India and the consolidating global fault lines

Will the present divisive situation deteriorate into the emergence of two hostile camps like during the cold war?
India and the consolidating global fault lines
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As I write these lines the number of daily COVID-19 infections has surpassed three lakhs and there is no end in sight, as yet, to the increase. Prime Minister Narendra Modi told the nation on April 20 that the second wave of the pandemic has hit the country like a storm. To meet this continuing crisis the national political and administrative classes will have to summon their will and ingenuity to ensure that the country's resources are efficiently organised to mitigate this grave health challenge and social peace and calm is not impaired.  Modi also told the country that even as the virus's onslaught is handled the wheels of the economy have to keep turning in some measure. The managers of the nation's economy and the business class have therefore an onerous responsibility. And, even amidst this great internal trial the country's foreign policy and security handlers cannot take their eyes away from a changing global geo-political environment which impinges on India's national interest.

The principal fact of current global geo-politics is the turbulence generated by the aggressive rise of China and its desire to impact the international system and even change it in the light of its national interest. Not constrained by the advice of Deng Xiaoping to keep its head low and build its strength, China's current supreme leader Xi Jinping had obviously reached the conclusion soon after assuming power in 2013 that his country's time of destiny had arrived and its strength built sufficiently to take on the world. Xi decided to demonstrate China's will through a disregard for the norms that undergird the present world order if they stood in the way of his country's national interest. Bolstered by vast financial reserves accumulated by becoming the global manufacturing hub Xi Jinping decided to gather a group of countries which would be linked to China and be beholden to it. The chosen instrument for this purpose was the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) meant to develop connectivity and other infrastructure with China's financial assistance.

Xi Jinping's assertion of power is naturally being resisted by the established superpower, United States, and its allies as also other strong actors as China disregards their interests. Significantly, the US under Joe Biden is showing the same commitment to counter China as it did under his predecessor Donald Trump. The diplomatic style of the two US Presidents is different but the objective is the same—to retain US military and technological supremacy. For this purpose, the US is gathering its allies and other powers, such as India to send a signal of intent to China. The consolidation of Quad consisting of Australia, Japan, India and the US is an important endeavour in this direction. It is noteworthy that Australia's relations with China are sinking to a new low. This week the Australian government cancelled two BRI projects which the provincial government of Victoria had entered into with China.

Of the great powers Russia is now clearly aligned with China and it is itself displaying a sustained determination against Western pressures including sanctions. Delivering his state of the nation speech on April 21 President Vladimir Putin warned the West against provoking Russia by breaching its red lines. Interestingly, to maintain strategic immunity he did not define these lines. All this leads to the basic question of our times: will the present divisive situation deteriorate into the emergence of two hostile camps like during the cold war? Such a development will make it more difficult to address urgent global issues as for instance climate change.

The regional situation to India's west is changing. The US and NATO forces will in all likelihood leave Afghanistan in accordance with the schedule announced by Biden. However, many imponderables remain about Afghanistan's future. The Taliban appear to be in a triumphant mood and it is uncertain if they would be willing to take the path of wisdom which demands the reconciliation of all sections of Afghan society and polity and of their varying ideologies and theologies. This would be in itself a difficult exercise but would become far more so amidst continuing violence.

Further to the west the real issue relates to the US re-joining the Obama era nuclear deal with Iran which Trump had abandoned. That would result in a reduction of Iran-US tensions and will impact on the West Asian region as a whole. A US-Iran engagement to reach a modus vivendi on this issue has commenced though Israel is provoking Iran as shown by the event of the power failure in Iran's main nuclear facility. It can be envisaged that the nuclear deal will be revived. That would however, bring about a sharpening of traditional West Asian fault lines.

In this evolving and challenging scenario Indian foreign policy and strategic planners will have to ensure that the changing times do not take India by surprise. For that purpose, they would have to devise flexible and dexterous policies bearing in mind that Indian interests can ultimately be served through self-reliance even while expanding on areas of convergence with its principal partners. This would imply that even while expanding relations with the US and the advanced democracies India has to conscious that its interests and those of these countries are not identical. Even while these powers will cooperate with India on the China issue this country will have to harden the Line of Actual Control and augment its strategic programme to prevent Chinese adventurism. The need for flexible approaches on Afghanistan and West Asia is also obvious.

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