It will be stating the obvious that in the last two and half years, the world, owing to the China-originated COVID 19 witnessed a catastrophic economic upheaval and social disruptions never experienced since the Great Depression of the 1930s. According to international estimates including from the WHO, the COVID pandemic resulted in causing over 15 million deaths and widespread economic distress as never before. As the world was slowly recovering from grave economic ill-effects, the Russian invasion of Ukraine radically altered the geo-political contours in the world with, unmistakably, the birth of a new and serious Cold War. That India, like other nations , has been impacted by these two cataclysmic events, must propel our decision-makers to take urgent stock of the ramifications of emerging strategic alignments.
The ongoing and one-sided Russian-Ukrainian War, now over 5 months old, has clearly brought out the simple cardinal of international relations that sheer national interests pervades all other considerations. Adherence to long established rules which define international behaviour between nations, respecting the territorial integrity of even weaker nations and avoidance of kinetic wars to settle scores and avoiding civilian non-military targets are hardly observed either in letter or spirit.
In the pursuit of its expansionist agendas, Russia under its President, former KGB chief Vladmir Putin , not satisfied having annexed Crimea from Ukraine in 2014, mounted a multiple pronged invasion of Ukraine which has razed most of Ukraine’s east and southern regions was indeed unexpected and unjust to say the least. Over 15 million Ukrainians have been displaced and many of its towns in Ukraine’s Donbas and Luhansk regions have been completely flattened by the overwhelming employment of lethal Russian missiles, artillery, air power and an assortment of advanced weaponry from the Russian arsenal.
Amazingly, apart from lip service and imposing some punitive economic sanctions on Russia no nation, nor the UN or its Security Council has taken concrete steps to ensure a complete ceasefire between the mighty Russians and the weak but the dogged Ukrainians. That the Russians were surprised at the tenacity and grit of the ill equipped Ukrainians is also a fact which has prolonged this uncalled for conflict. That the US has re-energised the NATO alliance and stepped up arming Ukrainians is another factor for prolonging this conflict which is bringing nothing but additional devastation to Ukraine. As to when will this unfortunate conflagration terminate is anyone’s guess. Meanwhile the world has clearly displayed its helplessness coupled with a ‘couldn’t careless attitude’ towards Ukraine cannot be doubted. India should play a more lofty and active role to broker peace between these two warring nations and not worry too much about real-politik as most Indian diplomats have been preaching in the name of national interests.
The major offshoot of this conflict has been the employment of economic sanctions as a weapon of war besides the discernible realignment among powerful nations of the world. The US, still smarting from its Afghanistan debacle of last year, has determinedly endeavoured to bounce back into strategic reckoning as the world’s principal player. It is, accordingly, now busy influencing its NATO members to shun their energy trading with the Russians to keep the latter financially weak and thus starved of improving its military arsenal. However, energy trading relations remain the same between Russia and European nations.
Importantly, the US has found adequate reasons to also hold in check a rising and over-ambitious China which has been doing its utmost to equal the US as the world’s next global super power. That China and Russia now have been driven to be much more aligned to each other’s strategic pursuits cannot be contested. Thus the Russian –Ukraine conflict has clearly given shape to the next and, most likely, a more dangerous Cold War in the world. Each region and nations, currently not enjoying cordial relations with each other, will in all likelihood, be drawn into this newer Cold War contestation.
The US and other western nations are now on an overdrive to impose economic costs on Russia and equally keep soaring Chinese ambitions in check. The latter’s aspirations to integrate Taiwan by military force and to energize its somewhat sagging Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) will be under close scrutiny by the US to discourage China. Consequently, the US announced at the recently concluded G-7 Summit—where India too was an invitee— the massively funded Indo-Pacific Economic Forum (IPEF) as a counter to China’s BRI. How this economic rivalry will shape up will only be known in the near future. At the BRICS summit the other day, Chinese President Xi cautioned the G-7 leaders as regards isolating Russia. President Putin had also recently derided the US and West for their confrontationist economic policies towards Russia in the recent weeks.
India which has cordial relations, economic and military linkages with both the US and Russia has had to deftly traverse a diplomatic tightrope post the Russian offensive! The US and the West have been prodding India to denounce the Russian invasion of Ukraine which India has refrained from doing so. India’s armed forces are sustained by nearly 65 percent of its arsenal of Russian origin whilst its military ties in diverse spheres with the US are also growing. As India wishes to continually conduct some of its oil purchases from Russia (relatively cheaper and readily available) and importantly its weaponry, ammunition and other modern military platforms, Russia too does maintain some influence over the Chinese which can be suitably utilized by India if and when required.
However, India has to be more than careful of China’s machinations vis-à-vis us as China’s assertiveness in Eastern Ladakh, opposite Arunachal Pradesh and our Central sector apart from in the Indian Ocean region has been on the rise. The Chinese, after their Galwan treachery and the transgressions in Eastern Ladakh have made no sincere efforts to de-escalate the situation there despite their hyperbole of maintaining good relations with India. Apparently Chinese President Xi, who is seeking an unprecedented third term for himself, may not indulge in further kinetic mischief but certainly will not like to relent from his aggressive stance towards India either!
Overall, India must display far more tenacity towards the Chinese than hitherto fore and do its utmost to arrive at the pre April 2020 positions in Ladakh. The Chinese are by no means supermen and are aware of the motivations and professionalism of the Indian Armed Forces which they have tasted in 1962, 1967 (Nathu La), 1987 (Sumongdrong Chu) and later. Additionally, India must also lend adequate support to the QUAD, whilst encouraging other SE Asian nations to adopt independent of China policies to the extent possible. Come what may, China will continue to pursue anti-India policies in concert with Pakistan, in more ways than one in the foreseeable future.
India, despite its best intentions towards all its neighbours has to pay the price of being the largest and most powerful nation in South Asia. Thus India-bashing is a “preferred pastime” for some politicians in countries like Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka and even the Maldives. It must not discourage us as we move towards creating a friendly eco system in the region—– accordingly, efforts to re-energize the SAARC should be endeavoured. Innovative measures to give a further fillip to India’s “Act East” policy should be undertaken beginning with ensuring better connectivity and enhancing mutual trade ties. It is encouraging to note that India is normalizing its traditional ties with strategically significant and oil exporter Iran after a lapse of a couple of years. The panacea for a successful foreign policy for India remains exercising strategic autonomy and differences with other nations could be dealt on individual merit. Meanwhile, India has done well to help forge and join the I2U2 quartet which brings together strategically significant countries like the US, Israel, UAE and India in economic bonding in the coming days.
Notwithstanding the myriad issues afflicting India’s relations with a fundamentalist Taliban ruled Afghanistan, India must keep up its humanitarian assistance to Afghanistan. In the long run, it will be more than a pragmatic policy and assist that hapless, violence driven terrorist state to somewhat shun its medieval mindset and the Taliban will surely discourage both ISIK (Islamic State in Khurasan) and Pakistan’s ISI driven export of terrorism towards India.
A just learnt lesson for India’s foreign policy mandarins has been for India to stick to its time honoured guiding principles of ensuring strategic autonomy. India’s firm stand vis-à-vis the US as regards its decision to import the Russian air defence missile system, the S-400 has now forced the US exempting India from their one-sided Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) provisions. India must thus retain its independence in approach to all nations in its foreign policies strategy.
By all standards, India continues to face diverse challenges currently to its security and well being. Selfless and enlightened leadership within the country and a concerted and determined drive to continually improve its combat preparedness embellished, importantly, by inter-societal unity and harmony will enable India to thwart any emerging challenges. India, on the cusp of becoming a reckonable global player, now has just to get its act together—–am sanguine it will and thus attain its rightful seat on the global high table.