Ram Madhav
May 15, 2020

India’s Grand Strategy in a Changing Global Order

Text of Shri Ram Madhav’s address at The New India Dialogues on “India’s Grand Strategy in a changing global order” organised by The Indian Futures on May 9, 2020


We are passing through difficult times and not just in the sense of the spread of this pandemic but also the effects that it is bound to leave on countries in terms of economic impact, political impact, and geo-strategic impact. There are bound to be different types of fallouts; one of them would be economic fallout and every country will face it. 

We are also bracing up to face a major economic fallout from this pandemic but seem to be relatively less impacted. These days we should only talk in relative terms because there is no single country in the world which is not going to be impacted in one way or the other by this pandemic and its after-effects. But relatively speaking, we probably will be less affected economically, also that gives us hope that probably we will do a turnaround in less time compared to other developed and developing countries in the world. But I don’t want to do dwell at length on the domestic consequences. 

I would rather focus on the topic given to me today that is about -What will be the new world emerging post the pandemic. The first question is – whether there will be a new world or not? Actually speaking the setting for the rise of a new world order has already happened with the advent of dramatic changes in this new century. 

One of the major shift that has taken place in the last two decades is the shift of the global power axis. In the last century it was the Western European nations and United States of America which had been the epicenter of global power, the power axis was situated somewhere in the Pacific-Atlantic region. But, in the 21st century the rise of so-called Asian tigers towards the end of the century and a quick rise of countries like India, China and some of the other countries in our neighbourhood has certainly moved the power axis to what is today very frequently referred to as the Indo-Pacific region. 

I would like to underscore one point here, when I talk about the Indo-Pacific region or for that matter anybody in the strategic community talks about the Indo-Pacific region, some people suddenly start thinking that we are creating a new global alliance in the name of Indo Pacific region. Far from it, Indo Pacific region is a natural region. In fact, I would say the Asia Pacific was an artificial construct. Asia-Pacific was a construct by the Western powers especially the Americans to find a good foothold in the newly developing Asian region. But, Eurasia and Indo-Pacific are natural regions. They exist. 

It’s only in the 21st-century these regions have become more powerful and more predominant because the countries in the region have emerged stronger than before. It is in that sense that I am talking about the power axis shifting to the Indo Pacific region in our neighbourhood. So this major shift has already started happening, the importance of Indo Pacific region has already been recognized by many powerful countries in the world. Many have seen it as a region of opportunity. Some had suspicions about it, for example, our friends in Russia were not very easily willing to accept this new proposition of Indo Pacific region. To them it looked like another geo strategic move by certain countries. But largely the world has come to acknowledge the fact that the most happening region in the 21st century is going to be the Indo-Pacific region.

It is around this time when the new global power equations are being formed that we have come face-to-face with this pandemic. If at all this pandemic is going to precipitate the process of shifting the power axis to our east. You have already seen the countries in the West including the most powerful like America, countries in Europe having faced this pandemic in a big way, are looking at long-term negative economic consequences. 

The negative economic consequences are likely to push these countries in two directions. First will be internal. They will turn more inwards. We all know about the America First campaign of President Trump. If he returns, when the elections happen towards the end of this year, he is bound to take that idea of his America First forward. So, some countries are likely to turn more inwards. But then, there are huge possibilities of other countries turning to new power players. 

China in our neighbourhood has certainly emerged as a strong economic power. Its economic dominance will continue to remain in the years and decades to come although it will also suffer economically because of this virus. There is a projection that they will have a negative GDP growth of 6 to 7%. But we all know that China is a different country with a different economy and a different model. They know how to get out of the situations in their own way which probably cannot be imitated by or applied to countries like India. So in spite of certain negative impact on its economy it will try to re-emerge as a strong economic force. So naturally there will be countries which will try to gravitate towards China for their own economic survival, revival, and future. The two types of movements are bound to happen. 

The pandemic has created one more peculiar situation in the world. In fact I have written about it. Entire world was completely shaken up with this pandemic. What is that aspect that has shaken up us all? Is it that tiny virion whose size is supposed to be one thousandth of an eyelash? I don’t think so. It’s actually the story of two countries. The so-called most powerful country, the way that country has behaved. Rather than a picture of a powerful country standing up to help many other countries in the world. That has certainly sent a message. But the other message also came from the behaviour of the other big country in the world namely China. The secretive nature of its handling of the virus. The hush-hush manner in which they tried to push it under the carpet in the first couple of months. Subsequently the allegation is that they allowed the virus to escape from their borders and enter the world outside and create a havoc. And the way certain institutions have become sort of HMV (His Master’s Voice) of China have also created a huge psychological and moral impact on the countries of the world. 

So we are in a situation where the most powerful country has lost the confidence and faith of its people, then the newly powerful country has also lost the faith of its people. A scenario of a leadership vacuum has emerged. It’s also quite discernible at this point of time in the world today. So while countries remain powerful and active players, the new situation is likely to create new kind of global equations, alliances and global order. Let me just take up 2-3 points and close. 

We, from India’s point of view, what do we do in this kind of a scenario? For us there are a few challenges. When Prime Minister Modi took over in 2014, while at one level, you know that foreign policy is a continuum. We continued the Policies of the previous government but at another level every government adds its own nuances to it. We have added a few elements to our foreign policy, the challenge for us now is what will happen to that. 

Generally speaking, India has always adopted a policy called strategic autonomy. In a new changing post Covid world order where does your strategic autonomy stand? Here we have to understand one thing. Strategic autonomy does not or should not be equated with what it used to be in the nonalignment days. Strategic autonomy means of course you are not going to be a member of any club. But it differs from strategic neutrality. Strategic autonomy means in the newly emerging order you will choose different partners for your different needs. If anybody thinks today that Prime Minister Modi is seen moving closer to America and is giving up on our strategic autonomy, they have made a mistake in understanding. 

We have followed what we call a de-hyphenated foreign policy. It’s an extension of our strategic formula. In de-hyphenation we have good relations with a given country without that relationship impacting in any way a third country. That is what is called as de-hyphenation. We have had good relations with America and we try to maintain good relations with China also. And in the emerging new order especially if President Trump returns in America there is a whole assessment that this relationship will go under further strain and stress. But in such a scenario for India to continue with its strategic autonomy means having good relations with all the different power players in the world. 

So we have to be prepared for that kind of a new model of strategic autonomy where we keep our de-hyphenation formula intact and maintain our relations with all different countries. People today talk about the new Cold War. We have seen one Cold War in 50s and 60s up to the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 90s. And during that period we used to talk about nonalignment. We were not playing either side outwardly but both the sides used to think that we are playing with the other and we are on the other side. But today’s de-hyphenation and strategic autonomy is slightly different. 

Secondly, the other challenge is our concept of neighbourhood first. We have talked about taking all our neighbours along with us irrespective of this pandemic. That effort of ours has been constantly coming under pressure because of an inherent competition between us and China. In a new world order that competition is going to grow further; so we need to be prepared for a greater competition. I am not talking about a conflict, struggle or war. I am only talking in terms of greater competition. In the immediate neighbourhood whether it is SAARC or BIMSTEC the competition for the sphere of influence is bound to be growing in the post-pandemic world. So India has to turn its attention to its neighbourhood in a big way. During the Pandemic, the Prime Minister has initiated efforts like SAARC fund etc. but I believe that we need to put greater energies into it.

Naturally as I mentioned in the beginning itself we have the Indian Ocean and Indo Pacific as the most happening region. That process will definitely continue and will further improve our relations with Quad and ASEAN countries. All of them are going to be very important for us. During the pandemic crisis we have faced some problems in our relations with the Gulf countries. A very temporary issue seems to have cropped up, certain domestic happenings or probably the perceptions about certain domestic happenings have led to some tensions with the Middle Eastern countries. But let me tell you personally that looking at it from a long-term foreign policy perspective, I have written about it, that trying to teach secularism to India is like carrying coals to Newcastle. Yet we are listening. 

The reason is that there is an element of interdependence between us and a number of Middle Eastern countries. The future is not likely to be like that. Once the energy options change things will change. And today those individuals, I am not talking about any leaders because no country head or no responsible country leader has talked about Islamophobia etc. but people from the media, the so called intellectuals are talking about Islamophobia in the countries. Look at the situation in those very countries. What are they, do they represent real liberal democratic idea of a state? So this is a big issue that probably we have to raise at some point. 

In India, with a population of 1.3 billion people, the country belongs to every Indian. Every Indian is safe here. It is a big country and there can be some elements on either side who would be probably indulging in things that are not acceptable in any civilized society. But then, it cannot be used as a stick to beat with. 

One final point that I would like to touch upon is with respect to China. India and China have had a history of relationship in the last several decades. In the last 5-6 years Modi Ji’s government has tried to maintain utmost cordiality with China. While doing that we followed the principle of Proactive diplomacy with strong ground posturing. We have engaged in proactive diplomacy but we have not yielded on the ground. So this has taken the relationship to a different level. 

We would like this relationship to continue as an even kind of relationship. We have an interest in our Indo Pacific region where China is also a big power. We have also talked about free, open, secure and prosperous Indian Ocean. Our Prime Minister also highlighted the fact that when we talk about free, open, secure Indian Ocean we are not excluding any country, it is going to be inclusive which means that even China has a role to play. So in this inclusive kind of relationship we need a role for China also. 

But we earnestly hope that China will inculcate certain changes in its approach to global issues. In the Communist Party of China (CPC) terminology there is a phrase called line struggle. Line struggle normally means that in every four years when the party Congress needs, certain leaders have to be pushed out because there is a struggle for hierarchy in the party. Somebody will rise and somebody will be pushed out. With emergence of every new leader some kind of line struggle takes place. So it is an integral part of CPC ideology. It happened with the rise of President Xi Jinping in 2013 also. Certain important leaders had been side-lined and new group of leaders emerged.

But Line struggle also occasionally meant change of the party line with the respect to many issues it was facing. It happened with the rise of Deng Xiaoping. The focus of Mao had all along been security and internal. A shift happened at the time of Deng Xiaoping from security to economic prosperity. So much so that the phrase that was coined was GDP-ism. So the principle for China would be GDP-ism which means economic prosperity. 

With the advent of President Xi in 2013, this party line has again changed to use the economic prosperity to spread its influence over large parts of the world to create a number of countries that are dependent on China. We have seen Belt and Road initiative, there are line changers that have happened in terms of their policies also. We hope that another line struggle and change of line will happen in China and it becomes a more open society, more democratic. So that will most certainly help in building a different kind of a world order post the Covid pandemic. 

Having said this let me conclude by saying that in the new emerging world order post the Covid, a new agenda will dominate the world powers. It is no longer going to be about security, manufacturing industry and trade, in fact country after country today is talking about self-reliance. That means there will be less reliance on other countries. Self-reliance in terms of economic life of the nations in which countries will turn inwards. But then a new agenda that is likely to dominate the global discourse will be issues like climate change and environment. Countries will be compelled to cooperate with each other on these issues. Healthcare is going to be a major factor in global relationships post Covid; Doctors, medical facilities, pharmaceutical industries and healthcare workers are going to be a global activity in the post Covid world. 

And since we have started the new phenomena of social distancing it is going to lead to the creation of new work technologies based on artificial intelligence. Involvement of humans is bound to come down and involvement of machines will rise. That is bound to give space to high end technologies like artificial intelligence. In all this one common factor that will continue from the past to the present to the future will be rule-based world order, I am deliberately not using words like liberal or illiberal democracies it is going to be a new rule-based world order. So this is going to be the new agenda for the post Covid world. 

In the very beginning I mentioned that we will be able to do an early turnaround in our economy, without that of course all that I have talked about will be meaningless, if we fail to revive our domestic economy. So on that premise that early turnaround maybe in a year’s time we will be able to come back with, as IMF has projected, 7+ percent GDP growth. If we are able to come back to that then I am sure on all other global agenda items India has a very big role to play. Whether it is climate change, environmental issues, healthcare or for that matter artificial intelligence and other high end technologies or even a rule-based world order. In all these areas it is India which will command the trust and confidence of the global powers because of its own behaviour during the pandemic crisis and also before that. 

In that sense India should brace up to play a proactive and bigger role in the post Covid world. Last one caution and I end. It’s not that I am saying that India will become a superpower controlling or guiding even though if it is everybody’s wish that India shall become the Vishwa Guru. Countries in our neighbourhood whether it is South Korea or Vietnam or Singapore the democracies which have shown glorious example of tackling this crisis, countries like America and Germany will have to come together to build a new world order based on this new agenda. The 4-5 points that I have pointed out, those are, I believe, going to be the future of the world. That is going to be the new world order. 

Thank you all for your patient listening. 

Namaskar.

Published by Ram Madhav

Member, Board of Governors, India Foundation

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