Bharat is the only Great Power whose growing ties in any region aren’t seen by the New Cold War’s Chinese and Western protagonists as a threat to their interests, which thus makes them amenable to accepting its envisaged balancing role in those countries who they’re competing over like those in the Pacific.
Bharatiya grand strategy in the New Cold War is to multi-align between all key players, to which end it seeks to informally lead the Global South in helping this collection of countries more adroitly balance between the US-led West’s Golden Billion and the Sino-Russo Entente. This unofficial declaration of intent was conveyed during January’s first Global South Summit that Bharat virtually hosted with dozens of fellow developing countries.
It’ll now be implemented in the Pacific upon Prime Minister Modi’s upcoming trip to Papua New Guinea to attend the third Forum for India-Pacific Islands Cooperation (FIPIC) on 22 May. The host state’s expected socio-cultural and economic deliverables are listed here, which will likely be replicated to varying extents in Bharat’s relations with the other regional countries that’ll participate in this event. The driving force behind their ties is more important than the details thereof, which will now be explained.
The Pacific Island Countries (PICs) have recently attracted the attention of China and the US, the first of which is expanding its influence via its Belt & Road Initiative (BRI) investments while the second has traditionally focused on security cooperation. The US has a security-centric perception of BRI, however, since it believes – whether rightly or wrongly – that it’ll be leveraged by China to advance its security and strategic interests. This view is shared by its Australian ally, which fears its regional influence is eroding.
China’s soft security pact with the Solomon Islands exacerbated those two’s threat perceptions, which has in turn prompted them to collaborate much more closely in pushing back against BRI’s expansion into the PICs. Their regional axis is aimed at coercing those countries into the zero-sum choice between China or the West, which neutralizes their envisaged strategic autonomy in the New Cold War and essentially makes them objects of those two’s competition.
It’s within this context that Bharat is expanding the scope of its balancing act in a major way through Prime Minister Modi’s personal attendance at the third FIPIC. Even though it’ll overlap with Biden dropping into that event between the G7 and Quad summits that bookend it in Japan and Australia, his visit was planned before the American leader’s trip and should thus be seen as independent of it. They have shared goals of managing China’s rise, but each aims to go about it in different ways.
Whereas the US mostly focuses on zero-sum security-centric competition and has only belatedly come to appreciate the importance of fairer economic-financial engagement with the Global South, Bharat is driven first and foremost by that second-mentioned motivation. It understands that fellow developing countries are in a dilemma whereby it’s becoming difficult to balance between economic ties with China and security ones with the US upon the latter imposing its aforesaid zero-sum demands upon them.
What the PICs urgently need is a truly neutral third party with whom to fairly engage on economic-financial issues in a way that gently balances China’s related influence and thus avoids triggering the West’s threat perceptions that in turn prompt the latter to force zero-sum demands upon them. It’s here where Bharat can play an indispensable role in attempting to cool some of the New Cold War competition between China and the West over the PICs through these means.
These countries are attracted to Bharat’s status as the world’s fifth largest economy, which makes them receptive to its outreaches. The advantage of pursuing economic and financial deals with Bharat is that they’re expected to be fairer than the West’s while not exacerbating that bloc’s threat perceptions like China’s do. While each would of course prefer to advance their own interests in the region, neither has a problem with Bharat making inroads there since it can’t compete with BRI and isn’t seen as a security rival.
Accordingly, China can remain confident that Bharat won’t displace it in the PICs just like the West won’t have to worry that it might set up bases on Australia’s doorstep like Beijing is suspected of seeking to do. Bharat is the only Great Power whose growing ties in any region aren’t seen by the New Cold War’s Chinese and Western protagonists as a threat to their interests, which thus makes them amenable to accepting its envisaged balancing role in those countries who they’re competing over.
The PICs also serve another purpose for Bharatiya grand strategy by showing the world that this giant can enter into equal relations with much smaller states, the optics of which reinforce its reputation as a truly neutral partner with whom the expansion of ties can help others strengthen their strategic autonomy. The upcoming FIPIC is therefore worth keeping an eye on since it’ll enable observers to better understand India’s evolving engagement with the Global South in the New Cold War.