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Tuesday, Dec 10, 2019

#HTLS2019 | Finding the right path in an age of disruption

Opportunity As parts of the world close their doors to global finance and relationships, we can profit by keeping ours open, with an eagle-eyed view on our interests

htls Updated: Dec 02, 2019 10:54 IST
Rudra Chaudhuri
Rudra Chaudhuri
Prime Minister Narendra Modi with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Mamallapuram, Tamil Nadu, where the duo held informal talks in October.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Mamallapuram, Tamil Nadu, where the duo held informal talks in October.(AP)

We are living in an age of disruption. This is an age dotted by contradictions and puzzles that neither historian not scientists can even begin to unravel. On the one hand, the unprecedented growth in trade and production have brought people closer together than at any other time in history. The internet is not just a “modern public square,” as once argued by Associate Justice Anthony Kennedy of the United States Supreme Court, but it is the clearest example of how technological innovations have transformed our ambitions and interests.

People across the world dress more like each other than at anytime in the past. They can relish world cuisines brought to their doorstep within minutes of tapping onto a smartphone. Yet, globally, local populations appear to be fast sliding into insularity. People’s appetite for globalism is fast fading. As BREXIT reminds us, even in well positioned economic strong lands, the idea and reality of borders are present more today than in the recent past. At some level, such sentiments have been coded into foreign policy imperatives.

The United States has slid into a form of unilateralism, that, if it were to be continued, could unplug the levers of a global trading system that it once created. Multilateralism is being lightly upheld by Asian powers increasingly absorbed by China’s new found adoration for a form of globalism financed by Xi Jinping’s Beijing. It is increasingly clear that the ongoing trade war between the United States and China is only a symptom of a geostrategic conflict. These are unlikely to be solved even if and when the thorny issues of greater market access and the harmonisation of intellectual property rights are resolved. This “fight”, as one senior US official put it, is about dealing with a “really different civilization”. This is a period of an ecological drift, where the past has fewer answers for those in the present.

Where then does India fit in this age of disruption? What can it offer in terms of international leadership and influence? The short answer is not much, and that, sometimes, is not a bad option.

In one way or the other, India has always dealt with disruption. India challenged bipolarity during the Cold War at a time when it was almost impossible to survive without the aid of allies. It adapted quickly to US-led unipolarity in the early 1990’s. Successive governments embraced the likes of Bill Clinton and then George W. Bush without losing sight of the many powerful transitions in Russia. In the second decade of the twenty-first century, India remains the only country in the world that can legally produce fissile material (an ingredient needed to make a nuclear bomb) without having to sign onto inequitable treaties. It remains economically connected with Iran (despite embargoes and sanctions alike) whilst buying increasing amounts of defence equipment from Israel.

This is certainly not to suggest that the foreign policy score card is sprinkled with gold stars. It is not. There are numerous examples of what needs desperate attention, such as building stronger bridges with Nepal, or better appreciating the sharp change in mood amongst a tiny but imperative population in a more democratic Bhutan. In the forthcoming election campaign, and in the midst of impeachment proceedings against President Donald Trump, the US is likely to turn even more firmly to an advance shaped by unsheathed economic nativism. The grander depiction of the India-US relationship is less likely to sway American negotiators to provide discounts whilst struggling to reach a trade deal with their Indian counterparts.

Much like the rest of the world at this moment in time, we in India could easily be drawn to a form of provincialism that closes our eyes to the desperate need for trade and grip onto industrial protectionism that places limits on foreign capital and finance. As European leaders talk-up data localisation, and the United States talks out globalisation, it is tempting to do the same.

This would be nothing short of a cataclysm at a time of domestic economic distress. Further, we would be robbing ourselves of a moment in history where disruption could well provide promise and opportunity. Much can be done in the shadow of change, without making a loud push for global leadership.

The fact is China is keener to deal with India today than it was even two or three years ago. It is reeling from the trade war. The fable of the ability of Chinese capital and the Belt and Road Initiative to transform Asia stands challenged. As much as US trade representatives corner India, US defence officials are keen to power through proposals that have been on the table for sometime. The EU Commission might be unwilling to relax long-held concerns with regards to a Free Trade Agreement with India, but there is much that can be done to prompt bargains to share data and technologies.

In short, this is perhaps the time to work soundlessly but studiously to remain ever connected with parts of the world that have initiated, stimulated, and suffered in an age of global ecological disruption. As parts of the world close their doors to global forces, finance and relationships, we can profit by keeping ours open, with an eagle-eyed view on our interests and concerns.

Rudra Chaudhuri is the director of Carnegie India, an international centre of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. The views expressed are personal.