As Prime Minister Narendra Modi completes his three-country European tour, there is suddenly new energy and momentum in India’s ties with the West. And the remarkable thing about this change is that it is happening at a time when few expected it to happen. India has continued to maintain its stance on the Ukraine crisis even as the West continues to increase pressure on Russia. New Delhi has been consistent in its defense of diplomacy and dialogue within the parameters established by international law and the United Nations (UN) charter. He has refrained from publicly condemning Russia although clear disappointment can be discerned in India’s growing concern over the unfolding humanitarian crisis in Ukraine as the war drags on.
The West demanded India do more and the Western media lectured India on its democratic responsibilities. But Western governments seem to have a better understanding of India’s challenges, and so, ironically, this crisis has given New Delhi and the West the means to come together and engage more. From Washington and London to Berlin and Paris, India is seen as a strategic opportunity that must be cultivated, not a perpetual opponent, it is a challenge.
This remarkable shift in Western reach can be attributed to three key factors. The first, of course, is the broader structural shift in the global balance of power. With the center of gravity of world politics and economics now firmly located in the Indo-Pacific, China’s challenge to the international order can no longer be dismissed as a mere irritant that will eventually correct itself. China’s aggression in pursuit of its manifest destiny and attempt to dictate the terms of engagement to others has made it imperative for world powers to respond in pursuit of a rules-based order in the region. Attempts by the Chinese Communist Party to weaponize trade and launch disinformation campaigns to destabilize democracies have resulted in a collective response of the type leading to global fragmentation not seen since the height of the Cold War. For the West, a partnership with India has become a real necessity to manage the widespread disruption of the international system.
The second factor has been a reassessment by Western Europe of its own identity as a global player. For a long time, the European will was to escape history and even, in a way, to transcend it. The European Union (EU), according to many of its strong supporters, was an attempt to reshape the forces of history.
The EU, according to this logic, would first reshape the European strategic landscape and then ultimately contribute to transcending the pernicious logic of geopolitics in the global order, thereby heralding a new phase in international relations. So while American power and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization were to manage Russia, economic cooperation was to be the most potent antidote to Chinese expansionism.
But as the EU strove to transcend geopolitics, geopolitical challenges shrouded the European landscape. From the latent disconnect within the EU to the externalities emanating from the rise of China and Russian revisionism, Western Europe is now getting back to basics. China is today not only the EU’s ‘systemic rival’, but under Xi Jinping it has generated intense mistrust across Europe, sparking debates on issues as broad as the security of critical infrastructure or supply chain resilience. With its Indo-Pacific strategy, the EU wants a bigger footprint in this vital maritime geography. And with the Russian attack on Ukraine, even Germany was forced to reorient its foreign policy and national security outlook after World War II. This new strategic reorientation of Western Europe is well aligned with India’s priorities and the newfound convergence is leading to an ever stronger commitment.
The final, and perhaps most important, element of this shifting approach to the West is not about the West at all, but about India’s response to its strategic priorities. The confident India of today has a new voice in the global firmament – clear, rooted in national realities and civilizational ethos as well as firm in the pursuit of its vital interests. As Foreign Minister S Jaishankar remarked during last week’s Raisina Dialogue, it is better to engage with the world on the basis of ‘who we are’ than to try to please the world. . If India is sure of its identity and its priorities, the world will engage with India on its terms. In recent years, New Delhi has not been reluctant to challenge its adversaries and woo its friends without the ideological baggage of the past. From being the only world power to challenge Xi’s Belt and Road Initiative as early as 2014, to responding to Chinese military aggression with a strong military push, to trying to work with the United States without entering in the full embrace of an alliance to engage the western world for national capacity building, India has been pragmatic to the core and willing to use the existing balance of power to its advantage.
Today, India is focusing on building its capacity in all possible sectors, which allows for more lucid engagement with its partners. The West, often accustomed to a pontificating India of the past, now hears on the world stage an Indian voice capable of articulating the narrative of a responsible actor firmly rooted in his own philosophy. And this, more than anything else, has allowed a new reality to dawn in Western capitals that today’s India is all about business and it cannot be like ‘habit. Therefore, substantial Western engagement with India is a natural consequence, Ukraine crisis notwithstanding.
Harsh V Pant is Vice President, Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi and Professor at King’s College London
Opinions expressed are personal