Expanding G7: India should see Donald Trump's suggestion as an opportunity, not a geopolitical curveball that might upset China

Sreemoy Talukdar

Donald Trump's call for expansion of G7 into a G10 or G11 and inclusion of India in the comity of powerful nations is an interesting suggestion at an opportune time. The US president wants the "very outdated group" comprising the US, UK, France, Germany, Italy, Canada and Japan to reflect the current power dynamics and is keen on adding India, Australia, South Korea and even Russia to the mix of advanced economies.

Trump was scheduled to hold an 'in-person' G7 summit in June before postponing it. The US president now wants to hold it in September on the sidelines of UN General Assembly, or later still in November after the presidential elections are over.

Worth noting that though Trump fashioned the postponement as "his decision", in reality it was forced on him as neither German chancellor Angela Merkel nor Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau were keen on an "in-person" summit during the pandemic. The idea of G7 expansion itself was made at an informal setting to reporters onboard Air Force One while Trump was returning from Florida. If this carries an air of afterthought, it is anything but.

Institutionalising the formation of biggest economies €" while keeping away the world's second-largest economy €" is a clear signal to China. While the proximate context of a second Cold War is unmissable, the idea is so much more than that. It is a geopolitical move and a tactical manoeuvre. An alliance of powerful democracies is also an ideological challenge to China. The proposal to include Russia is Trump's way of attempting a split in China-Russia axis, though it isn't clear whether some members would be ready to readmit Moscow.

Though India has taken part in G7 summits before and Prime Minister Narendra Modi was an invitee at the Camp David this year, the suggestion for formalising India's inclusion is new. It ties with the larger US policy of aiding the rise of India as a democratic counterbalance to a hegemonic China. It is also a not-so-subtle gesture to India in the middle of New Delhi's yet another border standoff with an aggressive Beijing in the high Himalayas.

The US move also panders to India's long-standing demand for revamping of global institutions to reflect current geopolitical realities. India's GDP is higher than many G7 member nations and New Delhi may see in Trump's suggestion a validity of its position.

Trump's comments are significant also for the timing. The US is evidently taking a more overt position on India-China border dispute and expressing vocal support for India. This is a clear departure from the US policy during the last major Sino-Indian scuffle at Doklam when it was essentially a behind-the-scenes manoeuvre.

It seems the US has a made calculation that the escalatory potential of its overt position on India-China border dispute is surpassed by the threat perception posed by China's aggression at the LAC where, according to Defence Minister Rajnath Singh, Beijing has sent PLA troops across India's claim line this time.

As the standoff continues and both sides spruce up their border deployment, there have also been fervent talks of large-scale 'Chinese occupation of Indian territory', though some analysts have studied satellite imagery to claim that Indian army has pushed back PLA intruders.

Be that as it may, one thing is clear. The India-US security cooperation and strategic collaboration are all set to tighten, and we may see a more explicit reflection of this geopolitical reality driven by the hostile behaviour of an expansionist and revisionist power in China.

Therefore, Trump's suggestion on G7 should be seen in conjunction with the comments made by Alice Wells €" the outgoing top US diplomat for South and Central Asia in Trump administration €" who recently called out China's "provocative" and "disturbing" behaviour at LAC or the South China Sea and termed the border dispute with India "a reminder of the threat posed by China."

Later, at another event in Washington DC, Wells identified India as a "global power", clarified why New Delhi remains pivotal to US Indo-Pacific policy and underlined US support for McMahon Line in the eastern sector of India-China border and reiterated that Washington has "always recognized Arunachal Pradesh as an Indian state."

As Heritage Foundation scholar Jeff Smith has pointed out in an interview with The Hindu, "these are in fact long-standing positions of the US government, but positions it has not always been forthcoming about" and certainly not during a skirmish at the LAC.

If the US seems more willing to call out China's relentless territorial aggression, grey-zone tactics and coercive manoeuvres to change facts on the ground and undermine the sovereignty of other nations, an unintended consequence of Washington's position €" at least as far as India is concerned €" is that it takes the escalatory mechanism of the Sino-Indian scuffle out of New Delhi's hands, or at least India perceives it so.

When it comes to trouble at LAC (unlike LoC), India feels more comfortable with covert backing from the US because €" as Brookings Institution scholar Tanvi Madan has pointed out €" it fears being turned into a geopolitical football between great powers, wants to keep the issue bilateral, anticipates China will make it harder for India to deescalate if the US is openly involved, and believes that as a major power it is capable of solving its own problems.

The subtext of this position is the time-tested Indian foreign policy trope of 'strategic autonomy' that has gone from 'non-alignment' to 'multi-alignment' to settle on a hedging strategy of a swing state. It is time for India to break out of this trope because the policy isn't producing desired results. Also, India's paranoia to avoid being treated as a "geopolitical football" is ironically creating the very situation it wants to avoid.

Unlike Cold War, India this time is subject to the tyranny of geography that imposes on New Delhi conditions that it cannot avoid. Consider the belligerent rhetoric coming out China's state-controlled media that has issued a rather crude military threat and warned India that it will have hell to pay if it sides with the US in Cold War 2.0 despite India's best attempts to appear as neutral. India may control its own actions, but not Chinese paranoia over Beijing's interpretation of India's actions.

More to the point, India's intrinsic fear of losing strategic autonomy if it catches the US in a tighter geopolitical embrace is outdated. The US is no longer the indispensable nation of Madeleine Albright and now it must co-opt other nations to achieve its foreign policy objectives. That leaves manoeuvring space for its allies and partners.

Finally, India's power asymmetry and the capability gap with China (in both economic and hard power spheres) makes it harder to achieve credible deterrence when it comes to a boundary dispute with China, and easy for Beijing to create instability by pushing India's areas of vulnerability. To address this asymmetry until it builds capability through economic growth, it makes sense for India to align with major powers.

As former foreign secretary of India Shaym Saran has noted, "It has been New Delhi's experience that strong relations between India and the US, indeed with other major powers, give India greater room for manoeuvre and ability to manage the China challenge. The more isolated India is, the greater its vulnerability to Chinese pressures."

India should, therefore, interpret Trump's comments on the expansion of G7 as an opportunity, not as a curveball that should be best avoided.

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