Last month’s G20 summit in Bali was dominated by the issue of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. However, as Chris Ogden writes, the summit also underlined the shifting balance of global power toward China and India. He argues that understanding and responding to this new reality will be critical for UK foreign policy over the coming decades.
The recent G20 summit in Bali began with high expectations from the world’s twenty richest countries. Observers looked to G20 leaders to resolve a range of major crises, from rampant global inflation and ever-higher energy costs to grain supply issues emanating from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the beginnings of a world-wide recession. Although the summit ended with some bilateral successes, it lacked the support of all G20 members to unanimously condemn Moscow’s ongoing military actions towards Kyiv.
Such an outcome did however unveil some increasingly familiar dynamics within global affairs. At their heart, they underscored a new balance of power in world politics that is highly Asia-centric – indeed Indo-Pacific-centric – focused upon China and India. Accurately understanding and responding to this new reality will be critical to the next decades of UK foreign policy. It also holds significance for the government’s forthcoming Integrated Review, which in 2021 focused upon the UK’s three fundamental national interests – sovereignty, security and prosperity – and ‘our values of democracy and a commitment to universal human rights, the rule of law, freedom of speech and faith, and equality’.
How to appropriately react to China’s great power emergence is now the central conundrum that co-joins all of the UK’s national security interests. Here, balancing the economic benefits of closer links with Beijing with increasingly difficult political ties will remain crucial for London, along with preserving the rules-based international order. Moreover, China is now promoting an alternative – and at times heavily authoritarian – vision of the world, which innately challenges any western dominance of global affairs. If such a conception becomes ascendant, it would further diminish the UK’s influence.
The recent 20th National Party Congress of the Chinese Communist Party marked President Xi Jinping’s assumption of unlimited power in China. Xi’s rise has come in the context of China’s own rise over the last decades to become a great power in global affairs. Via its now world-leading economic and major military power, Beijing is quickly converting this prowess into diplomatic, institutional and structural influence. This includes building new multilateral regimes (namely the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation) but also huge infrastructure projects (the $8 trillion valued Belt and Road Initiative) and the world’s largest free-trade agreement (the Regional Comprehensive Partnership Agreement worth $29.7 trillion).
Despite increasing Chinese power causing major frictions in bilateral relations between several G20 members (from land disputes with India to domestic interference in Canada), Beijing’s centrality to international affairs has also become increasingly apparent. Within these dynamics, China is needed by other actors to help resolve the system’s most pressing crises, be they the climate emergency or the war in Ukraine.
Thus, in a bilateral meeting at the G20 between President Biden and President Xi, the United States’ leader openly urged for conciliation and dismissed fears of a new Cold War. He also stated that “I do not think there is any imminent attempt on the part of China to invade Taiwan”. Such statements aim to reassure a Beijing that has been targeted by western narratives of China being a major threat to global stability, and to maximise possible diplomatic gains.
Reflective of this difficult balancing act, British Prime Minister Sunak has also had to openly recognise China’s indisputable great power prowess, stating that “we’re not going to be able to resolve shared global challenges like climate change, or public health, or indeed actually dealing with Russia and Ukraine, without having a dialogue with them.” Furthermore, in a recent speech, although the Prime Minister noted that the “golden era” of UK-China relations (that was heralded during a 2015 UK visit by Xi Jinping) may have ended, he did not name China as a “threat” and instead called for “robust pragmatism”.
The elephant in the room
China is not the only Asian giant on the world stage. In some ways 20 years behind China in terms of economic, military and diplomatic prowess, India can now be regarded on many measures as a top tier – great – power in global affairs that is ever-more influential.
New Delhi had the world’s third largest economy (in GDP PPP terms) in 2020, which ranked at $8.44 trillion behind only the United States ($19.84 trillion) and China ($23.01 trillion). In the last decade, India has overtaken a host of other leading powers – including Japan, Germany, France and the United Kingdom – and (if current annual growth rates persist) may have the world’s largest economy sometime in the 2040s. India’s soon to be world leading – and very young – population will aid these dynamics.
In terms of military spending, India is also now ranked at a similar level, with total spending in 2021 standing at $76.6 billion, which is only behind China ($293.35 billion) and the United States ($778.4 billion), having recently overtaken Saudi Arabia and Russia. This significance is further underlined by India being the largest importer of weapons for the period from 1950 to 2021. In 2021 its largest supplier of weapons was France then Russia, the United States, Israel, South Korea and the United Kingdom.
More crucially, at the G20, India emerged as a crucial strategic bridge between its partners in the West and Russia, with whom it has enjoyed a very close relationship during and after the Cold War. This status is reflective of India being “a wily chameleon on the world stage that is able to foster positive relations with a range of countries”. Such an influence is further shown by India’s wider involvement in the Indo-Pacific, especially via “the Quad” (consisting of the United States, Japan, Australia and India) who all wish to openly bolster democracy in the region as part of their “rules-based” international order vision.
An Asian-centric multipolar future
In the longer term, such omni-directional ties will further enhance New Delhi’s diplomatic and strategic worth on the global stage, making it a highly vital, necessary and pivotal strategic partner. Underpinning these linkages is a desire on the behalf of India and China for a multipolar world order. Such an order would not be dominated by a single power, as is the case in the current declining liberal international order under the aegis of the United States. Instead, it would consist of the United States, China, India and Russia (and in some formulations also the European Union and Japan), making it highly Asian-centric in nature and consecrating the concentration of power in the Indo-Pacific region.
For the UK, embracing this new balance of power and this new strategic reality is essential. Such an embrace will involve not only recognising the multi-faceted centrality of China and India to global affairs. It also requires acknowledging that a multipolar future will be necessarily highly complex, often counter-intuitive and constantly evolving.
Such an embrace would not be a capitulation to Beijing and New Delhi but would rest upon a positive-sum mindset that understands that positive economic ties can be concurrently pursued alongside protecting all the UK’s core interests and political values. Moreover, both China and India also seek recognition and status in international affairs. Ultimately, London – in unison with other western powers – can confer this prestige, which will make it the central diplomatic tool for UK leaders to use in decades to come.
About the Author
Chris Ogden is a Senior Lecturer in International Relations at the University of St Andrews. He is the author of eight books on Asian politics, the latest of which is The Authoritarian Century: China’s Rise and the Demise of the Liberal International Order.