The Geometry of Fear in Eurasia
India and the Logic of Non-Alignment
This is a joint dispatch with Tim Sahay.
What do you think of us? Are we your slaves . . . whatever you say, we will do?
In the weeks leading to the Ukraine war, this page had argued that Biden should make a deal with Putin. We argued that it was ‘in the US interest that the Chinese have to prepare for the possibility that they, instead of the United States, may face a two-front war.’ We don’t know for certain whether Russian neutrality in Sino-US relations — in exchange for ceding Russian influence in eastern Ukraine — was ever on the table. But that possibility is now definitely foreclosed. With the all-out Russian assault on Ukraine and the unified Western response, the only question now is whether the Chinese will reject the marriage forced upon them by the West.
Most analysts seemed to believe that China could be expected to see the light and go along with Western containment of Russia. Gideon Rachman laid out the case for why the Chinese would be well-advised to throw Russia under the bus: ‘It is hard to play the long game if you tie yourself to a reckless gambler.’ At heart, the argument is that China should be scared of the Western response if they support Russia in the Ukraine war. As the editor of Foreign Affairs, Richard Haass, put it, if it were to do so, China would become “a pariah.”
The argument is not entirely outlandish, but we were not so convinced. It seemed to us that we’re missing the obvious case to the contrary. If the West manages to crush Russia, where does that leave China in its confrontation with the West? China would be down a great power ally — one with an actual second-strike capability against the US. The increase in Western power and prestige (the perception of power) due to what is looking like a catastrophically successful exercise of the economic weapon, will hamper Chinese efforts to revise international relations in its favor. Indeed, precisely because the Chinese can now be certain that the West is committed to contain China’s rise, they cannot but view the proxy war as a zero-sum game.
China and Russia are taking turns in bearing the heaviest weight in terms of resisting US hegemony. This is a completely different geopolitical situation than when China was confronting the US alone. … With Russia as a partner, if the US carries out maximum strategic coercion against China, China won't be afraid of the US' energy blockade, and our food supply will be secure. So will other raw materials. It will be harder for the US to make up its mind in engaging in a strategic showdown with China.
If a war breaks out in the Taiwan Straits or in the South China Sea, the US will find it hard to impose nuclear blackmail toward China, as China's conventional forces are getting increasingly stronger to overwhelm those of the US, and no matter Russia supports China or remains neutral at that time, it will be a super nuclear force which is hostile toward the US.
Hu Xijin, Global Times.
Of course, the Chinese have to play a careful game. They will not back-off from supporting Russia. But they will try to prevent a rapid unraveling of relations with the Western powers, not least because alternate financial and economic arrangements will take some time to articulate. What is clear is that all-out financial war has concentrated minds across non-Western powers. In the aftermath of the Asian Financial Crisis of 1997, the Washington Consensus institutions imposed draconian disciplinary regimes on the countries in trouble. The erosion of sovereign autonomy was so severe that, across the world, nations began stockpiling hard currency reserves in order to resist Western pressure in any future economic crisis.
Given the scale of the all-out financial war, we should expect an even more robust response this time around.
With the possible exception of China, Western analysts have pretty much ignored the response functions of the non-Western great powers. But it is important to pay attention to the non-Western great powers because we are no longer in a world dominated by the West. Indeed, thanks above all to Chinese growth, the economic throw weight of the BRIC countries is now greater in PPP terms than that of the G7 (US, Japan, Germany, France, UK, Italy, Canada).
When Jim O’Neill & co at Goldman came up with the BRICs concept in 2001, they wanted to highlight the future rise of non-Western great powers and the opportunities and challenges that attended that world historical development. But the club was never a coherent geostrategic alliance. Located deep within the American hemisphere, Brazil was always the odd one out. At the center of global politics instead, are the affairs of the Eurasian powers. And it is here that we must pay attention to understand the ramifications of the developments since the war began.
India is now a pivot state in Eurasia. Before the Ukraine war, it was hard to disagree with the consensus view that India feared China above all and is therefore guaranteed to be a Western ally. After all, China is an economic monster whose economy grows by an India-sized economy each year. That calculus may no longer hold. In order to appreciate this development, we must pay closer attention to the geometry of fear in Eurasia.
Russia is India’s primary arms supplier and great power patron. Russia getting closer to China jeopardizes a key component of India’s security strategy by potentially putting its arms supply at risk. More threateningly still, India would find itself surrounded by three hostile nuclear-armed powers — including Pakistan, a permanently hostile state. As a frontline state in the West’s confrontation with China and Russia, India would be more exposed to the insurgent coalition than any other power. More than India’s trade with the two would be stake — India also remains exposed to Chinese military incursions in India’s restive northeast and Pakistani sponsorship of extremist insurgency in Kashmir and elsewhere. In other words, a hostile alliance between Russia, China and Pakistan is extremely threatening to India. Indian foreign policy cannot but seek to thwart such a hostile bloc from obtaining.
The Chinese, in fact, seem to want to pull India into the counter-hegemonic bloc. This is the only possible reading one can assign to Wang’s visit to New Delhi.
If China and India spoke with one voice, the whole world will listen. If China and India joined hands, the whole world will pay attention.
An alliance of Russia, China and India is nothing short of a Western nightmare — for such an alliance would militarily threaten the entire American position in the Indo-Pacific, from Hormuz to Okinawa. As of writing, this is only a risk scenario. The baseline scenario for India’s orientation remains a tilt to the West.
After all, making enemies of the West is also not in the Indian interest. In particular, India remains dependent on Western technology, investment and business relations. Ever since the early-1990s, the Indian formula for modernization has involved increasing ties with the West in general and the United States in particular. In the Indian-American diaspora, and more generally, the English-speaking Great Indian Middle Class, there’s a powerful pro-Western constituency which would hate any breakdown of relations with the West. So this is the needle that Indian foreign policy must seek to thread.
The solution is not entirely novel. As the world splits into new cold war blocs — which look very much like the old cold war blocs — the old Indian grandstrategy of nonalignment reemerges as an attractive solution. This will create friction with the West. But that is a price which India will just have to pay in order to avoid getting into a costly and risky confrontation with the Sino-Russian axis.
In other words, the answer to the question, do you want to contain China with us? is probably yes. But the answer to the question, do you want to contain China and Russia with us? is probably no.
One should not underestimate the attraction of postcolonial elites to charting an independent course. Not only can you play off one side against the other, with the rise of China, the counter-hegemonic bloc has considerably greater resources relative to the West than the communist bloc ever did. This makes it more, rather than less, likely that something that looks very much like the nonaligned movement will reemerge.
The United States will almost surely have to tolerate India’s foot-dragging on Western sanctions. The main problem here is secondary sanctions. Indo-Western relations could be severely strained if the Americans insist on imposing secondary sanctions without providing alternate solutions. Western scolds aren’t helping either:
If push comes to shove and relations become hostile with the West, India could be forced to throw in its lot with the insurgents. That’s one way to reopen the world question. After all, world order — predictable relations between the great powers — ultimately rests on the unwillingness of repressed states to challenge the power of the dominant states. The willingness of potential insurgents to reopen the world question may be dormant for long periods of time, only to suddenly reappear in periods of instability.
Given the perfect storm of high inflation, monetary tightening (in the context of high debt service ratios) and soaring energy and food prices, we must be prepared for an extended period of global instability. Global geopolitical polarization, taking place under very adverse macro conditions, will put even greater stress on relations between the great powers. It is extremely important at this crucial moment in history, then, for the Western powers to not overplay their hand. The unipolar world is gone. A multipolar world is here. Non-Western great powers can no longer be bullied into submission. Instead of moral grandstanding, relations between the great powers should be business-like and conducted with “noble gravity.” That begins with Indo-US relations.