January 23, 2022Sakalgeopoliticsinformation age

Major powers are extending their spheres of influence

India must project both its power and its values to shape the new world order.

Mint This is a pre-publication draft of my monthly Marathi column in Sakal.

To properly understand international politics today we must first recognise that we have left behind a rules-based order and entered a world of spheres of influence.” Going beyond merely defending their territorial borders, powerful states are asserting the boundaries of their traditional spheres of influence.

Over the past decade, China has effectively acquired vast expanses of its adjoining seas, various disputed islands and land along the Himalayan borders with Bhutan, Nepal and India. The question on a lot of people’s minds is when will China make a move to annex Taiwan?” Similarly Russia annexed the Crimean peninsula, controls a big chunk of eastern Ukraine and territories that officially belong to independent Caucasian states. In recent months, it has moved troops and declared that it intends to invade Ukraine, to prevent it from aligning with Europe and the United States. The list of states that have expanded their sphere of influence includes Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. The United Nations is a mere bystander in this drama, powerless to stop flagrant violations of the most basic terms of the UN Charter.

We have arrived at this situation because of the disintegration of the liberal international order underwritten by the United States since the end of the Cold War in 1989. For reasons of its own making, the US today is unwilling or unable to prevent China and Russia from breaking the rules of the game. Another way of describing the situation is that the global sphere of influence that the US enjoyed for the past three decades is breaking down. After all, what is the West” if not the United States’ innermost sphere of influence?

In any event, this yuganta is a dangerous phase. As the Ukraninian situation shows, some countries are caught between the old reality and the emerging one. Ukraine might believe that it is a sovereign state entitled to make its own choices. The US and EU might believe that Russia has no right to dictate Ukraine’s policies. But the Russians think otherwise: to Moscow, Ukraine is part of its traditional sphere of influence that must not be allowed to fall into that of the West. And they are prepared to fight to defend their interests.

Historically, such yugantas almost always resulted in major wars between the great powers, following which borders were redrawn, new states were formed and a new world order given birth to. In time this broke down too and the cycle repeated. If we have avoided massive conflict between the big powers since 1945 it is due to the mutual fear of nuclear war.

Nuclear weapons are a paradox. They reduce the risk of massive wars between big powers. But they also raise the risk of a global catastrophe should one break out. The wild card is an unintentional nuclear war. Countries like the US and Russia have their arsenals on hair-trigger alert. All it takes is an accident to set off a nuclear exchange. The risk of accidents is higher during times of heightened military tensions like at the present time over Ukraine or Taiwan. It does not help that the United States initiated the destabilisation of the global nuclear relationship twenty years ago by not renewing the Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty, and investing in missile defence shields. If Washington raised the height of its walls, China and Russia built taller ladders and better tunneling machines, in the form of hypersonic missiles and cyberweapons.

Given the knowledge that even a single nuclear explosion can be catastrophic for the world fighting climate change, no country is likely to intentionally trigger a nuclear war to satisfy its territorial ambitions or national pride. But let us not forget that Europe devastated itself with two hot and one cold world wars because a Serbian extremist killed a Austrian prince in 1914. There is now abundant evidence from declassified US and Soviet archives that show how close the two countries came to nuclear war both during political crises and accidents.

Clearly, it is India’s interests to avoid global devastation. New Delhi should persuade the world that a Global No First Use treaty is an urgent necessity.

But we cannot afford to stay out of the tussle: China is extending its sphere along our borders and is determined to shrink ours. This is not only in the subcontinent but also in maritime East Asia and West Africa.

We must prepare to deal with the challenge of this yuganta. Social harmony, national unity and economic growth are absolutely important: we cannot protect our sphere if our homeland is polarised. But we must also prepare militarily. Our armed forces are too focused on fighting insurgents inside our borders. We must invest in power projection. Our troops must be equipped to operate in foreign lands, waters and skies.

Given our current level of power, military power alone will not be sufficient to promote the national interest. We need to project our foundational constitutional values if we are to have influence in creating the new world order.

There are many more Sakal columns here.

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