Authors: Wang Li & Palamdorj Bayartsetseg
[yt_dropcap type=”square” font=”” size=”14″ color=”#000″ background=”#fff” ] W [/yt_dropcap]ith the inclusion of India and Pakistan into the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) at the summit meeting on 9 June 2017, there is much uncertainty surrounding the future of the organization’s ability to maintain stability and cohesiveness.
This is the first time the SCO has grown to include new nations since its establishment in 2001, and once the two countries are formally admitted the eight-member bloc will not only cover nearly half of the world’s population and 3/5 of the Eurasian continent bordering three oceans (the Indian, the Pacific and the Arctic Oceans), but also include four nuclear powers—Russia, China, India and Pakistan. With their inclusion, it is one of the largest regional organizations in the world, however, it is unclear if India and Pakistan will complicate the organization’s efficiency and affect the SCO’s ability to promote regional stability and prosperity.
Those who tend to believe in “the Thucydides Trap”, or recognize the differences among the “Big Three”—Russia, China and India, find it difficult to look at this merger optimistically, especially because of the long contentious history between India and Pakistan. According to some analysts, while the increase in SCO members will bring diversity to its voice, it also has the potential to affect the current equilibrium among the original six states. On June 9, Carnegie-Tsinghua Center for Global Policy held the forum “Shanghai Cooperation Organization at Crossroads”. The keynote speakers provided their insightful views from Russia, the United States, and India, but it seemed to omit the Chinese opinions on the summit meeting of the SCO in Astana.
Like any international or multilateral organization, it is essential for both new and old SCO member states to ensure the organization continues to maintain the necessary cohesion among them. Theoretically, the forces that bring states together and drive them apart will affect the security of individual states by determining both how large a threat they face and how much help they can expect. Therefore, the factors that determine how states choose alliance or “strategic partners”, as China asserts, will shape the evolution of the SCO as an international organization. Therefore, the central issue that remains is how these states will respond to “threats” and the likelihood of working together to combat threatening ‘forces”.
China affirmed that since it was founded 16 years ago, the SCO has become a significant platform and reliable support for the member countries to enhance mutual trust, deepen public diplomacy, expand practical cooperation, and jointly safeguard regional security and stability. Yet, with the increasing uncertainties and instabilities in the current international and regional situation, the member states agreed to be more cooperative within the SCO framework. As a rising power and the dual core founders of the SCO, it is highly expected China will assume its usual role. During one SCO summit, Chinese President Xi Jin-ping called for all member states to work jointly in safeguarding regional peace and building a community of shared future, which then resulted in an SCO convention on combating terrorism and extremism. China is considering hosting another similar convention and promised to take the primary share of the budget for the Secretariat of the SCO to facilitate its work as scheduled. In addition, given the recent deterioration of the security situation in Afghanistan, the SCO reached a consensus that “without security, there will be no development to speak of. And it called upon all parties to support the war-worn government in Kabul to reinforce the fight against all sorts of the acts of terrorism and religious extremism which remain a long and arduous task”. It deserves noting that China made the compromise to take the term of separatism out of the “three evil forces”—terrorism, separatism and extremism, which have been the key words of the Chinese discourse with international terrorism.
Secondly, although China has quite a wide range of disagreements with member states such as India, it highlighted the year of 2017 as the SCO’s 15th anniversary and the 10th anniversary of the signing of the Treaty on Long-Term Good-neighborliness, Friendship and Cooperation. In Astana, Xi lost no time to reiterate the “Shanghai Spirit” mainly embodied in the two documents, which have become more cohesive in the face of the vicissitudes of the region and the world as a whole. At the moment of the accession of India and Pakistan to the SCO on June 9, Chinese leader first congratulated India on being a full member of the SCO, adding that the two parties would work together for more high-level interaction, strategic dialogues and policy alignment within the SCO framework. As a regional bloc in which Sino—India cooperation can extend to other issues in the region, the SCO is also able to provide a new angle for bilateral ties between Beijing and New Delhi. As Indian scholar Raja Mohan put it, the deepening strategic partnership between Moscow and Beijing and a transformed India-United States relationship have fundamentally altered the context of India’s interest in the SCO. As China’s rise has begun to constrict India’s room for maneuver in the subcontinent of Asia and the Indian Ocean, unlike in the past, Moscow may not be willing to help New Delhi balance Beijing. However, being a full member of the SCO does provide India with much more strategic capacity. At the least, Prime Minister Modi has taken the utility of the SCO to deal with two of India’s immediate security issues: counter-terrorism and connectivity.
China certainly welcomes the fruitful outcomes gained at the Astana Summit, which includes the expansion of the SCO for the first time. The leaders in Beijing are also content with the deepening cooperation between old and new members in terms of the “Shanghai Spirit”. Perhaps more significant is that because of wide support of the “Belt and Road Initiative” and SCO development strategies during the summit, China seems to be more confident than ever to seek the glory it claims on the world stage. In the meantime, China appeals to all members to adhere to inclusiveness and openness in order to have dialogues with other countries or international and regional organizations. For the SCO overlaps with many key areas of the Belt and Road Initiative, it also serves as a security complement to the ambitious economic-focused BRI. But just as the BRI is leading China to become more entangled in regional geopolitical security challenges, the SCO’s two new members, India and Pakistan, will likely complicate the organization’s normal function.
In closing, China has perceived the SCO as a first testing ground for promoting common interests through a multilateral platform in which China is the strongest, but not the only strong player. It was also viewed as a first step toward a Sino-Russian condominium in Central Asia, in which Beijing and Moscow could create a regional order to benefit both powers and could be accepted by the countries of the region. In order to get there, China was promoting the creation of the SCO’s free trade area (FTA) and a joint development bank. Yet, Beijing soon discovered that Moscow was worried that China would use the SCO FTA and the development bank to promote its own agenda and to buy influence in Central Asia at Russia’s expense. Because the SCO headquarters are located in Beijing – and the organization has Shanghai in its name – it is seen as a big enough symbolic trophy to keep China pleased.
As a matter of fact, in Henry Kissinger’s opinion, the contemporary Asian order includes outside powers as an integral feature: the United States whose role as an Asia-pacific power was explicitly affirmed in joint statements by the two governments in 2013; and Russia, geographically an Asian power and one co-founder of Asian groupings such as the SCO, has forged the highest-level strategic partnership with China of the day. Therefore, the leaders of China are well aware that given the rivalry between India and China and the continuing enmity between India and Pakistan, they do represent major challenges to the future function of the SCO. The key to the challenge is that if Moscow rises to the occasion, it can create a useful platform for managing international order across Greater Eurasia. If it fails to do so, the SCO will be dysfunctional, with the rivalries and enmities on the continent running unchecked. The picture seems not so rosy, but it is the reality faced from now by all member states of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization.
AUKUS: A Harbinger to Nuclear Race between India and Pakistan
In the latter half of the 2021, Washington initiated strategic trilateral defence pact with the UK and Australia, colloquially called as AUKUS. AUKUS is a strategic security framework to assist Australia in building nuclear-powered submarines to extend interoperability, mutual benefit, and commonality.[i]
Aside of assisting Australia building nuclear-powered submarines, the core purpose of AUKUS is to contain China’s meteoric rise and its growing naval expansionist desire in Indo-Pacific region in general and particularly in the South China Sea. AUKUS aims to have a surveillance over the sea routes and then maintain strategic dominance in the Indi-Pacific region, particularly in competition with China.[ii] AUKUS reflect the Indo-Pacific ambitions of U.S. and the manifestation of the U.S. Foreign Policy under Biden’s administration, as Antony Blinken stated in his early speech after assuming the office, that China presents America’s the “biggest geopolitical test of the 21st century.”[iii]
AUKUS and repercussion for Nuclear Non-Proliferation
The new Security Pact, AUKUS, has certainly overshadowed the aims of Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad)[iv] by bringing back the geo-strategic and security competition in the Pacific. It has rung the alarm bell in the region as the Pact has the potential to disturb balance of power among the countries influence by AUKUS. China, Russia, and Japan have been more reactive and raised concerns against Australian accusation of nuclear-powered submarines as pact has the potential to jeopardize the nuclear weapon free zone status of Southeast Asia. In response to it, China’s Foreign Minister Spokesperson Zhao Lijian has termed AUKUS as a violation of the Treaty of Rarotonga (1985), which made an assurance to a nuclear-free South-Pacific region.[v] Similarly, many political analysts and nuclear experts are of the view that the trilateral security pact poses grave threat to the nuclear non-proliferation regimes[vi] such as Treaty on Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT). In 1970, NPT was entered into force with a clear objection of preventing the spread of nuclear weapons, promoting peaceful use of nuclear energy, and achieving nuclear disarmament.[vii] On the contrary, AUKUS explicitly promotes export of nuclear facilitates for security purposes and promotes nuclear proliferation, horizontally as well as vertically. After the creation of Nuclear Supplier Group (NSG), AUKUS is yet another setback to the global efforts of nuclear non-proliferation.
Nuclear competition between India and Pakistan
Unlike, balance of power among countries in Pacific, India and Pakistan face direct implication of AUKUS, as it may ignite a nuclear-race between India and Pakistan. The geography of India and Pakistan is such that it has always been difficult for both neighbouring yet rival countries to avoid great power competition whether it was the World Wars or Cold War. Although India has had successfully maintained neutrality towards great power competition since its independence in 1947, India non-alignment policy may fad owing to assertive China and geo-strategic showdown in the Pacific.
Other than five nuclear state (the U.S., France, UK, Russia, and China), India is the only non-NPT nuclear state to possess nuclear-powered submarine i.e. INS Arihant, leased by Russia. With time the technology became outdated and India needed an up-gradation to its nuclear-powered submarine program but NPT and other nuclear non-proliferation regimes are the main hurdle for India to modernize its naval defences. After the inception of AUKUS, the tides have turned, as AUKUS is a possible platform for India to bargain for better nuclear technologies to augment its nuclear-powered submarine to secure its strategic interest in Indian Ocean and Pacific region. The point of concern is that the sharing and production of nuclear-powered subs intricately link to nuclear weapons and sharing of sensitive nuclear technologies,[viii] which will be possible through the platform of AUKUS. This has sparked a debate among security and regional experts that AUKUS will disturb the balance of power and rekindle nuclear race in the region. Hirofumi Tosaki, Centre for Disarmament-Centre for Science and Technology, showed distresses by stating that the exemption granted to Australia acquiring nuclear-powered subs will motivate other countries that they too should have such options.[ix] Likewise, Zhao Lijian has also warned that the security pact will undermine the peace and stability of the region.[x]
AUKUS will create avenues for the regional powers to make similar arrangements between like-minded allies, and one such scenario can be possible between China and Pakistan. The security pact will incite China to look for ‘partner in crime’ and China cannot trust any country other than Pakistan. The friendship dates back to 1963 when both nations reached an amicable settlement, and delineation of borders. China is also Pakistan’s biggest trading partner when it comes to the imports of military hardware. Besides, China has been playing an important role in strengthening Pakistan’s defence. China has gifted PNS Tughril (Type 054A/P) and J-10C fighter jet to Pakistan and its collaboration over JF-17 Thunder bear testimony to their long-standing bilateral relationship. Furthermore, cooperation between the navies of the two countries have been unprecedented in the recent years. In 2017, Pakistan signed agreement with China to acquire four Type 54 Guided Missile Frigates, which were the most technically advance Chinese frigates of the modern era.[xi]. Yet transfer of nuclear-powered submarine to Pakistan is not a Chinese agenda so far, but India’s proximity with AUKUS can motivate China to equip Pakistan with nuclear-powered subs to balance with India. In any possible scenario, strengthening Pakistan’s naval force is not a choice for China but its own strategic interest.
Similarly, AUKUS has the potential to entice India to upgrade its nuclear-powered submarine capability as India is a strategic partner to the U.S. and enjoy close partnership with the UK and Australia. According to the regional experts, AUKUS is mostly like to expand and India is the strongest contender among other regional allies such as South Korea or Japan, as India and AUKUS shares a common enemy i.e. China. Moreover, AUKUS without India will not serve the purpose of AUKUS and AUKUS is not only a partnership to develop nuclear-powered submarine for Australia but also a strategic agreement to cooperate over AI in the Pacific. India also will not leave any opportunity to modernize its out-dated nuclear technology and naval capabilities. Moreover, ‘No First Use’ of nuclear weapon policy of India is hallowed and nothing more than a political gimmick as the Western powers are keep on modernizing and equipping India with nuclear arsenals, knowing the fact that India is renowned for nuclear theft and failures. Since 2014, BJP is trying to reverse and update its doctrine of ‘No First Use’, owing to the emerging challenges to its frontiers with Pakistan and China. Being a strategic partner of the U.S., India’s bilateral relations with other members of the AUKUS, i.e. UK and Australia, has touched new heights. Australian High Commissioner in Delhi (India) Barry O’Farrell stated that this century belongs to India and welcomes Indian forces in Exercise Talisman Sabre, a biennial exercise led by the Australian Defence Forces and the U.S. military. Additionally, MILAN 2022,[xii] a multilateral naval exercise, is yet another evidence that the West is building India’s naval expertise and schooling India to operate in high seas, before offering a membership to AUKUS. Owing to the proximity and strategic partnership with the major contenders in South Pacific, India and Pakistan might take a side not by choice but by their geo-strategic compulsion.
Global order is facing a tumultuous times since the economic crisis of 2009, as nothing is certain. Although India is not a member of AUKUS, India is a natural partner to AUKUS. The legitimate security concerns of India in the retrospect of border skirmishes with China and Chinese expansionist policies in the Pacific, AUKUS elite will be forced to cooperate with India over nuclear-powered submarine. India was then a non-NPT member when the U.S. lobbied to make India member of NSG. So, nothing is certain but if India join AUKUS there is a possibility that China will help Pakistan to acquire nuclear-powered submarine which will eventually start a new era of nuclear race in Asia in general and particularly between arch-rivals India and Pakistan.
[i] Panda, Jagannath. “Is ‘AUKUS Plus’ a viable option?” The Diplomat. January 26, 2022. https://thediplomat.com/2022/01/is-aukus-plus-a-viable-option/
[ii] Cheng, M (2022). “AUKUS: The changing dynamics and its regional implication.” European Journal of Development Studies, pp. 03.
[iii] Luca, De Dan & Williams, Abigail. “China poses ‘biggest geopolitical test’ for the U.S., Secretary of State Blinken says.” NBC News. March 04, 2021. https://www.nbcnews.com/news/world/china-poses-biggest-geopolitical-test-u-s-says-secretary-state-n1259489
[iv] Smith, Sheila A. “The Quad in the Indo-Pacific: What to know.” Council of Foreign Relations. May 27, 2021. https://www.cfr.org/in-brief/quad-indo-pacific-what-know
[v] Musto. A, Ryan. “Does AUKUS violate the pledge of a nuclear-free South Pacific?” The Diplomat. October 22, 2021. https://thediplomat.com/2021/10/does-aukus-violate-the-pledge-of-a-nuclear-free-south-pacific-china-thinks-it-might/
[vi] Kibe, Hidemit Su. & Akagawa, Shogo. “AUKUS pact delivers blow to nuclear non-proliferation regime.” NikkeiAsia. October 21, 2021. https://asia.nikkei.com/Spotlight/Comment/AUKUS-pact-delivers-blow-to-nuclear-nonproliferation-regime
[vii] Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT). https://www.un.org/disarmament/wmd/nuclear/npt/#:~:text=The%20NPT%20is%20a%20landmark,and%20general%20and%20complete%20disarmament.
[viii] Cheng, M (2022). “AUKUS: The changing dynamics and its regional implication.” European Journal of Development Studies, pp. 05.
[ix] Matsumoto, Fumi & Jibiki, Koya. “AUKUS sub deal triggers debate on nuclear safeguards.” NikkeiAsia. December 01, 2021. https://asia.nikkei.com/Politics/International-relations/Indo-Pacific/AUKUS-sub-deal-triggers-debate-on-nuclear-safeguards
[x] Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson’s remark. Embassy of the People’s Republic of China in the Commonwealth of Australia. September 23, 2021. https://www.mfa.gov.cn/ce/ceau/eng/sghdxwfb_1/t1909396.htm
[xi] Salik, Muhammad. “Sino-Pakistan defence and Strategic Cooperation.” Global Village Space. May 07, 2021. https://www.globalvillagespace.com/sino-pakistan-defence-and-strategic-cooperation/
[xii] “Indian Navy-led multinational exercise MILAN 2022 begins in Bay of Bengal.” Naval Technology. February 29, 2022. https://www.naval-technology.com/news/indian-navy-led-multinational-exercise-milan-2022-begins-in-bay-of-bengal/
What makes India’s participation in the Quad intrinsically unique?
In this essay, I try to shed light on the geopolitical imperatives that make India’s involvement in the Quad intrinsically unique and distinct from the other members.
The prime ministers of India, Japan, Australia and the President of the United States met in Tokyo, for the second in-person Quad summit on 24 May 2022, coming three months after the foreign ministers of these countries met in Melbourne, for the fourth time in three years. In addition to two virtual summits in the month of March in 2021 and 2022, the leaders also met in-person in September, last year, in Washington DC. In the last two years, the Quad has gathered rapid momentum with regular multi-level interactions, and the scope of co-operation has widened.
While the Quad is not a formal collective security alliance, Japan and Australia are two of the ‘major non-NATO allies’ of the United States in the Indo-Pacific, meaning, the three countries are already allies, with or without the Quad, which brings us to the question of India’s participation. Indian involvement brings about an existential purpose to the four-nation grouping as it reflects the growing geopolitical heft of the Indian Ocean region and India as an emerging Asian power in the strategic thinking of the three countries, particularly of the United States, the de-facto leader of the grouping.
Growing strategic insecurity emanating from the perceived disruptive rise of China in the last two decades, especially after 2012, has been a factor that brought these four countries together, ever since the grouping was revitalized in 2017 after a gap of ten years since the idea of the ‘Indo-Pacific’ was put forward by the former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. China and Russia are the only two countries in the world that outrightly rejects the term ‘Indo-Pacific’ and favours the usage of the term ‘Asia-Pacific’ instead, as they consider it as a US-led strategy to counter China.
The Russia factor
While India is a democracy, just like its three Quad partners, it also happens to be the only member of the grouping that has neither openly criticised nor imposed sanctions on Russia for its military intervention in Ukraine. Moreover, no other Quad member is as overwhelmingly dependent on Russian arms supply as India is, even though measures to diversify India’s imports are actively underway. Currently, up to 70 per cent of India’s military hardware is estimated to be of Russian origin.
The post-Cold War years saw India reaching out to Southeast Asia, a region that lies at the centre of the Indo-Pacific, and also to the United States. However, the fading aura of ASEAN-led regional institutional mechanisms, which India has been involving since 1992, in balancing mounting Chinese power can also be stated as one of the key factors that led to the rise of the alternative plurilateral groupings in the Indo-Pacific like the Quad and AUKUS (Australia, United Kingdom, and the United States security partnership) in the last few years.
Even after the Soviet Union disintegrated in 1991, the successor state of Russian Federation continued to be a close strategic partner and major defence supplier of India. Just last year, in 2021, India and Russia observed the golden jubilee of the signing of a landmark friendship treaty between the two countries during the Soviet-era. Russian President Vladimir Putin was welcomed in New Delhi in December 2021 for the annual India-Russia summit, and two months later, Russian forces breached the Ukrainian borders, pushing global political stability into the brink.
Varying geostrategic imperatives
Unlike the predominantly maritime geostrategic imperatives of other Quad members, India’s geography is connected with the Eurasian continental landmass, of which Russia has the commanding position, as much as it is connected to the Indo-Pacific oceanic continuum. In fact, the biggest and most pertinent of India’s security challenges arise from its land borders. While Japan is an archipelagic country located entirely in the northern Pacific, Australia lies in between the Indian and Pacific Oceans to the south, and the United States is sandwiched between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans to its east and west respectively.
Moreover, India happens to be the only Quad member that shares a land border with China. The 3,488-km-long undemarcated Line of Actual Control (LAC) between India and China’s Tibet Autonomous Region is often regarded as the world’s longest disputed border. Apart from these differences, India also happen to be a participant in Russia and China led groupings such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) and the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa grouping), which constrains India’s options in a full-fledged involvement in US-led groupings such as the Quad or any other. New Delhi views its involvement in the aforementioned groupings as an indicator of reformed multilateralism, which has been traditionally seen as West-dominated, and wishes to chart its own place in the emerging multipolar world order.
India’s opportunities as the scope of co-operation in the Quad widens
Even after four summit-level meetings, four ministerials and numerous issue-specific working groups set in action, the Quad has not yet openly acknowledged the elephant in the room, i.e., China, or its higher purpose of balance of power, which essentially ought to give a security dimension to the grouping. But it is yet to see progress. Accommodating and reconciling India’s varying interests with the grouping’s larger collective agenda is a big challenge too. Items in the Quad’s agenda since the very first virtual summit in March 2021 include a partnership to manufacture and distribute vaccines to needy countries of the Indo-Pacific region drawing on each other’s strengths, critical and emerging technologies, climate resilience, cyber security, space, fostering people-to-people ties through educational opportunities, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HADR) and so on.
The launch of the Indo-Pacific Partnership for Maritime Domain Awareness (IPMDA) at the recently-concluded Tokyo summit could enable information-sharing across the existing regional fusion centres. It can also bolster India’s involvement in an agenda item that is closely related to security – maritime data sharing. Being the regional leader in the Indian Ocean, India’s naval surveillance capabilities, including the Gurugram-based Information Fusion Centre-Indian Ocean Region (IFC-IOR), can be better utilised to achieve the grouping’s collective objectives, aimed at identifying illegal activities in the region’s seas.
Another key initiative launched on the sidelines of the Tokyo summit is the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework for Prosperity (IPEF), which adds a key economic pillar to Washington’s engagement in the region, especially in the backdrop of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which India also opposes due to concerns on its sovereignty and territorial integrity. Moreover, India’s pharmaceutical industry can play a major role in the vaccine initiative announced last year, which is yet to materialise fully.
India’s ties with the US shapes its involvement in the Quad and vice versa
India’s deepening ties with the United States is also playing a significant role in shaping India’s participation in the Quad and in expanding the currently identified generic agendas of co-operation to a more security-oriented one, for which the recent signs are positive. While the previous Trump Administration subtly welcomed India again to the Quad, in 2017, the Biden administration cemented on the ties and has been largely following a policy of continuity towards India. The decision on whether to impose sanctions on India under CAATSA (Countering America’s Adversaries through Sanctions Act), owing to the purchase of Russian weapons, is put on hold, and is unlikely to be imposed as the ties between the two countries continue to remain robust, despite the Russia factor, both bilaterally and under the Quad framework.
In 2018, the United States renamed its oldest and largest military command, the Pacific Command, to the ‘Indo-Pacific Command’, in a largely symbolic move acknowledging India’s growing importance in US strategic thinking and calculations for Asia. In the same year, the annual India-US ‘2+2’ ministerial dialogue was also inaugurated. Two years before that, in 2016, India was made a Major Defence Partner of the United States, followed by the inking of a series of foundational pacts for military inter-operability, the last one being the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA), signed in 2020.
At the same time, while one Quad member Japan hosts the largest number of US military bases in the world, coming further under the US alliance protection and the nuclear umbrella, the other Quad member Australia is part of other US-led groupings in the region such as the ‘Five Eyes’ intelligence network, ANZUS (Australia, New Zealand and the United States) treaty and the recent AUKUS grouping. However, India has never been part of any security alliance right from its independence and has followed the path of ‘non-alignment’ (during the Cold War years), which later metamorphosed into ‘multi-alignment’.
India’s simultaneous involvement in a diverse set of groupings with varying purposes, goals, and participants, and being close to both Russia and the US at the same time is indeed sheer diplomatic skill. However, the fact that being a vibrant democracy and a key maritime power in the Indian Ocean region brings India closer to the Quad’s shared values and interests. The Quad today reflects the need for balance of power in the Indo-Pacific, where-in a power transition is underway with the rise of China. The Quad is largely reflective of a Western-led response to this power transition, while Indian interests are aligned both in being part of the Western-led response, i.e., Quad, IPEF and IPMDA, and also in acting as a key independent pillar in the changing regional and global order.
Is Fatigue Causing Twists and Turns in Russia Ukraine War?
As Russia Ukraine war completes three months, both sides are witnessing spectacular twists and turns, showing that reality is biting both sides. Few would have predicted a month ago that President Putin would be willing to swallow the bitter pill of Finland and Sweden’s bid to join NATO, which effectively amounts to NATO’s eastward expansion, adding over a thousand kilometres of direct land border between Russia and NATO, and respond only with a weak warning to react to increased weapon deployment in these two countries.
Likewise, the rhetoric of Ukraine winning the war overhyped by US led NATO through exhaustive information and perception war, seems to be fading with surrender of over 2000 Azov fighters in Mariupol, cutting off of Ukraine from Sea of Azov, besides losing a large chunk of land in Donbass Region. President Zelensky acknowledgement of diplomacy being only answer, highlighting concerns for people and soldiers is not too late, if those interested in prolonging this war let him act on it.
Parties to the Conflict
The war is sparing no-one in the world from inflationary pressures, having doubled the figures of global food insecure population, due to acute food shortage, triggering the blame game by both sides to seek concessions. While Russia can be accused of launching pre-emptive ground offensive on Ukraine, NATO can also be accused for creating conditions threatening Russia by continued eastward expansion and proxy war. While the kinetic, contact, hybrid war is on between Russia and Ukraine, the US led NATO is fighting a non-kinetic, non-contact, undeclared war in economic, information, diplomatic and political domains, against Russia; hence de-facto parties to the war.
Russian Stakes and Compulsions
After three months of war, while Russia can draw solace by sizeable territorial gains and linking Donbas with Crimea after capture of Mariupol, but at a very heavy cost of men and material, besides an unprecedented economic stress due to crippling sanctions by the West. It has made President Putin revisit his stance on Finland and Sweden, as it is cost prohibitive for Russia to open another front with NATO on Finland borders. It therefore makes better sense for him to achieve the desired end state in ongoing conflict with Ukraine by liberating Donbass Region, landlocking Ukraine and deal with Finland later. Russia realizes its limitations in economic, diplomatic, information and political warfare domain; hence more territorial gains on ground to landlock Ukraine by extending land bridge between Crimea, Odesa to Transnistria and liberating Donbass is the best option for it, to gain better negotiating position, to have the sanctions lifted.
Ukrainian Stakes and Compulsions
President Zelensky appears to recognise that neither he nor the western propaganda-based information war, which has made him a hero and outright winner, can be sustained in the long run, having lost more territory than size of some European countries, left with devastated towns, over four million refugees, heavy casualties, and the surrender of his overhyped Azov Regiments. While additional aid and weaponry with $40 billion cheque from US and $16.4 billion from EU can boost his combat power, but regaining lost ground from Russians is going to be extremely difficult, as they will use built up areas for defending their gains, as Ukraine did. Prolonging war doesn’t guarantee peace for Ukraine, but it may result in greater territorial loss, unending proxy war, and a long-term Russian threat.
NATO’s Stakes and Compulsions
NATO seems to be emboldened by soft Russian response to the bid of Finland and Sweden to join NATO, with a confidence that Russia has been adequately weakened to challenge eastward expansion of NATO; hence, it is keen to add these two countries with strong militaries, to secure its northern flank and have a better collective security posture in the long run. It also makes sense in context of Sino-Russian footprints in Arctic region and North Atlantic Ocean. Towards that aim, it is ready to sacrifice some of its energy and economic interests for the time being.
It is too early to predict how long this show of unified strength will continue, because the war is certainly not making Europe peaceful, with millions of refugees and non-state actors activated and a longer border with belligerent Russia, which will reorganize itself, learning from its miscalculations. While NATO may be able to handle the objections of Turkey and Croatia with few concessions/addressing security concerns, but the disagreement regarding long term energy security may not be easy to handle, once the rhetoric of united NATO starts fading with economic fatigue and energy deficit.
Is USA the Beneficiary?
In short term USA can rejoice some immediate gains. It has been able to get control of NATO, weaken Russia, create market for its arms dealers, energy companies and infrastructure contractors. It has been able to block strategic Nord Stream1 and 2, and encourage EU to find alternate energy sources, thereby reducing Russian influence drastically.
It has, however, incurred certain long-term losses, the most serious of which is driving Russia into a stronger China-Russia Axis than ever before, which is beyond its individual capabilities to handle. True, this battle has revitalised NATO, but it has also strengthened the Russia-China-Iran nexus, or anti-West alliance. Sanctions have fueled calls for an alternative financial system to avoid financial paralysis caused by a monopolized dollarized financial system, which could harm the US in the long run.
The US’s global exhibition of backing proxy war by enabling Ukraine/Zelensky to fight to the bitter end in order to achieve its geopolitical aim of weakening Russia, with no American losses has tarnished the US’s reputation as an ally/partner. Indeed, more than $56 billion in funding for a proxy war in Ukraine, which is more than double the amount spent in Afghanistan’s 20-year war, reveals misplaced priorities, unless US is counting on making much more money from increased weapon sales by prolonging the war.
It has put Taiwan, Japan and South Korea on notice facing similar threat from aggressive China, to which US has been extremely shy of sanctioning it, despite later breaching territorial integrity of many democracies in South China Sea, violating Taiwanese air space at will, and incremental encroachment in Himalayas. The world, struggling with financial, food and energy crisis, doesn’t want any extension of war, on any pretext.
The visit of President Biden to Indo-Pacific is significant to restore declining confidence of allies and partners in Indo-Pacific, without which, taking on China challenge is difficult. Many in this region accuse Biden administration of reactivating Cold War 1.0 with Russia, diluting Cold War 2.0 with China, which is a bigger global challenge with better economic muscles. The proposed launch of Indo Pacific Economic Forum is to lure more regional countries to gain lost ground in economic engagement vis a vis China.
In a situation where NATO continues to persuade Zelensky to fight, giving hopes to recapture entire territory of Ukraine, and the Russians continue incremental efforts to achieve an end state of landlocked Ukraine and independent Donbass, the war will continue. Neither the sanctions have deterred Russia, nor blocking gas flow by Russia will deter NATO. As long as Ukraine is ready to be used as a tool in big power contestation and NATO continues to add fuel to the fire, the chances of talks or any mediation seems to be a remote possibility. In Russia Ukraine war, there will be no winners, but a new set of security and economic challenges will impact entire world.
Having tested US responses in Ukraine, the growing Chinese aggressiveness in Indo-Pacific is a wakeup call to US to avoid losing influence in the region, especially after losing considerable strategic space in the Middle East and Af-Pak regions. Chinese footprints in the Solomon Islands surprised US and Australia. Regular violation of ADIZ of Taiwan, belligerent North Korea threatening South Korea and Japan, reassertion of Chinese and Russian claims against Japan indicate that US resolve is under greater threat in the Indo-Pacific, where it has obligation to defend Japan and South Korea and strategic necessity to save Taiwan. It is also not easy to find another Zelensky/Ukraine in Asia, willing to act as proxy of NATO. It is for this reason President Joe Biden needs partners in Indo-Pacific, strengthen/expand Quad, and put up viable alternative economic, infrastructure, technological and supply chain in Indo-Pacific with allies and partners. The UK Foreign Minister’s call for Global NATO seems far fetched at this point of time, but indicates desperation for global support to face the reality of threat from growing Chinese Russian alliance.
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