Disruption in world order: The nimblest power with least problems will fare best

By S Jaishankar

If there is one constant in our lives, it’s change. Those who anticipate it effectively do well. Others who misread it, end up doing harm to themselves. This is as true of nations as of individuals. The USSR, Yugoslavia, Iraq and Libya are examples of one kind. China, South Korea and the ASEAN represent the positive side.

The explanation for why some come out better in global politics is complex. It’s a mix of habits, cultures, mind-sets and most important, vested interests. Somewhere in all of this is the issue of leadership and judgement, both individual and institutional. The challenge is to get the right mix of continuity and change.

The very fact that the word “disruption” has acquired positive connotations says it all. Our own society is now different, the world is very different, technology is obviously different, relationships are consequently different and our thinking is and should be different. So, it’s only reasonable to propose that foreign policy too should be done differently.

The needle has moved sharply in the direction of discontinuity in international relations. Let’s look at some key changes from an Indian perspective:

— India a bigger player now

— The world is flatter in dispersal of both economic & political power

— As dominant power, the US is recalibrating its foreign policy, including with India

— The rise of China has fundamentally changed the global calculus

— Expectations, opportunities and challenges in our neighbourhood require greater Indian initiative

The name of the game is less of balancing and more positioning. The nimblest power with the least problems will fare the best. This puts a premium on agility and requires a non-traditional attitude to play the global game.

One manifestation of that is to form issue-based arrangements that transcend inadequacies of bilateral and multilateral diplomacy through mechanisms like BRICS, the Quad or a range of trilateral groups spanning geographies. Both in structure and style, this is doing diplomacy somewhat differently.


Let’s start with the United States. Historically, the US has maintained an ambivalent approach to the growth of Indian power. On the one hand, it valued Indian stability and promoted what served its larger interests. That explains the generosity with development programs at a time when our political relations were not necessarily positive. During the 1962 war with China, American policy makers were actually anxious for us. But, on the other hand, they worked overtime to neutralize our regional dominance and strove particularly hard to ensure some parity with Pakistan. This policy started changing with the Kargil conflict and has gathered momentum over successive Administrations.

Numerous factors drove this shift. Among them our growing economic and technology relationship, new geo-politics arising from the rise of China, and some commonality of interest on terrorism. The diaspora has been a big factor in this process. Among the changes that reflect this new relationship is the India-US nuclear deal as well as much closer defence cooperation. To some extent, public sentiment is also a bellwether on such matters.

For good reasons of history, the old Indian mindset towards the US was defensive, even suspicious. But today a stronger, more capable India can shift, instead, to a strategy of leveraging the US. A cleareyed view of our national interest encourages us to work with the US when required, and differ when necessary.

But there’s a new normal in world politics also making itself felt today. American economic nationalism has already made trade more central to its relationships. Being neither ally nor adversary, we have not disappointed or deceived. An integrated and strategic view requires us to understand that despite differences, including those over third-party relationships, one should not lose focus from harvesting the gains of improved India-US ties. The structural basis for the relationship has never been stronger.

Certainly, there will be give and take. And it’s not as if we don’t have cards to play. The less rigid global architecture allows for more freedom to manoeuvre. Abandoning prejudices and making decisions on merit would itself be doing foreign policy differently.

No other society has influenced Chinese culture as extensively as India. There was even a period when China supported our independence struggle. Yet, for both political and historical reasons, these connections have been replaced by a more competitive narrative in public consciousness, one that focuses on the boundary dispute, China-Pakistan relations and Tibet.

Efforts have been on to normalise the relationship by engaging on differences and creating new content. The success has not been entirely to India’s advantage. The faster and more sweeping development of China has widened the power differential. Further, large trade deficits from lack of market access and non-tariff barriers in China has added to the burden. China has also qualitatively enhanced its collaboration with Pakistan, discarding even the limited balance it had shown in the past. If there is any account that needs to be done differently, it’s China.

The outstanding issues are well known. But it’s really the more recent characteristics of China that merit closer consideration. We are dealing today with the number two economy of the world and a potential superpower, which is also our neighbour. It has a different political model and declared global ambitions. We share a common periphery where our interests would naturally intersect. China as a maritime power will enter the Indian Ocean, creating a new strategic situation as does its unique connectivity initiatives. The truth is we are staring at a completely different landscape to the north.

India, must be open minded and imaginative. On the economic front, we have to accept China as a major investor, but one that requires deft handling keeping in mind national security. The trade deficit is unsustainable and the case to press for greater market access has only become stronger. Strategically, India can learn from China itself by leveraging the global environment to maintain a better balance. The border is best managed through more intensive infrastructure building and deployment of asymmetric capabilities. Our footprints will overlap in South Asia and beyond, and India would be judged by the quality of its delivery.

We cannot afford the complacency of the past that overlooked the Hambantota project or ballooning trade deficits. Nor should we take comfort in the rhetoric of combativeness. Chinese power is a fact of life. In a world of uncertainty and positioning, the two have a shared interest in building a stable relationship. That was the logic which drove the Wuhan meeting between their leaders this April.

The longer term challenge would be to see how two rising powers in close proximity accommodate each other. At the end of the day, we will be the only two billion-plus nations in the world and that has its own dynamic.

A combination of history and sociology has bequeathed a particularly complex periphery. In the past, most of our neighbours were politically focused on maintaining their distinct identity. Pakistan, of course, was an altogether different case. Consequently, the challenges in South Asia overshadowed its opportunities. That is no longer the case. The aspirational generation is making its voice heard in India and across the region. There is now a broad expectation of a visibly better quality of life in the very near future. Geopolitically, that can only happen in partnership with India whose economic progress has been a lifting tide for the entire subcontinent.

From the era when there were charges of being overbearing, today the complaints against India are of doing too little. This requires an initiative of a very different order, where India is prepared to invest generously and non-reciprocally in the growth of its neighbours. Far from being deterred, we ourselves have become champions of regionalism.

Investing in South Asian connectivity is today the smartest move we can make. This is not just an issue of intent, it’s also one of delivery. For good measure, that will be compared with the performance of China. Retaking the initiative to shape the larger region should rank foremost among our priorities.

Pakistan poses a unique challenge due to its belief that that India’s willpower can be broken. Previous history was of periodic talks on outstanding issues interrupted by terrorist attacks. The confidence in Pakistan that it can game India starts to erode when the initiative is no longer with them. If Indian behaviour is unpredictable, imposes costs on provocations and is able to carry world opinion regarding its intent, then the scenario changes. It will be a long haul, but regaining the initiative will be very much at the heart of handling this challenge differently.

It’s commonly believed in our country that China developed faster because they had less political constraints. That may be true but my own experience was that they also had developed better leadership and administrative capabilities which made the critical difference. For change to acquire critical proportions, every part of the system must make its due contribution. After all, most transformational stories of the last century involved progressive bureaucratic leadership.

The author is former foreign secretary

Source: Economic Times