the Cold War era was defined by divisions, hunger, warfare, and nuclear isolation, often enabled or encouraged by the world’s leading powers.
A much stronger case can be made in favour of New Delhi supporting a post-1991 international order. India was arguably one of the top beneficiaries (along with China and the US) of the post-Cold War system, which coincided with India’s initial economic liberalisation. Indian opportunities for growth and development widened and its security increased. However, the changing distribution of power in India’s favour contrasted with the intransigence of important global institutions. It is naturally frustrating from New Delhi’s perspective that the global governance of security, international economics, and technology is still based on antiquated organisations that serve vested interests.
These realities — the shifts in world power coming into conflict with anachronistic institutions — provide the context for Indian engagement with world affairs today. Hints of the kind of international order that India seeks are apparent in several developments over the past few years. Consider three examples.
The first relates to climate change. India was often portrayed as a reluctant actor by the West in committing to a global climate agreement, as in Copenhagen in 2009, even when its per capita emissions were only a fraction of the West’s. But the situation has changed dramatically. Today, it is the US that has unilaterally withdrawn from the Paris Climate Treaty. India has responded by doubling down on its commitment to sustainable development. Not only has India shown leadership through initiatives such as the International Solar Alliance, but it has made commitments at home. The Climate Action Tracker — an independent assessment of climate commitments of countries — rates Europe’s actions as insufficient, China’s and Japan’s as highly insufficient, and US and Russian measures as critically insufficient. India is among only a handful of countries whose measures are rated satisfactorily.
A second example of Indian leadership relates to connectivity. In 2017, when every major country — including the United States, Japan, and most Europeans — sent representatives to China’s Belt and Road Forum, India decided not to participate. Instead, it articulated a set of normative principles for connectivity. These included the sustainability of financing, employment, and the environment; greater transparency; and respect for sovereignty. Today, these principles have formed the basis for norms laid out by several others, including the US, Europe, and Japan. India could certainly do more to elaborate on and assess these values, and work with others to enforce them. But New Delhi was ahead of the curve in anticipating the resulting challenges.
A third example of Indian leadership relates to maritime security, where action has been most pronounced, particularly in the Indian Ocean. Over the past several years, India has increased its naval patrols; improved its logistics network from East Africa to the Gulf to South-east Asia; enhanced its ability to monitor maritime traffic; invested in military infrastructure and maritime assistance to less capable states; and elevated interoperability and information-sharing with key partners.
These signs of Indian leadership are indicative of India’s broader world view when it comes to global affairs, even if they are not always well appreciated either in India or elsewhere.
Of course, many obstacles to Indian leadership remain, and they mostly arise from within. Economic growth and the prosperity of one’s population offer the basic foundations of international power, and the recent growth figures for India have been underwhelming. The amendment of Article 370 and its implications for Jammu and Kashmir have generated urgent new priorities. Resource and capacity constraints persist inside and outside government, requiring any progress to be gradual and ambitions to remain in line with capabilities. Nevertheless, it should be clear from recent developments that India is not just sitting on its hands as the world turns.