July 21, 2020

How India can act as a global bridge

The following article appeared in the Hindustan Times on July 21, 2020. 

Earlier this year, United States (US) President Donald Trump used his prerogative as G-7 host to suggest inviting the leaders of India, Australia, and South Korea to the annual conclave. “I don’t feel that as a G-7 it properly represents what’s going on in the world. It’s a very outdated group of countries,” Trump said in May. While he later considered adding Brazil, Trump’s proposal was overshadowed by his suggestion that Russia be included, a move opposed by many of his advisers. Meanwhile, questions persist about whether this year’s G-7 summit — already postponed — will be held at all in person amid the coronavirus pandemic.

This is not the first hint that the G-7 format will expand. Last year, France extended a similar invitation to India (along with Australia, Spain, Chile, and five African countries) when it was the host. More recently, the British government floated the prospect of a D-10 partnership of democracies (comprising the G-7-plus India, Australia, and South Korea) to cooperate on 5G telecommunications technology.

These proposals come at a time when cooperation among democracies appears to be back in vogue, amid growing concerns about China’s assertiveness, the global economic battering at the hands of Covid-19, and greater technological competition. Two new mechanisms for coordinating policies related to the pandemic reflect a similar sentiment. The first, consisting of the US, India, Japan, Australia, South Korea, New Zealand, and Vietnam (as chair of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations), involves the countries’ foreign secretaries or their equivalents. Another initiated by the US secretary of state consists of discussions with his counterparts from Japan, India, Australia, Brazil, South Korea and Israel.

While these have, so far, been one-off initiatives or issue-specific mechanisms, permanently expanding G-7 could represent a logical and natural progression. The G-7 evolved as an annual summit between heads of government after the economic shocks of the early 1970s. It was initially intended to be an informal forum for economic and political coordination involving the largest democratic economies. Starting with the five leaders of the US, Japan, Germany, France, and the United Kingdom (UK), it soon expanded to seven with the additions of Italy and Canada. Additionally, the leadership of the European Union (EU) was also included by convention.

In the 1990s, as part of a bid to incorporate Russia into a post-Cold War order, G-7 evolved into G-8. For a while, in the early 2000s, a G8+5 format attempted to engage the leaders of the largest developing economies, including China, India, Brazil, South Africa, and Mexico, before the elevation of G-20 after the 2008 global financial crisis made this redundant. In 2014, Russia was dropped after its annexation of Crimea and G-8 reverted to G-7.

The recent signals from Washington, Paris, and London suggest an opportunity to permanently amend G-7 in a manner that better reflects today’s international order and priorities. In 1980, the economies of India, Australia, Brazil, and South Korea ranked 14th, 16th, 17th, and 29th in the world, respectively. Prior to the 2020 pandemic, they were 5th, 14th, 9th, and 12th. Given their relative strengths — large populations, important geographies, technological advantages, and capable militaries — not to mention their systems of governance, the inclusion of some of these countries would undoubtedly strengthen the democratic world’s ability to address today’s most pressing global challenges.

Despite the US’s invitation this year, an expanded G-7 is by no means a foregone conclusion. For now, US entreaties and India’s openness to participating in such formats are driven by tactical considerations, including both countries’ immediate problems with China. A more permanent shift would depend upon whether future leaders perceive value. While the presumptive Democratic nominee for US president Joe Biden has stressed the need to renew multilateral coalitions, he may be reluctant to so obviously exclude China, the world’s second-largest economy.

For its part, India has an unusual opportunity. Over the next two years, it will have a leadership role at three important organisations: Chair of the executive board of the World Health Organization (WHO), non-permanent membership on the United National Security Council (UNSC), and chair of G-20. This affords a good opportunity to achieve favourable multilateral outcomes at these and other bodies.

And, yet, India confronts other challenges. One is learning how to effectively utilise such a forum. Indian officials have become so accustomed to working within the framework of the G-77 — the large bloc of developing countries at the United Nations — that working with the G-7 will require a very different mindset. In fact, India could be a natural bridge between the two international groupings, one of which represents the global South, the other the global West.

Finally, there will be the inevitable concerns about whether India’s entry into any such grouping would undermine its strategic autonomy. In fact, it does quite the opposite. India is already a member of groupings such as BRICS, the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), East Asia Summit (EAS), Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), and G-20, all of which meet regularly at the leadership level. Associating with other major economies, all of them democracies, ought to be a worthy aspiration.