New Cold War a test of India’s strategic skills : The Tribune India

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New Cold War a test of India’s strategic skills

Evidently, there are many global signs on which India must keep an eye. Although the imminent waiver of CAATSA sanctions could appear to facilitate multi-aligned India’s simultaneous cultivation of ties with Russia, China and America, New Delhi may find it hard to connect regional security, economic and arms import interests as Western sanctions affect both Russia’s economy and arms exports.

New Cold War a test of India’s strategic skills

Power politics: Russia has been of use to India in leveraging ties with other nations. Reuters



Anita Inder Singh

Founding professor, Centre for Peace and Conflict Resolution

The recent vote of the US House of Representatives against imposing penalties on India under the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) for buying Russian arms will benefit India-US relations without harming India’s military ties with Russia — for the moment at least. But it will not wish away the fact that the war in Ukraine has highlighted an international cat’s cradle that is being oversimplified as “strategic competition” or “great power tensions” to describe the open hostility between the West and Russia. A new Cold War has appeared on the global horizon, and it will test India’s diplomatic and strategic skills.

This Cold War rules out the dialogue and diplomacy that India says are essential to end the Ukraine crisis. One reason is that across continents — the Americas, Europe, Asia and Africa — there is convergence on the need to prevent Russia’s blockade of Ukrainian ports from triggering a global good crisis. Indeed, pleas for peace in Ukraine are often demands for lower international energy prices, which remain a pipe-dream. On the need to tackle the economic issues that challenge development and stability, the world has come together. But the political differences that define the animosity between Russia and the West on Ukraine prevail. Such complex situations challenge India to suggest answers to the economic and political problems faced by the world.

For India, three factors make the new Cold War different from the US-Soviet one. First, neither the erstwhile USSR nor the US shared a border with non-aligned India or laid claim to its territory. India, therefore, received large Soviet and American aid, especially for its public sector, with confidence.

Times have changed. Currently, there are two groups of antagonists: America, its European and Asian allies on the one side; and Russia and China on the other. One of these antagonists — China — contests Indian territory and is also the main territorial spoiler in Southeast Asia.

Second, in the mid-1950s, both India and China joined the non-aligned movement which then represented an anti-colonial (implying anti-West) force, since some Western countries had empires at that time.

In contrast, China is the contemporary imperialist power in Asia. China’s imperialism threatens the security of Asia and encourages closer strategic collaboration — though not always alliances — between many Asian countries and the US. A rising China threatens America’s pre-eminence in Asia and the territorial sovereignty of many of its Asian neighbours, including India.

Third, unlike the economically weak Soviet Union, China’s progress has made it a global economic hub and one of the largest trading and investment partners of many countries, including India, even as it threatens India’s state frontiers.

Nevertheless, Beijing will find it hard to practise an expansive foreign policy in an Indo-Pacific where Japan, Australia, South Korea and Britain — all old American allies — are collaborating closely with the US. Beijing’s propaganda line is that the US is only good at making enemies, while China has achieved great success in making friends. This is wrong, since many Asian countries, including India, seek to balance China by cooperating with the US, even if they are non-aligned.

The fact that China has stronger trading ties with Asian countries than India has helped in improving its position through diplomacy. But that doesn’t disguise its imperialism. Apart from North Korea and Pakistan, it doesn’t have many Asian friends. Even strong trade and investment ties with Asian neighbours often result in fear of China, and the wish that those countries had more options. They are keenly aware of its economic and military strength, and its wish to dominate Asia while boasting about the peace and stability it will promote through its Global Security Initiative. So China’s regional ties need repair not only with India but also with other Asian countries. India should, therefore, seize the opportunity to build economic ties with Southeast Asian countries if it is to enhance its position as an Asian power able to counter China.

At another level, ‘multi-aligned’ India may have several choices, but the current global crisis makes it difficult to reconcile strategic and economic interests. For instance, Russia is the largest single military supplier to both India and China, but has never supported India against China. Meanwhile, it will take at least a decade for India to diversify sources of arms imports and achieve its goal of self-reliance.

Despite the US House’s nod for CAATSA waiver, it is uncertain how ties between New Delhi and Washington will develop as India has been one of the largest buyers of Russian oil over the past few months. That fact alone could create new friction between India and the US, and both will have to watch their steps if they are to remain on good terms and strengthen their relationship.

Evidently, there are many global signs on which India must keep an eye. Although the imminent waiver of sanctions could appear to facilitate multi-aligned India’s simultaneous cultivation of ties with Russia, China and America, New Delhi may find it hard to connect regional security, economic and arms import interests as Western sanctions affect both Russia’s economy and arms exports.

A long-drawn-out new Cold War — generating myriad political and economic problems — calls for an onerous balancing act by India in international power politics. India must use its diplomatic and economic assets to enhance its strength as a regional and global player.  

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