With growing regional economies and connectivity projects Eurasia is increasingly gaining greater strategic salience for India. Major General B.K. Sharma (retd.), Director, United Services of India (USI), India’s oldest military think tank elucidates in this interview with Aditi Bhaduri on what the region means for India and the challenges and opportunities it offers
Can you please provide an overview of the global scenario as we step in to the new year?
The world is witnessing a new cold war in a VUCA strategic environment.
Two mega drivers have dominated geo-politics. First, the Covid-19 strategic shock and second, the four years disruptive spell of the Donald Trump administration.
Consequently these disruptions together with other contributory factors have accelerated contestations of divergent narratives, interplay of zero-sum games, heightened trade, technology, and cyber wars, and a host of messy embroilment of grey zone conflicts.
We are witnessing a world wherein Covid-19 has taken a heavy toll on human lives, (with) the health infrastructure crumbling. The global economy is in recession, unemployment is spiking, socio-economic discontent in various countries is mounting, global supply chains [are] disrupted and international institutions weakened.
The geopolitics of Covid vaccine is redefining intra and inter-state dynamics.
Now a global crisis of this magnitude demands a collective response but the trend we are witnessing is to the contrary.
We have, for instance, seen the unilateral abrogation of the INF treaty and ‘Eyes in the Sky’ treaty. Major powers are taking antagonistic positions on volatile flashpoints, resorting to dangerous military manoeuvres, thereby posing risk of military conflict. There is a new arms race based on lethal disruptive technologies and modernization of WMDs and emergence of undeclared nuclear powers. Strategic mistrust is deepening and there is a lack of CBMs and conflict prevention and management mechanism. The UNSC is a highly fractured body, mired in the geopolitical rivalries of P5.
Pax-Americana is in tatters; US inability to lead the world in the midst of an unprecedented global crisis, the Euro – Atlantic alliance being under strain and unsustainability of the US – East Asia security alliance has seriously dented a US-led international order.
At the same time Pax-Sinica too is losing appeal due to Beijing’s violation of international law, signed agreements and treaties, resorting to military coercion in the Western Pacific and at the border with India. Wolf-warrior diplomacy of China has further impinged on its benign image as a champion of harmonious world and shared destiny of mankind. China’s much touted BRI is losing its sheen – [as it is] being perceived to be shrouded in opaqueness, debt traps, and predatory geopolitics. The ensuing geopolitical scenario does not augur well for global and regional stability.
What are the main geostrategic alignments in Eurasia today? And are any new alignments taking shape?
In Eurasia the strategic alignment between Russia and China has acquired a new dimension. There is growing cooperation on the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), tie-up with the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU), cooperation in the Arctic region, energy, trade, and in the military domain through joint production of military systems and conduct of major military exercises.
Concurrently, the China-Iran-Russia-Turkey-Pakistan strategic pentagonal is taking early shape that will impact the geopolitics of Eurasia and West Asia and will have profound implications on the regional balance of power.
China, in its quest to create a China-centric Asian order is striving hard to create a new economic order and security initiatives sans the US. The strategic magnitude of (projects like) the BRI, RCEP, Sino-EU trade deal are the harbingers of a new China-led economic order.
On the other hand the Indo-Pacific, which is a concept not palatable to either Russia and China, is fast emerging as the centre of gravity of a global power shift. The QUAD and new groupings like the JAI ( Japan America India), expanded G7 or D10 are gaining traction and posing challenges to the extant regional groupings in Eurasia, viz. SCO, BRICS, RIC.
What is the role of the US in the region?
Joe Biden administration’s main focus is to navigate through the debris created by the former Donald Trump administration – that is to restore order, formulate a robust Covid pandemic response, reboot [the] US economy , mend racial fault lines, etc.
Externally, the Biden administration would seek to reclaim status in the international institutions, fulfil obligations, renew the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, possibly resume the JCPOA, etc. But fundamentally the most vexed question is this: how does the Biden administration seek to address confrontationist relations with China and Russia.
There is a bipartisan view in the US that relations with both these countries will remain fundamentally hostile and therefore in order to maintain its pre-eminence in the international order the US needs to deal with the two rivals from a position of strength.
A similar position is held by Russia and China individually and collectively. Such an antagonistic relationship poses a major challenge for global and regional peace and stability and poses strategic dilemma for countries like India.
Now let us come to India. What does the region mean for India?
India’s strategic geography makes it a continental power, a rimland power, and a maritime power, much like China but unlike Russia, which is a quintessential Eurasian heartland power. Being one of the most populous countries, one of the biggest economies with formidable military power, India’s aspirations ought to be trans-continental and trans-oceanic. This geopolitical imperative needs attention and recognition from India’s strategic allies and competitors. Therefore, India needs to balance its ‘Connect Eurasia policy’ with its Act East Policy and Indo-Pacific Strategy. India is an important member of BRICS, SCO, and RIC. The purpose and mandate of these groups is meant to promote multi-dimensional strategic cooperation between the three core members – Russia, India, and China.
India would like to play a major constructive role in Eurasia but the ensuing geopolitical realities inhibit India from realising its full potential in Eurasia. The region is extremely important to India in terms of energy security, trade and transit, mitigating non-traditional security threats, combating terrorism, and strengthening cultural connections and people to people contact. However, the ongoing big power rivalry in Eurasia and elsewhere are posing challenges to India’s engagement with Iran and Afghanistan and ipso-facto India’s outreach to Eurasia as a whole.
So what are the main challenges for India in Eurasia?
First and foremost [it] is the lack of geographical connectivity and slow progress on the operationalization of Chahbahar and INSTC. Chahbahar axes TAPI due to complex global and regional geopolitics. Secondly, China’s hostility and [the] anti-India China-Pakistan nexus impinges on other core interests. China’s anti-India strategic behaviour constrains the realisation of regional strategic cooperation. Improvement of India-China bilateral relations is germane to an enduring trilateral partnership in Eurasia. Perceived marginalization of India on a future political dispensation in Afghanistan is another cause of concern. India and Russia enjoy a time- tested special and privileged strategic partnership. The two countries harbour similar world view, are strong exponents of polycentric world order, favor multilateralism and primacy of UN. However, some lurking irritants in Indo-Russia relations need to be mitigated through an honest dialogue.
So, coming back to your earlier point – What would it take to improve bilateral relations between India and China?
Peace and tranquillity at the Line of Actual Control [LAC] and resolution of [the] border dispute is fundamental to improvement of Sino-Indian bilateral relations. India has been steadfast in its demand that China should restore status quo ante at the LAC. The first and foremost step is to disengage and deescalate forces under the rubric of a new joint verification mechanism. Likewise, China must heed India’s concerns and sensitivities vis-a-vis Pakistan. The quid pro quo for one China policy is Beijing vouching for one India policy. China must reciprocate India’s honest approach and work towards a new modus vivendi with India. Only and only then can the bilateral relations be brought back on track.
And what are the “lurking irritants” in India-Russia relations that you referred to?
These are issues like Russia’s growing proximity to China and India’s perceived tilt towards the US or QUAD, purportedly at each other’s expense, [which] need to be addressed through an honest dialogue. Also, Russia must respect India’s sensitivities vis-a-vis Pakistan. Given the spirit of special and privileged strategic partnership embraced by the two countries, these irritants can easily be surmounted.
What does India stand to gain from an enduring Eurasian partnership?
Intra-regional connectivity, trade and transit corridors, creation of Eurasian energy grid, combatting terrorism, mitigating non-traditional security threats, environmental security, sharing of niche technologies, cooperation in the Arctic region and peace building in Afghanistan are some low-hanging fruits of trilateral cooperation.
Therefore, the need of the hour is to pursue a sustained strategic dialogue to build strategic trust, evolve a new modus vivendi between the three countries to amicably manage bilateral disputes, and thus paving the way for a constructive partnership in Eurasia.
Russia is believed to have played a behind the scenes role to diffuse tensions between India and China both during the Doklam crisis of 2017 and more recently during the Eastern Ladakh one in summer of 2020. Do you see a role for Russia for improving bilateral relations between India and China?
There is no doubt that Russia enjoys good relations both with India and China . The Russian top leadership is on record to say that they will not like to meddle in the bilateral relations of India and China. However, backstage, Russia seems to have played a constructive role during the recently concluded BRICS and SCO summit to facilitate bilateral ministerial level meetings between the two estranged countries. Both, India and China are averse to third party mediation in their bilateral disputes. Nonetheless, the goodwill of Russia can always pave the way for track 2 or track 1.5 dialogue between India and China, thus setting the stage for a high level political dialogue at the top leadership level.
(The interview is based on a presentation made by the interviwee at the Round Table “Russia, India and China Cooperation in Eurasia: Search for New Opportunities for Rapprochement and Strategic Partnership” organised by the Vladivostok based Far Eastern Federal University.)