The multi-polar world as we know is facing tremendous changes. While the rules-based international order is not collapsed, it has become unfructuous in certain domains and at certain levels. The Ukraine conflict has challenged some key notions of security, sovereignty and cooperation in international relations, and the Indo-Pacific region is gaining some importance for its own reasons. While many notions of US Foreign Policy have been challenged, what are we seeing is the emergence of dual norms and methods to deal with foreign policy issues. Many middle powers and emergent powers if not major powers do not seek to apply the alliance model of cooperation quite rigorously and testing waters if they must build strategic autonomy.
The recent illustration of the same could be encapsulated in two events - China brokering a deal between Iran and Saudi Arabia so both the countries re-establish diplomatic relations & Armenia being hesitant to join the CSTO meetings as one of the key members of the security treaty organisation led by Russia in Central Asia. Another illustration could be taken from the playbook of Turkish foreign policy in recent times, after the Ukraine conflict, when like India, Turkiye gave shelter to voices from both the Ukrainian and Russian fronts. In fact, after the success of the 2023 Raisina Dialogue, one may conclude that India's foreign policy has at least paved the road to garner dividends, as a part of its multi-alignment approach, which is mainstreaming day by day.
The hard reality of strategic autonomy
Countries which try to shape their foreign policies by staying patient and autonomous to de-risk any options of interdependencies which do not help much in advancing their national and economic interests, pursue strategic autonomy. This does not mean countries have a vague or erratic angle towards geopolitics and the global economy. It is just apparent to what Singapore's Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan said. He stated that the peace dividend, i.e., the notion that investing in security, maritime, land & air, would become stagnant, is broken and countries across the world would invest more in their defence and security infrastructure. Here is an excerpt from his interview which explains the reasoning.
The rules-based world order, the focus on economic integration, liberal economics, free trade, all that was a formula for peace and prosperity and now the faith in those pillars has been shaken. It’s a flight to safety in a way.
Taking this excerpt into regard, it does not mean the "rules-based order" is dismantled. The order itself has become irrelevant like the United Nations. It was unfortunate to see how the Security Council became incomprehensible and not much useful amidst the Ukraine-Russia conflict, recently. Hence, strategic autonomy is more about how every nation-state and its people shape their priorities for development, security and influence. Now, the hard reality pertinent to strategic autonomy is that one has to look at the attempts to defy/transit from the rules-based system to other kinds of attempts with a global outlook. Most scholarship in international relations is stuck between two or three binaries - the US Foreign Policy outlook, the Russo-Sino (so-called "Eastern") outlook and the Decolonisation outlook (of some Global South countries and their scholars). While the former outlook is losing its relevance, the former does not offer much credible solutions to this fracture of the "peace dividend" and the current state.
The Russian-Sino outlook (or the "Dragonbear" outlook which a European expert boasts about), is not mature or productive either. One has to understand that the concepts of power, competence & influence, must implicate into something practical and outlook-driven. Even the so-called digital debates, which happen via information warfare and social media rhetoric, are reduced to interventionist nitpicking on domestic politics of countries, without making any sense. For example, the representatives of the Chinese Foreign Affairs Ministry had tweeted on social media that the US Civil War was a war of aggression by the US Government. Sure, one can question the Americans on Iraq, Libya and Afghanistan, but such lack of maturity explains how close-ended the Russo-Sino outlook has become. Even otherwise, while on infrastructure and economy, some Chinese efforts do not meet the dead end of "debt traps" like it happened in Sri Lanka for example, China is not as salient as the United States in furthering its outlook. It is further noting to realise how downgraded and inconsistent the Russians have become in garnering the best from their relationship with China, due to the Ukraine war.
The Western/North Atlantic outlook is no better, which one can understand by their inconsistent positions and the inability to shape consistent policy positions. Why does it matter though? The West as we know, masters sophistication in global governance. Any approach of governance, cooperation and influence they build is guided by constructivist (less realist in this decade) methods of engagement. Liberalism may be an ideological tool, but we know how the United States has mastered in restructuring liberalism as a systemic manoeuvre. It does not justify their imperialist tendencies, but explains their outlooks. We also have to remember that amidst the fear of recessions, the United States is attempting to survive and maintain their economic edge while European countries including the UK and West Asian countries like Turkiye are not faring well.
Amidst this discreteness, countries like India, Singapore, Saudi Arabia, Brazil and many others are adapting with their own middle power strategies in various domains to gain leverage. It is such middle powers (who may be allies or not either way), which may guide the world in using plurilateral methods of engagement and influence to solve world's global problems.
India, multi-alignment and minilateralism
One can remember that the geopolitical situation due to the commencement of the Ukraine conflict was so much erratic, similar when the COVID pandemic started. Now, imagine in this way. As the war begins, countries could not immediately shape their current positions or methods in a whim. Geopolitics and diplomacy involve human agency, thinking and efforts. The human angle of diplomacy (which would never be resolved through generative artificial intelligence), would attempt to de-risk and act with as much consistency as possible. Some countries may use the opportunities to push their agenda forward. Let's take China for example. The recent rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Iran explains how China is trying to expand their global governance agenda in West & Central Asia, beyond their core "Asia-Pacific" region. In the maritime domain, excluding a unique use case such as the South China Sea, China could be properly addressed by the navies of India and Australia in the Indian Ocean Region.
Now, one has to realise that despite the incongruent and absurd Chinese and Indian relations, due to border concerns, India is a key beneficiary of Chinese actions in West Asia, while the US has to address why its old consensus in West Asia is fiddling around. It is absurdly argued that China has not resolved its border disputes with India due to New Delhi's "perceived interest" in allying with Pax Americana/Pax Europa. The reality is not limited to alliance because India has to face multi-faceted global issues and realities, which does not just affect the Indian people, but also could threaten global stability.
A country may try to avoid itself from being globally active. However, one cannot evade global realities. Investing in global realities is not a neo-colonial delusion accrued into any country just because they partner with Western countries. We already live in a post-ideological world, where post-modern and post-colonial thought spheres are losing their relevance.
China does not respect India for their non-aligned approach towards geopolitics, especially New Delhi's relationship with USSR in contrast with their engagement with the West. It could also be argued that India lacked the spirit to show its will and strength due to the economic and security dynamics in the subcontinent due to their neighbour in West Asia and even otherwise. However, for decades, China never a far-sighted vision to resolve border disputes with India, and these border incidents are habitual. Plus, even after Deng Xiaoping and Jiang Zemin, China's engagement with India has always been parochial.
Even after liberalisation and the signing of subsequent agreements, China's internal governance (like those of the Russian Federation, in a different way) was responsible in rendering BRICS useless. Lastly, China's predatory methods of trade, climate, regional security and multilateralism do not make them credible partners to New Delhi. The Raisina Dialogue in 2023 did not host even a Track 1 dialogue among BRICS countries while the IBSA grouping had their meetings amidst the Quad meeting in New Delhi and the G20 Foreign Ministers Meeting. No intent or practice of colonisation/imperialism can be justified on the basis of "white man's burden". There are structural and global reasons for this.
The global economy as a whole would not be universalised as one thinks, nor would collapse in socio-economic and political aspects. Western modernity has diluted and modernity itself has globalised. The period of Western-Middle Eastern colonisation had economic and political reasons to exist. As unjust colonisation was in the past, it is futile to keep focusing on the past only, and then forget, or rather ignore, what productive and influential could be achieved. The economics of war and peace, ignored after the Cold war, was revisited again in the 1990s when the Bangkok Declaration on Human Rights was released. Soft power, which existed in a scattered and irrelevant way, became a potent method in political management, and the understanding of "battle of values" started to expand among countries, when power deficits started coming. It was perhaps the culmination of the times where one group of countries could not use value systems to justify whatsoever they "agree" upon.
Here is an insight by Prof. Yuen Yuen Ang on Samuel Huntington's "Clash of Civilisations":
China is no different country than Japan or India as an Asian power when it comes to being consistent or inconsistent. Yes, the economic might of Beijing is visible and it would not pursue a radical plunge. However, the world is learning from Europe, Russia, the US and China on how to build better institutions and political systems. The fact is that we are still yet to let those ideas germinate into something "credible". Even the leader of the Global South, India has to prove its mettle and make its development and security paradigms successful. However, the Raisina Dialogue and the 2023 Quad meeting this year reflected how productive India can become as a power, which lost nearly a decade to get up and grow as a development power. Not only one could see multiple countries' delegations attending such summits, but also how New Delhi paved the way to keep their cards open for credible engagement.
Even in an interview with ANI, India's External Affairs Minister Dr Jaishankar himself remarked that India cannot get hyper-confrontational with the Chinese. However, India can understand the way China masters political and economic dissimulation as a part of its methods of global governance. While the West may not be that activated enough to address Chinese tactics in certain soft power domains, India has to address its own sovereignty concerns due to the country's increased attachment to the stakes of global stability. This is why Micheal Schuman had written in an article for The Atlantic on the nature of India as a swing state and expressed why an India-US alliance is not possible.
My only disagreement with the article is that as India is considered a swing state and a middle power, it does not mean that as a swing state, India may entirely submit to Western influence or Chinese hegemony. It is the methods of strategic hedging to find alternatives which keeps global stability afloat while India does not become an initiator or preserver of global incidents like (for example) the Iran-Saudi rapprochment or the conflicts in Central Asia and Eastern Europe. Since India is yet to earn some inertia and weight to become a kingmaker to make its agendas successful, I do not know how much effective it could be as a swing state.
It could be argued that India is a swing state in terms of value systems and acting as a country which derisks multi-party cooperation except that China can try the same with certain major and minor powers at its own will. Yet, the potential is not untouched and possibilities remain innumerable. We see that in competition and technology policies, India is a formidable regulatory power and on environment, entrepreneurial and infrastructure cooperation with for several Global South countries, India can offer developmental solutions. These things like others do increase India's value as a player to form or become a part of security/economic minilateral forums, where New Delhi is not bound by security treaty guarantees, nor free trade agreements. Plus, China under Xi Jinping is a middle income economy which cannot be trusted and has close-ended approach to multilateralism, making the Global South fragile and dysfunctional. This forces India's hand to tilt little towards the Western countries but not so much to become interdependent in a disadvantaged manner. It is these close-ended approaches by Russia and China, which enable India to engage with the West and even those powers which are not necessarily bound by the Chinese worldview & power spheres. The harsh reality is that India would have to maintain a politico-economic tightrope while it becomes increasingly global.