Adrift at the end of the 20th century, the world of the 21st century is proving to be highly chaotic. Geopolitical experts in the West confine their findings at present solely to the impact of the Russia-Ukraine conflict, believing that this alone would determine not only war and peace but also other critical aspects as well. This tends to be a myopic view, for the Ukraine-Russia conflict is only one of the many strands currently altering the contours of world governance. Significant developments are also taking place in many other regions of the globe, which will have equal if not more relevance to the future of the international governance system.
What the German Chancellor, Olaf Scholz, said in June 2022 at the end of a three-day gathering of G7 leaders in the Bavarian Alps, sums up the prevailing mood overall, viz. , “a time of uncertainty lies ahead of us. We cannot foresee how it will end”. In this case possibly, the German Chancellor was referring only to the fallout from the Ukraine-Russia conflict, for he clearly did not reckon with the fact that many other momentous changes were taking place outside Europe, and which are already beginning to dictate the new order of things. The obsession in the West over the outcome of the Russia-Ukraine conflict, giving it an importance overriding all else, is indeed misleading.
Europe may be rudderless
European leaders tending to look inwards is, perhaps, not surprising. Europe has been undergoing several major changes in recent months. Germany, which has steered European politics for almost two decades under Angela Merkel, now has a Chancellor (Olaf Scholz) who has hardly any foreign policy experience. Without Germany’s steadying hand, Europe would be virtually adrift in troubled waters. Emmanuel Macron may have been re-elected the President of France, but his wings have been clipped with the Opposition now gaining a majority in the French National Assembly. This has damaged his image, and Mr. Macron can hardly be expected to provide the kind of leadership that Europe needs at present. The United Kingdom is in deep trouble, if not disarray. Consequently, at a time when actual and moral issues require both deft and firm handling, Europe appears rudderless.
Compounding this situation is the negative economic impact of the war in Ukraine. This is being felt not only in Europe but also across the globe. What is evident already is that apart from the spiralling cost of energy, food and fertilizers, quite a few countries confront the spectre of food scarcity given that Ukraine and Russia were generally viewed as the granaries of the world. Apart from this, nations do face several other problems as well, including, in some cases, a foreign exchange crisis. Many of these problems may have existed earlier but have been aggravated by the ongoing conflict. The impact is being felt now well beyond Europe.
Six months into the Ukraine-Russia conflict, the topology of geopolitics also appears to be undergoing major changes. It is occurring in directions that were not envisaged previously. The instruments employed by the West against Russia, such as sanctions, have not had the desired impact as far as the latter is concerned. It would be a serious error of judgment if the West were to imagine that the unity and the strength displayed by the European nations (backed by the United States and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization on this occasion), has been a win-win situation. The situation in Europe is still to be decided, but what is also becoming obvious is that outside Europe, the conflict is beginning to take on a different dimension, leading to the emergence of new patchworks of relationships.
A China-Russia link
A churn in global politics is evident. China and Russia, for instance, appear to have further cemented their relationship and the situation is fast veering towards a formal alliance. Russia’s growing closeness to China — further intensified by the Ukraine-Russia conflict — has revived memories of the 1950s Sino-Soviet alliance, and their bonhomie during the 1950s and 1960s. At the time, this had been described as a ‘lips and teeth’ relationship.
Meanwhile, China’s growing influence in the Pacific region, including in the Indo-Pacific, and further strengthened by the entente with Russia, may hardly be a by-product of the Ukraine-Russia conflict, but it has induced fresh energy into a possible conflict between two rival power blocs. Not all the efforts of the United States, including the AUKUS (Australia, the U.K. and the U.S.) and the Quad (the U.S., India, Australia and Japan), or the launch of another Indo-Pacific entity, viz. , ‘Partners in the Blue Pacific’ (comprising the U.S., the U.K., Australia, New Zealand and Japan) can hope to effectively stem the winds of change sweeping across the Pacific and the Indo-Pacific. Understanding the changing nature of relationships in Asia, and considering that most Asian nations appear unwilling to take sides in the event of a conflict, is important. Unlike the unity and the strength displayed by European nations — backed by the U.S. and NATO — to checkmate Russia, and diminish its image, there is no evidence of any such unity of purpose in the event that China was to launch a conflict with Taiwan.
India and its neighbourhood
In the prevailing atmosphere, India does find itself wedged into a difficult situation. It cannot ignore the situation created by the stronger bonds between Russia and China. While relations with China may continue to remain uncertain and unsatisfactory (for some time at least), India will need to determine whether Russia can be expected to play a role as a ‘trusted friend’ of India’s. Again, it would be too much to hope that in dealing with China, India can expect the same kind of support it may need from the Quad. China, however, seems intent on establishing its dominance and also sidelining India in Asia, which New Delhi would have discerned in the course of the virtual BRICS Summit hosted by China in June. China’s newfound confidence and its attempt to hijack the situation as part of its preparations for a new world order was very much in evidence on that occasion.
Apart from China, India also urgently needs to come to terms with a Taliban Afghanistan. Its attempt to devise a working relationship with a Taliban Afghanistan without having to compromise with its previous policy of ‘no truck’ with the Taliban is as yet in a very nascent stage. Time is, however, of the essence.
At this time, the democratic upsurge in Sri Lanka which has resulted in the removal of the Rajapaksas from power, presents India with a fresh set of problems. India’s relation with the previous regime could at best be termed correct, rather than cordial, but in a situation where ‘rage’ and ‘anger’ are the dominant sentiments, there is every reason for concern that even governments that have maintained a ‘hands-off’ relationship could become targets of the new forces emerging in Sri Lanka. There are also aspects of the Sinhala ‘Janata Aragalaya ’ that need to be carefully studied, to ensure that its advent does not result in the emergence of an anti-India atmosphere in Sri Lanka.
Churn in West Asia
In the 21st century, among other major developments taking place, is the kind of churn that is continuing in West Asia. The Abraham Accords in 2020, which brought about the entente between the United Arab Emirates and Israel, has been the harbinger of certain new trends in the tangled web of relationships among countries of West Asia. But even as the U.S.’s relations with Arab nations in West Asia appear to weaken, Russia and China are beginning to play key roles, with Iran as the fulcrum for establishing new relationships. Russia’s forays into West Asia have taken a quantum leap. Relations with Iran have been firmed up. China continues to steadily build on its connections with the region, and with Iran in particular.
For its part, India has been making steady progress in enlarging its contacts and influence in West Asia. While the India-Israel relationship dates back to the 1990s, the India-UAE relationship has blossomed in the past couple of years. India-Iran relations, however, seem to have reached a stalemate of late. India has, however, been inveigled into joining a U.S.-based group, the I2U2, comprising India, Israel the UAE and the U.S. The U.S. has indicated that this body could become a ‘feature’ of the West Asian region, just like the Quad was for the Indo-Pacific. Details of the new arrangements are unclear, but it is evident that the target is Iran, as China is for the Quad, injecting yet another element of uncertainty into an already troubled region.
Finally, and in the wake of western allegations about the possible use by Russia of tactical/battlefield nuclear weapons, concerns are beginning to be expressed by U.S. academics — many with close connections to the establishment — of an existing gap between India and China in terms of India’s nuclear deterrent capability. The argument being adduced is that a wide gap exists today in regard to China and India’s nuclear deterrent capabilities, and implicitly blames India for its voluntary ban on testing and its ‘no-first-use’ doctrine from making progress in this arena. What is also implied is that India could overcome the lacuna by seeking the assistance of western nations which have such capabilities and knowledge. It is unclear, as of now, whether this has any traction among officials in the West, but it is important for India to guard against such pernicious attempts at this time to undo its carefully negotiated and structured nuclear policy and doctrine, and be inveigled into any anti-China western move on this front.
M.K. Narayanan, a former Director, Intelligence Bureau, a former National Security Adviser and a former Governor of West Bengal, is currently Executive Chairman of CyQureX Pvt. Ltd., a U.K.-U.S.A. cyber security joint venture