India’s watchwords in a not so bright 2022

There are risks that could be both domestic and geopolitical and New Delhi must take care to read the signals properly

January 18, 2022 12:02 am | Updated 11:02 am IST

National flag of India on table , black background. National symbol of Republic of India, Copy space.

National flag of India on table , black background. National symbol of Republic of India, Copy space.

An intense debate is on among political strategists and commentators about what is in store in 2022. Most hew to the view that a rules based international order is a remote possibility. Instead, uncertainty and impermanence are likely to be the dominant aspect in world affairs.

Risks in 2022 could be both domestic and geopolitical, with many precepts that the world has been accustomed to being at risk. Democracy itself could face serious headwinds this year.

A paramount issue as 2022 begins, is the future of democracy. Admittedly, the world has recently seen the rise of authoritarian rulers in many countries — though by itself this can hardly be viewed as a new phenomenon. What is worrisome is that democratic tenets which have been under attack in recent years appear set to face more onslaughts this year. Adding grist to concerns about democracy’s future, is that the United States, which was widely viewed as a major bulwark for democracy, appears to have developed certain pathological infirmities. This situation does not augur well for the future of democracy worldwide.

China as disruptor

Equally daunting as we enter 2022 are the geopolitical challenges and risks. The role of China is possibly the most disrupting one, given the challenge it poses to the existing international order. With a GDP of $15.66 trillion in 2020, its net worth today is estimated to be higher than that of the U.S.; and, hence, it demands to be recognised as much. Militarily, China is openly challenging U.S. supremacy in many areas, including ‘state-of-the-art weaponry’ such as hyper-sonic technology.

China has abandoned the ‘one country two systems’ policy, stripping Hong Kong of its freedom and inviting international opprobrium. It is now threatening Taiwan, which could well become one of the flash points of conflict in 2022. The West meanwhile does not realise what could happen if the stakes of ‘cross-strait relations’ between China and Taiwan get higher in 2022. It might well be that in order to ‘save face’ with regard to Taiwan (which China regards as its territory), China could provoke a serious conflict.

The dip in China’s economic profile in the past year and more (which China hardly acknowledges) could also lead to new tensions in the Asia-Pacific region in 2022. To outsiders, the Chinese economy has entered a period of relative uncertainty and is looking more vulnerable. Under Chinese President Xi Jinping, however, China is unlikely to acknowledge that this would entail any reduction in its military capabilities, at least as far the Asia-Pacific is concerned. Instead, it might well be tempted to demonstrate that it still has the ability to get the better of the U.S. in the Pacific region — where it holds more cards than the U.S. — and also demonstrate that it has the ability to ramp up its military capabilities, while the U.S. is reducing its forces in the Indo-Pacific region. Uncertainty per se , could constitute a serious risk.

Russia-Ukraine conflict

The other major risk of a war in 2022, stems from the ongoing conflict between Russia and Ukraine — the latter being backed by the U.S. and North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) forces. It is difficult to discern as to which side is indulging in provocation, but what is not contested is that during the past three decades, NATO has expanded its reach almost a 1,000 miles to the east in violation of an earlier tacit understanding. Russian President Vladimir Putin appears determined that Ukraine should be the ‘last frontier’ and, if need be, ensure this through military force. The situation has grave possibilities and could result in a series of cyclical outcomes with considerable damage potential.

Apart from the grave risk of a possible war or conflict, what is also evident is that ‘peace is not at hand’ across vast regions of the globe in 2022. The current unrest in Kazakhstan, which till recently was one of the more stable Central Asian nations, is perhaps symptomatic of what is in store. Whether recent events in Kazakhstan reflect a new round of ‘colour revolutions’ or not, it demonstrates a sharper cleavage between the U.S.-led West and its principal opponents, Russia and China. This bodes ill for a world already wracked by a series of coups or internecine strife as in Ethiopia, Libya and certain regions of West Asia and North Africa.

Return of the Taliban

Of particular significance to India is that the Taliban’s return to power in Afghanistan has led to a material shift in the balance of power in an already troubled region on India’s periphery. Notwithstanding the general belief that the Taliban’s return to power represents a significant victory for Pakistan, it has become evident, more lately, that this comes with a great deal of baggage — both for Pakistan and much of Asia. Developments in Afghanistan have fuelled the ambitions of quite a few ‘anti-state militant groups’ across the region. Even in Pakistan, the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) has become energised and is enlarging its sphere of action to other parts of Asia, notably Kazakhstan. More important is that it is well known that the TTP is a by-product of al Qaeda jihadi politics and still has covert links with the al Qaeda. This will have an unsettling effect across large parts of Asia.

Adding to such concerns is new evidence that on India’s eastern flank, viz . Indonesia, a resurgence of radical Islamist activities is taking place. The Jemaah Islamiyah has reportedly become more active in Indonesia. All this provides fertile ground for other radical Islamist terror groups to enlarge their activities across the Asian region, providing a fillip to groups like the Islamic State, specially the Islamic State of Khorasan.

Border issues for India

As 2022 dawns, India’s problems are only likely to intensify. The most serious issue that India confronts today is how to deal with a China that has become more confrontational. The transgressions across the Line of Actual Control in different sectors in Ladakh — which were till now seen as merely an attempt by China to restrict and limit India’s options — could well be expanded in 2022. India’s membership of the four nation Quad (the U.S., Japan, Australia and India) still rankles as far as China’s psyche is concerned, and during 2022, may well result in China embarking on new adventurist actions at many more points on the Sino-Indian border compelling India to react. Hence, 2022 is unlikely to see any reduction in tensions across Ladakh, Arunachal Pradesh and the Middle Sector.

Additionally, India will need to determine how best to respond to China’s sabre-rattling. India will need to develop a strategy on how to counter the publicity given by China to its low-yield nuclear weapons meant for battlefield use even during conventional military operations and against conventional targets. India would need to strengthen its military posture, both as a means to deter China and also to convince India’s neighbours that it can stand up to China. Simultaneously, India cannot avoid, in 2022, suitably positioning itself on how best to deter China’s naval force projection in the Indian Ocean Region and the publicity it has given to the additions made of new type nuclear power ballistic missile submarines to their existing fleet. In the battle of wits and strength, much will depend on how India responds to the situation.

Diplomatically, in 2022, India may find itself vulnerable in dealing with the turmoils which have occurred in two areas of strategic interest to it, viz. Central Asia and West Asia. Both areas are undergoing a churn — not all of it to India’s liking. In Central Asia, India will be challenged on how best to manage its traditional friendship with Russia with the pronounced tilt seen more recently in India-U.S. relations. In West Asia, the challenge for India is how to manage its membership of the Second Quad (India, Israel, the United Arab Emirates and the U.S.) with the conflicting interests of different players in the region. Membership of the Quad makes India a key player in a region which has become a quagmire of intense rivalries notwithstanding the 2020 Abraham Accords. Indian diplomacy will be under severe test to manage the extant situation in both regions.

Path to tread

It is easy to say that what India and India’s foreign policy need to do is to demonstrate more flexibility to manage the contradictions that exist. However, this is hardly feasible in practical terms, in most instances. There is a limit to the kind of balancing act that India can perform, whether it be with regard to buying S-400 missile systems from Russia, risking potential sanctions from Washington under Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) or manoeuvering between the Arab States, Israel, Iran and the U.S. in West Asia.

For India, the outlook is, hence, not particularly bright in 2022. No grand strategy is evident as of now but it is important that India finds rational answers to a rash of problems that it cannot keep on the back burner for much longer. What India must do is avoid blind spots that arise due to cognitive bias and take care to read the signals properly. Facing a host of unprecedented challenges, India’s leaders and diplomats must not only take stock of the dangers that exist but also be ready on how to manage the risks that are well evident.

M.K. Narayanan is a former Director, Intelligence Bureau, a former National Security Adviser and a former Governor of West Bengal

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