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The US needs India, and much more, to make inroads into the Global South

US Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo,right, and Indian commerce minister Piyush Goyal, left, address a joint press conference on India-US Commercial Dialogue, in New Delhi, India, Friday, March 10, 2023. (AP Photo/Manish Swarup)

Chinese President Xi Jinping’s meeting with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin made the rounds in global news and raised the specter of doubt of a brewing formal alliance between the two countries. 

Weeks prior, in New Delhi, U.S. Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo was dancing with the Indian defense minister Rajnath Singh at the celebration of the Indian festival of colors, Holi, and signing agreements expanding the scope of cooperation between the two democracies.  

Fifty years ago, this would have been unfathomable. The U.S. under Nixon had just opened up to Deng Xiaoping’s China and Indira Gandhi’s India was closely allied with the Soviet Union. 

Fast forward to 2023, both nations are sought by world powers and, once recipients of aid, are now grantors of aid (China more so than India).     

In 2023, there are new superpowers and regional powers in the block. Throughout the 1970s and 80s, India and China were facing challenges from different fronts. Indira’s India had to provide for hundreds of millions below the poverty line, fund inefficient state-run corporations and, with what was left or through debt, spend on its defense to take on Pakistan and China. China’s situation was largely similar.  

Russia and the U.S. are rightly seeking the buy-in of these new powers.  

Interestingly, China and India are competing for something entirely different — leadership of the Global South in the multipolar world. Based on Russia’s actions over the last two years, it is evident that Moscow is coming to terms with the new world order. Washington on the other hand, still refrains from prioritizing needs over values. Consequently, this is preventing it from embracing partnerships with countries that do not fit into the “liberal democracy” mold.    

Furthermore, China is playing the role of peacemaker among historic rivals such as Saudi Arabia and Iran. And Moscow is following Beijing’s footsteps by brokering talks between Syria and Saudi Arabia. Moscow has rightly understood the steps it needs to take as a declining power.  

However, as Harvard Professor Stephen Walt put it, “the Biden administration is striving for a unipolar order that no longer exists.”  

To give due credit, the U.S. has contributed to peace in places such as the Korean peninsula by bringing historical rivals Seoul and Tokyo to the room. Nevertheless, it is still living the unipolar dream and is hesitant to engage outside the silo of the Western camp into the uncharted territory of the Global South.  

It ultimately boils down to Washington’s approach to world affairs which is still predominantly driven by liberal internationalism over realpolitik. It is seeking partners either that are already its mirror image or that can be molded into one. Countries such as China, Russia and India to a large extent do not foment ties anchored just on arbitrary “values” but by shared strategic interests.  

Furthermore, the most significant style of statecraft undergirding these nations’ approach to foreign affairs is the “non-interference in domestic affairs” policy which is anathema to Washington, given its agenda of promoting various rights. In the press readout of Prince Salman’s meeting with Xi, both nations emphasized this principle.  

The Western world’s proselytizing of “values” is not necessarily welcomed by leaders of the Global South. Countries in Latin America, the Caribbean and Sub-saharan Africa are particularly vocal about this discontent. 

A case in point is the recent heated exchange between the president of the Democratic Republic of Congo, Felix Tshisekedi, and French President Emmanuel Macron, where a press conference turned into a spat between the two leaders with Tshisekedi accusing the French foreign minister of mischaracterizing his country. Not long ago, a Kenyan government official described the situation saying, “when a British leader visits we get a lecture; when a Chinese leader visits we get a hospital.” 

As political scientist Samuel Huntington pointed out, “the widespread Western belief in the universality of the West’s values and political systems is naïve, and that continued insistence on such “universal” norms will only further antagonize other civilizations” 

Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva in his recently canceled trip to China (due to his ill health) had a proposal for a “peace club” to find solutions for the Ukraine-Russia conflict. In the near future, it will not come as a surprise if the nations of the BRICS grouping (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) step up to negotiate between Ukraine and Russia.  

It is high time the U.S. turns its focus toward the needs of the Global South. It is rightly turning its attention toward its Indo-Pacific partner, India. However, it is time it also considers the partnership to be its gateway to the Global South. If Washington can come to terms with New Delhi’s strategic autonomy, it may be in a position to understand the needs of the Global South better.  

The deputy chairman of the Nobel Committee, Asle Toje’s remarks summarize the situation: “India didn’t speak in a very loud voice and didn’t threaten anybody, it just made its point known in a friendly manner … we need more of that in international politics”   

The U.S. should take a leaf out of this playbook. If not, the current state of world affairs described by analysts as “disorder as the new order” will lay the path for the Global South’s leadership, particularly China.

Akhil Ramesh is a fellow with the Pacific Forum. He has worked with governments, risk consulting firms and think tanks in the United States and India. Follow him on Twitter: Akhil_oldsoul.

Tags China–United States relations Gina Raimondo global south India–United States relations Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva Politics of the United States Russia–United States relations Russo-Ukrainian War US foreign policy Vladimir Putin Xi Jinping

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