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15 September 2016, Gateway House

India Trilateral Forum: building bridges

The 11th India Trilateral Forum, a meeting series between India, Europe and the U.S., reflects a more confident India from whom expectations – especially to counter China – are high. This will require a realistic re-labelling of India by the Western powers.

Executive Director, Gateway House

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The setting for the 11th India Trilateral Forum could not have been more perfect. Sparkling, clear skies and beautiful boulevards apart, Stockholm is a sea-faring city of 14 islands, connected by 57 bridges – an appropriate geographical meme to discuss the connections and chasms of the relationship between India, Europe and the U.S.

The forum is held twice a year, in any city of the three powers, and supported by the German Marshall Fund, a truly trans-Atlantic effort. GMF is a Brussels and Washington-based, German-funded, research and convening institution. For this trilateral forum, the Swedish foreign ministry is a partner and the goal is to create a dialogue between Europeans, Americans and Indians that will influence, craft and implement policies that concern them.

There is plenty of geopolitical island-hopping and bridge-crossing to be done at the ITF, especially now. The established order of the West is under strain from lack of multilateral and domestic reform, and from an indisciplined ‘Rest,’ which is perceived to be either over-reaching like China, or under-achieving like India, or fraught with violence like West Asia, all with a negative spill-over into Europe.

The need for a forum trialogue is greater than ever – though its chances of influencing future change are proportionately low.

That’s because the old world order stubbornly yieldeth not (yet) to the arrival of the new. And while the new order, politically, would like to wear the mantle, it isn’t economically powerful enough for the responsibility.

The discussions reflected this, with old and new symbolically standing on opposite sides of Stockholm’s water banks, agreeing that crossing over the many available bridges is required. However, there wasn’t much movement in that direction.

There were the usual grouses against India, by all the participants. Difficult, immovable and unreformable bureaucracy with its turf wars holding up everything. Not enough education. Not enough jobs. Bad banks. Badly-behaved businesses. No privatisation. No trade deals.

But unlike other conferences, what was different this time from the Indian participants, was the absence of the defensiveness and prickliness that has long been ascribed to India. Instead here, in Stockholm, was a confident and frank acknowledgement, especially by the Indian participants some of whom are/were deep in government, on India’s many failings.

Yes, reform is troubled because there is a mismatch between the impulses of the political class and that of the reforming class, which has set back significant economic reform. Yes, the Niti Aayog is better than the Planning Commission, but it has become an economic forecasting unit, not the problem-solver which was envisaged. Yes, big business is critical of government because it no longer collaborates to give business easy loans.

It’s a new, more open Indian intellectual on the global scene, buoyed by a national leadership that is outward-looking, positive, convinced of India’s place in the world, on the high table. And an economy that is better than most – “the world’s fastest-growing large economy.” The 7.6% growth is still not how it felt a decade ago during the IT and quantitative-easing-induced boom, but it’s a welcome change from the 4.5% of three years ago, both economically and psychologically.

Increasingly, this GDP statistic means that India has to act like a large economy, especially with China in play. The presence of China was in every sentence of every discussion. And it was clear that Europe and the U.S. have great expectations for India to balance China. Comments like “it’s a good thing for the world that India is in Asia and acts as a check on China,” and “the U.S. has to hold the line on China for 10-15 years, till allies like India are strong enough to do so,” laid out the hope unambiguously.

On its part though, India isn’t that so eager to enlarge its role in Asia. A diplomat recounted a conversation in Delhi where he was told that “India believes, like China, in a multipolar world, but unlike China, it does not believe in a unipolar Asia.” That’s as far as India will go for now with China. While acknowledging that India is the frontline state against China, Indian analysts believe that New Delhi’s response is still subtle: using a “scripted defiance against China while building alliances all around it.” Clearly, Prime Minister Modi’s offer of the Brahmos missiles to Vietnam – and perhaps in future to the Philippines – reflects this.

If the U.S. and Europe believe there are three challenges in wider Asia for them – flux in Asia, U.S. disengagement with West Asia, and China as a rival – and that India is at the centre of these challenges, then they must script their conversation with India differently. The forum still felt very much like the old one-sided, crib-sessions about India, cozy in the comfort of the old complaints which were trotted out by rote: India must sign the TPP, said the European and U.S. bureaucrats in unision, or “it will be bad.” That’s not a good enough reason to sign any agreement – especially as India is not a signatory to the TPP, or the Trans Pacific Partnership. Neither is China, and it’s an area of concern where both the Asian giants have a similar view.

To bring India as an equal partner in the trilateral, there must be open discussions on all the three parties in the discussion. India has views on both Europe and the U.S., yet sessions on that were not in the programme. India worries about the decline of the West – yet there were almost no discussions of what ails the Western world, and the kind of economic and political cooperation with India that can jointly take the world forward. The sweep of middle class frustrations in the U.S. and Europe which are leading to an upending of the established orders, were hardly touched upon, even in off-session discussions.

There is much for India to learn from Europe, which is one of the world’s most integrated regions, and India one of the least. Europe, on its part, can learn from India about terrorism, in which India has much experience. To assume a greater global role in security and sustainability, India will need appropriate collective responses from Europe and the U.S., and a more equal trialogue.

Manjeet Kripalani is the co-founder and executive director of Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations, Mumbai.

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