The world is in a state of flux, and according to Indian Foreign Secretary S. Jaishankar, that can be a good thing for a rising regional power such as India, which in many ways is primed to seize the moment and propel itself toward a greater global leadership role. Today at the Raisina Dialogue, an international conference in New Delhi, Jaishankar touted India’s diplomatic successes while laying out the country’s global ambitions to an audience of 250 delegates that included such leaders as British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, head of US Pacific Command Adm. Harry Harris and former Afghan President Hamid Karzai.
Many factors support a more influential global role for India. The country benefits from a relatively young population (a significant proportion of which speaks English) and has one of the fastest growing major economies in the world. Thanks to its history of multilateral engagement, it has made few enemies. What’s more, India was spared the worst effects of the 2008 global financial crisis.
Of course, discussion of India’s ambitions must be measured against the reality of its constraints. India’s fiscal limitations stymie investment into the infrastructure projects it needs to spur growth. It is weighed down by an unwieldy parliamentary system that struggles to channel the demands of its billion-citizen polity into coherent policies. And it must contend with the persistent security threat from archrival Pakistan, which has prompted it to commit resources to support a strong military presence in Indian-held Kashmir, in turn undercutting the integration of South Asia’s economies.
India also suffers from demographic shortcomings that limit its economic development. About 70 percent of Indians live in rural areas, and up to a quarter of the population is impoverished. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s efforts to grow India’s manufacturing base and employ more of its large pool of semiskilled labor remain hamstrung by the lack of land and labor reform in the country. Even if India could implement land and labor reforms, however, it would still struggle to develop a globally competitive manufacturing sector in this era of increasing automation. For India, then, a further embrace of multilateralism could give it a path not only to compensate for those shortcomings and earn the investments it needs to bolster the economy but also to help it place a check on Pakistan.
Even as Jaishankar alluded to the uncertainty that colors New Delhi’s view of US intentions under President-elect Donald Trump, he sees an opportunity as the new US administration takes power for India to increase its international engagement as a way to overcome its limitations. Sensing that Washington will grow more reluctant to throw itself into the affairs of distant nations, India wants to fill the vacuum by assuming a greater global leadership role of its own.
Historically, Indian policymakers have generally honored the call by Jawaharlal Nehru, the country’s first prime minister, to avoid entangling alliances. But the country has grown discontented with remaining aloof. In the past year alone, it has demonstrated the scope of its vision by engaging with every major region in the world. To wit, India hosted both the India-Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit and the BRICS summit and ratified the United Nations climate change protocol in Paris. Modi addressed a joint session of the US Congress in June and embarked on a four-nation tour to Africa in July. He also hosted British Prime Minister Theresa May in what was her first visit outside of the European Union since taking office, and next week on Jan. 26, he will host Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nuhayyan, Abu Dhabi’s crown prince, as the chief guest for India’s annual Republic Day parade.
Yet for all of its diplomatic fervor, India bickers over foreign policy with its northern neighbor, China. Despite protestations and support from Washington, India has been unable to persuade China to place Masood Azhar, the leader of the Pakistan-based militant group Jaish-e-Mohammad, on a UN blacklist. Similarly, an 11th-hour diplomatic pitch in June and support from Washington failed to earn India a vote needed from China that would have allowed it to join the Nuclear Suppliers Group, a 48-member body whose members share nuclear technology with one another. At the Raisina conference, Modi took a jab at China, saying that if Beijing wants its regional connectivity projects, including the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, which runs through Kashmir, to be successful, it must respect India’s sovereignty.
The prickly dynamic between the countries, in part, is a continuation of a difficult history. A lingering dispute stemming from their 1962 border war complicates any Chinese investments in infrastructure projects in South Asia, which India perceives as a form of encroachment. But beyond critical statements from New Delhi, India is limited in how it can retaliate. In addition, China’s interests in denying India’s diplomatic desires have more to do with its support of Pakistan. Thus, while its embrace of multilateralism is a way for India to compensate for its constraints, these international forums themselves can be constrained through the presence of China — and by extension the interests of Pakistan, which views China as its strongest ally.
During his famous speech to the Indian parliament on the eve of India’s independence, Nehru said the moment rarely comes when “the soul of a nation, long suppressed, finds utterance.” Over the past 70 years, India, as one of Asia’s dominant powers, has sought to be the voice of the world’s developing nations. Now it has the opportunity, but can it get others to listen?
© STRATFOR GLOBAL INTELLIGENCE