An encirclement India must avoid at all costs
By Manish Tewari
While India has been distracting itself with cynical battles over identity, religion, accentuated hate speech, proscribing freedom of speech and expression and playing cynical state government toppling games, there is a new world order underpinned by new alliances that is evolving. The contours of this order are portentous for the strategic interests of India. For, the centre point of this unfolding paradigm is China.
Before President Vladimir Putin launched the invasion of Ukraine he signed an agreement with China in Beijing on the 5th of February, 2022, entitled Joint Statement of the Russian Federation and the People’s Republic of China on the International Relations Entering a New Era and the Global Sustainable Development. Grandiose in both its breadth and sweep, it makes no bones about the fact that both Russia and China seek to challenge the existing status quo aggressively.
The following text in the document says it all: “Some actors representing but the minority on the international scale continue to advocate unilateral approaches to addressing international issues and resort to force; they interfere in the internal affairs of other States, infringing their legitimate rights and interests, and incite contradictions, differences and confrontation, thus hampering the development and progress of mankind, against the opposition from the international community.”
The transgressions into Ukraine de-horse what may be the final outcome were or are really designed to undercut if not upend the European security construct underpinned by the US. If the Russians succeed nobody would be happier than the Chinese because then a vulnerable Europe may have to look towards China as the outside balancer. However, the reverse seems to have happened so far in the past four-and-a-half months with Europe looking more consolidated than ever before against Russia. However, Putin has ominously warned he has just started out. China may still end up having the last laugh.
And yet the China-Russia axis is not the only one that should worry New Delhi. From North Korea to Iran encompassing China and Pakistan, a contiguous physical mass of nuclear weapon States — three de-facto and one de-jure (if one was to give credence to non-Western sources) — has emerged whose interests and those of India are just not aligned.
Notwithstanding whatever outreach India may have made towards Iran, the fact remains that Iran’s adversarial relationship with the US and India’s congruence with both the United States and Israel produces a fundamental dissonance in the Indo-Iranian relationship how much ever India may want to paper it over by underlining civilisational ties.
The 25-year strategic partnership between China and Iran signed in the March of 2021 only further adds to this discomfiture. It is no coincidence that while this agreement between China and Iran was in the final stages of negotiation India was outed from the Chabahar-Zaidan railway link project in the November of 2020.
If Iran leans decisively in the Chinese direction given that India has no relationship with DPR Korea worth the name and China is in illegal occupation of Indian territory since April 2020 while with Pakistan the unfinished business of Partition stretches back 70 years, how does India deal with this bloc of nuclear weapon States stretching from the far east to the west across the Asian heartland?
That China is at the heart of this new axis of cooperation is evidenced not only by the encouragement it is providing to the North Korea-Iran relationship but also the assistance it is ostensibly providing to upgrade North Korea’s conventional and unconventional capacities as exhibited by North Korea during its 75th anniversary military parade in October of 2020.
A report by the Office for the Protection of the Constitution of Baden-Württemberg, a province in Germany, in June 2020, detailed the cooperation between North Korea, Pakistan and China on nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons programmes. It underscored: “They aim to complete existing arsenals, perfect the range, deployability and effectiveness of their weapons and develop new weapons systems. They are trying to obtain the necessary products and relevant knowhow through illegal procurement efforts in Germany. In order to circumvent existing export restrictions and embargoes, risk states must constantly develop and optimise their procurement methods. To conceal the actual end user, they can procure goods in Germany and Europe with the help of specially established cover companies and, in particular, transport dual-use goods to risk states. Typical bypass countries include Turkey and China.”
Why this should worry India is primarily because Iran has not only been able to create a huge influence in the Shia Crescent in the Greater Middle East where India has significant energy interests, but moreover the synergy between these four powers has a direct bearing on India’s security given that with Afghanistan now under de-facto Pakistani control through the Taliban a friendly Iran provides a comfort level of strategic depth that Pakistan has always aspired for.
If Russia and Turkey at some later stage do also become a part of this loose arrangement provided that Turkey and Russia are able to find a modus vivendi in their quest for influence in the caucuses and given that they were on the opposite side of the conflict in Syria, this new paradigm from Murmansk to the Straits of Bosporus can emerge as a formidable bloc. Except for Russia, the others, DPR Korea, China, Pakistan, Iran and even Turkey have either an antagonistic or at best a “very formal” relationship with India.
If one is tuned into the buzz in the international strategic community, the United States and China have also been concurrently holding “quiet consultations” about the emerging scheme of things.
The US wants to keep China engaged so that it does not get completely consumed by the orbit that Russia and China are striving to create. Some form of “spheres of interest” conversations are an obvious corollary if not intrinsic to such confabulations.
Were the US-China conversations to fructify into some tentative understanding, how would this play out qua the QUAD, AUKUS and other arrangements that the US has now created or has been trying to create in the Indo-Pacific theatre stretching back two decades now if not to the end of the Second World War? Does India even have its eye on the ball given that the world around it is swivelling at a dizzying pace?
(The author is Lawyer, Member of Parliament, Former Information & Broadcasting Minister. Views are personal)