One and half years into the global pandemic, the romantic notions of a world standing together in solidarity and focused on a universal challenge can safely be discarded. The reality is bitter. The world has accelerated towards a more polarized one, divided not just by socio-economic inequalities and their deepening as marginalized people across the globe bearing the greater brunt of the pandemic and its multiple consequences but also by the power tussles of key global players.
This becomes clearer as US president Joe Biden reaches the shores of Europe for a slew of meetings, starting with the G7 summit, the prime focus of which is not just brokering a deal for a global tax regime but also to form and strengthen diplomatic and political alliances, egged on by the exponentially growing economic and military prowess of China and its partnership with Russia. On the other side of the globe, the Chinese premier Xi Jinpeng emphasized to the senior leaders of his Communist party to improve their communication skills with the world, signaling that he was making an attempt to compete with US for global public opinion and win followers. China’s image is taking a battering. Its tradition of being belligerent and pugnacious is only one of the reasons. Suddenly the Covid-19 Wuhan lab leak theory which the scientists had last year set aside as inconclusive for want of clear evidence has been brought out of the bag not because there is more scientific proof to establish its veracity but because the US intelligence inputs say so. Strange also that the world which has been silent for years on China’s heinous crimes committed against Muslims of Uighur is also suddenly taking note of it – though still in muted whispers. Added to this, a meeting of the Quad, the Indo-Pacific alliance that has been in the crosshairs of China, is also on the cards. On the other hand, China is sealing its relationship with Russia with partnership and co-operation; and also beginning a scavenging hunt for more partners. The signs are distinct. The US-China trade war is tipping over and dropping into the larger pool of battle for hegemony. Are we heading towards Cold War II as rest of the world gets sucked in by this tug of war between two giants to the detriment of all of humanity and with additional consequences for the developing countries caught like a football in an escapable quagmire?
Odds are that European nations could, if driven by pragmatism, smell the burning embers and douse them. But when a hegemonic battle is packaged and sold as war of ‘modernism’ and ‘justice’ over ‘racial abuse’ and ‘throttled democracy’, and the push comes to shove, it won’t take long for many of them to take sides. Still in the stages of speculation, but if another Cold War is pushed in the face of the world, India and rest of South Asian region don’t quite have something to look forward to. What happens next is unpredictable. One can only hazard some guesses. China is already more than nibbling at the Indian territory on the Indo-China border. Pakistan is a traditional ally of China but is also in partnership with USA particularly on the Afghanistan question – a region to be watched as US troops will completely move out this year. India has a strategic role to play in Afghanistan and the recent push, that came from US ally UAE, to broker some cosmetic peace between India and Pakistan also needs to be seen in this light. China could use its friendly overtures with Pakistan and bullying tactics with India to extract an extra pound of flesh. US could arm twist Pakistan and play with Indian ambition of becoming an economic power and try to keep both in tow. US has strategic interest in the region and China has both economic and strategic. Who wins in this battle of wits may not be as relevant as the probability that the region could become a potential theatre of the next Cold War, if that’s what is in the offing, with all its deadly heat.
Though not a member, India is among the countries that have been invited to a virtual meeting of the G7 summit and would be joining US again for the Quad in the coming month or so. Will it get sucked in by the narrative? It should not. But on Sunday by proclaiming itself as the ‘natural ally’ of G-7 in the battle against ‘cyber-freedom’, among other things, despite its baggage of longest internet shutdown in Kashmir and repressive IT Act amendments, the Indian prime minister showed no reluctance in playing footsie with the US. India, like Russia, needs to shed the pretence of becoming the next super-power and desist the temptation of becoming the next pet poodle of the US. India could draw lessons from the pre-90s Cold War and apply them in a newer context. India was barely out of the clutches of colonial rule when it started after the World War II, and still struggling with its inherent contradictions, the burden of partition and communal holocaust and taking baby steps towards democracy. Today, the internal challenges posed by decades of inequalities and the more recent communalised polity may be of a different nature but India is seen across the globe with some measure of reckoning. Even then, India was taken seriously in the foreign arena despite its recent independence. Way back in the 50s, Nehru along with leaders of the third-world leaders like Gamel Abdel Nasser of Egypt and Josip Tito of Yugoslavia, carved the vision of a third-bloc Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) that would help to reduce the tensions in a bipolar world order and also to put on plate the demand for a new international economic order. Though, not to perfection, NAM did become a global economic and political pressure group. Today, India’s standing and stature in the world order is much higher and it could draw lessons from the successes and failures of the NAM and prepare to emulate the strategy, with modifications, to prevent the re-emergence of two blocs or checkmate it.
A cold war that can easily flare up tensions or bring the world on the precipice of another world war today is ill-affordable. Unlike the post-World War II era, the world today is heavily nuclearized and spending on nuclear weapons and other armament is going up phenomenally, refusing to take a break even during the Covid. Even as the pandemic raged and economies around the world were devastated, nuclear-armed countries last year increased spending on atomic weapon arsenals by 1.4 billion dollars, according to the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN). When hospital beds, oxygen, ventilators and vaccinations went in short supply almost across the world, nine countries, including USA, China, Russia, France, Britain, Israel, North Korea, India and Pakistan, spent a total of $72 billion on weapons of mass destruction. The larger worry is that this nuclear arsenal is not just pitted against nuclear arsenal of an ‘adversary’ but also the latter’s cyber prowess. In a world that is transitioning from a kinetic military war towards a war of Artificial Intelligence. As such, countries threatened by cyber superiority of another will find a legitimate excuse to press the nuclear button.
India and rest of South Asia, in partnership with other developing countries, could play a crucial role in averting that. Instead of using the myopic lens for short-term gains, there is need to think big and think out of the box.
(This write-up published on June 13, 2021 has been slightly modified and updated following India’s response at G-7 summit)