Entering a year of uncertainty

For India, the altered shape of the international order leaves little room for comfort

January 13, 2023 12:15 am | Updated 12:49 am IST

The 43rd Heavy Artillery Brigade of the Ukrainian Army fire a German howitzer Panzerhaubitze 2000 as Russia’s attack on Ukraine continues, near Soledar, Ukraine.

The 43rd Heavy Artillery Brigade of the Ukrainian Army fire a German howitzer Panzerhaubitze 2000 as Russia’s attack on Ukraine continues, near Soledar, Ukraine. | Photo Credit: REUTERS

Soothsayers seldom read the future correctly, especially in the realm of geopolitics. Quite a few soothsayers, however, were partially right at the beginning of 2022 when they said that uncertainty and impermanence would dictate the course of world events that year. The year did witness a spike in geopolitical challenges and risks, but no one predicted that 2022 would be a year that would put the world to test.

The Russia-Ukraine conflict, which erupted in February 2022, has become a major disruptor of the existing order. In turn, it has led to one of the largest population shifts in modern times. With hindsight, however, some of this could have been anticipated. By mid-2021, Russia had begun a major build-up around Ukraine and in December 2021, Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs published a list of new security guarantees it wanted from the U.S. and North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), including a promise not to expand the alliance eastward.

What possibly could not have been anticipated was the extraordinary display of Ukrainian nationalism, and the swift response of the West, including NATO and the U.S., in rallying behind Ukraine and extending military and other types of cooperation. All said, even today few experts are able to fully comprehend what all this presages or what lies in the future.

Fallouts of the war

It might, therefore, be intriguing to make a comparison with the situation that prevailed during World War I, especially in 1916. Back then, the risk of escalation both horizontally and vertically was underplayed. It might be useful to heed the lessons from that time. In the present case, any escalation vertically would mean the use of nuclear weapons. Any escalation horizontally would mean opening new fronts. As in 1916, there are many ‘unknowns’ today. Unexpected incidents could result in dangerous outcomes. The spectre of an all-out war is ominously present.

There could be several other fallouts as well. Already, the ‘proxy war’ between the U.S., Europe and NATO on the one hand, and Russia on the other, is having a major fallout in the economic realm. The incessant imposition of sanctions by the West and its allies on Russia, the barring of Russian banks from SWIFT, and the freezing of Russian foreign assets have all provoked an energy crisis. This is accompanied by the soaring prices of oil, with Russia using oil as a weapon. The full extent of this is yet to be properly understood, but what it does portend is the possibility of a wider conflagration.

The ripple effects of the recent developments in Europe are evident. Some of this is occurring well beyond European shores. China-Russia relations are a case in point. China has chosen this time to deepen its strategic ties with Russia. Both countries have said their “relations are enjoying the best period in their history”. Furthermore, in the light of the heightened concerns of the West over Taiwan, newer alignments are becoming evident across Asia.

Increase in defence spending

As 2023 has dawned and the arc of instability increases, what is also becoming evident is a massive increase in defence spending by almost every country — notwithstanding the economic stress they all confront. Estimated spending on defence across the globe is understood to have crossed $2 trillion in 2022, and is expected to increase substantially in 2023. European countries, such as Germany and France, have announced substantial increases in defence spending. Japan has already declared that it would raise its defence budget to 2% of its GDP, in view of the threats posed by China and North Korea. India, one of the world’s leaders in defence spending, can be expected to follow suit.

Increased defence budgets are threatening to alter the nature of defence relationships and, in turn, what is propounded as strategic autonomy. New strategic alignments could unsettle the current world order, putting paid to previous beliefs in the virtue of non-adherence to a particular bloc, and ideas such as non-alignment. This year could, hence, well be the year in which many past ideas regarding economic, technological and financial autonomy may come to be altered or given up. The pace of history will accelerate in 2023, with the war in Ukraine being a major contributory factor.

A case in point may be India’s reliance on Russian military equipment, which has been New Delhi’s sheet anchor for many years. This could change with Russian equipment faring poorly against the latest Western weaponry in the Ukraine conflict; India may well consider looking elsewhere for future defence supplies. India’s current shift from a professed policy of non-alignment to multi-alignment can possibly help it widen the arc of its defence ties. Groups such as the Quad (U.S., Australia, Japan and India) may, going forward, gain greater salience in India’s defence architecture, given the increased tensions between India and China. India’s defence ties with France, especially in the area of state-of-the-art defence equipment, appear set to grow in 2023.

Consequent to this, many other changes can be anticipated. Terms like strategic autonomy have already lost their meaning given the fact that the war in Ukraine has brought home to Europe and other countries the fact that Ukraine, or for that matter any other country in Europe, could not have withstood the Russian offensive without the U.S. and NATO. The same conclusion is likely to dictate the thinking of countries in Asia when confronting major “bullies” like China.

India’s neighbourhood

Going ahead, and apart from Europe, China, India and parts of Asia are likely to face major headwinds. For China, controlling COVID-19 and managing the fallout of its economic downturn would be the main challenges. Consequently, it is unlikely that China would unilaterally provoke a conflict or take a provocative posture vis-à-vis its neighbours this year. Nevertheless, Taiwan and any breaching of the First Island Chain will remain China’s top priority.

For India, the altered shape of the international order leaves little room for comfort. The China-Russia entente creates a dent in India’s long-standing strategic relationship with Russia, the impact of which could be far reaching. Meanwhile, the absence of settled borders with both China and Pakistan will continue to plague India. Many areas along the China-India border will remain live, and incidents such as the recent one in Yangtse could be repeated, but a major conflict appears unlikely. Pakistan, mired in its own internal problems and economic difficulties, is unlikely to pose a major threat in 2023. Nevertheless, Pakistan’s provocations and use of terror modules are likely to continue, leading to sporadic attacks in Jammu and Kashmir.

During 2023, India will also find itself hemmed in by other problems that have emerged in South Asia. In Nepal, the new government appears tilted towards China and could become a problem. Afghanistan under the Taliban will remain an issue, but more problematic is the rising curve of terrorist activity emanating from there, spearheaded by groups such as the Islamic State-Khorasan Province (ISIS-K). India’s relations with both Sri Lanka and Bangladesh appear delicately poised, and will require employing deft diplomacy. This year may not, however, see major changes in India’s relationship with most countries of West Asia. It may test whether India’s long-term preference for a non-interventionist strategic culture is paying dividends in its neighbourhood or not.

All indications are that while terrorism will remain an omnipresent threat this year, major terror attacks may not occur. Nevertheless, the Islamic State, mainly the ISIS-K, has shown signs of revival and its role and activity in Afghanistan are the proverbial tip of the iceberg. Hence, the world may need to be on its guard in 2023.

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