It is still premature at this stage to forecast the contours of post-Covid US-China relations. Covid itself is in a strong second wave in many countries, with its economic and humanitarian consequences yet to fully play out. The US is on the cusp of one of its most important Presidential elections in recent history, whose outcome will influence domestic politics, transatlantic relations and relations with both Russia and China. The recent escalation of China’s assertiveness in the South China Sea, Hong Kong, Taiwan Straits, Xinjiang and across the India-Tibet border – taking advantage of the world’s distraction with Covid – could cast a long and deep shadow on its post-Covid relationships.
From an Indian perspective, the most important arena of US-China friction is the Indo-Pacific. Our Russian friends do not like the term Indo-Pacific, preferring the Asia-Pacific construct, with its ASEAN-centric structures. But the Asia-Pacific is a Cold War geopolitical construct and its mechanisms do not include India. For India, the Indo-Pacific is a geographic space, not a strategy, as Prime Minister Narendra Modi has publicly declared. Ninety per cent of India’s trade is carried by the Indian Ocean (including most of its energy supplies) and about 30% of it crosses the Straits of Malacca. Its marine resources are important for the economy of our littoral states. It is in the vital economic and security interests of India to prevent dominance of any country in this space. We see China’s military and economic ambitions moving in this direction.
This is an area of convergence between India, the US and countries of the region, as demonstrated by the Quadrilateral dialogue (Quad), which additionally includes Japan and Australia. The Quad is not an alliance; it is four countries in search of a strategy for a peaceful, cooperative order, in which the economic and security interests of all countries of the region are protected. How to achieve this equilibrium of interests is still a subject of dialogue. India is clear that regime change or military means are not the objective. Other countries in the region are also clear about this. A cooperative order in the Indo-Pacific is what we want: it is a move away from a bipolar construct and towards a multipolar construct. This is exactly what President Putin envisaged in his concept of a Greater Eurasian Partnership, which has been brilliantly fleshed out in many academic analyses in the Valdai Club. Prime Minister Modi and President Putin discussed it at their meeting in Vladivostok in September 2019.
China’s aggressive technological outreach, with its own digital infrastructure, internet protocols and financial transactions networks and carrying 5G technologies on the back of its Digital Silk Road, have the potential of deepening US-China fault lines. In its worst form, it could create a global technological bipolarity that can impact economic sovereignty and national security of other countries. Eurasia could be the first arena of this cold war. Averting this is an important imperative.
India’s security calculus is sensitive to the ebbs and flows of US-China relations and their impact on the US-Russia and Russia-China relationships. The post-Covid configuration of this triangle of relations needs close watch. If the recent bipartisan hardening of attitudes in the US towards China results in a shortening of the US-Russia side of the triangle, it would have a positive geopolitical impact, which does not need elaboration among strategic analysts. This would draw from Henry Kissinger’s balance-of-power playbook of the 1970’s, though the situations are far from identical.
Finally, we need to give urgent attention to the dysfunction of multilateralism and multilateral organizations. China’s rapid rise has created what India’s External Affairs Minister has called a multipolar world with bipolar characteristics. With today’s political, military and economic balance of forces, bipolarity is not a foregone conclusion. Vibrant multilateralism is the best antidote to it.
This vibrant multilateralism has to be built on representative institutions. The apex council of the UN is paralysed by the sharp divide between its permanent members. This polarization has seeped into other multilateral organizations. But it also underlines the incongruity of a few players trying to dominate the global discourse. We see today a tussle between an international order prescribed by post-War multilateral institutions and perceptions of rules-based orders defined differently. From the perspective of countries like India, none of them reflects the current balance of political and economic forces and interests. Unless we reform multilateral rules-making processes to reflect today’s realties, we cannot prevent periodical dysfunction in multilateral institutions. This is the reformed multilateralism that Prime Minister Modi has talked about – most recently at the United Nations General Assembly last month. We can, and should, use the churn caused by Covid to work towards it.