Harsh V. Pant
As Prime Minister Narendra Modi completes his three-nation tour of Europe, there is suddenly new energy and momentum in India’s ties with the West. And the remarkable aspect of this change is that it is happening at a time when few expected this to happen. India has continued to maintain its position in the Ukrainian crisis even as the West continues to ratchet up the pressure on Russia.
New Delhi has been consistent in its advocacy of diplomacy and dialogue within the parameters set by international law and the United Nations (UN) charter. It has refrained from publicly condemning Russia though a clear disappointment can be discerned in India’s growing concern about the humanitarian crisis unfolding in Ukraine as the war drags on.
The West has been asking India to do more, and the western media has lectured India on its democratic responsibilities. But western governments seem to comprehend India’s challenges much better, and so, in an ironic way, this crisis has provided the means for both New Delhi and the West to come closer and to engage each other more substantively. From Washington and London to Berlin and Paris, India is being viewed as a strategic opportunity that has to be nurtured, not as a perpetual naysayer that is a challenge.
This remarkable shift in the outreach by the West can be attributed to three key factors. First, of course, is the wider structural shift in the global balance of power. With the centre of gravity of global politics and economics now firmly located in the Indo-Pacific, China’s challenge to the international order can no longer be brushed aside as a mere irritant that will self-correct eventually. China’s aggression in pursuit of its manifest destiny and its attempt to dictate terms of engagement to others has made it imperative for global powers to react in search of a rules-based order in the region.
The Chinese Communist Party’s attempts to weaponise trade and launch misinformation campaigns to destabilise democracies resulted in a collective response of a kind leading to a global fragmentation not seen since the heyday of the Cold War. For the West, a partnership with India has become a veritable necessity to manage the widespread disruption in the international system.
The second factor has been a reassessment by western Europe of its own identity as a global actor. For long, the European desire was to escape from history and even in some ways, transcend it. The European Union (EU), according to many of its fervent believers, was an attempt to remould the forces of history.
The EU, as per this logic, would first reshape the European strategic landscape and then eventually help in transcending the pernicious logic of geopolitics in the global order, thereby heralding a new phase in international relations. And, so, while American might and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization were to manage Russia, economic cooperation was to be the most potent antidote to Chinese expansionism.
But while the EU was busy trying to transcend geopolitics, geopolitical challenges were enveloping the European landscape. From simmering disconnect within the EU to the externalities emanating from China’s rise and Russia’s revisionism, western Europe today is going back to the basics. China is today not only the EU’s “systemic rival” but under Xi Jinping, it has generated intense distrust across Europe, leading to debates on issues as wide-ranging as critical infrastructure security to supply chain resilience.
With its strategy for the Indo-Pacific, the EU wants a larger footprint in this vital maritime geography. And with the Russian onslaught on Ukraine, even Germany has been forced to reorient its post-World War II foreign policy and national security outlook. This new strategic reorientation of western Europe is well aligned with India’s priorities, and the newfound convergence is leading to an ever more robust engagement.
The final, and perhaps the most important, element in this shifting approach of the West is not about the West at all but about India’s response to its strategic priorities. Today’s self-confident India has a new voice on the global firmament — clear, rooted in the domestic realities and civilisational ethos as well as firm in the pursuit of its vital interests. As external affairs minister S Jaishankar remarked at last week’s Raisina Dialogue, it is better to engage with the world on the basis of “who we are” rather than try and please the world. If India is confident about its identity and priorities, the world will engage with India on its terms.
Over the last few years, New Delhi has not been averse to challenging its adversaries and in courting its friends without the ideological baggage of the past. From being the only global power to challenge Xi’s Belt and Road Initiative as far back as 2014 to responding to Chinese military aggression with a strong military push back, from trying to work with the United States without entering the full embrace of an alliance to engaging the western world for building domestic capacities, India has been pragmatic to the core and willing to use the extant balance of power to its advantage.
India’s focus today is on enhancing its capabilities in every possible sector, and that allows for a more clear-eyed engagement with its partners. The West often used to a pontificating India of the past, today hears an Indian voice on the global stage that is capable of articulating a narrative of a responsible stakeholder that is firmly steeped in its own ethos. And this, more than anything else, has allowed a new reality to dawn in western capitals that today’s India means business, and it can’t be business as usual. Therefore, a substantive western engagement with India is a natural consequence, the Ukraine crisis notwithstanding.
This article was first published at Hindustan times as Why is the west wooing New Delhi?.
Read another piece by Harsh V. Pant on Democratic governance- It’s Time to Celebrate Democratic Governance in a War Ridden World in IMPRI insights.
Read another piece by Harsh V. Pant East meets West in IMPRI insights.
Read another piece by Harsh V. Pant New Delhi and Washington DC are seeking new opportunities in IMPRI insights.
Prof Harsh V. Pant, Director, Studies; Head, Strategic Studies Programme, Observer Research Foundation (ORF), New Delhi