In an earlier article I discussed India’s recent moves and how these threaten to realign India with the US against China and Russia.
In this article I will discuss the background to this and the strategic implications and how these developments threaten the development of the multipolar order that is challenging US global power.
The Chinese-Indian Cold War
South East Asia
Prime Minister Modi’s moves over the last month exacerbate an already existing low-intensity Chinese-Indian Cold War. The main focus of Chinese-Indian competition at the present time is in south east Asia.
India plans to ramp up its commercial ties with the mainland members of ASEAN – often referred to as “the Mekong River states” – by cooperating with them to build the Trilateral Highway through Myanmar and Thailand.
Part of this project links up to the Japanese East-West corridor at the Myanmar port city of Mawlamyine, connecting India to northern Thailand, southern Laos, and central Vietnam.
This map shows the crisscrossing infrastructure corridors that are planned for the Greater Mekong Subregion. India’s Trilateral Highway – labelled the Western Corridor – is coloured purple. Japan’s East-Corridor is coloured turquoise.
It is not a coincidence that these trade networks are expected to interlink with each other. India and Japan are the US’s two most important Asian allies in “containing” China. From a US perspective, it makes sense for India and China to pool their resources in the ASEAN theatre.
On the naval front, as I discussed in my previous article, India is slated to become one of the out-of-region forces active in the South China Sea alongside Japan, the US, and Australia in the “Quadrilateral Security Dialogue”.
The other main theatre of Chinese-Indian competition is the Himalayas, particularly Kashmir, Nepal and Arunachal Pradesh.
Since 1948 Kashmir has been divided into Pakistani and Indian-administered zones. As I discussed in my previous article, India is objecting to China’s plans to build the Chinese Pakistani Economic Corridor through the Pakistani-administered zone.
In a conversation with Pakistani analyst and GPolit contributor Tayyab Baloch I was told of Pakistani fears that India might exploit the Logistic Support Agreement to obtain the deployment of US troops to Indian-controlled Kashmir. This would be seen as very threatening by Pakistan and might even facilitate the infiltration of Uighur and Tibetan terrorists into nearby China.
Though deploying US troops to this bitterly contested region would be extremely destabilising and controversial, India might be tempted to “justify” it by citing China’s refusal to stop construction of the Chinese Pakistani Economic Corridor through Pakistani-controlled Kashmir and by China’s continued occupation of the Indian-claimed territory of Aksai Chin.
India and China have been engaged in a fierce asymmetrical competition for influence in Nepal ever since India lent its support to Hindu-identifying Madhesi protesters in the southern Terai region during their months-long protest campaign.
The Madhesi were ostensibly protesting Nepal’s plans for federalisation which they claim will dilute their influence in Nepal’s affairs. In Nepal’s capital Kathmandu the opinion is however that India is manipulating the Madhesi protests as proxies to ensure India’s continued influence over Nepal.
During the protests Indian traders claimed it was unsafe for them to travel to Nepal, causing a de-facto blockade of the country which cut it off from most of its fuel supplies. The Nepalese government claimed this was in effect an embargo imposed on Nepal by India.
China for its part has pragmatically supported the democratically elected and legitimate Nepalese government, sending supplies to replace the products withheld by India.
China has also sealed important energy deals with Nepal and is now even discussing an expansion of the New Silk Road through the Himalayans to Kathmandu. Not surprisingly India fears this could lead to the northern Indian states of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar becoming flooded with Chinese goods. It is not difficult to see why India might therefore be tempted to use the Madhesi protests to thwart these projects.
A further region of potential Chinese-Indian rivalry in the Himalayas is the contested territory of Arunachal Pradesh, called “Southern Tibet” by China.
The dispute here dates back to the imperial era when the British marked out the border between British controlled India and a weakened China.
The essential point is that India for decades has administered this region without its right to do so being recognised by China.
This dispute is for the time being lying dormant and has largely done so since the 1962 Sino-Indian War. It does however occasionally flare up as a rhetorical whenever Indian-Chinese disagreements rise to the surface. Since China does not recognise India’s administration of Arunachal Pradesh, this territory retains the potential to become a serious flashpoint.
The Logistical Support Agreement give the US the right – if India agrees – to “resupply, repair, and rest” its forces anywhere in India. This could in theory include contested areas such as Arunachal Pradesh.
Deploying US troops so close to the border with China in a contested territory such as Arunachal Pradesh would be seen by China as intensely provocative and would be bound to provoke a Chinese reaction.
That could transform a hereto dormant conflict into an active one, creating a third subregional front of “containment” against China. All it would take would be the symbolic presence of a few US troops – no matter how ‘plausibly justified’ under the terms of the Logistical Support Agreement – to trigger a confrontation between India and China that could be exploited by hardliners in New Delhi wanting to press for a concerted US-Indian joint effort to “defend Indian territory from China”.
“Containing” China In Central Asia
There remains Central Asia as a further zone of potential Chinese-Indian conflict.
India just recently began to accede to the Ashgabat Agreement, a multinational infrastructure development platform between Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Iran, and Oman.
India plans to build a railroad from the Indian-financed port in Iran’s southern Chabahar district to the existing Iran-Central Asian railway network, potentially making India an important regional actor.
If completed these projects would connect India by land to the European Union, re routing India’s trade with the European Union through the Russian-Chinese zone of influence in Central Asia.
India’s increasing role in this region could benefit all parties. This however depends on how it is pursued. If India’s intentions are hostile to China and are directed at “containing” China in this region (as they increasingly seem to be everywhere else) then India’s growing presence in Central Asia could have destabilising consequences which would also inevitably affect Russia.
It is too early to say what form India’s role Central Asian will take. However whatever it is it is likely to be significant. Whether it will be positive or negative depends on India. If India continues to commit itself to multipolarity in combination with its BRICS partners Russia and China then its role in Central Asia will be positive. If instead it undermines BRICS unity (as it seems rapidly on track to do) then its actions could turn out to be severely destabilising, turning a hereto stable region into a theatre of a new global Cold War.
Hybrid War Blackmail
Prime Minister Modi seems for the moment to be going along with – even inviting – the US’s anti-Chinese strategic assistance in South Asia and other neighbouring regions. However he may be under pressure to do so.
As I wrote for Sputnik in October when discussing Bangladesh’s simmering Islamic/Salafist terrorist problem, the US and possibly even Saudi Arabia may be planning to turn Bangladesh into another focus of violent Salafist jihadism as the ultimate form of pressure on India. Moreover, the September 2014 announcement that Al Qaeda had opened up a South Asian branch may also have led the Indian establishment to think there is a long-term jihadist threat to India.
The extent to which these fears may have led India away from multipolarity towards realignment with the US is however debatable. In my opinion Prime Minister Modi was already predisposed to side with the US against China even if there were no external pressure upon him.
Nonetheless the “ticking time bombs” of jihadi militancy remain a threat should Prime Minister Modi ever to decide to reverse course, though in that case India would be able to look for support to its BRICS partners – Russia and China – in a way that might actually deepen India’s ties with them.
Breaking Up The BRICS
Prime Minister Modi increasing alignment with the US puts the BRICS organisation at serious risk of falling apart.
India does sincerely wish for the success of certain multipolar projects. These include wider use of national non-dollar currencies in bilateral trade and the establishment of alternative global institutions such as the BRICS New Development Bank and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, in which India would finally have representation proportionate to its size.
However these forms of economic and institutional multipolarity are very different from the geopolitical multipolarity Russia and China practice. Whilst India would obviously benefit from that too, the short-sighted obsession of its “deep state” elites (ie. its permanent intelligence-military-diplomatic bureaucracies) in “containing” China, confronting Pakistan, and conquering the rest of Kashmir blind them to its advantages. This leads to the strange paradox of India geopolitically embracing the same hegemon – the US – it opposes in the economic and institutional spheres.
Russia and China for their part had until recently assumed India shared their vision of economic, institutional, and – most importantly – geopolitical multipolarity. Now it seems the geopolitical aspect of this global vision is something India’s elite no longer wants to move forward with.
Ultimately an intensification of Chinese-Indian competition in a sort of bilateral Cold War can only serve the interests of the US. It not only risks undermining BRICS unity from within. Over time increasingly tense bilateral relations between India and China would inevitably spill over into other multipolar organisations such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, undermining their unity and impairing their effectiveness.
It is easy to see how in such a situation things might get so bad that India – contrary to its own long-term interests – might decide to accept whatever deal it was offered by the US and turn its back on the BRICS entirely.
It is not inconceivable that in that case India could become a bridge between a US-sponsored TTIP in western Eurasia and a US sponsored TPP in eastern Eurasia, with India forming the link in some sort of southern “rimland alliance” against Russia and China.
In the event of India’s destruction of BRICS unity, Russia would be forced to choose between its Chinese and Indian partners. For obvious reasons Moscow would prefer this never happened. However India’s actions might leave it no alternative.
If the point ever comes when Moscow is forced to side publicly with China against India, however politely and diplomatically this was done, the US and its proxies in India would undoubtedly use the fact to launch an information campaign claiming Moscow had “betrayed India” and had “sold India out to China”.
Russian diplomacy is no doubt striving to avoid this situation. Due to Russia’s longstanding friendly ties to India Russia is the only country that might have a chance of persuading India that its present course of undermining BRICS unity does not serve India’s interests. Even if Russia could not persuade India to reverse its new policies entirely, Russia might still play a useful role, moderating the policy and acting as a sort of bridge between New Delhi and Beijing.
Realistically however there is little Moscow can do if India’s elites are determined to adopt the anti-Chinese narrative the US has spun for them.
If India irrevocably commits itself to a pro-US anti-China course then sooner or later India will inevitably come under pressure from Washington to loosen its ties with Moscow. This would most probably happen in the context of an artificially created crisis, making it appear that the decision was Moscow’s rather than New Delhi’s or Washington’s.
Prime Minister Modi’s actions over the past month in the immediate wake of US Defence Secretary Ashton Carter’s visit have caused widespread alarm amongst its BRICS allies, provoking questions as why India is now so suddenly and so visibly siding with the US.
In reality the Indian elite’s obsessions with “containing” China, confronting Pakistan, and conquering all of Kashmir has always made India highly susceptible to US manipulation and provides the answer.
The stakes however could not be higher. With India’s news media and information space dominated by pro-Western narratives most Indians remain unaware of the change in strategic direction their country is taking. The result however might be to shatter the BRICS, putting other multipolar projects such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation in jeopardy.
Beyond that it is difficult to see how an intensification of the Chinese-Indian Cold War could not lead in the end to a permanent realignment of India with the US, placing the whole multipolar project upon which Russian and Chinese policy is based in question.
It is not yet too late to turn back. Time is however running short. The further India moves along its present path the more difficult it will be to turn back. Beyond a certain point the momentum becomes unstoppable and the process irreversible.
India is at a crossroads. Either it deepens its cooperation with its BRICS partners, consolidating the multipolar world that is emerging, or it sabotages it and aligns with Washington.
India is today the pivot state, the country that has the decisive voice in whether or not there will be a New Cold War, and has for that reason become the object of every Great Powers’ fancy.