Challenges of playing major leagues
When major players in the Indo-Pacific are looking for ways to counter aggressiveness and assertiveness of Beijing, Europe is also waking up to an emerging scenario: A China-Russia nexus where Moscow could be troublesome as a way of showing its ‘gratitude’ to a “no limits” partnership offered by Chinese President Xi Jinping
If one takes a close look at the West led by the United States, it would seem on the surface that nearly everything comes down to the war in the Ukraine and the sole objective of humbling Russia and President Vladimir Putin. But five months into the war that few expected to last this long, it is looking more than a long drawn out affair even if the international community is keeping its fingers crossed of anyone getting any fancy ideas. Beyond looking simplistically in terms of winners and losers, the sensible in India and elsewhere long ago made the point that there can never be a winner only losers in this war.
Still everywhere Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi or External Affairs Minister, Dr. Jaishankar travel, invariably one of the questions is on India and Ukraine as if to imply that this is the only stumbling block to bringing the war to an end. The other flawed impression is that if only New Delhi leaned harder on Moscow, things would be different. The prudent experts of foreign policy know that Putin’s thinking will hardly be impacted any more than Modi pressured on the outside for any aspect of foreign policy, on Pakistan or China.
Nation states are dictated by interests alone. No wonder the adage in international relations—there are no permanent friends, no permanent enemies; only permanent interests. And no one understands this better than the President of the United States, Joseph Biden. Two years ago at the peak of political campaigning Saudi Arabia was hammered for its human rights track record especially in the aftermath of the 2018 killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi and the Kingdom consigned to the heap of wasted states.
Biden maintained that Saudi Arabia has to be held “accountable” for the government there has “very little social redeeming value” and that the government had murdered children and innocents in Yemen. "Under a Biden-Harris administration, we will reassess our relationship with the Kingdom [of Saudi Arabia], end US support for Saudi Arabia's war in Yemen, and make sure America does not check its values at the door to sell arms or buy oil," Biden had said in October 2020. Today Biden is planning a high profile trip in the context of the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the oil and energy crisis that the West, especially Europe faces.
Ukraine can be characterized as a sideshow in India’s relations with Europe where for the last seven decades each side knew where the other was coming from. Even if the politics of the relationship with the European Union has been colored somewhat by the goings on in the Ukrainian conflict, individually and collectively Europe understands that its strategic compulsions have indeed become diversified to the point of looking beyond the imperatives of the Atlantic and the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation.
A former American Secretary of State John Hay once said that the Mediterranean is the Ocean of the Past, Atlantic is the Ocean of the Present and the Pacific is the Ocean of the Future and his perceptiveness has certainly not been misplaced. The exact numbers may vary but today the Indo Pacific waters account for two thirds of all container trade, nearly US$ 2 Trillions of American trade goes through this region’s waterways and so does 40 per cent of all Europe’s.
And suddenly there is the realization of the importance of China and the likelihood of the freedom of navigation getting choked, not just in the South China Seas but beyond. And at a time when the major players in the Indo-Pacific like the US, India, Japan and Australia are looking for ways to counter the aggressiveness and assertiveness of Beijing by way of the Quad, Europe and the Indo Pacific are also waking up to a slowly emerging scenario: a China-Russia nexus where Moscow could be troublesome as a way of showing its ‘gratitude’ to a “no limits” partnership offered by China’s strongman Xi Jinping.
Even before the Ukraine conflict Britain was drawn into the AUKUS and now thanks to a strategic pact between China and the Solomon Islands, others like France are seeing trouble in otherwise placid waters. Russia had always been a European and Asian power but post Ukraine the emerging order in the Indo Pacific is far more unsettling than existing or imagined. But the flip side to Russia’s meddling in the Indo-Pacific cannot be fully discounted either: in an effort to get China on its side, where is the guarantee that a Biden administration will not throw Quad members of the Indo Pacific under the bus?
Only the very naïve will continue to hold the view that India is still only a regional power having little stakes in the global scheme of things. That limited standing in the international system is a thing of yester years; and today if India is a recognized world actor only some of it would have to do with its blue water navy; a lot of it will have to do with the different facets that the country has come to be known for in the last several decades with knowledge powerhouse and information technology showing up in such areas of environment, ecology global health and developmental issues, to mention a few.
But whether policy makers like it or not, the country is bound to be asked a number of questions, many of them uncomfortable and some of them obviously transpired and from known sources. The track record of senior officials has been to answer all of them patiently, some of the replies being tongue-in-cheek of course. There will be many more pot shots along the way; and the best answer will be the ones that come with the conviction that the days of looking up to others for certifications and certificates are long over.
***The writer was a former senior journalist in Washington for 14 years covering North America and the United Nations; views expressed are his personal