India may have to do balancing act at Summit for Democracy

The summit could change South Asian dynamics considering how it draws a line between China, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka on one side and India, Pakistan and Nepal on another, writes Divyanshu Jindal for South Asia Monitor

Divyanshu Jindal Dec 10, 2021
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Summit for Democracy hosted by US President Joe Biden (Photo: KGNS)

The maiden Summit for Democracy hosted by US President Joe Biden has raised questions over the legitimacy of the American leadership in global geopolitics amid its own domestic fissures and waning economic and military clout. India may end up doing some tight-rope walking at the meet.  

Critics of the December 9-10 summit to which 110 countries have been invited are unhappy over the presence of countries such as the Philippines and Pakistan which have a poor track record of democracy but are known to be long-term American allies. Pakistan has since declined participation. 

Divided guest list 

Predictably, Russia and China, which were not invited, have denounced the summit as a throwback to the Cold War era. The US also refrained from inviting countries with which it has close ties but whose democratic credentials are in doubt: Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Singapore. Hungary too reacted angrily to its non-inclusion. 

The guest list, said to be based on shared values and interests, has created a black and white scenario for most countries. It has thrown unexpected surprises for South Asian, where India has been navigating the emerging multipolar realities by trying to carefully balance all sides.

According to a Pew report, only few believe that American democracy now serves as a good model for other countries. A high 72 percent say that US democracy is no longer a good example to follow. A report by one European think tank labels US as a “backsliding democracy”. 

The reports highlight how the American model of democracy carried an appeal for generations through use of soft power mechanisms backed by a booming economy. With a slowing economy, the attraction is waning.
 
US democracy flawed 

Perhaps acknowledging this, Biden, in his opening remarks, quoted a report from the International Institute of Democracy and Electoral Assistance as saying that more than half of all democracies have seen a decline in at least one aspect of their democracy over the past 10 years, including the US. 

Biden’s summit could be a desperate attempt to check the bleeding US influence globally. But there are just too many factors which might prove this attempt to be a folly rather than a masterstroke. 

By inviting Taiwan, the summit has raised questions over not just the US adherence to ‘One China Policy’ but has also attempted to infuse a debate in other countries to take a fresh stand on the issue. This might create tensions between some invitees and Beijing. 

In recent years, several research reports based in the US and Europe have criticized and questioned India’s democratic credentials. One report classified India as an “electoral autocracy” and no longer an “electoral democracy”. Some others have dubbed India a “flawed democracy” and as only “partly free”. In the light of all this, the invite by the Biden administration comes as a relief for those hurt by attacks on the Indian system. 

Democracy or strategic interests? 

Considering that the summit brings Pakistan at an equal footing with India in terms of democratic standards, the summit highlights deeply instilled US strategic interests in the invitee list as well as in the overall concept. 

Moreover, by omitting Sri Lanka and Bangladesh from the list, the Biden administration seems to have signalled US unhappiness with their stance towards regional geopolitics.  

Indian External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar recently concluded a Russia-India-China trilateral with his counterparts. The three voiced mutual opposition to the US unilateral decision-making in several areas and a need to create a more balanced and multi-polarity-based global order. 

Is the summit a tool to nudge New Delhi away from any meaningful collaboration with Moscow and Beijing? 

Now that the US has clubbed China, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka on one side and India, Pakistan and Nepal on another, will Beijing use this opportunity to create a parallel discourse? 

(The author is a Doctoral Scholar at OP Jindal Global University, India. The views expressed are personal He can be contacted at divyanshujindal32@gmail.com, Twitter- @JindalDiv, LinkedIn- Divyanshu Jindal | LinkedIn) 

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