Haunted by the past

Time opportune to introspect where ‘unipolar predicament’ has landed us

Haunted by the past

BIG PICTURE: ASEAN has opted for non-alignment, but India failed to grasp that the ticket to the big game would depend on how a nation handles economic engagement. PTI

MK Bhadrakumar

Former Ambassador

THE politics of adjustment is commonly associated with the political economy of a nation — about rectifying internal imbalances that are consequences of policies relating to its economic growth and social and political advancement. It seems reasonably safe to make the assertion that such an adjustment process also becomes necessary in the foreign policy arena during periods of tremendous economic difficulty, fractious political disputes and radical transformation of the international system.

Being in a hostile mode vis-a-vis a country with GDP six times larger than India’s marks a delusional frame of mind.

The last time when India faced cataclysmic shifts of the tectonic plates was in the early 1990s. Looking back, India’s post-Cold War adjustment process turned out to be seriously flawed on three counts, and their carryover largely accounts for its present-day predicaments. Fundamentally, India lacked a strategic vision. The master tactician in Prime Minister Narasimha Rao prioritised ‘management’ of problems. The result was that India crossed the river but without a clear sense of direction as to what lay beyond.

Typically, ‘Act East’ was one major step in that transition but it eventually lost momentum. Most importantly, India misjudged the inevitability of Russia’s rise from the ashes and came to regard that country as a ‘failing state’. Much of this was to be attributed to the brain-washing by the American mentors who propagated that the smart way was to ‘cross the Rubicon’ by hitching wagons to the Washington Consensus.

How India, a civilisation state with such intense familiarity with Russia historically, could have underestimated that nation’s innate genius to regenerate is beyond comprehension. When great Russian strategist Evgeny Primakov proposed a strategic conversation between Russia and India with a third civilisation state in their common neighbourhood as an anchor sheet of predictability in a world order that was entering unprecedented turbulence in the historic transition to multipolarity, Delhi ignored it.

The second great failure in Indian thinking was in its understanding of the epochal changes taking place in China as that country’s farsighted leaders introduced a massive programme of reform to improve its infrastructure, manufacturing capacity, housing and education, which soon transformed the country’s capital stock from one of the weakest in the world to one of the best. India instead tapped into the Western propaganda of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests as defining China’s future.

Russia could sense China’s inexorable rise as early as the 1980s when the reform began, and under the leadership of Mikhail Gorbachev, seriously started preparing for a new relationship, which Boris Yeltsin followed through with three visits to China in a seven-year period alone. During Yeltsin’s second visit to Beijing in 1996, the historic agreements were signed on the pacification of China’s borders with Russia and three Central Asian states (Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan), the delineation of those borders and the normalisation of the relationships.

Watching the stunning development, Henry Kissinger noted, ‘It shows a certain alteration in the international situation’. He added, ‘Some of the other agreements show that there’s some movement to create a Eurasian security system ... of which we (US) are not a part. And as a long-term tendency it should give us some concern.’ Suffice to say, we missed the significance of that momentous realignment in world politics right in our neighbourhood, and worse still, reacted to it negatively. The outright rejection of Primakov’s invite to India to climb on board the RIC platform has had a deleterious impact all around.

India was preoccupied with ‘catch up’ with China. This, in turn, caused India’s entrapment in a ‘unipolar predicament’, another catastrophic fault line in its adjustment to the post-Cold War era. Today, as the pandemic calls for a period of adjustment, these fault lines are making the process very complicated. Kissinger was very prescient. Put simply, India missed the train 25 years ago when Primakov made his wake-up call in 1998. The failure to jettison the false notions narrowed our space to manoeuvre when the world order entered a phase of unprecedented volatility.

‘Missing the wood for the trees is not acceptable’ — wasn’t that the poignant message coming out of External Affairs Minister Jaishankar’s meeting with his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi at Dushanbe on July 14? Chinese President Xi Jinping, in his first-ever visit last week to Tibet’s border regions with India, also underscored the highest importance attached to ‘lasting stability and high-quality development for the plateau region.’ China and Russia, the two biggest Asian powers, are facing genuine difficulty to have strategic communication with India.

The pandemic has come as a shock therapy. The time is opportune to seriously introspect where the ‘unipolar predicament’ landed India, which is sleepwalking, lacking conviction in Quad, yet unable to get rid of that albatross. And, this is at a time when the diminishing influence of the US in world politics is plain to see. The Biden administration’s unceremonious backtracking last week on the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline from Russia to Germany is a glaring example that the US’ transatlantic writ stands seriously eroded. America’s allies, big and small, are expanding their strategic autonomy.

Allies have no desire to plunge into a new Cold War against China. ASEAN has opted for non-alignment. India failed to grasp that the ticket to the big game would increasingly depend on how a country handles economic engagement and that the defining characteristic of these extraordinary times will be alignment of interests, where the broadest possible space is needed to exercise strategic options. The interests, of course, must always be rationally analysed and options defined from a long-term perspective. Being in a hostile mode vis-a-vis a country with GDP that is six times larger than India’s marks a delusional frame of mind.

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