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Minhaz Merchant

Minhaz Merchant is the biographer of Rajiv Gandhi and Aditya Birla and author of The New Clash of Civilizations (Rupa, 2014). He is founder of Sterling Newspapers Pvt. Ltd. which was acquired by the Indian Express group

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India’s Geopolitical Moment

Turning points come rarely in history. We are seeing one now as the conflict in Ukraine causes economic disruptions and a shift in the balance of global power. Notwithstanding the challenges India faces, it could prove a defining geopolitical moment for the country

Photo Credit : Shutterstock

Adversity creates opportunities. The Russia-Ukraine war has imposed three adversities on India. One, absorbing high crude oil prices that will impact the trade and fiscal deficits. Two, paying circuitously for sanctioned Russian imports. And three, resisting pressure from the United States-led West to join the ostracism of Russia.

In each case, India has emerged largely unscathed. The country’s nominal GDP, projected at $3.3 trillion as on 31 March, 2022, is now the world’s fifth largest, overtaking Britain this fiscal. Think tanks in the West estimate that India’s economy will overtake Germany and Japan by 2030 to become the world’s third largest after the United States and China. 

The Western establishment, for all its recent rhetoric, is not unmindful of this. It knows that India’s consumer market is the world’s second largest after China. And it is aware how 50,000 Indian soldiers with advanced weaponry, Rafale fighter jets and strategically positioned ballistic missiles have held the powerful People’s Liberation Army (PLA) at bay for 22 months in eastern Ladakh.

India, the West recognises, is a force to reckon with today and will be an even more potent one in the next decade. It is hardly a coincidence that China is signalling a new modus vivendi with India. Wang Yi, China’s foreign minister and state councilor (a powerful position in the Chinese Communist Party) says China wants to reset the fractured India-China relationship.

Beijing is anxious that Prime Minister Narendra Modi visits China for the BRICS summit scheduled later this year. Modi has refused a face-to-face meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping since the Ladakh standoff began in May 2020.

China wants to capture a dominant position in its ongoing geopolitical contest with the US. Hosting India and Russia along with Brazil and South Africa on the BRICS platform would burnish China’s global credentials that have been tarnished in Western Europe by its refusal to condemn the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

The Russia-India-China (RIC) trilateral on the sidelines of the BRICS summit with Modi attending in person, Beijing believes, would show Washington that a swing power like India need not necessarily be confined to the US-led Western camp.

The Western coalition is equally keen to keep India onside. The recent visit by Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and the India-Australia virtual summit re-emphasised India’s growing geopolitical role as a pivot in a rapidly shifting balance of geopolitical power. The Israeli prime minister, who is playing a key mediating role in the Russia-Ukraine dispute, will visit New Delhi on 2 April. 

If it gets its strategy right, India can use the economic and political turbulence set off by the Russia-Ukraine conflict as a key geopolitical moment. New Delhi has for long punched below its weight. But a legacy friendship with Russia gives it leverage. The trade and investment partnership with the US in turn offers it room for manoeuvre. The 2+2 India-US strategic dialogue, to be held shortly, demonstrates the importance Washington places on India’s role as a counterweight to China.  

While US Congressional leaders have been vocal in calling for sanctions on India through CAATSA (Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act), the Biden administration has taken a softer line. It knows that sanctioning India could drive it closer to the Russia-China axis.

The US-led West is now fighting a battle on two fronts: Russia in Europe and China in Asia. It needs India more than ever within the Western geopolitical orbit to counter China in the Indo-Pacific and ensure that it doesn’t drift too close to Moscow. Sanctions under CAATSA would achieve precisely that.

Washington is also keeping a wary eye on who represents India at the BRICS summit in Beijing, tentatively scheduled for September 2022. If Modi attends, it will be seen as a setback for Washington. Modi faces a tough choice. To travel to Beijing for an in-person summit with Xi would negate India’s strong stand on the Line of Actual Control (LAC) that has not only cost the lives of Indian soldiers but imposed heavy costs on manning the contested border with China. Unless that is resolved, Modi would find it politically difficult to go to Beijing or take part personally in the RIC trilateral with China and Russia.

Russia’s foreign ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova said pointedly last month in Moscow: "Today the initiative of holding the RIC summit is up to China, and we are ready to comprehensively support dialogue in this format. This is a dialogue between three major powers of Asia who bear special responsibility for upholding security in the Asia-Pacific region.” 

Clearly the Russia-Ukraine conflict, however it ends, is a historical turning point. The rift between Russia and the rest of Europe has widened more than at any time since the Cold War. China is watching events carefully, hoping that America’s attention stays on Europe and away from the Indo-Pacific.

India’s future strategy should be finely calibrated. It has already called out Western hypocrisy over pressure on India to stop buying Russian oil and gas while West European countries continue to buy Russian energy in large quantities.  To rub it in, India announced than it was inviting major global energy producers to bid to supply oil and gas to India at the lowest price. That includes Russian producers, India added with unusual asperity.

So has India finally recognised its position as a swing power in the emerging reset of global politics? Possibly. External Affairs Minister Dr S. Jaishankar is an experienced diplomat who recognises the warp and weft of geopolitics. Jaishankar speaks fluent Russian and Mandarin. As a former foreign secretary and ambassador to both China and the US, he is a realist. At the 2022 Munich Security Conference held in February, Jaishankar was blunt in his assessment of the future of India-China relations: “The state of the border will determine the state of the relationship.  So obviously, relations with China right now are going through a very difficult phase.”

Turning points come rarely in history. We are seeing one now as the conflict in Ukraine causes economic disruptions and a shift in the balance of global power. Notwithstanding the challenges India faces, it could prove a defining geopolitical moment for the country.

Minhaz Merchant is the biographer of Rajiv Gandhi and Aditya Birla and author of The New Clash of Civilizations (Rupa, 2014). He is founder of Sterling Newspapers Pvt. Ltd. which was acquired by the Indian Express group