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Op-Ed

Is India Aligning in a New Cold War?

Sreeram Chaulia, September 30, 2007

Left: President Bush shakes hands with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on March 2, 2006, after a joint press conference at Hyderabad House in New Delhi. Right: Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese leader Hu Jintao shake hands on March 26, 2007, during a meeting in the Kremlin in Moscow. (Photos: Raveendran and Misha Japaridze / AFP-Getty Images)

Even as Russo-American tensions smolder from Eastern Europe and Central Asia to the Arctic seabed, the secretary of state is denying the onset of a renewed Cold War. Yet, unmistakable signals of a counter-balancing effort by Russia and China were sent last month through the largest-ever war games of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (S.C.O.), a six-nation anti-United States alliance.

Some 6,000 troops from Russia, China, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan engaged in complex joint military maneuvers in Russia's Urals and China's Sinkiang, solidifying a phalanx that purports to be Eurasia's answer to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).

A notable absentee at the exercises was India, which has not applied for full membership of the S.C.O. despite Russia's entreaties that its entry would "lead to stability and security in Asia." The post-games summit meeting of the S.C.O. in Bishkek was attended by heads of states of three observer countries (Iran, Pakistan, and Mongolia), but India, a co-equal, could not depute anyone higher in rank than a petroleum minister. The foreign minister was apparently busy allaying leftist fears of a sell-out on the India-United States nuclear agreement. Such prioritization indicates that India sees potential only for energy deals, not strategic partnership, in the S.C.O.

New Delhi's no-show at the S.C.O. exercises contrasts sharply with its active sponsorship of the recent naval Operation Malabar that brought together more than 20,000 personnel of India, the United States, Japan, and Singapore to enhance "inter-operability" in the Bay of Bengal. India's invitation of three states that have anti-Chinese strategic orientations into waters that are witnessing Chinese naval encroachment has no ambiguity in meaning. Setting aside diplomatic niceties, this move was a strong message to China that its vulnerability in the Straits of Malacca (transit point adjacent to the Bay of Bengal that carries 80 percent of its oil imports) was exploitable by its rivals.

Is this enough evidence that India is aligning in the "new Cold War" with the United States? India's defense minister claims that too much is being read into Operation Malabar and that the other side of the coin is that New Delhi and Beijing are conducting their first-ever joint military exercises in "antiterrorism tactics" in October. India and Russia too have a long tradition of combined war games, and one such spectacle is unfolding right now in Russia's northwestern region. But interestingly, the India-China exercise in October will showcase barely 100 Indian participants. The current India-Russia operations feature a contingent of just 100 Indian soldiers.

Apart from the paucity of numbers, there is a qualitative difference between bilateral war games conducted on a one-to-one basis and a multilateral exercise like that of the S.C.O.'s. In world politics, a convergence of armies or navies of multiple countries has a higher significance than routine exchanges between militaries in dyad formation. India's act of distancing from the S.C.O. is in no way compensated by low-key confidence-building measures with the Chinese armed forces or drills with Russia behind which military hardware sales lurk.

The theory that India is fence-sitting in the new Cold War being waged between a Sino-Russian combine and the United States through their respective security alliances, the S.C.O. and NATO, has very little to back up in empirical facts. If not alignment, a definite tilt in favor of the United States is visible in India's acts of commission and omission. The die seems to have been cast, and India is turning up at the ringside with what it considers to be the sole global hegemon.

While not discounting the impact of the pro-Western Indian intelligentsia and the lobbying power of Indian Americans in the United States, the key to India's United States tilt lies in the belief in its strategic circles that American power is unsurpassable and supreme. In this sense, India assumes that it is cleverly "bandwagoning" with the overwhelming force instead of balancing against it by joining Russia and China. What is misplaced here is an acute analysis of American weaknesses, both absolute and relative to its competitors.

The continuing slide of the dollar vis-à-vis the euro is a barometer of a secular decline in the American economy, the base upon which American global prestige rests. The fiascos in Afghanistan and Iraq are indices of an American military that is unprepared for new-age guerrilla conflicts. The erosion of political goodwill in world diplomacy that the Bush administration has achieved shows that the United States' right to be recognized as the "king of the hill" is in tatters.

India's National Security Adviser M. K. Narayanan avers that New Delhi is yet to accept the United States as a "benign power." But intentions apart, is the United States still the predominant power in capabilities? As long as this myth is not shattered, India will remain tilted in the smugness that it is being pragmatic by courting the strongest party.

If India is a "swing state" in the new Cold War, it should not be tilting so obviously on one side. It should engage more seriously with the S.C.O. on one hand, and play harder to get and extract more concessions beyond the civilian nuclear deal from the United States on the other. India's justification during the Cold War for tilting on the side of the Soviet Union was that Moscow was assisting New Delhi in checkmating Pakistan. Is the United States doing anything of similar magnitude for India in the new Cold War? Who benefits from this tilt or alignment?

Originally published by the Indo-Asian News Service on Sept. 25.

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