International politics is likely entering an unstable period and India will not be immune from its dangerous consequences. Globally, three full decades after the bipolar great powers Cold War ended, another era of bipolar competition is upon us, which will involve India too. China’s paranoia and foolishness will be additional dangers and India’s foreign policy options to deal with these are shrinking.
But New Delhi appears to have difficulty even recognising the nature of this bipolar contest, misperceiving the world to be multipolar in which India is one of the poles. Polarity is difficult to define with any precision, but the blunt reality is that we now have a world in which the US and China stand head and shoulders above everyone else in material power. India is not a weak power by any stretch, and it can possibly hold its own in a military confrontation with China. But India is not a polar power either, not when its economy is about one-fifth of China. In a truly multipolar world of several roughly comparable great powers, India would have choices that it will not have in a bipolar contest. Crudely, in a bipolar contest, New Delhi’s choice of partners to counter China is limited to the US.
India cannot opt out either, because China will not leave alone a country on its borders — even if India is not a polar power, it is not so weak that Beijing can ignore it. Both its geography and its capacity mean that India will be a party to the contest whether it wants to or not. This is so even if we keep the border dispute out, which, of course, is not possible.
Thank god, China came out
Behind the emerging scenario is China’s behaviour over the last few years. Although China is not uniquely strategically stupid, it comes close. Beijing had a golden opportunity these last four years, as US President Donald Trump destroyed America’s global power and purpose, to step in and take up the mantle of a global power with global responsibilities. Beijing even moved a half-step in that direction, a distant memory today. This was a path much of the world would have applauded because everybody had an interest in an integrated global economy with China as its manufacturing hub. Offered the throne at the head of the table, Chinese President Xi Jinping decided instead that only he should eat while others served. He has since surpassed even that with his performance during the pandemic. It would be difficult to imagine anyone competing with Trump in taking a hammer to their own country’s reputation, but Xi has not only competed but won.
Thank god, though. So deep has been the desire to overlook the danger from China in both New Delhi and other capitals of the world that even if Beijing had merely paid even lip-service to ‘multipolarity’ or behaved with the slightest modicum of restraint, the threat that its power posed would have been difficult to understand. German gullibility in pushing a China-EU trade deal is clear, but how different is that from India’s own gullibility in doing the ‘informal’ summits at Wuhan and Mamallapuram even after the Doklam experience?
Why countering China is not easy
China’s lack of strategic common sense is also an obvious danger. Beijing will not stop pushing. Whether it is pushing out of paranoia or greed is irrelevant because neither India nor anyone else will be able to satiate it. The only choice is to counter and contain.
But this will not be easy either. China represents a different kind of threat. Traditionally, many great power conflicts were fought over territory because land and people represented a transferable asset. Today, China is not seeking territorial expansion, save for territory on its periphery where it disputes the borders. Though these are important contests, they do not represent existential threats to most of China’s neighbours, even small ones like Vietnam, let alone large ones such as India. (Taiwan is an exception, obviously). What China is seeking is control and subservience — hegemony not empire. This appears a lesser danger, even though it is not. But because it appears so, it is difficult to counter.
Countering China will be difficult also because it requires burden-sharing among those threatened, which is never easy in international security endeavours. Moreover, one area where China has shown some tactical skill is in splitting its adversaries. An American security umbrella would have flattened out the difficulties in Indo-Pacific powers coming together without such paralysing burden-sharing problems.
US and its political dysfunctionality
But there is more bad news here. The US’ domestic political dysfunctionality could very well undermine its willingness to play a global role.
The hope that Trump’s defeat would reset American politics and lead to a rebooting of the Republican Party has now been belied. Trump lost narrowly, winning more votes this election than he did in 2016; he got more votes than even Hillary Clinton did in 2016, an amazing achievement considering his performance, especially during the pandemic. Democrats have done poorly in Congressional races too, losing seats in the House, and picking up only one seat in the Senate (two US Senate seats in Georgia are yet to be decided). These, and the unusually large Republican voter turnout for the presidential election illustrates the control that Trump has on the party — one reason why Republican elected officials are loath to cross him. More important than the difficulties faced by Republican elected officials is the division this indicates in American society. This will not easily disappear and it will likely impact American foreign policy.
The only thing that the Trumpian Right and the Democratic Left appear to agree on is that the US should considerably draw down from its global security commitments. It is far from clear that the much-derided centrist Washington foreign policy ‘blob’ will be able to hold out against both flanks. The US could very well shed global commitments, including on balancing China. After all, China does not represent a direct threat to the US; far easier to seek a compromise for the supposedly greater danger from climate change with China’s promises. The US would be mistaken, and it would suffer for it eventually, but that should be small comfort. Hopefully, the reality over the next four years will be a lot less dramatic, but India and Washington’s other partners will have to consider seriously the possibility that they are on their own.
Growing dangers and shrinking options in meeting these dangers is a troubling prospect. It will be worsened if India cannot realistically assess its own power position.
The author is a professor in International Politics at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), New Delhi. Views are personal.
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