By Maj Gen PJS Sandhu
After the end of the Cold War and the demise of the erstwhile Soviet Union, a belief that a multi-polar world would emerge began to take shape. This came with expectations of harmony and peace. However, such a benign world order has eluded us and, on the contrary, the world is full of never-ending conflicts resulting in numerous human tragedies. There have been no global wars, the likes of which we saw in the 20th century. Yet, what we are witnessing today is far more debilitating for mankind, especially those residing in the LDCs. This short essay aims to analyse various geo-political and geo-economic trends that are emerging. It further analyses how India may position itself so as to remain on its well-defined growth trajectory.
The rise of China
The single most important phenomenon which unfolded towards the end of the 20th Century was the rise of China. China has grown both economically and militarily. It maintained a low profile but achieved sustained growth. Soon enough, the USA, the lone superpower, felt challenged and threatened. This created a cause for action and retaliation.
Re-balancing by the USA
Consequent to the 9/11 terror strikes, the USA got involved in the ‘war on terror’. Contrary to initial expectations, it seems to be a never ending war. In fact, it has assumed truly global dimensions with some new actors and factors coming into play.
During the above interventions, the rise of Chinese assertion in the East and South China Sea was the new challenge. The American response came in 2010 by way of ‘Pivot to Asia’. It was later changed to ‘re-balancing’, which is a work in progress, albeit with Middle East distractions. In the meantime, China got the opportunity to consolidate its position in the region. China now poses a tough challenge to the USA.
Russia reasserts itself
Another development of consequence has been the re-assertion of Russian power under Putin’s leadership. This has brought back the ghosts of the Cold War. Russia made the mistake of assuming a granted space in Europe and bipartisanship with the USA in setting a world agenda. However, their hopes dissolved with NATO’s eastward expansion. Further thwarted by the US anti-ballistic missile shield plans in Europe, they understood that US saw them as an adversary and an outsider. Russia under Putin moved fast to safeguard its strategic interests. Crimea and Ukraine followed thereafter. The USA reacted with sanctions. This drove Russia closer to China which only served to further tilt the US–China equation in favour of China.
Power play in the Middle East
However, the stand off in Europe was soon overshadowed by the rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and the ongoing civil war in Syria. The Russians threw their hat in the ring and in this, they were supported by Iran and China.
USA and Russia began to talk and cooperate and bring about a ceasefire in Syria. However, the underlying tensions remain and the maneuvering for influence goes on unabated. Syria continues to be the battle ground and its hapless citizens the pawns in this power game.
The power equations
The rise of China has been a landmark event as it has changed the ‘balance of power’ equation for the foreseeable future. The world was taken by surprise, as much as it was at the disintegration of the Soviet Union.
In fact, the world was waiting for the Communist State to unravel itself and go the Soviet way. However, the Chinese leadership proved to be very discerning and far sighted. They not only succeeded in preserving their political system but turned it to their advantage by a major directional change, i.e., by promoting ‘Socialism with Chinese Characteristics’.
The result is for the whole world to see. Today, China has emerged as an independent center of world power. Many countries, big and small, are gravitating towards China; though some reluctantly. No doubt, China faces many fault-lines and vulnerabilities, yet it has shown the ability to address these and has emerged as a major world power.
The main power equations that seem to be driving the world today are – the USA and its allies versus China with tacit Russian support. There are a host of lesser players who align themselves according to their geopolitical or economic interests.
Russia is also seen to be tilting on the side of China with respect to the maritime disputes in the South China Sea. Other players who figure in the power play are the European Union, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Japan, Indonesia, Australia, the two Koreas, Central Asia as a whole and, of course, India. Of all these, it is India which is of consequence and deserves a special mention.
Where does India stand ?
Notwithstanding India’s strategic partnerships with a host of countries, India is known to exercise a kind of strategic autonomy in its foreign policy and decisions on strategic issues. It is the result of the culture that has developed over the seven decades since Independence.
Due to certain domestic policies, especially on the economic front, the potential of India has remained unrealized. India is still a developing country which is yet to get over its problems of poverty, health, education, infrastructure and, above all, human resource development. It is of utmost importance for India to transform itself into a developed nation in order to achieve its full geopolitical potential. This ought to be its national objective for the next decade.
It is fallacious to perceive India as a ‘balancer’ in this global power play. India’s geopolitical location, large land mass, massive population with a youth dividend, vibrant democracy, strong knowledge base, armed forces (which are 1.4 million strong and fairly modern), notable cyber and space capability and, above all, abundant natural resources – are all ingredients of great power status. It is only a matter of time before this translates into reality. Hence, it is important for India to maintain its strategic autonomy. It must develop itself into an independent center of power towards which smaller states in the region would naturally gravitate. India is thus poised to play a major role in the strategic power play at regional and global levels.
Maj Gen PJS Sandhu (Retd.) has been working as the Deputy Director and Editor at the United Service Institution of India (USI) since May 2007 after he served The Indian Army for 37 years.
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