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Photo: Anand Sharma, India’s minister of commerce and industry, at the WTO Ministerial Conference in Nusa Dua, Bali, 3 December 2013. © WTO/ANTARA

Photo: Anand Sharma, India’s minister of commerce and industry, at the WTO Ministerial Conference in Nusa Dua, Bali, 3 December 2013. © WTO/ANTARA

Strategic Autonomy or Global Leverage? India at the Crossroads

09.12.2013 Until the 1990s, whilst Cold War conditions prevailed, economic and political self-sufficiency were core elements in the make-up of the Indian state. Nowadays, however, these traits are hampering the country’s attempts to prove itself a power capable of shaping events and ‘maintaining global influence over the long term’. Indian foreign policy comes across as indecisive, and even amongst the BRICS countries India gives the appearance of a ‘reluctant member of the club’. These are the conclusions drawn by Tobias Debiel and Herbert Wulf in a detailed analysis published in the German periodical Aus Politik und Zeitgeschichte (APuZ 50–1, 2013). And yet India, in particular, is one place where hopes for the informal BRICS grouping are high. Writing in the same issue of APuZ, Siddarth Mallavarapu explains that the BRICS countries are regarded by many as carrying forward ideas that developed within the old non-aligned countries and OPEC, or again as the voice of the Global South, capable of investing existing calls for ‘global redistribution’ and ‘recognition’ with political clout.

In global negotiating forums, explain Debiel and Wulf, the country has acquired a reputation as the ‘India that can’t say yes’, and this was demonstrated recently at the key point in the World Trade Organization Ministerial Conference. However, this impression, say the authors, conceals specific strategies through which India seeks to safeguard its interests: on the one hand, marked bilateralism in relations with geographical neighbours in South Asia, and, on the other, institutionalized multilateralism within global forums. India thus jockeys with differing foreign-policy concepts and this sometimes irritates other BRICS members, particularly China: whereas within the non-aligned movement India was able, without fear of contest, to assume the role of a precocious ‘global player’, when it comes to the ‘rising stars’ club’ it finds itself ranking economically and politically alongside regional powers of similar status to its own. In the authors’ view, this makes the recent round of institutional innovation, launched in Delhi in 2012, all the more fascinating. This began with the ‘coup’ of the creation of a BRICS development bank and stabilization fund (the Contingent Reserve Arrangement—CRA), designed to support infrastructure projects, including those in other emerging economies. But at precisely the point where greater ‘strategic autonomy’ might arise as a result of a multipolar world, India finds itself having to entertain the notion of making concessions in order to be admitted to the world-shapers’ table. Rejection of the US dollar as the lead currency for the CRA would ensure a solid position for the renminnbi, and this, say Debiel and Wulf, ‘would demonstrate once and for all that China operates in a different league from India’.

See Aus Politik und Zeitgeschichte, 50–1 (2013), special issue on BRICS (online), esp.:

Tobias Debiel, Herbert Wulf, ‘Indiens BRICS-Politik: Unentschlossen im Club’, pp 30–5.

Siddarth Mallavarapu, ‘BRICS: Hoffnung auf eine gerechte Weltordnung’, pp. 9–12.

See also: Jean-Pierre Kapp, ‘Durchbruch für die WTO auf Bali’, Neue Zürcher Zeitung, 7 December 2013.

Martin Wolf
Head of Public Relations
Tel: +49 (0)203 379 5238