Is India Aligning in a New Cold War?
Even as Russo-American tensions smolder from Eastern Europe and Central Asia to the Arctic seabed, the US Secretary of State is denying the onset of a renewed Cold War. Yet, unmistakable signals of a counter-balancing effort by Russia and China were sent last month through the largest-ever war games of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), a six-nation anti-US alliance.
Some 6,000 troops from Russia, China, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan engaged in complex joint military maneuvers in Russia's Urals and China's Sinkiang, solidifying a phalanx that purports to be Eurasia's answer to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).
A notable absentee at the exercises was India, which has not applied for full membership of the SCO despite Russia's entreaties that its entry would "lead to stability and security in Asia". The post-games summit meeting of the SCO in Bishkek was attended by heads of states of three observer countries (Iran, Pakistan and Mongolia), but India, a co-equal, could not depute anyone higher in rank than a petroleum minister. The foreign minister was apparently busy allaying Leftist fears of a sell-out on the India-US nuclear agreement. Such prioritization indicates that India sees potential only for energy deals, not strategic partnership, in the SCO.
New Delhi's no-show at the SCO exercises contrasts sharply with its active sponsorship of the recent naval 'Operation Malabar' that brought together more than 20,000 personnel of India, the US, Japan and Singapore to enhance "inter-operability" in the Bay of Bengal. India's invitation of three states that have anti-Chinese strategic orientations into waters that are witnessing Chinese naval encroachment has no ambiguity in meaning. Setting aside diplomatic niceties, this move was a strong message to China that its vulnerability in the Straits of Malacca (transit point adjacent to the Bay of Bengal that carries 80 percent of its oil imports) was exploitable by its rivals.
Is this enough evidence that India is aligning in the 'new Cold War' with the US? India's defence minister claims that too much is being read into Operation Malabar and that the other side of the coin is that New Delhi and Beijing are conducting their first-ever joint military exercises in "anti-terrorism tactics" in October. India and Russia too have a long tradition of combined war games, and one such spectacle is unfolding right now in Russia's northwestern region. But interestingly, the India-China exercise in October will showcase barely 100 Indian participants. The current India-Russia operations feature a contingent of just 100 Indian soldiers.
Apart from the paucity of numbers, there is a qualitative difference between bilateral war games conducted on a one-to-one basis and a multilateral exercise like that of the SCO's. In world politics, a convergence of armies or navies of multiple countries has a higher significance than routine exchanges between militaries in dyad formation. India's act of distancing from the SCO is in no way compensated by low-key confidence-building measures with the Chinese armed forces or drills with Russia behind which military hardware sales lurk.
The theory that India is fence-sitting in the new Cold War being waged between a Sino-Russian combine and the US through their respective security alliances, the SCO and NATO, has very little to back up in empirical facts. If not alignment, a definite tilt in favor of the US is visible in India's acts of commission and omission. The die seems to have been cast, and India is turning up at the ringside with what it considers to be the sole global hegemon.
While not discounting the impact of the pro-Western Indian intelligentsia and the lobbying power of Indian Americans in the US, the key to India's US tilt lies in the belief in its strategic circles that American power is unsurpassable and supreme. In this sense, India assumes that it is cleverly 'bandwagoning' with the overwhelming force instead of balancing against it by joining Russia and China. What is misplaced here is an acute analysis of American weaknesses, both absolute and relative to its competitors.
The continuing slide of the US dollar vis-à-vis the Euro is a barometer of a secular decline in the American economy, the base upon which American global prestige rests. The fiascos in Afghanistan and Iraq are indices of an American military that is unprepared for new-age guerrilla conflicts. The erosion of political goodwill in world diplomacy that the Bush administration has achieved shows that the US is right to be recognized as the "king of the hill" is in tatters.
India's National Security Adviser M.K. Narayanan avers that New Delhi is yet to accept the US as a "benign power". But intentions apart, is the US still the predominant power in capabilities? As long as this myth is not shattered, India will remain tilted in the smugness that it is being pragmatic by courting the strongest party.
If India is a "swing state" in the new Cold War, it should not be tilting so obviously on one side. It should engage more seriously with the SCO on one hand, and play harder to get and extract more concessions beyond the civilian nuclear deal from the US on the other. India's justification during the Cold War for tilting on the side of the Soviet Union was that Moscow was assisting New Delhi in checkmating Pakistan. Is the US doing anything of similar magnitude for India in the new Cold War? Who benefits from this tilt or alignment?
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