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2023, an important year for India’s Government
Throughout 2023, India will play a prominent role in world politics. It will be chairing the G-20, the grouping of the world’s 20 largest economies. The G-20 is not an international organisation, nor a grouping of common values, and even less an alliance, but it is a setting in which the world’s most important economic, financial and development issues, including the most burning political topics of our time, are being dicussed. At their annual closing summit, G-20 countries adopt a declaration which indicates the direction in which world politics will develop, without, however, creating any legal commitments for the participating governments. The importance of the G-20 and its final declaration lies in the fact that it represents almost two thirds of the global population and nine tenths of the world’s gross domestic products of the participating countries combined.
As the group’s chair, India will set the agenda and steer the negotiations leading to the final declaration. After what we know of the Indian Prime Minister’s ambition to elevate India’s relevance in geopolitics, and after having experienced his determination to that effect, the world can expect a high profile of India’s diplomatic endeavours. While the Western world is still focussed on how to contain and push back Russia’s aggression against the Ukraine, the global South overall refuses to take sides in this conflict. Apart from China, India is the most prominent big power to ignore sanctions imposed by the wide Western anti-Russia coalition, formally because they are not binding UN-sanctions, politically because India wants to document its determination to be seen as independent of any political or geostrategic bloc. This positioning may falsely remind global politics of India’s non-alignment position of the first four decades of its independence. Today’s strategic positioning, however, carries no ideological or moral motivation of that era; it simply expresses India’s desire to be recognised as a global big power. As the world has moved from a unipolar order after the end of the Cold War to a bipolar order with the USA and China as rivals and competitors for global dominance, India is striving for a multipolar order; there only would be room for other big dominant powers.
India will, with its policies as the G-20 chair, certainly add to its other manifestations of geostrategic autonomy. In order to be effective, however, such policies would have to be underpinned by economic substance and military capacities. While India is just about to become the world’s number one with regard to the size of its population, thus overtaking China, it ranks as an economy as number seven (nominal GDP 2017) and militarily as number four by its nominal defence budget for 2021, but by capabilities and quality of armament certainly behind the numbers five, six and seven. Overall, it compares more to Turkey and Saudi Arabia, countries with regional ambitions, but certainly not global powers.
In addition, India has been for decades engaged in a conflict with China at its land border to the North and, more and more in recent years, in an unfriendly competition for hegemonic dominance over the Indian Ocean. These conflict lines massively and permanently bind forces and resources and limit India’s margin of manoeuver in its pursuit of its geostrategic goals. Furthermore, India has no other option than to rely on alliances, coalitions and cooperative defence arrangements within Western inspired settings such as the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (“Quad”) with the USA, Japan and Australia.
Prime Minister Modi has certainly demonstrated that he understands where his country’s future and interests lie. But this does not prevent him from taking advantage of occasional opportunities, such as the purchase from Russia of oil and gas and other commodities at grotesque discount prices. India’s current cooperation with Russia, being in stark contrast with expectations of really relevant partners for the future, is certainly annoying those partners. But it is Modi’s choice to illustrate his ambition to become a global power. How serious he is in his pursuit of strategic autonomy will be seen i.a. by his deeds as the G-20’s chair. The year 2023 will not bring about essential changes in India’s economic and military fundamentals, but it will catapult on a world stage its intentions and possibly its illusions regarding its place in world politics.
January 20, 2023 / Philippe Welti