The Cold War that ended three decades ago, inevitably left behind a legacy, existing even today, of a divide between the US-led West and the residual of the world of Communism inherited by the Chinese leadership. In the era of Cold War the world was tightly divided ideologically between the two politico-economic camps of democracy and free market on the one hand and the State-controlled means of production and democratic centrism, a synonym for one party rule, on the other.
Every country big or small had to choose a side and the highly charged balance of power made the world vulnerable to the consequences of any local conflict or issue possibly sparking off a clash between the two nuclear Super Powers. The military build-up, however, continued unabated in the quest for a deterrent — the US sponsored Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD) evolving into Strategic Defence Initiative (SDI) based on ‘space missiles’ in the Reagan Presidency. The arms race left the Soviet Union with a damaged economy and this was the main reason why the Soviet army, having invaded Afghanistan in December 1979 for gaining a quick geopolitical advantage over the US, could not bear the asymmetric offensive of the Mujahideen for long and withdrew in defeat in 1989 causing a breakdown of the Soviet empire itself and putting curtains on the Cold War.
Over years the world is beginning to move once again towards a bipolar order, of course with a different set of paradigms. The lead player in the Communist camp this time is China, not Russia, since Deng Xiaoping having taken all the lessons from the collapse of the Soviet Union — he saw the latter becoming an oligarchy with serious economic contradictions internally –proceeded to open the Chinese economy to global markets outside in a highly controlled fashion and build the new technology brought in by the success of IT revolution that had ironically coincided with the dismemberment of the USSR. Xi Jinping has carried this forward but he has also deepened the Communist hold on the state by emphasising on ‘Sinicization of Marxism’. China has successfully pursued the economic route to becoming a superpower — with a huge favourable balance of trade against US and a potential for putting many countries around it under a debt burden through its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). China’s strategy of restricting the influence of India as a major Asian power is presently in full play. The Sino-Pak military alliance sustained by CPEC and the trade relationship with ASEAN countries fortified through the Regional Comprehensive Economic Pact (RCEP) are the instruments used by China to contain India.
The advent of the Biden Presidency in the US is setting off the process of reviving the US-NATO bonds that had been weakened in the times of Donald Trump and bracketing China and Russia together as the adversaries of the Cold War era. The activation of QUAD with Japan as its anchor in the Indo-Pacific and the participation of France in the recent naval exercises of QUAD have impelled Russia to firm up its axis with China for monitoring US moves in this area and speak up against the alleged rise of an ‘Asian NATO’. India is now an active partner in QUAD to give a message to China that it would not only take on the latter on LAC but also join any multilateral initiatives to counter Chinese aggressiveness in the Indo-Pacific — that helped our strategy for the defending Indian Ocean as well. The depth of Indo-Russian relations — Russia is the largest supplier of defence equipment to India ahead of US and Israel — can be maintained by India as our diplomacy is in a position to convince the US that none of this would be at the cost of American interests. India has to project its role as a major sovereign power exercising a balancing influence geopolitically for the cause of global peace — this can be a nuanced aspect of the ‘non-aligned’ approach of the past sans ideological tints. This would be tested in our ability to simultaneously maintain friendship with Iran, Israel and Saudi Arabia in bilateral terms.
A new trend gone unnoticed in many quarters is that the increasing geopolitical alignments towards a bipolar world are, unlike in the Cold War years, revolving round ‘political’ opposition to the US and not the ‘ideological’ contradiction between Communism and Capitalism that had guided them earlier. There is a notable drift of some Islamic countries towards the Communist block led by the China-Russia combine and its allies, in consequence of the prolonged ‘war on terror’ that had been launched by the US-led world coalition following 9/11. Pakistan became increasingly ambiguous about supporting the US in countering Islamic radicals of Al Qaeda-Taliban axis and in the process drew international approbation for harbouring Islamic extremists and terrorists on its soil. It invited a clear reprimand from President Donald Trump on this score.
Pakistan chose to strike a military alliance with China primarily driven by its hostility towards India on the issue of Kashmir. The Sino-Pak collaboration is sustained by the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) the high investment project of China built on the territory of POK that was ceded by Pakistan to its new ‘all weather friend’. In a situation of internal economic decline aggravated by the financial curbs imposed by the Trump regime, Pakistan is now greatly beholden to China for economic support. All of this has added to Pakistan’s recalcitrance towards the US on the issue of the threat to the latter from ‘radicalisation’. It has also crystallised a group within the Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC) comprising Pakistan, Turkey, Malaysia and Qatar, that directly or indirectly supports Islamic radicals on the ground of faith and is not with Saudi Arabia’s leadership known for its staunch political alliance with the US.
What looks like the beginning of a revival of the Cold War between the US and China is this time around a geopolitical polarisation not glued by ideology — the Sino-Pak axis proving this in ample measure. The alliance between a godless Communist dictatorship and an Islamic State endorsing faith-based militancy rests on a political give and take with China supporting Pakistan against India on Kashmir and Pakistan choosing to look the other way on China’s atrocities in Xinjiang and other Muslim areas under it. The antipathy towards US has pushed many Muslim countries in the opposite camp while some others like Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Nepal and even Bangladesh seemed to be favouring a policy of equidistance between the two rival sides for the moment. The Sino-Pak alliance is working for Pakistan on the Afghan issue to the disadvantage of India and it is necessary for us to reach out to other stakeholders in the Afghan peace process — particularly Russia, Iran, Israel, Saudi Arabia and the NATO countries to pave the way for a national government, and not an Emirate, taking charge of Afghanistan after the withdrawal of US troops from there. Pakistan’s hold on a Taliban-controlled Afghanistan will add to India’s problem on the Kashmir front. India has to remain prepared in any case to deal with some form of coordinated aggression of Pakistan and China on our borders.
In this developing geopolitical scenario, the strategy of the Modi government to go in for bilateral or even multi-sided understandings and alliances based on mutuality of economic and security interests and in tune with the requirements of world peace and global harmony, has served India well. The polarisation is ultimately between the democratic world and the regimes run by dictators or fundamentalists and there is no doubt about which side India will be on. While President Biden values India as the largest democracy in the world — considering the latter as ‘a natural ally’ of the oldest democracy of US — some of the European powers owing to the colonial past might still be a little deprecatory towards this country. India has to launch a diplomatic mobilisation in the democratic countries against the rise of faith-based militancy in the Muslim world and the unholy alliance between Pakistan and China that was supporting it.
India has to continue striving for friendly relations with countries of South and Southeast Asia apart from the closeness it had developed with Saudi Arabia and UAE — leaders of the OIC who were on the side of US and against Islamic radicals. India can work for multipolarity in Asia and for this it has to build its economy, military strength and internal governance to emerge as an important voice in international relations. We are in the era of covert offensives, cyber attacks and information warfare and India has to develop its capabilities for dealing with the same. The ‘jointness’ among our defence services being developed by the CDS was in evidence in the build-up achieved by India in Ladakh recently for the purpose of countering Chinese designs on LAC.
It is possible that due to a sense of comfort of distance felt by the US in relation to the threat of Al Qaeda and an accommodating attitude shown by the Biden administration towards Pakistan because of factors relating to Afghan peace process involving Taliban, India may not witness the kind of convergence it expected to have with America on these issues. This would be another reason why India must believe in its own strength and capabilities in dealing with its security and economic concerns while continuing to offer wise counsel on matters affecting global peace and the cause of humanity. The crippling effect of the Corona pandemic at home has put the entire energy of the government on the domestic challenge but the country has to keep up its guards against any external threats to national security in the prevailing environ.
(The writer is a former Director Intelligence Bureau)