In February we used the analogy of a kaleidoscope to describe the polynodal world, which replaced the “New World Order” of 1991, with a world of rising (and declining) powers, and a shifting geopolitical hub moving from the West to the Pacific Rim.
This article gives the kaleidoscope a turn, to look at how the global picture changes. It is prompted by developments in India, China, and following the recent BRICS Summit in South Africa, and the G20 meeting, hosted in India.
India is a good place on which to focus. It represents very well the rapid and growing shift in global power and influence from West to East, and the emergence of new nodes of power and influence in the polynodal world, which has replaced the “New World Order”.
Moving at Pace
In 2008, just 15 years ago, Aravind Adiga published his prize-winning novel, “The White Tiger”. In the book’s opening chapter Balram Halwai, its amoral, antiheroic narrator imagines himself writing a letter to Wen Jiabao, Premier of the People’s Republic of China on the occasion of a planned visit to India.
Halwai writes, “Apparently, sir, you Chinese are far ahead of us in every respect, except that you don’t have entrepreneurs. And our nation, though it has no drinking water, electricity, sewage system, public transportation, sense of hygiene, discipline, courtesy, or punctuality does have entrpreneurs. Thousands and thousands of them. Especially in the field of technology. And these entrepreneurs – we entrepreneurs – have set up all these outsourcing companies that virtually run America now”
Adiga’s novel was a mordant satire on India. 15 years on the problems afflicting the India he wrote about are still visible, but much has changed and is changing: and the pace of transition is fast. Starting with its economy, India’s GDP is now the fifth biggest in the world. Although GDP per capita is very low, India as a nation is an economic force to be reckoned with. Measured by purchasing power parity, India is ranked third, behind only China and the USA.
From a historical perspective it is worth noting that the rise of India along with China takes the world back to a similar economic position that existed before the rise of the West, as this graphic shows.
India’s population has overtaken China’s. India’s people are younger on average than China’s and the population gap between the two is likely to widen. The two nations between them account for over a third of the total global population.
On 23 August, India’s Chandrayaan-3 mission successfully landed on the moon, making India only the fourth nation to have achieved a successful landing, and the first to land in the moon’s southern polar region. This has been welcomed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi as a clear sign of India’s rapid technological development, and Indian social media has been flooded with posts celebrating the achievement.
At the same time, India hosted the 18th meeting of the G20 group of countries. This provided an opportunity for India to put itself in the limelight, and for it to show its aspirations for its role as an emerging global power. The theme of the Confrence was “Vasudhaiva Kutumbakan” (One Earth, One Family, One Future). In addition to the members of the G20, the Group agreed to invite the African Union to join, and Bangladesh, Egypt, Mauritius, Netherlands, Nigeria, Oman, Singapore, Spain and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) were invited to attend. India was clearly setting out a case for greater inclusion in global forums, especially for poorer and developing countries. This reflects India’s own history of regaining its independence, and becoming a a leading influence on the “non-aligned movement” of the Cold War era. This also followed the BRICS summit, which saw the admission of Argentina, Egypt, Ethiopia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE to the group.
In addition, India gave some indications of its future role in relation to other powers. India continues to have close relations with Russia, despite the latter’s invasion of Ukraine, but it was also notable that at the G20 India announced plans to build global rail and ports links between the Middle East and South Asia and eventually to Europe, working with the USA and Saudi Arabia.
Of course China is India’s most powerful neighbour. As the linked statistics show, although India’s population has overtaken China’s, the latter clearly out weighs India in measurements such as GDP – 5.2 times in terms of actual spending, and 2.5% in PPP terms; China’s spendin on R&D exceeds India’s by 8.5 times, and China’s defence spending is three times greater than India’s.
This latter statistic is relevant in the sense that Indian and Chinese troops have clashed twice in recent years in the disputed border between the two countries, which was also the cause of a short (and for India unsuccessful) war fought in 1962. India is wary of China: both Pakistan and Sri Lanka have been members of China’s Belt & Road Initiative, and both have seen Chinese investment in building deep water ports, which would potentially reinforce Chinese presence and influence in the Indian sub-continent.
China has made clear its aspirations to be a superpower on a par with the USA. As such, it seeks strategic power in the Asia Pacific Region. Xi Jinping’s non-attendance at the G20 in Delhi was taken by many as a “snub” to India – although China has made no formal comment about the reason why Xi chose to concentrate on domestic business instead of going to Delhi. As an aspiring global superpower, China will wish to maintain order in what it sees as its “backyard”.
This may not be a sign of a renewal of actual conflict between the world’s two most populous nations – China’s main military priority probably remains Taiwan, and India has a large military and nuclear weapons. But the risk clearly exists of further confrontations and skirmishes in the future. Relations between the two are likely remain prickly, and subject to bones of contention – to give one example, it seems most unlikely that China would accept an proposal for India to be admitted to the UN Security Council. Despite India’s rapid progress, China looks likely continue to enjoy economic and strategic advantages – at least in the short-to medium term. However, some experts see China’s current economic and demographic problems as a potential sign of deeper problems. In which case India may make up ground more quickly on its powerful neighbour.
One area on which India and China might collaborate to mutual advantage would be climate change and access to water. Both countries rely substantially on water from rivers that flow from the mountainous regions to the North of India and the South West of China. But this might just as easily become a serious cause of disagreement, given the tensions outlined above.
In the defence sector, Russia has been, and remains, India’s largest arms supplier, but India is diversifying its sources of armaments – understandably given Russia’s own military challenges. India will continue to wish to import fossil fuels from Russia (and elsewhere).
Polynodal Politics, introducing mini-lateralism
It is to be expected that an emergent India will seek to build relations with other countries to counterbalance Chinese power – such as the agreement with the USA and Saudi Arabia announced at the G20. The inclusion of the African Union at the G20, and the admission of Ethiopia (which hosts the AU) to the BRICS+ bloc signal an intention to widen global engagement.
Many western commentators have tended to be sceptical about BRICS+, citing the strategic differences between the members of the bloc – for example India and China, or Iran and Saudi Arabia. One commentator who takes a different view is Fiona Hill, former White House policy adviser to three US Presidents. In her address to the Lennart Meri Conference, she observes signals of a trend towards “mini-lateralism” and the sceptical – and sometimes hostile – view countries in the global south have of the West.
The development of India into a global economic power, and an influencer through the BRICS+ and its chairmanship of the G20 – in which it reached out to the poorest regions – should perhaps be seen of a pattern of strategic change, where the focus of the world is slowly and steadily moving away from the USA and Europe to the Asia Pacific Region. For India a “good” outcome would see it cultivating strong bilateral relations with different regional powers and blocs, and being respected as a player on the international stage and as a developing power to rank with the other major powers. But it would be wrong to ignore the risk of a discordant and ill-tempered rivalry with China, especially as India grows, and China faces its own economic and strategic challenges.
Written by David Lye, SAMI Principal
The views expressed are those of the author(s) and not necessarily of SAMI Consulting.
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