The 21st Century is popularly called as the Asian Century not without any reason! In 2050, three out of the top five and 12 out of the top 25 economies will be from Asia. Yet, the real story is not about economy, but about the geo-political aspirations backed by huge military buildup. To this, add the expansionist agenda and assertiveness on territorial claims leading to growing distrust and uneasiness and we have perfect ingredients for likely flare-ups. Is Asia going the same way as Europe went in the initial half of the 20th Century? What the emerging geo-political scenarios means for India and what options it can exercise?
The only thing we learn from history is that we learn nothing from history! Lets put this oft-repeated sentence to the current geo-political scenario and things that we have not learned from history.
Turn of the century, one rising power playing a catch up game for a seat in high table and others ready to play the appeasement card as long as they can avoid the confrontation! – The world paid for this with two world wars!
A century later- it seems China has replaced Germany of early 20th century and all other countries are back to playing the appeasement card to avoid the confrontation. The key difference – the cost that the world paid during the first two world wars would prove to be too small as compared to the cost that the world would have to pay for hegemony design of one country now.
An axis of autocratic countries is already formed. This group are asserting themselves and annexing territories with impunity (Crimea, South China Sea are just a start) with their huge military build up.
Can the world avoid a world war? The answer is NO as none of the countries has any control over this given tinderboxes spread around the world. Moreover, this axis doesn’t shy away from openly patronizing other terrorist sponsoring countries and despotic rulers as means of achieving their own nefarious designs. Moreover, history is replete with autocratic countries wagging war to divert domestic attention on internal issues. Both China and Russia have growing internal dissatisfaction amidst economic slowdown.
Is the world ready to respond to this threat? My assessment – neither governments & strategic policy makers, nor the businesses are ready for any flare-up leading to a full-scale war.
Although we see a loose alliance of democratic countries like US, India, Japan, and Australia emerging on the horizon, there seems to be a lack of strategic intent to confront and contain. Rather, their focus is more on maintaining the status quo. Although Obama’s announced doctrine was “Pivot of Asia” to contain China, he turned a blind eye to the Chinese design on South China Sea. The Trump administration is way-too occupied in internal issues and his high handedness attitude on the trade front is making the traditional US allies in the region (and elsewhere) to rethink their engagement with China.
What does it mean for India?
Given the aspirations and distrust of both sides– coupled with lack of diplomatic niceties to accommodate genuine concerns– war between two Asian rivals is a certainty. Whether it happens now or some time in future is going to be anyone’s guess.
Even if India wants to remain neutral and doesn’t want to start a war– it will surely be drawn into one. Consider the following scenarios:
- Indo-China Border Disputes: Both countries are so much invested- socially, militarily and psychologically- into the respective territories that they control that even an inch can’t be exchanged through zillions rounds of discussion. Moreover, China can not wait for all times to come before they want a resolution of these disputes to their satisfaction.
- China’s Support to Pakistan:Pakistan is a tinderbox with so much gun powder spread around (nexus with known terrorist organisation, ethnic internal strife, game of one-upmanship between politicians and military brass, constrained economy with huge unemployment) that without any provocation from India, it can engulf India into a war. China- the self-proclaimed all weather friend of Pakistan- with its huge investments into this country won’t remain mute spectator in any flare-up between India and Pakistan. On the contrary, if China feels that India is amassing enough in terms of economic and military clout, I won’t be surprised if India is provoked into a war with Pakistan on China’s bidding just to impede India’s emergence as a potential threat to China itself.
- Timing Element:The key to above two points is when China will find it opportune to entangle India into a war. Obviously, it won’t allow India to amass enough military strength that leads to an outcome not in line with China’s liking. With India acquiring military hardware at a break neck speed and all planned acquisition inducted into armed forces in next 3-7 years, India may find itself amidst a war in next 3-4 years. That will also be the period when the current Chinese leadership will start getting into transition mode for another leader.
What can India do?
India is not without options! The rule to follow here would be increasing the cost of any future flare-up to China significantly.
- Politically: India needs to shed its inhibition to join military alliances and rather increase trust and cooperation with all like-minded parties- US, Japan, Australia, Asian countries and Europe. While the UPA-II government lost precious years on geo-political strategic initiatives, the current NDA government seems to be moving in the right direct
- Militarily: It means sending clear message of intent to hit Chinese mainland with scores of missiles with nuclear and heavy conventional armaments. In next 3-4 years, India must strengthen its second strike capabilities to the extent that the Chinese leadership develops cold feet about sponsoring any military adventurism.
- Control jingoism internally:The popular domestic sentiment that calls for a war with Pakistan for any provocation needs to recede significantly. People need to be educated that the real enemy is China and Pakistan is just its pawn in this high stake game. Let’s don’t try to win a battle and then lose a war.
- Economically:While China is struggling with slowdown in its economy and increasing unemployment, India can surely play the trade deficit with China strategically. Rather than following the popular jingoistic reaction of boycotting Chinese goods, lets make them more dependent on Indian imports. Moreover, in the next three-four years India should facilitate more Chinese capital flows into non-strategic sectors. The more dependent Chinese economic interest is on a big market like India, the more the cost for China to go for a war with India.