India is emphasising on the regional grouping of BIMSTEC, which synchronizes with its ‘Act East’ policy to extend cooperation to Bangladesh at a multilateral level apart from the ongoing bilateral mechanism. In 2016, when India hosted the BRICS Summit in Goa, it invited the BIMSTEC leaders to be part of the conference. Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina joined the meeting. India as host has decided to invite Bangladesh as observer to the G20 summit planned in 2023 during its Presidency – thereby demonstrating deep connections between two neighbours, writes DR DEBJYOTI CHANDA.
With the picturesque backdrop at the scenic Indonesian island of Bali, the world leaders in floral ethnic attire were seen recently discussing in an informal setting pressing for global issues. Their composed demeanour did not betray the undercurrent of tension that was palpable within as reports of relentless Russian missile attacks poured in from Ukraine and Poland. The irony of the situation was the presence of Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov in their close proximity, yet they were confined by diplomatic niceties amidst the escalating war in Europe.
In this churning backdrop, it was India’s turn to receive the G20 baton from President Joko Widodo of Indonesia and lead a grouping of the 20 most economically prosperous nations of the world for the next one year. While taking up this challenge, Prime Minister Modi assertively conveyed to the esteemed gathering that “India’s G20 presidency will be inclusive, ambitious, decisive and action-oriented.” As India assumes the G20 presidency from the 1st of December adopting the ancient Indian Vedic motto of ‘Vasudeva Kutumbakam’ that is ‘the entire world is one family’, coincidentally, on the same day, India will occupy the Chair of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) for the month of December as a non-permanent member of the world body.
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December, as early signs show, will be a difficult one for India’s international affairs. It’ll thus be a testing time for India’s UN permanent representative Ruchira Kambhoj as contentious issues will dominate the agenda of the UNSC that will be taken up for discussion, debate, and voting. Acrimonious debates, especially on the Russia-Ukraine war, will require dexterous manoeuvring and management acumen. The world in 2023 will have to face and overcome interlocking crises situations of unprecedented magnitude and the UN, of which India is an important member, is expected to play a proactive role to mitigate the situation.
The emerging geopolitical dynamics is forcing changes in behavioural patterns of countries, including India, which has a huge population and their welfare serves as the government’s priority and responsibility at a time of great political and economic destabilisation. Noted Manila-based expert on international affairs Don McLain Gill aptly said, “India has adjusted on several occasions to accommodate US interests, despite certain actions by Washing- ton that directly go against India’s security, such as arming Pakistan and staying soft on China.”
Thus, after meeting Foreign Minister Lavrov in Moscow In October last, Indian External Affairs Minister Dr Subrahmanyam Jaishankar categorically stated that “…what India does is in its own interests”. He said India will continue to buy Russian oil, adding that the two nations were expanding trade ties. India and China, in spite of the so-called ‘ban’ are unlikely to stop buying “due to their dependence on imported energy, soaring energy prices and the competitive pricing of Russian energy”. To understand and estimate the ramifications of the current crisis that is slowly but surely engulfing the globe and the role India is destined to play in it, one needs to go down the annals of history. As the curtain dropped, ending the era of the Cold War in the 1990s, it brought about a new global order and the emergence of LPG i.e., liberalisation, privatisation and globalisation. The world knitted closer with the World Wide Web, trade barriers were lowered and removed in many cases, and the rise of transnational companies offered a galaxy of opportunities in an open free market.
The year 2020, however, dealt a blow to this established flourishing system as the COVID-19 Pandemic served to create a rupture and disruption in the order. The Pandemic exposed the compromised global system with numerous shortcomings. Unable to tackle crisis of this magnitude, it became apparent that the world order has to be reset with a new leadership guiding the system in post-pandemic scenario. The USA, especially under President Donald Trump, unilaterally abandoned its global leadership role. It withdrew from many multilateral agreements and was seen struggling to handle the pandemic. Joe Biden seems too weak to pick up the pieces and mend ‘pandemic-stricken America’ and then attempt to regain its foremost leadership position in the world, which is again facing a renewed challenge due to the Ukraine crisis.
On the other hand, another global power China, which has witnessed unprecedented rise in stature in recent years, very much aspires to fill this vacuum. It possesses the might and money but keeping in view its record and intention, it is viewed more as a glorified moneylender than a world leader. Its human rights performance and opaque political system make countries view China with an eye of caution. In this backdrop, the obvious question is who will lead the post-pandemic world? What will be the new power equation in 2023? No doubt, it will be a multipolar world as opposed to a single big player. It would be interesting to explore what role India can play in this new emerging system – especially in the current economic exigency when
-the Ukraine crisis has already in the last nine months devoured $3 trillion (3.12%) of the global GDP of $95 trillion in 2022;
-the energy security of Europe and Asia has disrupted due to the crippling Western sanctions on Russia;
-the global supply chain has hit hard and sent commodity prices soaring.
As a continent-sized country inhabited by 1/6th of the world’s population, India with a $3 trillion plus economy demonstrated to the world its leadership qualities during the recent pandemic. India not only got its economy going, but extended its helping hand to the global community. It supplied Covid 19 vaccines to 80 low and middle-income countries including its immediate neighbour Bangladesh and set up an emergency fund for ASEAN countries. It already produces 60% of the developing world’s vaccines. India’s ‘Vande Bharat’ flights evacuated 120,000 foreigners during the pandemic.
India’s proactive role in the In- do-Pacific is demonstrated in its active involvement in the “Quadrilateral Security Dialogue” commonly known as QUAD in which USA-China-Japan-Australia are members. India in the recent past has shifted its attention to maritime domains,
where it is believed India enjoys an edge. It prioritised the global need of preserving the ocean as a shared resource. But it is a fact that “an economic and technological asymmetry exists between India and China and China’s growing influence in the Indian Ocean region (IOR) is a cause of India’s concern,” says Colonel B.S. Nagial (Retd). According to him, “China’s expansionist policy and various territorial and maritime disputes with its neighbouring countries are forcing the affected nations to come together to thwart China’s threat. India, therefore, is seeking external balance, and QUAD is the best option”. A ‘free and open Indo-Pacific’ with an end to China’s ‘exploitation, corruption and coercion’ of smaller states in the region is the focus of QUAD.
According to Beijing, QUAD represents a Cold War mentality as China continues to accept ‘the old Asia Pacific construct’ rather than subscribing to the ‘new Indo-Pacific nomenclature’. On the other hand, regional stakeholders are calling for “a free, open, inclusive, peaceful and prosperous Indo- Pacific built on a rules-based international order, underpinned by ASEAN centrality”
With India’s growing economic and strategic clout, the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) is important “as a strategic trade corridor that carries almost two-thirds of global oil shipments and a third of bulk cargo”. Quad for India is also a kind of counter to China’s ‘String of Pearls’ strategy by which the latter attempts to thwart India’s pre-eminent position in its immediate neighbourhood. Experts opined that by joining the League of Great Powers, especially the USA and Japan and their allies in the region, India “significantly advances its great power aspiration and enhances its ability for power projection in the Indo-Pacific and beyond”.
As Dr. Amrita Jash says, “Given the increasing pace and scope of the group’s activity, the QUAD indeed is emerging as one of the key multilateral fora committed to an enhanced security partnership in the post COVID-19 world order” and “..there is little doubt regarding the emerging role of India not just as a key player, but also as a responsible actor in the Indo-Pacific region.”
Apart from leading the G-20 from the front, which is “the premier forum for international cooperation on the most important aspects of global economic and financial agenda,” India is actively engaged in ASEAN and BIMSTEC – thus linking Indian Ocean via Bay of Bengal to the Indo-Pacific region in a seamless manner. This linking helps “to maintain the dynamism and credibility in the deliberations for establishing a framework for strong, sustainable and balanced growth, strengthening international financial regulatory systems, reforming Bretton Woods institutions, facilitating trade finance, and pushing forward the Doha agenda”.
India and the ASEAN countries met in Cambodia in November to commemorate the ‘30th India-ASEAN Dialogue Relations’, in which the deep civilization linkage, maritime connectivity and cross-cultural exchanges were reviewed. ASEAN appreciated India’s role in acknowledging its centrality in the evolving regional architecture. India’s trade with the ASEAN region is steadily increasing. In 2021, it reached 31485.58 billion, which was 10.79% of India’s total trade volume of $291808.48 billion. India and ASEAN have agreed to upgrade this relationship to a strategic level. This is important as India at the bilateral level is enjoying active defence cooperation with Indonesia, Vietnam, Singapore and Philippines.
Founded in 1997, India is one of the original members of Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC). This initiative aims is to “accelerate shared growth and cooperation between littoral and adjacent countries of the Bay of Bengal region and act as a bridge between South Asia and Southeast Asia and represents a reinforcement of relations among the countries”. India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bhutan, Thailand and Myanmar are members of BIMSTEC today.
Experts opine that BIMSTEC is not a new grouping. Rather, it is an attempt to “revive and rediscover the common heritage around the Bay of Bengal”, says BIMSTEC’s first Secretary General Sumit Nakandala. It is a sector-driven organisation where India has taken up the responsibility of areas like transportation, energy, connectivity, tourism and counter-terrorism. Its other sectors of cooperation are trade and investment, technology, fisheries, agriculture, environment and disaster management, culture, public health and people to people contact.
Initially, Pakistan’s obstructionist approach to SAARC, resulting in the organisation going hamstrung, prompted India to take selective interest in BIMSTEC. But with China making inroads in the IOR and its involvement in a widespread effort to build infrastructure in South and Southeast Asian countries under its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), prompted India to take a relook at BIMSTEC.
The Bay of Bengal is a region with a 15,792 square kilometres of coastline, coral reefs of around 8,471 sq kms and a coastal population of 185,000,000 signifying its great maritime and tourism potential. The annual fish catch of the region is 6.0 million tons, which is 7% of the world’s catch valued at approximately $4 billion. Although yet to adopt a free trade agreement as a whole, it has adopted bilateral, multilateral and preferential economic and trade cooperation agreements among the member states.
The initial sluggishness, that characterised BIMSTEC operations, prevented it from achieving its potential. However, the recent motor transit agreement, setting up an energy centre in Bangalore of India and initiating a Maritime Dialogue to build a shared and lucrative coastal shipment ecosystem and tourism hub have brightened the prospects of the group. With the new arrangement to enable India becoming the ‘security pillar ’ of the grouping, it has injected in it a vibrancy and vitality towards building a bright future for the Bay and its inhabitants.
QUAD, ASEAN and BIMSTEC for India are groupings which it got engaged in to counter the expansionist moves of its northern neighbour China. Interestingly, it is an active member of two other groups, of which China is an integral part – BRICS and SCO. Russia is an important member of both these groups. India is subject to a tug of war between the two big rival powers, USA and Russia – with both making efforts to woo India in their own sphere of influence. BRICS is a grouping of five emerging economies of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa and they represent 40% of the world population, more than 30% of the world GDP and 17% share of the world trade. Since its very existence, the BRICS leadership has thus committed to coordinate positions in improving global governance to foster a more just and equitable international order. BRICS areas of co-operation as underlined in the summit declarations include health, education, science and technology, agriculture and economic and financial cooperation.
Although BRICS have reiterated their commitment for a comprehensive reform of the UN, the aspirations of India and Brazil to play a greater role in the system have not found much support from either China or Russia, which is “reflective of the intransigent positions of Russia and China to reform the UNSC”. BRICS-NDB (New Development Bank), headquartered in Shanghai, was also established with the purpose of mobilising resources for infrastructure and sustainable development projects in BRICS and other emerging and developing countries.
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The $100 billion BRICS Contingent Reserve Arrangement (CRA) has also become fully operational following the regular meetings of the CRA Board of Governors. A total of 14 summit meetings of BRICS has been held since the formalisation of the group in 2006. China took over the Chairmanship of the group from India in 2022 in the online summit meeting hosted by it. In this context, it may be mentioned that unlike SAARC, the India-China territorial dispute has not overshadowed BRICS, and all the summit meetings have been held on time, with active participation of the member states.
India has age-old historical and cultural ties with Central Asia. Before partition in 1947, India used to share borders with the region. This relationship got further consolidated during the Soviet era when India developed close bonding with the communist country. The region is rich in oil, gas and minerals, and post-cold war India has nurtured friendly ties with the countries of Central Asia. The rise of the Taliban in Afghanistan and difficult relations with Pakistan also make Central Asia Important for India strategically, for having allies in the region enabling it to gain a foothold in the area, which is close to the Occupied Kashmir territory that India aspires to regain.
Therefore, when Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) decided to admit both India and Pakistan into its fold in 2015, its membership increased from six to eight as China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan and later Uzbekistan were its members. Gaining SCO membership for India, in which its time-tested ally Russia played a major role, helped it to be a pan-Asian player with its Act East Policy and increasing strategic presence in West Asia already in place. By securing its foothold in Eurasia, New Delhi is carving out a place in the region, which is energy-rich and strategically important. Iran is slated to join the Group as a full member in 2023, the year India is scheduled to occupy the Chair of the group. SCO has opened up a bouquet of opportunities for the countries of the region, including economic, commercial, transit and energy cooperation. Iran joining the group will bring Central and South Asia closer via Iran.
In this era of great game-changing manoeuvres, the important place India holds in South Asia and beyond is important, which may be assessed from the words of Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, “For instance, India is subject to a persistent, aggressive, devious Western policy, which tries to draw the country into anti-Chinese games promoting so-called Indo-Pacific strategies. At the same time, Western policy tries to weaken our close partnership and strategic privileged relations with Indians. There is very tough pressure undertaken by Americans on New Delhi concerning the Indian military’s technical cooperation with Russia.” Lavrov has referred to India as a “clear pole” in the World Order. He says that the West wants to weaken India’s alliances with different global powers in order to maintain what he calls a ‘unipolar world order ’.
Whatever Russia says, for India the threat from the Dragon is a reality. China’s building of Gwadar (Pakistan), Hambantota (Sri-Lanka) and Kyaukpyu (Myanmar) Ports, building the grand 21st Century Maritime Silk Road under BRI, maintaining permanent naval military base in Djibouti in the horn of Africa and People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN), ships and submarines in IOR and building China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) are hostile actions deemed to be targeted at India, following which India has to tread a balanced, calibrated path to thwart any inimical design from any quarter, yet maintain peace and stability in the region. Hence, PM Modi rose up to shake hands with President Xi in the G20 Bali summit as a gesture of friendship and goodwill.
The current political economic scenario in South Asia has failed the SAARC grouping and it seems to have hit the wall. The turmoil in Afghanistan after Taliban comeback, economic bankruptcy of Sri Lanka and Pakistan and military takeover in Myanmar are manifestations of this crisis. In such circumstance, India is laying stress on the regional grouping of BIMSTEC, which synchronises with its ‘Act East’ policy to extend cooperation to Bangladesh at a multilateral level apart from the ongoing bilateral mechanism. In 2016, when India hosted the BRICS Summit in Goa, the BIMSTEC leaders were a part of the conference. Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina participated in the meeting. This year, India handed over $1 billion to the BIMSTEC fund to augment its budget. The motor transit agreement between India-Bangladesh- Nepal-Bhutan will boost connectivity in the region. Similarly, India allowing its ports for trade between Nepal and Bangladesh will help economy of the region to grow. Also, India, Nepal, Bangladesh and Bhutan are working together to boost hydroelectric production along with laying trans-border pipelines for direct supply of petroleum between the nations. India as host has decided to invite Bangladesh as observer to the G20 summit planned in 2023 during its Presidency – thereby demonstrating deep connections between two neighbours that are bound by history, geography and culture.