Distinguished Lectures Distinguished Lectures

India in the Emerging World Order

  • Ambassador (Retd.) Gautam Bambawale

    By: Ambassador (Retd.) Gautam Bambawale
    Venue: IIT Madras China Studies Centre
    Date: March 22, 2022

Members of the Faculty of the China Studies Centre of IIT Madras

Dear Students.


I am really delighted to have the opportunity to speak once again at the China Studies Centre of IIT Madras, as part of your Foreign Policy Conversations program. This lecture is also part of the Ministry of External Affairs India@75: Videsh Niti Distinguished Lecture Series. So, let me begin by thanking both these institutions for having made this Lecture possible.

Many of you would have noted my use of the term – speak once again. The reason I say this is that many years ago, when I was working at the Ministry of External Affairs, I had visited the China Studies Centre at IIT Madras. That was a physical visit as opposed to today’s virtual address. However, I am delighted to see that the China Studies Centre has gone from strength to strength and become an important institution in India for the study of our northern neighbor China.

Ladies and Gentlemen – the topic I chose for today’s lecture is titled "India in the Emerging World Order” because there have been momentous developments over the past few weeks which leads me to believe that the world order itself is changing. My address touches upon geopolitics as well as geo-economics. It has much to do with what is happening in the world today, what the emerging trends of a new world order look like and how India can and should position itself with a view to maximizing our national interests.

One of the most significant international developments of the past few weeks has of course been what has occurred in Ukraine. The West keeps saying that Ukraine has been invaded by Russia. On the other hand, the Russians say that they are conducting a special military operation in Ukraine. While there is truth in the fact that Ukraine gained its independence about 4 decades ago and has been recognized by other nations across the globe as a sovereign, independent country with its own place at the United Nations, there is also great significance in the Russian argument that they had over several years warned the West that Moscow could not just sit back and watch the eastward expansion of NATO or the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Putin had clearly warned in no uncertain terms that Russia would not tolerate its neighboring countries like Georgia and Ukraine becoming a part of NATO. As Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov keeps arguing – Russia cannot just watch neighbors become members of a western military alliance and have US missiles located in those countries aimed at Russia. When this threat to Russia seemed to be close to materializing, Moscow took military action against Ukraine. Friends, this is what great powers do.

Let me give you an example from India’s own neighborhood. If missiles aimed at us, were to be placed in a country to our north or south by a third country, how do you think India will respond? I have little doubt that India would take out the missiles which threatened our national security.

At the same time, India has indeed been concerned by Russia’s action against a smaller, less powerful but independent nation. These actions have clearly infringed Ukraine’s national sovereignty and territorial integrity.

India has also had to carefully weigh the fact that Russia as well as its predecessor State – the Soviet Union – has a very special relationship with India which covers military hardware, nuclear commerce and space cooperation. In all three areas India has gained immeasurably from Russia, who has been our friend over the long term. How the then Soviet Union backed us to the hilt during the Bangladesh crisis of 1971, is well known to all of you. Today, our relationship with Russia has another very important component namely oil and gas of which we import fair quantities from Moscow.

All these facets had to be weighed together very carefully and in a calibrated manner when India had to vote on the Ukraine issue at the United Nations – both in the Security Council as well as at the General Assembly. In all three votes – India abstained. However, we also issued fairly lengthy Explanations of Vote which clearly brought out our anguish over Russia’s moves. I would suggest to all of you that you read our Explanation of Vote carefully. Moreover, Prime Minister Modi himself has repeatedly called for a halt to bloodshed so as to give dialogue and diplomacy a chance for a peaceful resolution of the issues.

There are many ordinary people in India who ask how is it that India has not condemned Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The answer lies in the fact that the truth is not so clear cut and easy. It is a many layered thing. In taking its position at the UN Security Council as well as the UN General Assembly, India had to weigh its own national interests given the many facets of the Ukraine crisis. Our national interests were best served by abstaining on the resolutions which were up for voting.

What I would like to highlight to all of you today is that where international affairs are concerned, India takes its own position based on the facts and the merits of the case so as to ensure that Indian interests are taken care of. Wasn’t this described as non-alignment in the past? Today we refer to it as strategic autonomy. Whatever the nomenclature, it is clear that today as in the past, India takes its own decisions on international issues. There is great continuity in this matter where Indian foreign policy is concerned.

Other big powers are not averse to attempt arm twisting in order to make India take a decision which is favorable to them on such issues. Over the decades India has become adept at recognizing such moves but arriving at decisions which are not dictated by others. The more powerful India becomes the less will attempted arm twisting be of any significance to us.

There are two other points I would like to make on the Ukraine matter. The first is that while the West has come to Ukraine’s help by levying economic sanctions on Russia and selling arms and equipment to Kiev, what is significant is that no country whatsoever has sent troops to fight on behalf of Ukraine. There are news reports of both sides resorting to use of mercenaries in the conflict. This will muddy matters even more. The lesson that India should draw from these events is that if push comes to shove we ourselves will be alone in a fight with any of our enemies. This was amply clear over the last two years on our Ladakh frontier when the Chinese attempted to make major changes to the status quo on the ground. It was the Indian military which thwarted China. The lesson is that India needs to grow more powerful and enhance its comprehensive national power to protect itself.

The second but related aspect I would like to highlight is that when major powers take important geopolitical or geo-economic decisions they are not likely to be deterred by economic sanctions which may be levied by other countries. They are willing to undergo short term pain in order to ensure long term gain. When India undertook its nuclear tests in 1998, we too were sanctioned by the West as well as by China. That did not deter us from our decision to go overtly nuclear and we did endure short term pain. I make this point because I shall revert to it when discussing the China challenge that India faces.

One last aspect of the Russia – Ukraine imbroglio which I would like to highlight is that perhaps there are some opportunities for India in what is a dismal situation. I do not mean that we should fish in troubled waters but at the same time we should not ignore certain things which may be in our interest. The first is that many Western companies particularly in the oil and gas sector such as BP have resolved to sell their assets in Russia. For India which is a major oil and gas importing nation does it make sense to acquire some of these assets which may actually be sold at fairly competitive prices? Russia herself has requested India to assist her with investment. Also keep in mind that if we don’t acquire them – others will. I can definitely see China lining up to do so but there may be other nations as well.

On the Ukrainian side, perhaps some of their mathematicians, physicists or economists may be looking to re-settle elsewhere in the world. Shouldn’t we try to get them to India? Their presence here may strengthen our universities and IITs. In this matter, we cannot wait for the Government to take the lead. Perhaps, IIT Madras can start by attracting a well-known Ukrainian engineer or technologist to come, teach and research in Madras.

Another aspect of the Russia – Ukraine situation which we cannot afford to ignore is the limits of American power. One famous U.S. scholar had termed the period after the splintering of the former Soviet Union and the pre-eminence of U.S. power as the "end of history”. Well since the early 1990s and particularly after the disastrous wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, today we can clearly see that there are finite limits to American power. This is a trend of great import even though the United States continues to remain the pre-eminent military power in today’s world.

The other major trend in geopolitics is of course the rise of China. That country has experienced annual GDP growth in double digits for almost 4 decades and today she is the second largest economy in the world at 15 trillion dollars. As experienced by other countries which have had rapid economic growth, China too is seeing simultaneous improvements in her military strength, in education facilities, in innovation and in technology development. China’s comprehensive national power today closely rivals that of the United States. What is even more significant is that Washington clearly perceives Beijing as a peer competitor and has moved to cut her down to size. Whether the US succeeds in this endeavor remains to be seen. China herself is changing the international order in small but significant ways which are to her own advantage. The tussle for power has truly been joined.

In this fight for supremacy amongst the major powers, most Asian nations are sitting on the fence since that posture suits them best. Whichever of the major powers comes out victorious, Asian nation states will be well positioned to gain.

Till 2019, India too could afford to sit on the fence without taking sides between the two major powers of China and the United States. However, this is no longer the case. Things changed dramatically in April – May 2020 when Beijing moved large numbers of troops to the border with India at Eastern Ladakh. Let me explain why India cannot but take sides in the tussle between the two pre-eminent powers in the world.

In December 1988, India’s former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi visited China. It was the first visit to China by an Indian Prime Minister in over 3 decades. Incidentally, I happened to be stationed in Beijing at that time – as a young diplomat. The agreement that emanated from that very important set of meetings between the leaders of India and China was that on the one hand the two countries would make serious attempts at resolving their differences on the boundary and at the same time ensure that peace and tranquility reigned in the India – China border areas. On the other hand, both governments would advance bilateral ties in other areas including economics, culture, scientific cooperation and technology transfer. In the pursuing years after that path breaking visit, the governments of India and China concluded several agreements aimed at ensuring that the India – China border was peaceful. So, from 1988 to 2019 the template in which the bilateral relationship functioned was that on the one hand the border would be kept peaceful while on the other trade, commerce and other cooperative activity would be permitted to move ahead smoothly. As a result, bilateral trade grew exponentially and by 2019 China enjoyed a huge surplus vis-à-vis India. So, China did benefit enormously from its relationship with India.

Then in April 2020, China suddenly moved large numbers of troops to the border in Eastern Ladakh. More than 2 Divisions of soldiers. That implies anywhere from 50,000 to 60,000 soldiers. Remember that sudden increases in troop strength on the border was expressly forbidden by many of the agreements signed over the years by Beijing and New Delhi. Hence, this movement of troops itself was a violation of those agreements. India reacted by also bringing equally large numbers of troops to Eastern Ladakh. This also created the problem at Galwan where on the night of 15 June 2020 several soldiers from both sides were killed in action. This was the first such loss of life on the India – China border in over 3 decades. It was a very serious incident.

Now remember – it was China and its leadership which decided to give up the template of the past of maintaining peace on the India – China border. It was they who decided to take the risky step of bringing in large numbers of troops. India was only reacting to protect its own territorial integrity. Hence, the onus of the present situation on the India – China border lies entirely with China.

Let us analyze why China may have decided to break with the past in ensuring peace on the border and moving large numbers of troops to Eastern Ladakh. In my view, there are two main reasons for China to do this. One is a tactical reason, the other more strategic. The tactical reason is that China wanted to occupy at least some territory which it claimed as its own but which it did not have actual control of. This kind of situation does exist in pockets of the India – China boundary. Let me share with you that at best China may have gained control of a few square kilometres of land. Indeed, there are certain patrolling points and patrolling routes which the Indian Army used to go up to in the past and which we are not able to do at present. However, for these minor tactical gains on the ground, China has lost India from a strategic perspective. China’s actions over these past 2 years has moved India immeasurably closer to the United States. It has also moved India closer to Japan and Australia.

The second important reason that China undertook the actions she did in Eastern Ladakh is to show India, show the rest of Asia as well as show the world at large that she is the big power in this part of the globe. China is the hegemon in Asia and other nation states must acknowledge it. India has definitely not accepted this proposition. Neither have many other countries of Asia.

As all of you will readily acknowledge, China’s actions have spurred the development and growth of the Quad or the Quadrilateral Security Initiative which groups together the four nations of India, Australia, Japan and the United States. The speed at which the Quad has grown to be a leader’s led forum indicates how countries are reacting to Chinese heavy handedness and outright muscle flexing not merely on the India – China border but also in the South China Sea, in the Taiwan Straits, in the Senkaku Islands claimed by Japan and its attempted economic arm twisting of Australia.

Even the concept of the Indo – Pacific is mainly a geo-strategic construct aimed at reining in China’s territorial ambitions.

However, as I have argued earlier – we shall have to fight off China on our own. We shall get diplomatic support and perhaps also armaments from the United States and the West but they will not ever send soldiers to our borders. If looked at from their perspective – this position is in their own national interest. Neither should we expect it. Neither should we want it. However, we must realize that we need to build India’s military strength as well as our economic strength. They go hand in hand. One will not sustain without the other. Therefore, India needs to put its head down and ensure that we achieve high rates of GDP growth over an extended period of time. We require 7 to 8 per cent annual growth over 20 or 25 years. Along with such rapid development we also need to enhance our spending on defence and military preparedness from the current 1.2 per cent of GDP to about 2 per cent of GDP.

However, let me now get back to the India and China story. China’s reaction to the border shenanigans has been to argue that border issues should be kept separate from trade, commerce and economic interactions. Naturally, they would argue so since they benefit tremendously from it. They have an annual positive trade balance with India to the tune of 60 billion dollars. Why would they want to lose that? On the other hand, India has been arguing that if there can be no peace on our borders then the rest of the relationship cannot but be negatively impacted. This includes trade and commerce. Over the past 2 years apart from periodic military level meetings on the Ladakh frontier and a few interactions between our Foreign Ministers, all other India – China bilateral interaction between the two governments has been frozen. Trade may have increased in 2021 but that is entirely due to the rebound in global commerce after the disastrous pandemic year of 2020. There is no doubt that relations between India and China have deteriorated dramatically since 2019. As I said earlier – the blame rests largely on China.

What does India do to signal its unhappiness with China? The answer is quite simple. While we maintain our military strength on the border, we have to hit where it matters. That is – in the purse. This is the reason why the government of India has banned several Chinese apps from the large India market. Believe me it has hit those firms pretty hard. This is also the reason why India has decided that Chinese companies will not participate in India’s 5G trials and roll out. Being kept out of the large Indian telecom market is a definite set back for Chinese telecom firms such as Huawei. As an ordinary consumer, I personally have decided that I shall not buy a Vivo, Oppo or Xiaomi mobile phone. I will only purchase a Samsung or Apple phone. I would urge larger numbers of Indians to do so. This is one way of displaying your patriotism.

Many will argue that the Chinese mobile phones are cheaper than their equivalents from South Korea or the United States. This is where the concept of accepting pain for a larger national goal comes in. Remember, I had referred to this earlier. Surely, we can accept this pain in order for our country to gain. Ordinary Ukrainians are suffering massive pain but they are willing to pay the price to uphold the independence of their country and to protect its territorial integrity. Surely, we in India can also tolerate some minimum pain for the greater good of our nation.

There are industrial sectors in India where we are significantly dependent on Chinese imports. The pharma industry is one example where almost seventy per cent of our imports of Active Pharmaceutical Ingredients (API) is from China. This is one sector where the government of India is actively pushing aatmanirbharta. All of us from Pune remember how important a player Hindustan Antibiotics was in India’s pharma industry. It went bust due to competition from cheap Chinese imports. Government of India is willing to assist such firms to build up their business anew in order to ensure that our dependence on China reduces. Reliable and resilient supply chains are the demand of the hour and we will need to ensure that India becomes part of the restructured global supply chains which are forming as a result of the geopolitical and geo-economic upheavals of the past 3 years.

Permit me to add just a quick word about the Covid induced pandemic. I prefer to call it the Wuhan Virus although there are not many in the world who want to do so as it attracts the wrath of Beijing. The Wuhan Virus has indeed been a black swan event which has contributed to the shifts which are taking place in both geo-economics as well as geo-politics. For a country like India there are many opportunities which are being thrown up as a result of this changing and shifting world order. We need to make full use of such opportunities rather than once again letting them bypass us. The magnificent way in which Indian vaccine producers including the Pune-based Serum Institute of India rose to the challenges posed by this Wuhan Virus induced pandemic gives us much hope.

Where do India – China relations go from here? India will not agree to let things get better if China does not restore the status quo ante on the Ladakh frontier. I do not see the Chinese agreeing to do so and give up whatever minor gains they may have achieved. Therefore, I predict a further deterioration in India – China ties over the coming years.

If this is so, then we will need all the help and assistance we can get from other countries. Evolving geo-politics is drawing India closer to the major democracies of the world. Not merely the United States but also Japan, Australia, France, Germany and the United Kingdom. We shall also have to work closely with Russia and Vietnam. Post the problems with Ukraine – the Russia relationship presents many challenges to us in India. Mongolia and South Korea are nations on China’s periphery which will be important to us. India will also have to expand its ties with our immediate neighbors such as Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal, the Maldives and Mauritius.

In the coming decade these are the challenges that Indian diplomacy and foreign policy will face.

However, as I have argued at length before, our international stature will depend on how strong we are internally and domestically. That can only come with faster economic growth at home along with distributive justice. How we can achieve that is not for me – a diplomat - to answer. It is for all of you – engineers, technologists, budding entrepreneurs – to show the way forward to achieving this goal.

Thank you for listening so patiently.

Disclaimer:- The opinions/views expressed in the Lecture are author’s own and do not represent the views of the Ministry of External Affairs.