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What India must do in the emerging Cold War

May 15, 2014 11:41 IST

India needs to have a relook of the whole gamut of its relations with major powers and also prepare for a more turbulent neighbourhood. But such is the tyranny of the Indian status quo mindset that any talk of a relook at the nuclear doctrine or foreign relations is treated as blasphemy, says Colonel Anil A Athale (retd).

Irrespective of who wins on May 16, it is widely accepted wisdom that the new government will have to immediately tackle the economic crisis of stagnation. The looming crisis in defence and foreign relations that we face due to changes in the global environment is seldom mentioned. But more than the economy, the new government will literally have to hit the ground running on the foreign relations, defence and security front.

It would be charitable to say that the current government has gone to sleep since elections were announced. Such was the monumental inefficiency of the outgoing team that policy paralysis in external relations had hit us long before elections were announced.

Before the usual suspects begin to pooh-pooh the importance and relevance of global political changes and its effects on India, just one example will suffice. On April 28 the European Union imposed a ban on Indian mango and vegetable exports on the specious grounds that some fruit flies were found in the consignments sent last year. As pointed out by a pro-India British MP, Indian mango exports to UK have a hundred-year-old history.

More likely this ban, designed to hurt Indian farmers, is directly linked to the Indian support to the Russian position on Crimea and the current crisis in Ukraine. While Indian decision-making may be in disarray, the rest of the world is focussed on its interests and uses all means to advance its foreign policy goals.

There are unmistakable signs that a new Cold War is in the offing. Curiously, the 'new' Cold War seems to see the same adversaries ranged against each other. It seems that Russia and China are on one side and the West led (as usual) by the US is on the other side.

The break between Russia and the West has been visible for some time now. On the crucial issue of the civil war in Syria, the Russians successfully thwarted the West's assault on the Bashar al-Assad regime. The West failed to engineer regime change there on lines of Libya and Egypt. In the Middle-East, China and Russia appeared to be on the same side. The situation was not very different as regards the issue of Iran's nuclear programme. Much of this was expected as President Vladimir Putin circumvented the Russian constitution, took a break, and is now set for two terms as president.

Russia has been subjected to much criticism on the 'annexation' of Crimea. One must remember that Crimea was attached to Ukraine when both were part of the Soviet Union. Crimea has long been part of Russia and so has Ukraine. Kiev, the capital of Ukraine, was the ancient capital of Russia for longer than even Moscow. The separation of Ukraine from Russia was a result of a Western conspiracy, the roots of which go back to the Russian civil war, almost a century ago.

Reuniting Ukraine with Russia is only a matter of time. The West and the US lack military power to directly intervene in this crisis in Russia's backyard. Currently the West is mulling economic sanctions as the only option. Europe is fatally dependent on Russian energy supplies and the US is no longer the economic superpower that it was. In these circumstances so-called sanctions may well turn out to be an exercise in posturing.

While the West is grappling with Russia in Europe and the Middle-East, China has turned assertive in the Pacific Ocean region and in the South China Sea. The dispute over the islands in this area is partly fuelled by the possibility of discovery of oil. The Chinese claims to these islands have resulted in her confrontation with Japan, the Philippines and Vietnam.

Despite the rhetoric of 'rebalancing to Asia' and 'Asian pivot' by the Barack Obama administration, the regional players seem unsure of the US role and its staying power. The US economic weakness and close economic ties with China are the reason. It is therefore no wonder that the Japanese, for the first time since the Second World War, have decided to flex their military muscle.

The situation in the Asia-Pacific has changed with the re-activation of American bases in the Philippines. On April 27, the US signed a ten-year agreement with the Philippines for access to military bases in that island nation. The US had bases there for nearly a hundred years, but had vacated most of them in the 1990s after the end of the Cold War.

It is assumed that the closed American base in Subic Bay would be among the facilities. This will help the US deploy forces in the South China Sea and act as a link between its bases in Japan, Australia and the island of Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean.

Countries do not create bases on a whim. A lot of thought must have gone in the American decision to redeploy its naval and air forces in the region. As a historical interest, it was the American aircraft based in Subic Bay that were alerted in November 1962 when India faced a military disaster against China.

India is in a dilemma of sorts. While we have been quick to support Russia, given our traditional relations and interests we cannot be comfortable with the Sino-Russian alliance in the making. China has shown no interest in normalising relations with India or reduce its help/support to a dangerous Pakistan.

The eminent political scientist Professor A P Rana has been in the forefront of debunking the Western myth that India's drive for power was somehow an obsession of its elites. Rana forcefully argued that a country of over a billion people and the world's third biggest economy (by purchase power parity) has no choice but to play a major and appropriate role on the world stage.

Unless India does that she will find her interests compromised.

But for the last ten years under an inept administration India has slipped in economic and military power. The promise of the India-US nuclear deal (which I supported) has failed to get India into the technology control regimes (the Nuclear Suppliers Group, the Missile Tech Regime and most importantly the Wassenaar arrangement or comprehensive tech control regime). This remains the unfulfilled agenda of the India-US nuclear deal.

Obviously India needs to have a re-look of the whole gamut of its relations with major powers and also prepare for a more turbulent neighbourhood. But such is the tyranny of the Indian status quo mindset that any talk of re-look at nuclear doctrine or foreign relations is treated as blasphemy or betrayal of the Nehru/Vajpayee legacy et al.

Nehruvian policies admirably served our national interest at that particular time and so did Vajpayee's approach. But to make that a fetish is a great insult to them.

A comprehensive re-look at our defence posture (including nuclear, conventional and counter terror) and rescuing our defence forces from the trap of obsolescence is necessary. The security environment has changed for the worse and has not remained static just because we are having elections.

Colonel Anil A Athale (retd) is Coordinator, Indian Initiative for Peace, Arms-control & Disarmament, a Pune-based think-tank.

Colonel Anil A Athale (retd)