In reviewing the global geopolitical security trends of the current decade, this author recalls the first India-US Track 1.5 security dialogue with a sense of déjà vu. In late 1990, even as the Cold War was in its last phase, a group of senior Indian officials and members of the strategic community met with their US counterparts at the National Defence Academy, Kharakvasla to brainstorm and review the next decade.
The two sides exchanged notes on their major security concerns about certain unfolding regional and global developments, including the Soviet Union’s withdrawal from Afghanistan and Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. The issues that came up on their radar included — the stability of nuclear deterrence and the safety of weapons of mass destruction; the transmutation in China (a year after Tiananmen); deviant state behavior; religious extremism; and sea-rise related to Climate Change.
Three decades later, the macro geopolitical trends have a familiar rhythm and the principal interlocutors are much the same — the big contextual difference being the Covid cross that has scarred the world’s composite security in different ways.
The most significant trend is the complex change in the global strategic landscape. Against the backdrop of an extraordinary technology-driven transformation of states, society and markets, the US-led western alliance is now having to contend with the rise of Asia in global affairs. Over the next decade, it is expected that China will overtake the US to emerge as the world’s top economy, but it will not be the world’s number one military power. This is an anomalous exigency that can engender disequilibrium.
The US-China relationship became discordant in the Trump years and the tension between the two powers has become more explicit with Biden coming to the White House. The new US President and his top cabinet members have described China as a major threat to US primacy and the principles it upholds, and the trend lines are becoming more visible progressively.
The new contestation of 2021 and beyond will see the US and its allies/partners pitted against the Sino-Russian partnership, with the likelihood of Iran tilting towards China. This, in turn, is predicated on the resolution or lack thereof of the US-Iran imbroglio and will shape the southern Asian regional security canvas in a distinctive manner.
The major capacity challenge for the US is that the European Union is no longer the cohesive political entity it was and, furthermore, in relation to the threat assessment as posed by Moscow and Beijing, the dissonance between Brussels and Washington is all too palpable. Within Asia, both Japan (a formal US military ally) and India (a recently inducted strategic partner) have their contradictions and constraints in rallying behind the US in its evolving response to the challenge represented by the Sino-Russian dyad.
In this author’s assessment, the outcome of the competition/confrontation between the US-led cluster of democracies and the Sino-Russian communist/authoritarian dyad will be the degree to which new technologies, particularly core ICT and Artificial Intelligence, are harnessed in achieving techno-strategic asymmetry. Here, the emphasis accorded by the Quad leaders (USA, India, Japan, and Australia) at the March 12 summit is instructive. The joint statement at the event asserted: “To strengthen our quest for a region that is open and free, we have agreed to partner to address the challenges presented by new technologies (emphasis added) and collaborate to set the norms and standards that govern the innovations of the future.”
In the latter part of the Cold War, myopic security-strategic and techno-commercial considerations in the US-led western block enabled the dramatic rise of China, despite its communist character, thereby diluting the fidelity of the ideological underpinning of bi-polarity. In that period, Beijing also shifted from the Soviet camp to that of the ‘arch capitalist’, the US — a move that peaked with the implosion of the USSR.
Paradoxically, democratic India, which was estranged from the US in the Cold War decades and was more oriented towards the erstwhile USSR by way of a ‘friendship treaty’, is now partnering with the US in a cautious manner — even as Moscow continues to be an ‘indispensable friend’ for New Delhi. The rhythms of realpolitik reverberate through the decades in a discernible manner, but the important question is how astute have the principal practitioners been?
Commodore C Uday Bhaskar (Retd) is India’s leading expert on security and strategic affairs. He is Director of the Society for Policy Studies, an independent think-tank based in New Delhi, India.
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