The face-off between India and China in Ladakh and the plans for annexation of the West Bank by Israel have brought matters of global power dynamics to the fore. In the 1990s, after the disintegration of the Soviet Union, commentators such as Francis Fukuyama were quick in announcing the “end of history” and labelling ideology as unimportant and irrelevant in the conduct of global politics. The supposedly unipolar world that came into being after the Cold War, with the US acting as the global policeman and leader in all institutions, facilitated the march of capitalism on a global scale. However, events that unfolded later, for instance the 9/11 terror attacks, came to haunt the US and its allies. Non-conventional security threats challenged the established conceptions of security, war and modernity.
The 2008 global financial meltdown exposed the realities of the neoliberal world order. Most institutions of lending crumbled before the inevitable logic of capitalism — the cycle of boom and bust. The crisis rendered thousands unemployed and destitute. The state had to bail out some of the largest financial corporations of the world with public funds. The western world soon came to understand the importance of sharing responsibility and adjusting to the new global realities such as the economic rise of China and India. G-20 nations replaced the elite G-8 of rich countries in deciding the economic course of the world, though within a neoliberal framework. This was an arrangement to share power and skip responsibility, as it kept almost all poor countries of the world out of decision-making. The rich got to decide what is best for everyone.
This established mechanism is under threat. The rise of China as the workshop of the world has turned many western powers insecure. It has led to a trade war between China and the US. Of particular relevance is the route India will take in the evolving bipolar world with the US and China constituting the two poles.
India faced a similar situation at the time of Independence. Then, India refused to join the Cold War camps and opted for a non-aligned foreign policy that championed the cause of the colonised regions and the newly-decolonised parts of the world. In the recent past, the Indian government’s foreign policy priorities have tilted towards the US and the neoliberal framework. Tying Indian interests to the coat-tails of America will be disastrous. The support for Palestine has been muzzled in this environment and non-alignment abandoned as the government opted to play second fiddle to the US in Asia. The US is trying to drag India into its conflict with China to protect US interests in the Asia-Pacific region. The trade deals done to please the US have resulted in the loss of livelihood, agricultural land and hard-won labour rights of Indian working classes.
What the world needs today is an international order based on the principles of mutual respect, concern and cooperation and public participation. Privatised healthcare systems imploded under the weight of COVID whereas countries with a socialised or socialist public healthcare system fared better. The world needs to come together to build public health and education infrastructure. India must reject both the unipolarity of the 1990s and the bipolarity of the current system dominated by the US and China. India should live up to its independent non-aligned credentials and play a constructive role in evolving a more inclusive, multipolar and just world order.
In his address to the 75th General Assembly of the United Nations, Prime Minister Narendra Modi reiterated the demand of India’s inclusion in the UN Security Council. This demand is justified considering India’s history, size, economy and potential to play a constructive role in global affairs. However, under the current dispensation, these credentials have been tainted by multiple inconsistencies, especially in the neighbourhood. India should use its UNSC chair to represent nations hitherto unrepresented or underrepresented at the high table and continue the tradition of speaking for the marginalised. Unfortunately, the course of Indian foreign policy in the last few years does not correspond with this broad, inclusive worldview based on solidarity.
In this context, India and China, as the world’s two most populous countries and mega-economies, should engage in a meaningful dialogue to resolve the border dispute. India should strive to make the world more inclusive, just and sensitive to the environment. India pursuing an independent foreign policy is not only essential for the country or the South Asian region, it can have a bearing on deprived populations of the world.
This article first appeared in the print edition on October 26, 2020 under the title “Reinventing Non-alignment”. The writer is General Secretary, CPI