Large parts of our world are in turmoil. The Ukraine war has outlasted most predictions we may have had. The search for a global strategy to combat climate change is yet to be formulated. Technologies’ leap is endangering a host of our cherished values. The UN’s construct is dated, and its influence is waning. The article lists multiple issues that will cast a shadow in 2023. In that grey zone, India has a historic opportunity to make some difference for our world and India.
Instability, Uncertainty and Unpredictability: The “New Normal”
There has always been a sense of déjà vu when we relate the immediate past and future within a short international time-space matrix. After all, what can change in one year? However, ever since COVID-19, which acted as a catalyst for disruption in all domains, primarily geopolitical, economic, social and security, there lurks a permanent sense of foreboding of what the near future will throw up. The world is now decidedly “flat” (global impact of events), as presciently stated by Thomas L Freidman in his seminal book “The World is Flat” as early as 2005, talking about globalisation and the world in the 21st Century. 2022 was a turbulent year, and 2023 promises to be different, uncertain, and unpredictable with events that could change the world as we know it. For India, it could be a “Year of Opportunity”.
What did the World say about 2022 and Expectations for 2023?
In what is now a decade-old annual tradition, Ipsos (global market research and public opinion firm) recently asked more than 24,000 citizens of 36 countries (including India) to reflect on the year gone by and the year ahead. 2022 was a challenging year marked by the continued COVID-19 pandemic, ongoing international conflicts, including the prominent and dominant Ukraine war, economic woes, and an increasingly urgent climate emergency. Interestingly, there is a marked difference between how people feel 2022 has treated them and their families and how it has impacted their country. On average, across all 36 countries, over half (56%) describe 2022 as a bad year for themselves and their families, and even more (73%) say it has been a bad year for their country. The 2022 stats were better than 2020 and 2021, as many people around the world feel 2022 has been a little better.
2023 is starting its business with instability, uncertainty, and unpredictability. Pessimism surrounds most expectations, especially the economic situation, which in turn impacts most other social and geo-political parameters ranging from unemployment, social unrest, inflation and rising prices amidst food and energy scarcity, exacerbated diplomatic and political relations both inter and intra-nation.
The security environment, including the use of nuclear weapons, is a real and present danger, made more likely with the Ukraine war turning global and multi-dimensional. US-China relations are already frosty and fast racing towards a cold war template. Sudden and traumatic natural disasters and adverse climate change effects are causing enough anxiety for nations, institutions, and individuals to take note and demand an international action plan. Interestingly, even asteroid collisions and visits from aliens make a list, especially from India!
The Ukraine war, which has already transformed into an attrition, multi-domain war with increasing involvement of many nations, could have a catastrophic impact geopolitically, economically, and socially, and it is not likely to end soon!
Global power equations are in flux within an increasingly fragmented international system, with multilateralism being questioned. Rising geopolitical tensions, global economic volatility, the combined COVID effects and the Ukraine war keep the world in an unstable state. Dealing with these challenges will consume most nations’ energies in the coming year but will hit the global South especially hard.
A global recession is a high probability. Interestingly, evolving and metamorphosing high-end and disruptive tech generates a global tech race (which could have disastrous consequences if unchecked, like AI, robotics, big data encryption, hyper-sonics, automation, anti-satellite systems and space domain) demanding better civil-military fusion, which China has mastered, and India has miles to go.
USA-China Competition and Confrontation
The USA has given every indication, with execution, that it intends the Ukraine war to be the final showdown to downsize Russian power and influence forever. Experts largely accept that the run-up to the war was planned and executed to bait Russia into an unequal war. Whatever the war’s outcome, which in all probability will continue in attrition mode in 2023, Russia’s image, status and power will undoubtedly be impacted adversely.
In addition, with Biden announcing his “strategy of containment” against China and a confident Emperor Xi, who consolidated power further during the 20th Congress, ready to accept the gauntlet thrown – the geopolitical and security outlook looks menacing. Expect further deterioration of relations between them, forcing nations to hedge their relationships, being wary of getting caught in the highly probable new “cold war”. With the credibility of the US at an all-time low, and Chinese belligerence unleashing hitherto hidden fangs, nations prefer to play the “wait-and-watch game”, except for the known allies like UK, Pakistan and North Korea.
The military competition will intensify, leading to confrontation, and Taiwan will remain a dangerous flashpoint in relations. The border impasse along the India-China border will likely get exacerbated and widened, with an anxious and impatient Xi in a hurry to achieve his “dream”, racing against economic, demographic, and geopolitical headwinds. The US-China tensions could pose the most serious security challenge in 2023, along with the repercussions of the Ukraine war. How China manages the rampaging COVID pandemic comes a close second.
The Economist, in the essay series on “The World Ahead 2023”, also lists high food and fuel prices, the fight against inflation and the transition to renewable energy as challenges. The “West led by USA” will contain China and Russia by forging and strengthening alliances and agreements (QUAD, AUKUS). Concurrently, both Russia and China would re-invigorate their overtures to gain more allies or neutral nations. China’s use of geo-economic strategies in its Belt and Road initiative (BRI) will accelerate. Newer alignments are also indicated by growing China-Middle East (especially Saudi Arabia) ties and Xi’s Africa outreach. Nations would prefer “issue-based alignments” and join coalitions, allowing them to face the pulls and pressures of big power rivalries.
Ian Bremmer, Head of the political risk firm EuroAsia Group, reiterates that geopolitics will no longer be dictated by single global orders. However, the security order would still be led by the US, and economic leadership depends on the Chinese trajectory; digital order will continue to be driven by big tech companies while climate by multiple stakeholders. Fresh challenges will be mounted on democracies, sharper rise in economic inequities within and without nations will impact nations’ policies. Right-wing political movements will continue gathering steam and will certainly test the international community’s ability to take collective action against global challenges.
UN in 2023
A muscular response to multiple and major security and social threats has been found wanting due to innumerable reasons, including a total lack of cooperation within the UNSC. It will continue. Unfortunately, thanks to Ukraine, the lesser world will lose out on any attention or proactive actions like Mali, Afghanistan, Congo, Sudan, and Syria, leaving regional groupings to intervene as best as they can (affected neighbours, unfortunately, promote their own agendas rather than resolving the crisis). For the sake of the future, big powers must initiate robust dialogue and steps to make the UN more effective in 2023. Unsurprisingly, the UNGA facing myriad chaotic issues, has been virtually paralysed and quieted.
A Year of Opportunity for India amidst the Challenges
2023 is undoubtedly a year of opportunity for India, as if the stars are aligned for India’s decisive leap onto the global “high table” where the two superpowers – US and China – sit along with a select few regional powers and allies. Economic conditions are relatively more vibrant and robust than the rest. India is projected to be among the world’s fastest-growing major economies, with the World Bank recently upgrading the country’s 2023 GDP growth forecast from 6.5 per cent cent6.9 per cent. Add to it the demographic dividends increasingly acknowledged soft power coupled with the Chairmanship of G20 (currently the most potent multilateral global institution) and SCO (growing impactful organisation, especially in Asia). We have been there before! But have failed to exploit it.
India External Outreach
India must immediately carry out trade and economic reforms based on national interest, which will transform our economy, with an international environment eagerly awaiting change. India needs to vigorously enter into free trade agreements (FTAs) with multiple nations. It has fortunately completed bilateral agreements with Australia and UAE, extended overtures to GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council) and Israel and should further reach out to the EU and UK.
Immediate neighbourhood demands immediate focus and real-time attention always; and has been India’s weak link along with economic reforms. All SAARC nations are undergoing turmoil, be it a new government in Nepal, unstable Myanmar, economically endangered Sri Lanka (and Pakistan, apart from her habitual shenanigans) and sudden turbulence in Bangladesh. Maldives has always been rocky and changing equations with India. Afghanistan is the veritable lull before the storm, which will erupt in 2023, and India as a friend and neighbour must make a difference using her position as Chair of G20. This reaching out needs to be handled deftly against our “over-sensitive” neighbours. Our much touted “Look East” now “Act East” policy will have to be actioned with urgency on the ground, with no more delays and empty gestures.
Some of the major security challenges bulleted below will continue to remain and could diffuse Indian focus towards the opportunities presented:
- Cross-border Terrorism spreading to the hinterland
- Economic support to insurgents and anti-nationals from inimical nations
- Left Wing Extremism (LWE) in certain areas
- Insurgency in the North-eastern States
- Drugs and narcotics trafficking
- Cyber security which has emerged as a major national challenge (a la AIIMS)
- Fissiparous polity
- Societal challenges like inequity, unemployment, urban-rural divide, and communal tensions
G20 and SCO Presidency
Chairing G20 and SCO at a critical phase of global affairs places India in a unique position, opening an opportunity for India. She can use (and enhance) her international goodwill and credibility and talk to all sides involved in the confrontation, be it the Ukraine war or crisis situations which typically UN should address. India would aim to soften entrenched positions.
The critical challenges confronting humanity today are global in character, not confined by national boundaries, and require collective action. Solving these challenges demands multilateral initiatives, which have recently taken a big hit. Pathetic collective global response to COVID, the Ukraine war (ironically, the guardian nations are deeply involved in the war), the resurgence of nuclear arming and brinkmanship, climate change challenges, disruptive technologies like AI, robotics, hyper-velocity, space, and satellite systems, has further widened the fault lines in multilateralism. India must revive multilateralism and revamp failing global institutions (at least start the process).
The Global South expects India to establish their prominence/visibility or parity in international geopolitics. Accolades for India’s crisis management ability have become frequent as of late. International Monetary Fund (IMF) Managing Director Kristalina Georgieva recently referred to India as a “bright spot” on the dark global horizon and credited the country’s post-COVID-19 pandemic growth momentum to structural reforms.
India inherits the responsibility of steering collective action for restoring global economic and financial stability in the aftermath of the pandemic and the Russia-Ukraine war. The food and fuel crises triggered by the conflict are only worsening. India’s Presidency will have to prioritise formulating a robust strategy for a resilient recovery of economic growth and recalibrating the action plan for achieving the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Other priorities could be global health, alternate energy transition, digital transformation and, most importantly, climate change initiatives (use influence to address COP27 initiatives).
Priorities Identified by India
India accordingly has identified several priorities for its G20 Presidency, which are inclusive, equitable and sustainable growth; LiFE (lifestyle for the environment); women’s empowerment; digital public infrastructure and tech-enabled development in health, agriculture, education, commerce; skill-mapping, culture and tourism, climate financing, circular economy, global food security, energy security; green hydrogen, disaster risk reduction and resilience, developmental cooperation, fight against economic crimes, and multilateral reforms.
2023 is likely to be a pivotal year to crystallise the dawn of a new geopolitical and economic environment. It does not require great analytical ability to forecast a period of instability, and uncertainty with unpredictability, both in man-made and natural crisis situations. Collective and cooperative global action led by the major powers is the order of the day, who, unfortunately, are themselves at the helm of causing the crisis. Multi-lateralism and world institutions must be revived and made effective and relevant, starting with the UN. For India, 2023 is a year of opportunity and could well be a game-changer and catalyst to reach her seat at the high table of global management. Only time will tell!
Lt Gen PR Kumar (Retd)