2019: The year ahead

Closer home, India’s strategic patience shown last year in its southern and eastern neighbourhood will reap positive results in the current year.
Representational Pic
Representational Pic

The beginning of a new year is an occasion of anticipation and reflection on elements of continuity and change in international affairs as in other areas of human life. Change governs the natural world as it does inter-state relations but its shape, form and intensity varies all the time. Often it works its processes so slowly in global affairs that its perception becomes a cause for surprise; but sometimes it rushes forward torrentially sweeping seemingly sturdy and enduring national and regional structures aside creating new arrangements and alignments. What are the signs for 2019 especially from an India's viewpoint?

The rise of China is initiating a change in the power calculus of the world; India's emergence is also impacting the region and beyond but not to the same extent as its northern neighbour. Despite its economic slowdown China's steady accretion of strength, which is currently substantially more than India's, will not be impaired this year and notwithstanding the turbulence of the Lok Sabha elections India's steady forward movement will continue.  India and China through their competition and cooperation impact Asia and the world.  

 Between them China and India account for one-third of the world's population. The international community therefore has to take their views and interests into account on social, economic and environmental issues. If they cooperate, they would become a formidable force to fashion the international discourse, approaches and policies in these areas. However, for this purpose they would have to align their interests, evolve common understandings on the region and address their differences including on the border. This is unlikely to happen and certainly not this year. Hence, the international agenda on these, and also political issues will continue to be mainly, but not entirely, set by Western countries despite China's inclusion in the P5.

India and China will also continue to present alternative political, economic and social models for the developing world. India's democratic order with all its shortcomings offers attractions for it has permitted inclusive growth. However, the Chinese authoritarian model has its followers for the rapid all-round transformative development which has taken place in the country especially since the past four decades. China is now using soft power also to burnish its image and showcase its economic success and political stability. However, its treatment of its Uighur minorities has the potential to causing embarrassment in the Islamic world though that may not happen in 2019. 

India will have to watch US-China contentions very closely. Clearly, the US political class and its security managers have made China as the country's main strategic challenge. This is notwithstanding the continuing position of Russia as a principal adversary. Within the US there will be great political focus on Russia because of the continuing investigations in Russia's interference in the 2016 US Presidential elections. President Donald Trump has been on the offensive against the investigation but it has certainly restrained him in seeking to turn US-Russia ties in a more positive direction despite the continuing problems over Ukraine and on nuclear issues. 

As the US is the world's leading country its domestic politics influences global affairs. The deep divisions in the US body social and political will not heal during the year. In fact, it is unlikely if any attempt will be made to bridge the wide social and economic gaps that have emerged because of the globalisation process and transformative technologies. The groups that feel left behind are Trump's storm troopers responding to his America First call. Their loyalty is unlikely to erode anytime soon. That will embolden him further to continue with his erratic diplomacy and his insistence that US allies put money on the table. At the same time, as I have noted in these columns earlier, Trump will not really damage the Transatlantic Alliance which will remain the mainstay of the world order.

The Indo-Pacific region will witness the impact of an assertive China which is unwilling to be bound by international norms where its interests clash with those of other countries. The US and its allies particularly Japan are wary of China's aggressive postures and will continue to signal their intent of not allowing it to have its way. They are also keen to enlist India on their side. The first India-US-Japan summit on the margins of the G 20 summit in Argentina is an indication of India is mindful of the need to oppose China's disregard of international law. At the same time India realises the need to adopt a balanced approach and thus the trilateral India-China-Russia summit also on the side lines of the G 20 meeting. India's balancing act will continue for its interests demand so.

Although slim there are prospects of accommodative processes beginning to work in Afghanistan. The chances of West Asia becoming stable are remote for the contradictions between Saudi Arabia and Iran are deep and will remain so. Trump's implacable opposition to Iran adds to the region's complexities. India's sound approach of keeping out of the area's internecine contentions should continue. Closer home, India's strategic patience shown last year in its southern and eastern neighbourhood will reap positive results in the current year.

The issues which concern the welfare of humankind—relating to food, water, clean energy and environmental security—are unlikely to witness any decisive breakthroughs. The major powers are not showing the flexibility needed to reconcile interests necessary for the adoption of universal positions. And, technological change both beneficial and disruptive will continue to be the hallmark of the age though without any 'big bang' moments.

Vivek Katju is a former secretary in the Ministry of External Affairs who served as India's ambassador to Myanmar and to Afghanistan.


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