Delhi benefits from the structural fact that though we presently live in an era epitomised by superpower bipolarity, it is a very different type of two-power standoff than was the Cold War. From 1945–1991, America and the Soviet Union so dominated the international scene that they easily lined up much of the rest of the world behind them into two rigid, competing camps, characterised above all by their allegiance to either Washington or Moscow.
However, today’s era of much looser bipolarity — where, beneath the dominant Sino-American conflict, great powers like India, Russia, the EU, the Anglosphere countries, and Japan have much more latitude to act independently in their own interests — is allowing Delhi to flourish.
With the US only just emerging from the pandemic and enduring nationwide civil rights protests, rival superpower China is taking advantage. Settling scores with the nationalist Indian government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi as it moves ever closer to the US is merely one example of Beijing’s increasingly aggressive foreign policy in its own backyard.
China’s many transgressions onto India’s side of the Line of Actual Control (LAC), the disputed Sino-Indian border high in the Himalayas, follows the hauntingly similar “salami slicing” tactics Beijing has put in use in the South China Sea. China incrementally advances, improving its tactical position, but doing so in a gradual way which does not (quite) compel its adversaries into a pushback. Over time these minor tactical victories add up, becoming enduring and strategic.
As Samir Saran, a brilliant Indian geopolitical analyst and long-time China-watcher put it last week, the recent Sino-Indian military clashes along the LAC “is the frontline for what is likely to unfold in the next decade unless it is responded to”.
Saran notes that Chinese President Xi Jinping’s more aggressive foreign policy is driven by “medieval mindset” which views Delhi as a discordant and insubordinate neighbour that refuses to submit to Beijing’s natural dominance.
In essence, this month a mini-war has been fought in the high Himalayas, with Beijing seemingly emerging the victor, crossing the LAC, inflicting 20 Indian fatalities and now controlling the Galwan Valley, on India’s side of the LAC.
But appearances can be highly deceptive in international relations. For the purpose of the exercise from the Chinese point of view was not to gain territory on its far-away border, but rather to humiliate the Modi government.
Exhibiting its lack of emotional intelligence, the Chinese Communist Party leadership is failing to understand that bullying India is not likely to cow it but rather drive New Delhi even more firmly into America’s arms.
This great strategic shift between Washington and Delhi to a de facto alliance has been gathering pace for some time. In 2016, the US designated India a “major defence partner” for the first time, leading to increased intelligence sharing between the two great powers and a slew of arms deals, amounting to $7.9bn between 2017 and 2020. Annual joint naval exercises (along with Japan) are now the norm in the Indian Ocean.
New Delhi is coming to view the Quadrilateral grouping of India, the US, Japan, and Australia as a nascent anti-Chinese alliance of Indo-Pacific democracies. The Modi government has been further encouraged as the Trump White House — exasperated by the antiquated G7 forum of major European and North American democracies (plus Japan) — has proposed the group’s expansion to include Asian powers Australia, South Korea, and India itself.
There is little doubt a momentous geostrategic re-alignment has begun.
As this new Cold War gathers pace, so are calls for the partial decoupling of the central Sino-American supply chain that has characterised the fading age of globalisation. Rows over China’s complicity in the spread of Covid-19 will likely accelerate this process, as the US, EU, Japan, the UK, and Australia become more uncomfortable with their overdependence on Beijing.
This increasingly hawkish anti-China stance is a rare bipartisan point of commonality in toxic Washington, meaning that this change in economic direction is likely to continue whoever wins the 2020 presidential election.
So India ticks all the right boxes to be the major economic beneficiary from a partial American decoupling from China. As this Cold War heats up, look for India to be the major strategic winner of our new era.
Main image credit: Getty