We just witnessed a new era unfold at Delhi’s G20 summit. A Cold War is playing out between the US and China and India is right in the middle. But we aren’t the only ones. Also being pulled by both sides are mid-ranking countries like South Africa and Brazil. The tug-of-war is taking place as well in the Gulf where countries like Saudi Arabia and the UAE are being courted by East and West.

The Chinese made quick moves in this global chess game at the BRICS summit in Johannesburg last month. They were the driving force behind the decision to expand BRICS from the original five nations to a grouping of about 11 middle-ranking countries. India wasn’t very keen on the expansion but couldn’t muster the muscle to block the Chinese moves. So, in comes an even more disparate group of new countries including the UAE, Argentina, Egypt and Ethiopia. Saudi Arabia and its arch-rival Iran have also been invited to join, but the Saudis haven’t made up their minds about whether to jump on board.

Don’t forget that Jim O’Neill of Goldman Sachs, who picked the BRICS countries as the giants of the future, now says only China has exceeded his expectations and “India has got close”. The others have been far below expectations. “Brazil, Russia and South Africa have all been, especially since 2010, extremely disappointing.”

But politics has taken over from economics in the 2023 world. The Chinese want to build up BRICS as a counter-force to the G20.

The Chinese figure they don’t stand a chance of winning in organisations built up by the West and playing by Western rules. So, they’d like to create institutions where they’re top dog and call the shots. The China Daily explained how it saw the BRICS expansion, saying, “Any enlargement of the BRICS will obviously lead to its stronger presence globally, making it capable of being a new engine for global economic recovery.”

Where does India stand in all this? We’re buying huge quantities of Russian oil — the amount may have dropped in August, but that’s only because demand falls during the monsoons and refineries both in India and Russia use this period for maintenance shutdowns. We’d also like more SS-40 missiles and may want to place new orders for Russian armaments — if there are any left with the Ukraine-Russia war.

But inevitably we’re moving closer, inch by inch, to the US and the Quad grouping. Our border stand-off with China means we really don’t have anywhere else to turn.

We’d like to go back to playing the non-aligned game but it doesn’t look like it can be an option when we share a border with the Chinese dragon. And the Chinese wrote us off as possible friends several years ago when we point-blank refused to join the Belt and Road Initiative.

Going the extra mile

The new determination to win friends and influence countries worked in India’s favour at the G20. US President Joe Biden made an enormous effort to ensure India, and particularly Prime Minister Narendra Modi, emerged looking good. The Americans and Europeans accepted the softened language of the New Delhi Declaration on the Russia-Ukraine war.

If there was any doubt about the global chess games the Americans are playing they would have surely been dispelled by Biden’s next moves in Vietnam. The one-time foes have signed what the Vietnamese call a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership. Vietnam has only four other such partners — China, Russia, India and South Korea. India and Vietnam both have strong military forces and long borders with China. Russia and China had large-scale border battles in 1969 but today the Russians are very much the junior partner and not seen as an enemy any longer.

The Americans made another crucial move that could benefit India hugely if it works out. That’s the new ship-to-train-to-ship and train transportation corridor from India to Europe, via the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Israel to the EU. The details are still fuzzy but this is the first American move to counter China’s BRI. The Chinese are already scoffing, and it remains to be seen whether this new cross-continental train-and-digital link will unfold as its promoters envisage.

In the 1950s and ’60s, India stuck doggedly to the concept of non-alignment even though the West considered it a hypocritical way of having our cake and eating and being friends with everyone. As geopolitical tensions rise, can India steer closer to the Americans and yet hew its own path?