India sends powerful signal of ambitions on the world stage

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President Trump will attend the World Economic Forum this year, marking the first time an American president has joined the gathering in nearly 20 years. But there’s another leader of a major country who will stop in Davos for the first time in two decades. It’s Narendra Modi, India’s prime minister.

India’s interest in Davos is not new. For several years, the Indian government and private sector have made the annual gathering shindig a favored venue to promote the image of a new, more business-friendly India. In 2006, they spearheaded a grand “India Everywhere” campaign.

{mosads}Still, when a head of government leads the delegation, the appearance carries more weight. Last year, Chinese President Xi Jinping’s Davos visit — the first for a Chinese head of state — kicked off a new international narrative about China’s global leadership ambitions. Perhaps that’s what inspired Modi’s decision to attend. Like China, the India of today seeks a larger place on the world stage.

India, the world’s largest democracy, presently has the world’s seventh largest economy. Put another way, the Indian economy has grown larger than those of Canada, Brazil and Italy. In December, the Centre for Economics and Business Research, a British think tank, projected that the Indian economy will overtake those of the United Kingdom and France this year, placing it in fifth place worldwide. When that happens, India will have joined the ranks of global economic heavyweights: the United States, China, Japan and Germany.

Despite this, I’d bet “economic heavyweight” would not be the first words most Americans associate with India. For many people, it still brings to mind problems such as poverty and lack of infrastructure. Indeed, India faces many domestic hurdles as it continues its quest for development and prosperity for its more than 1.2 billion citizens.

India is still home to some 260 million people living in extreme poverty. It needs to build $1.5 trillion of new infrastructure in the coming decade, according to a recent statement by the finance minister. India’s domestic cleavages make international headlines because differences of gender, religion, caste and region remain live points of conflict. Add to that the problems of rapid modernization, like environmental degradation and its increasingly obvious toll on health, and you have a portrait of a nation challenged.

At the same time, however, the India that plays a global role is acquiring ever more heft. In part, this is the natural result of a large economy that has grown rapidly in recent decades. This has enabled New Delhi to launch one of the world’s largest defense modernizations. India already has the world’s third largest military in terms of troop strength, and depending on the metric, the world’s fifth or sixth largest defense budget. But India has remained outside major defense alliances, seeing these as unacceptably confining to its pursuit of policy autonomy.

While India remains wary of alliances and cautious about protecting its “autonomy,” meaning its desire to remain free of future obligations, New Delhi has begun to describe its ambitions in new ways. Talk of being a “leading power” rather than a “balancing power” has ushered in a new stance in some arenas of diplomacy, such as climate change and clean energy, where India has partnered with France to create the new International Solar Alliance.

Indian leaders speak of their role as a “net provider” of security in the Indian Ocean region. New Delhi has mounted a new Indian Ocean strategy of defense diplomacy. In its own way, and especially given its specific interests, India is pushing boundaries on global services trade, a space where India seeks greater flexibility from the immigration and visa regimes of other countries. (It is another matter that India is not always flexible itself on opening its home market to goods and services from other countries.)

A prime ministerial address at the World Economic Forum cannot deliver the changes in global governance that India seeks, such as a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council, or membership in the Nuclear Suppliers Group or the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum. But it will be able to accomplish one thing: Send a powerful signal of India’s growing ambitions. I’ll be watching.

Alyssa Ayres is a senior fellow for India, Pakistan and South Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of the new book, “Our Time Has Come: How India is Making Its Place in the World.”

Tags China Diplomacy Donald Trump economy India Narendra Modi World

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