The persisting stand-off with China must make India rethink its relationship structures both in the Asian and global context. How is India geo-strategically placed currently? On its northern borders it confronts an aggressive China. On its western borders it is currently in a state of a partial thaw qua Pakistan. A melt that can again go back to a state of deep freeze at any point of time. On the east the strains with regard to the economic blockade of Nepal in 2015 still continue to linger. Bhutan is caught in the Sino-Indian cleft stick. Bangladesh, though reaffirming the centrality of India to its external environment, is both conscious of and eager to leverage the rise of China. Myanmar is in the throes of violent convulsions following a military coup d’état on February 1, 2021, that is having reverberations across the Indo-Burmese border as well.
Down south, the Rajapaksa administration in Sri Lanka still continues to bend to the Chinese wind. Relations with Maldives have definitely improved after Ibrahim Mohamed Solih ascended to office in September 2018. His predecessor President Abdulla Yameen foreign policy was most eloquently summed up by current Maldivian foreign minister Abdulla Shahid in the following sentence, “The mistake President Yameen made was to play India against China and China against India. That is a childish way of dealing with international relations; it will blow up in your own face.” However, Maldives’ debt to China that ranges from 1 to 3 billion USD should worry India, too, for Maldives’ GDP is only 5.46 billion USD in 2021. Things could easily go the Hambantota way. On balance it does not seem to be a very happy situation for India overall.
However, it is the reinvigorated “great game” in Afghanistan that could once again have a profound impact on the future of the region. As the Americans desperately attempt to sever the two-decade-old umbilical chord in Afghanistan, a deep void may open up in that country once more. Pakistan, Iran, Turkey China and Russia view this vacuum from their own strategic perch. India should also seriously evaluate what its hard strategic interests are in Afghanistan and then proceed accordingly.
Further west, the Saudi Arabia-UAE-Israel triangle is not going to have a free run of the Middle East and Gulf region as it did under the Trump Administration. President Joe Biden is seeking to pick up the threads of the Donald Trump aborted Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) colloquially referred to as the Iran Nuclear deal once again in Vienna through the E3+2 process.
The JCPOA signed on July 14, 2015, was further endorsed by the UN Security vide Council Resolution 2231, adopted on July 20, 2015. President Trump unilaterally walked out of this arrangement on the 8th of May 2018 and reinstated sanctions against Iran.
The irony is that none of the Second Nuclear Age powers are party to the current process as they were not to the previous one either.
For India, the Iran situation is further compounded by the epic 25-year Sino-Iranian Strategic Partnership agreement signed on the 27th of March 2021 that envisages a range of investments by China into Iran in fields ranging from oil to agriculture. Interestingly, Iran metaphorically booted India out of the Chabahar-Zahedan railway link in the July of 2020, citing a lack of interest by the Indian side. If the Iran nuclear deal gets reinstated it would further expand Iranian influence in the Middle East.
Iran has been the biggest gainer of the ill-conceived American intervention in Iraq and the subsequent developments in the region post 2003. The US invasion of Iraq allowed Iran to create the Shia crescent encompassing Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and Yemen, and embracing the Shia populaces in each of these countries. Anchored by Tehran, it spawns major surrogate satellites such as Hezbollah, Hamas, Houthis, and southern Iraqi militias. A rejuvenated Iran in partnership with China having its own strategic interests in Afghanistan and profoundly averse to the growing Saudi-UAE-Israel-India bonhomie would be something New Delhi should watch closely.
India’s great power relationships are also far from rock steady. With Russia warming up to both Beijing and even Pakistan and the United States also requiring Pakistan’s help qua the Taliban to action the Doha deal signed between the US on February 29, 2020, things look rather messy for India.
What then are India’s options to protect its broader strategic interests, namely, keep the Chinese at bay, guarantee that the Sea Lanes of Communication (SLOC) in the Indo-Pacific open, not allow Afghanistan to become Pakistan’s strategic depth, insulate India’s energy security from the evolving dynamic in the Middle East and ensure that the “great powers” while acting in their own interests do not end up acting against India’s interests?
One option that needs to be focussed upon among myriad others is to reengage with the European continent across the spectrum. This essentially from a strategic perspective entails an assignation with Nato (North Atlantic Treaty Arrangement) Conceived as a cold war construct in April 1949 to keep the Soviet Union at bay, Nato, over the years, has evolved both in its role and character.
An engagement does not mean that India should become a Nato adjunct or be designated as a Non-Nato ally by the United States. What it would mean is that India would be able to have access to both political and the military-to-military relationship with 30 odd European nations. Europe remains the neglected template that can still be leveraged by India to further its interests.
The experience and evolution of the Nato alliance over the past seven decades could provide interesting institutional pointers to New Delhi if it were to consider at some point in time in the future the possibility of turning the “Quad” between US, Japan, Australia and India into the linchpin of a broader Asian Nato.
Moreover, India’s engagement with Nato would also be a salutary signal to even Russia that, while India values the “special relationship of the erstwhile years”, it would not be averse to exploring alternative avenues, including alliance arrangements, if Russia’s relationships with China or Pakistan start becoming too close for comfort.
To the Chinese, the message would also be clear that its belligerence would only expand the hub and spoke US-anchored security architecture in Asia currently from Japan all the way downwards to Australia into a more multilateral framework with Nato as the foundational template. It is an idea whose time may have come....