With the new US administration – and President Joe Biden himself – making favourable noises about standing up to China, New Delhi should be somewhat relieved. A new Cold War between the US and China will help deepen the US-India partnership and ensure that India is not facing China alone. But both New Delhi and Washington need to understand that the emerging Cold War with China will be a very different beast from the US-Soviet Cold War. This may yet be a problem because neither New Delhi nor Washington appears to be fully facing up to the consequences of this difference.
Most importantly, both India and the US are in a different and weaker position in this edition of the bipolar Cold War than they were the last time. The US is no longer as dominant as it was during the first Cold War. Then, it was the preeminent economic, technological and military power. Today, the US holds on to a significant lead only in one of these areas: global military power. But even this is somewhat less relevant than it was during the US-Soviet confrontation. Unlike the Soviet Union, China’s immediate objective is regional dominance, not global competition.
This is prudent, and though China’s ambitions are likely to expand in the future as it accumulates more power, Beijing’s focus on regional dominance gives it some advantages. Closer to its own territory, the military balance between the US and China is not as lopsided as it would be in the Indian Ocean or even further away. Sure, geography constrains China as much as it did the Soviet Union but that matters only if China decides to push its military well beyond its shore.
A much more balanced Cold War
A major difference is that unlike the Soviet Union, China is an economic powerhouse, and it is closely integrated with the global economy in ways that give it great advantage over many countries. China has been using its advantage injudiciously, to be sure, and as the Cold War intensifies, the economic weave between China and the US and its allies will unravel to a large degree. Nevertheless, one source of greater balance between China and the US is that it sits astride a much more productive economy than the Soviet Union ever had, one that makes this Cold War competition much more even.
This also applies to technology: by the 1970s, the US was rapidly outpacing the Soviet Union in technology, especially consumer electronics. But China is keeping pace, partly because of its position as the global manufacturing hub but also because of its own ambitious private sector. There are early signs that the Xi Jinping regime is uncomfortable with the power inherent in free enterprise and it might clamp down, preferring to throttle China’s private sector rather than liberalise its society and politics. Maybe liberals were correct all along about the contradiction between free markets and unfree societies, even if they were wrong about the choices some States will make in resolving such contradictions.
We can only hope that Xi’s paranoia will fully play out internally in China and consequently weaken it. This will help ease the difficulty of balancing China’s power much more efficiently. But this is only a hope for the future: what matters in the short term is that the US has no great technological edge over China.
Thus, this is a much more evenly balanced Cold War, which requires the US to be more careful in treating its partners. It cannot afford to waste its energy arguing with allies about CAATSA (Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act) and other types of sanctions, or the deteriorating state of liberal standards in places like India. It needs its allies a bit more now than it did during the first Cold War.
India caught in between
For partners such as India, unfortunately, this American quandary will provide no comfort. During the first Cold War, India had a Soviet card, and even a China card. That does not exist this time around, as India faces the brunt of China’s power in a variety of forms, from Ladakh to the UN Security Council. What can India do, threaten to side with China? This gives the US some cards this time that it can possibly play. It can easily reverse its earlier logic for supporting India to grow its power — which was that helping India balance China was useful to the US even if India would not partner with the US. Washington could recalculate that India has no option but to balance China, even without the US making any concessions to New Delhi. This is essentially what American strategists calling for an offshore balancing strategy have been arguing about how the US should treat its Asian partners, and it has growing support in the US.
India, thus, cannot approach this Cold War as it did the last one – as if it is a prized ally that can stand aloof and make others bid for its support. This put India in danger the last time also. But the danger this time is far greater because China, one of the two bipolar powers, is its neighbour. It is a direct, territorial as well as political threat, irrespective of how the Ladakh disengagement goes. India’s military is much more capable today and alert to the danger along the Line of Actual Control. And it may be able to put up a good fight on its own today. But whether it can hold off China by itself, especially as the military balance continues to tilt in China’s favour with each passing year, is questionable.
And there are other dangers too. Unlike the early 1960s, China and Pakistan have now been allies for long – “iron brothers” – with India as the only real glue that binds this alliance. In previous instances, Beijing had its own reasons for not militarily coming to Pakistan’s help, including its own military weakness and unpreparedness. But New Delhi will now have to assume, if only for prudence, that it will face both together in any future war.
A multipolar fantasy
Unfortunately, New Delhi still appears to be in the grip of its multipolar fantasy, something senior Indian leaders trot out all the time. But the world is bipolar, not multipolar, as even a simple assessment of relative power will reveal. This difference has consequences for strategy. Hopefully, India’s talk of multipolarity is propaganda designed to enhance its own position and undermine China’s. But good propaganda should seek to convince others rather than fool oneself. This is an unfortunate Indian tendency that New Delhi has not entirely overcome.
A Cold War is good, especially for weaker powers such as India, but only if it understands its relative weakness. And American strategy also needs to be shaped by its own relatively weaker position in this Cold War.
The author is a professor in International Politics at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), New Delhi. Views are personal.