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India's club: How Commonwealth can give India clout

Instead of joining somebody else’s club, India must energise the Commonwealth to leap from a regional to a transcontinental power, writes Ashok Malik.

ht view Updated: Jul 23, 2014 23:25 IST

In the past 20 years, with the end of the Cold War and the rise of China, international diplomacy has resembled an alphabet soup. A whole host of new organisations and collectives have been created. Many countries, including India, have signed on to virtually every club that has admitted them. They are all hedging their bets, unsure which structures will sustain and survive into the latter half of the 21st century and which will just fade away.

The BJP’s 2014 election manifesto reflected this perfectly legitimate tendency to cover all bases. It committed itself to India’s engagement with a series of abbreviations and acronyms — Saarc, Asean, BRICS, G20, IBSA, SCO and ASEM. Notable absentees were Apec (the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation) and EAS (the East Asia Summit, comprising Asean and eight external partners). Even these omissions were probably drafting oversights, rather than strategic declarations.

While this was the state of play as Narendra Modi took charge of India’s foreign policy, it is unlikely to be the situation when he finishes his term. A process of clarification has begun in the international system and the plethora of post-Cold War talking shops is likely to be rationalised and reduced in the coming years. The recent summit of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa — BRICS — was a step in this regard. In establishing the New Development Bank (NDB) it gave BRICS a salience it did not earlier have.

While this is a big development, it is a mixed blessing for India. Theoretically, BRICS benchmarks and potential NDB conditionalities can be used by India, and other countries, to undertake domestic reforms that may be difficult to accomplish if urged by the West and the so-called World Bank-IMF consensus. Yet, the reality is that China is the biggest economy in the quintet by a long way. It will dominate the NDB, and not just because the new institution is to be based in Shanghai.

Indeed, to argue Modi should have insisted on the NDB being located in Mumbai is unrealistic. The NDB was an idea he inherited from the past, conjured up by a UPA-era bureaucracy that was probably thinking of post-retirement jobs and not grand strategy. That aside, this is China’s moment in history. It has risen exponentially since the global financial crisis of 2008. It would not have agreed to an NDB if not given the right to host it.

The issue is not geographical; it is political. The arrival of the NDB institutionalises BRICS. In his remarks at the summit, Modi spoke of a political role for BRICS, asking member countries to “work together” in Iraq and even mentioning Afghanistan. Thus far India has seen BRICS as an economic and development grouping. Should India start advocating coordinated political positions — as opposed to bilateral arrangements between member-countries — it will send signals to South Africa and Brazil that it has killed IBSA — the India, Brazil, South Africa trio of emerging democracies.

Already on its last legs, thanks to sluggishness in the final years of UPA raj, IBSA was once supposed to be a contrast to BRICS. After NDB, does IBSA have any relevance? China, which dominates BRICS due to its influence on South Africa and Russia, has won this round.

At their BRICS meeting, the Chinese president invited Modi to the next Apec summit as well as spoke of greater Indian participation in the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO). The SCO is a Beijing-incubated body that began with an anti-terrorism mandate but has become an agency for Chinese power in Central Asia. China would want to expand it to South Asia.

Using the instruments of Apec and SCO, China has drawn attention to the new Great Game in Asia — its rivalry with a resurgent Japan. Tokyo is pushing for making the EAS the paramount Asian security umbrella. It also wants to supplant Apec with other trade frameworks, such as the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) — a proposed Indo-Pacific free trade zone built around Asean and extending from India to Australia — and later the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which would stretch the trade zone to the United States.

Will India be integrated with Asian economies through the mechanism of Apec or RCEP-TPP? Only one of the two can stay relevant. This tussle, of which the BRICS summit and NDB were an early trailer, is likely to leave a Modi-led India with defining choices. Both Tokyo and Beijing will look to New Delhi as a swing state.

A key point that remains is established powers (including China) have conceived and midwifed their chosen institutions and blocs. Is India just going to join somebody else’s club or will it also ‘own’ a club? Other than Saarc, which bloc can India potentially run? The answer to that 21st century conundrum lies in the 20th century: The Commonwealth.

An association of 53 countries — importantly, all democracies, including a non-British colony such as Mozambique — the Commonwealth is often dismissed as an anachronism. Without India energising it, the Commonwealth will die. Who takes the Commonwealth most seriously? Frankly, African and South Pacific members do. These are the very countries China will target through the NDB and otherwise. On their part, the ‘white’ members of the Commonwealth — Britain, Australia and Canada — have growing economic and diaspora links with India, and give it friends in the West independent of the US.

With imagination, India can take over the Commonwealth in quite the same manner as the Board of Control for Cricket in India has taken over the International Cricket Council. This could help India leap from a regional to a transcontinental power. Prime Minister Narendra Modi should consider the possibility.

Ashok Malik is a Delhi-based political commentator
The views expressed by the author are personal

First Published: Jul 23, 2014 20:47 IST