Mainstream politicians usually cling to the safety of ba­nal utterances over candid remarks. However, Ken Livingstone, the mayor of London, falls into the category that insists on plain speaking at the risk of courting controversy. Recently, the attitude of immigration officials at Heathrow attracted his ire. At a conference to promote London as an investment destination, the mayor lambasted the officials for their shoddy treatment of Indian and Chinese visitors.

Has Livingstone raised an important issue? Yes, since the underlying reasons behind his criticism have a deeper reso­nance in today’s changing global context. The western im­agination has long perceived societies in Asia as backward, inefficient and static. But the immense economic transfor­mation currently underway in India and China offers a firm rebuttal to this stereotypical assumption.

More importantly, globalization is triggering a discern­ible shift in the international balance of power. In its early phase, globalization was spearheaded by the West. With the rapidly growing economic and political clout of India and China, this is no longer the case: The centre of gravity is moving eastwards.

Once branded infamously as an “area of darkness”. India is now the second largest source of all new foreign investment in London. With more than a trillion dollars of current reserves at its disposal, China’s resurgence is no empty boast either. Millions have been lifted out of poverty in both coun­tries. Yet much work still waits ahead.

A testament to the shifting contours of the global power equation is the confidence with which Indian and Chinese companies have begun to approach overseas markets. The Tata-Corus deal marked a watershed for Indian industry. Lenovo’s acquisition of IBM’s personal computing division represented a similar achievement for China. And this is prob­ably just a precursor of things to come.

As the rising powers seek to assert themselves, many in the West will find this an unpalatable prospect. The threat of a backlash hovers. Ironically, there is a risk that the success of India and China may turn the free market shepherds of the West towards more protectionist pastures. This is evident in the unabashed tabloid rebukes to outsourcing. It was also obvious from the continental Europe’s objections to Mittal Steel’s successful takeover of Arcelor. Even the US is not immune from such populist urges. In 2003, it capped the number of Hl-B visas issued to skilled professionals at 1,95,000 each year; today that quota has shrunk to 65,000.

The changes in the world order underline the quintes­sential importance of multilateral institutions in promoting open dialogue and achieving resolution on critical global is­sues. But it is clear that key global institutions require, bold reforms that recognize the status of the rising powers- They are no longer effective when their decision-making arrange­ments do not reflect changing global realities. The composi­tion of the UN Security Council and India’s absence from it provides a perfect illustration of this imbalance. To suggest that a status quo based on a post Second World War division of power is adequate for this era is almost beyond belief.

 If the existing global institutions are not reshaped to reflect the changing balance of power, there is a risk that India and China may be tempted to pursue their objectives without paying due regard to them. This possibility is not the unlikely pipe dream, as it seems. In particular, China has already taken some measures to create institutions that fit “with its vision of the world. To further its energy policies, it has established the Shanghai Cooperation Organization with Russia and other central Asian states. China is also assiduously wooing Africa to whet its appetite for natural resources.

Not so long ago, the suggestion of an ascendant orient would have been met with amusement in western circles. Today, that same proposition does not sound like a crazed fantasy anymore. The rise of India and China is inevitable. The real challenge ahead will be how the established powers cope with their relative decline in a changing world.