The global order is in turmoil as the consequences of China’s rise become clearer by the day. Turmoil is inherent when major powers rise and fall but what is interesting in this case is how rapidly the consensus seems to have shifted from one end of the spectrum to another. Policy mandarins in the West till early last year used to confidently assert that there is no alternative to engaging Beijing and derided former US President Donald Trump for his hardline rhetoric against China. But Trump’s persistence in targeting Beijing and the onslaught of COVID-19 finally made the world realise that the time to confront China had perhaps arrived.
And suddenly the consensus changed. Geopolitical expertise now almost universally is looking at a serious possibility of an impending Sino-US conflict. Those who once talked of engagement being the only real possibility are now recasting their assumptions. Some had argued that perhaps the Biden administration would go back to the pre-Trump consensus on China but instead we are witnessing Washington today upping the ante on almost every single dimension of US-China ties. From G-7 to NATO all major institutions are now focusing on China in ways that would have been impossible to predict just two years back.
So the West has woken from its slumber. Both the US and Europe have finally recognised the costs of mollycoddling China for decades. There is now a serious rethink on old China policies in western capitals as the search for like-minded countries has taken on a sense of urgency. India has emerged as the focal point of global attention as the search for a new balance of power in the Indo-Pacific gathers steam.
While policymakers across the world clearly recognise the imperative of engaging India, there is a strange argument which is being channeled by a section of the global media that in this search for a new global equilibrium, India is the so-called “weakest link.” And this is premised on India’s supposed inability to tackle the second wave of COVID-19 which has seemingly revealed the Indian state’s capacity deficit.
This argument is being propagated at a time when India has actually emerged as one of the most robust voices demanding China to behave—bilaterally, regionally and globally. And this is not something that has happened today, it has been in the offing for several years now. Not recognising New Delhi’s role in shaping a normative and policy consensus against Chinese aggression says less about India’s seeming capabilities and more about those who have no real comprehension of either India’s China policy or about recent global trends.
Difficulties faced by India in managing the second wave of COVID-19 have revealed nothing new. Indian state’s capacity deficit has always been part of the discussion about India’s rise. But what the last few months have underscored that India is getting better at managing crises. India managed the first wave much better than many advanced industrial nations and the second wave was brought under control in a remarkably short period of time. India’s performance should be situated in the context of the challenges which nations with much more advanced health infrastructure continue to face.
Ever since the second wave struck India, sections of global and Indian intelligentsia have doubled down on the argument that this is the end of the India story. What this narrative ignores is how in the last year and a half, India has weathered the COVID-19 pandemic on the one hand while on the other it has pushed back against Chinese aggression at the border. New Delhi was at the forefront of mobilsing global opinion in managing the pandemic when most advanced industrial nations, including the US, were busy looking inwards. And New Delhi was busy fighting the Chinese soldiers on the border on its own.
India’s pushback against China has been a part of the Indian strategic posture for years now. Even when the West was busy cozying up to Beijing, New Delhi was challenging China on multiple fronts. India was the first major nation to openly criticize Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) as a predatory infrastructure project. Today New Delhi’s critique has become part of the global consensus on BRI. The acceptance of the logic of the Indo-Pacific from the West to the East, despite China’s strong disapproval, would not have happened without India’s enthusiastic response to it. And the emergence of the Quad would have remained a pipedream if New Delhi hadn’t clarified its foreign policy choices.
India has robustly challenged China on multiple fronts and has led the world in finding a global solution to the pandemic. It has, of course, done this to protect and enhance its national interests but in so doing, it also galvanised the global community. As major powers in the world come together to challenge China, they will find in India a strong partner and a trusted friend. Sections of global media may not find this convincing but global powers who are gravitating to India certainly see in India a compelling partner.
With all its domestic challenges, India standing up to China and taking on its due role as a global leader is the real story of our times. It is already changing global strategic equations and will have a profound impact on the emerging balance of power. India is and will continue to be the strongest link in this calculus.
— Professor Harsh V Pant is Director, Studies and Head of the Strategic Studies Programme at Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi and Professor of International Relations at King's College, London. The views expressed in the article are his own
(Edited by : Ajay Vaishnav)