The Indian way in global affairs

One of the most interesting things in international affairs is when a country’s role starts shifting. Over the past decade, I’ve watched the evolution of India’s self-awareness from its traditional anti-great-power stance to the realisation that it’s on the cusp of being a great power itself. What sort of global power will India become?

The annual multilateral Raisina Dialogue provides some insights into this question. India’s flagship conference on geopolitics and geoeconomics this year attracted more than 700 attendees, including 12 foreign ministers and seven former heads of state. It was a jam-packed five days, including associated think tank events, providing a window into Indian strategic debates.

Some new themes were evident this year in discussions about India and how it sees its role.

First, there was more recognition than I’ve heard before that India might have benefited from the liberal international order and will miss it. Professor Ummu Salma Baya of Jawaharlal Nehru University’s Centre for European Studies eloquently described the sense of the liberal international order fraying into disorder. Shashi Tharoor quipped that the liberal world order didn’t always live up to each part of its name, but did create much good.

Second, some Indian speakers noted that, as global rules continue to come under strain, India might want to play a bigger role in shaping global norms. Shashi Tharoor and Samir Saran, authors of The new world disorder and the Indian imperative, argue that India has a major part to play in shaping the regimes of the future given its size, growing clout and stake in practically every major multilateral organisation. As characterised by Rudra Chaudhuri of Carnegie India, India has been ‘a country that believes in its own exceptionalism’ and ‘that it is generally seen as sovereignty hog’. Building global rules requires a different approach.

India was encouraged to embrace such a role by international speakers, including former Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper, who called on India to aspire to be a constructive global power, and former NATO secretary-general Anders Fogh Rasmussen, who asked India to step up and contribute to a global alliance of democracies to set the norms for the future.

Third, there were a few voices urging a different approach to trade. C. Raja Mohan of the Institute of South Asian Studies was provocative in arguing that New Dehli’s negativity towards international trade has made India ‘part of the problem’ in the breakdown of global rules. With US$3 trillion GDP, linked to global exports and imports, ‘Can India remain Mr No?’, he asked. He noted that India has stood aside from rules on e-commerce and is not part of group trying to reform the World Trade Organization. He argued that as one of the big economic powers, India needs to fundamentally review its position: ‘Delhi needs a fresh perspective.’

Professor Gulshan Sachdeva of JNU’s Centre for European Studies noted that India has unilaterally cancelled investment treaties with Europe and others. Mihir Sharma of the Observer Research Foundation pointed out that, in the past five years, India hasn’t signed any major trade deals, hasn’t endorsed the Belt and Road Initiative, and has decided to stay outside the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership. He suggested that an observer looking at India as an economy with potential would see that it isn’t ready for the kind of integration that’s happening in Asia and elsewhere the world, with negative effects on its economy. ‘It’s the right time to bring trade issues onto the agenda’, he said.

These were still minority views. A talk by the commerce and industry minister, Piyush Goyal, showed India’s traditional attitude towards global trade in full force. There was consensus that India is not going to join RCEP. While immediate change to India’s stance on global trade seem unlikely, it’s interesting is that some voices have started arguing for a different approach.

Bringing these themes together, the talk on ‘the Indian way’ by India’s external affairs minister, S. Jaishankar, was instructive. According to the minister, it is not the Indian way to be a disruptive power internationally; it should be a stabilising power. It’s not the Indian way to be self-centred; it is important to be global and rule-abiding and consultative. The Indian way is to bring ‘its capacities to bear on the international system for global good’.

But he went on to say that the Indian way, ‘now especially, would be to be more of a decider or a shaper rather than an abstainer’. That includes shaping ‘the international relations discourse, the concepts, the ideas, the debates’. He stressed that it’s not about taking power, but noted that as India grows in its capacities and influence, it might begin expressing itself a little more firmly and decisively than in the past. ‘I think the image of being reluctant, of shying away [doesn’t] hold true anymore.”

While couched in terms that have continuity with India’s past—’India owes it to itself and to the world to be a just power, a fair power, to be a standard-bearer for the south. I think it’s part of our history, it’s part of our political inheritance’—there was also a desire to see India punch at its weight, such as on climate change.

Jaishankar also noted that India’s international personality will be an extrapolation of its national personality, its heritage and its talents: ‘We are a political democracy, we are a pluralistic society, we are a market economy, we have historically been very open to the world. I think you will see all those traits reflect themselves.’

An India that doesn’t shy away from exercising influence may have more time for Australia. In the minister’s words:

Today we really think the India–Australia relationship is poised for a big jump because … when we look at the world, at the strategic picture, we look at the political picture. I think we are two countries whose interests and approaches are really very convergent.

There’s also a realisation that countries like India and Australia need to step up and play a greater role in terms of global responsibilities, regional responsibilities because there is a growing deficit in that regard.

The critical issues of the time are ones that Australia and India can work together on.

Raisina showed the Indian way: big and argumentative, publicly discussing and deciding what sort of country it should be. India will be debating its role in global affairs for some time to come.