India can emerge as a third pole

Jan 14, 2023By Kishore Mahbubani

The days of a unipolar world order are over, and we are on the cusp of a genuinely multilateral one. India has a unique opportunity to project itself as a truly independent global power

India is entering its best geopolitical sweet spot since its independence 75 years ago. What is the geopolitical sweet spot? It’s the opportunity for India to position itself as the world’s only truly independent global power.

What has created this geopolitical sweet spot? The simple answer is that the world is experiencing one of the greatest geopolitical shifts ever seen in human history. We are finally moving away from the unipolar world order to a genuinely multipolar, multi-civilizational and, consequently, multilateral world order. Geopolitical shifts create opportunities. They also create dangers.

This major structural shift is, of course, triggered by the re-emergence of China. This is a perfectly natural development. From the year 1 to 1820, the two largest economies were those of China and India. The past 200 aberrant years of Western domination of world history are finally ending. Since the return of China, India and much of Asia has been facilitated by the absorption of Western ideas and best practices, the West should welcome this. In theory, it does. In practice, it does not. 

Behaving like all other great powers in human history, the US is making a major, last-ditch effort to preserve its number one position in the world. Even though it denies it has mounted a “containment” policy against China, seasoned and respected western observers like Ed- ward Luce of the Financial Times and Ian Bremmer of the Eurasia Group have confirmed that “containment” has begun. In Cold War I against the then USSR, India found itself on the “wrong side” and paid a price for it. Today, some Indian thinkers believe that India is now on the “right side”. Hence, a strong and powerful constituency has developed in the Indian community of strategic thinkers, arguing forcefully that India should align itself with the US and make the QUAD—rather than BRICS—the number one pillar of Indian foreign policy.

This temptation to be a free rider on American geopolitical pressure on China is understandable. It looks like an easy option, with no visible costs. However, any objective audit of the pros and cons of becoming an ally, implicitly or explicitly, of the US will show that in doing so, India would have forsaken an even bigger geopolitical opportunity to become a truly independent third pole in the global order. And the world is crying out for an independent third pole to turn to.

Just look at the situation of the 54 countries in Africa. Many of the African leaders who joined the White House meeting with US President Joe Biden on December 14, 2022, must have been delighted by this flattering invitation. But if any of them thought that this was the result of the US discovering the intrinsic worth and beauty of Africa, they would only be deluding themselves. Most African leaders are shrewd enough to know that this White House invitation was the result of assiduous Chinese lobbying of African countries through its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). If the US succeeds in stopping China’s growth and development through the trade and technology war it has launched and China is no longer able to court Africa, the latter will once again be dropped by the US, as it was after Cold War I.

Yes, geopolitics is a cruel business. It has been cruel for over 2,000 years. The African states know well—as do other developing countries—that as the US-China geopolitical contest gains momentum in the coming de- cade, they will have to make painful choices. Since they don’t want to take sides and be forced to give up some options, they will be looking for an independent pole to light a third way for them. It will be much easier for them to resist pressure from the US and China and take the middle road if a credible independent pole has set a precedent that they can point to.

Recent history suggests that the world respects independent powers. Under the late Pierre Trudeau, Canada remained an ally of the US, but he never hesitated to give candid advice to Washington D.C. when needed. Under him, Canada never lost an election to the UNSC. However, when Canada gave up its independent streak under Stephen Harper and Justin Trudeau, it started losing elections to the UNSC. This is also why Japan once lost to Bangladesh for the UNSC. An African ambassador to the UN put it to me very simply: why give the US an additional vote in the UNSC?

India has an absolutely legitimate claim to be the next permanent member of the UNSC. I have argued before that it should be made a permanent member, immediately and unconditionally. Yet, this claim would become much stronger if more and more countries around the world clamour for India’s immediate admission to the UNSC. And they are more likely to do so if India is clearly perceived as an independent power.

Paradoxically, India could be more useful to all the other great powers, including the US and China, Russia and the European Union, if it takes more independent stances. It could provide to them candid advice that could help them shift away from unwise and unreasonable positions they have taken. For example, on international law, it could tell China that its nine-dash line claim in the South China Sea has no standing under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). And it could tell the US and the UK to respect the ruling of the world court and hand over Diego Garcia (an atoll in the Chagos archipelago) to Mauritius. Statements of this nature from an influential third pole could provide the pressure needed to move the needle on these issues.

The biggest nightmare hanging over the world in 2023 is the war in Ukraine. Only one country can have strategic empathy with the deep structural concerns of Russia and the European Union, the US and Ukraine. That country is India. Its chairmanship of G20 in 2023 provides India an opportunity to at least bring about a ceasefire which will help not just the suffering people of Ukraine but also the suffering poor people of the world, who have been crushed by high energy prices and global inflation. Even if India tries and fails, its global standing will soar as the world is crying out desperately for a fair and balanced neutral intermediary on the Ukraine war.

Many may misinterpret this call for India to emerge as an independent third pole as a call for a return to India’s previous “non-aligned” foreign policy. Actually, it will be the exact opposite of India’s previous non-aligned path. When I attended the Non-Aligned Summit meeting hosted by Fidel Castro in Havana, Cuba, in 1979, the then president of Sri Lanka, J.R. Jayewardene, said, wisely, that there were only two non-aligned countries in the world then: the US and the USSR. Every other country in the world then, including India, was aligned in one way or another with these two. In today’s context, there are only two genuinely non-aligned countries in the world: the US and China. It’s clear that the vast majority of countries don’t want to align with one or the other (as I document in Has China Won?). Instead, most countries in the world are looking for a third non-aligned pole that they can all follow. Only one country is strong and competent enough to provide this third pole. It is India. This is an amazing sweet spot for India, geopolitically speaking. It shouldn’t waste it.

Source: India Today