India’s Ukraine ‘challenge’
The standoff between Russia and NATO allies over Ukraine has raised questions over how India should respond to this development and the multiple geopolitical implications that flow from it. These responses may need to be shaped by perceptions of the US-China dynamic among the principal actors in this conflict. Both Russia and China appear to believe that the US has diminished economic and military capabilities and, more importantly, has lost its “will to power”. They see the domestic political polarisation in the US, the less than coherent response to the pandemic, and the chaotic withdrawal of US and NATO forces from Afghanistan in 2021 as proof of that country’s relative decline, thereby creating opportunities for Beijing and Moscow to pursue their respective revisionist agendas with greater vigour. For China this includes the reunion, by force if necessary, of Taiwan. For Russia it is to assert its predominance in what it describes as its “near neighbourhood” Eastern Europe and Central Asia. The current conflict over Ukraine is one symptom of the tensions created by these ambitions. Though it is difficult to predict outcomes, these unfolding events have major implications for India.
Should China be able to achieve the reunification of Taiwan, without a military response from the US and East Asian allies, the geopolitical landscape in the Indo-Pacific will change dramatically, significantly increasing Chinese power and influence in the region and heightening the Chinese threat to India. Having failed to deter the unilateral assertion of force by China, the Quad may lose its relevance as a countervailing grouping. A Chinese-led Asian order may become a reality, and India will have to reassess its strategy to deal with the China challenge. With respect to US-Russia relations, if a Russian attack against Ukraine elicits only economic sanctions and political condemnation, it would be difficult to sustain the credibility of the US in particular, and the West in general.
India’s assessment all along has been that while Russia and China are in a close tactical alliance, their long-term interests do not necessarily converge. If Russia’s “near neighbourhood” is what may be called a “core” interest, then that is being threatened not by the US or the West but by the rapid expansion of Chinese economic and political influence in the region. It is also possible that the US may see its global interests better served by coming to an overall strategic understanding with China and concentrate on what is of vital interest to it —and has been for a long time — of securing its European flank. It may, therefore, choose to pivot back to Europe, conceding Chinese leadership of the Asian order. India’s interests will become collateral damage in this eventuality. This possibility should always be kept in mind and must be part of New Delhi’s strategic calculations.
These geopolitical transitions also underline the compelling reality that India’s options will increase only if the country’s economic and military capabilities multiply at a rapid and sustainable pace, shrinking the power gap with China. Achieving this will require political leadership, a focus on getting India back to a higher growth trajectory and engaged in astute and agile diplomacy. China’s economy is slowing, its demographics are turning adverse, and its politics continues to be brittle and ideologically oriented. China’s domestic challenges may give India a potential breather and the time to revamp both economic strategy as well as foreign policy.