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Time to choose sides in Indo-Pacific Cold War

opinionTime to choose sides in Indo-Pacific Cold War

It’s imperative for India to choose either US or Chinese side in matters military.


The Atlantic Alliance became the cornerstone of US foreign policy since 1945, with the consequence that Russia (then the USSR) once again displaced Germany as the prime threat. As a consequence, numerous technology control regimes began to get operational in the US and its allies, focused on denying dual-use technologies to Moscow and its satellites long after Moscow had ceased to be a superpower capital. The December 2018 incarceration in Canada of Meng Wanzhou, the daughter of Huawei boss Ren, indicated that China is finally accepted as having displaced Russia as the primary challenge to US global primacy in technology. Since then, US-led technology denial measures focused on China are increasingly snapping into place. Given the potential of 5G to suck up data through integration into activities related to a variety of human functions, it will not be a surprise if Washington decides within a year to block access to essential inputs to Huawei, in an effort to ensure that the conglomerate goes the way of Japan’s NEC and fades as a global competitor. As a consequence of US sanctions, even Vietnam has carved out its own path in 5G, as have Taiwan and South Korea, while India still relies on foreign systems. The standard assumption of the Indian bureaucracy while deciding policy is that “ceteris paribus” (other things remaining the same) will hold into the future, although in the field of technology, this will no longer be the case. India will need to choose between two rival universes of tech systems rather than be reliant on products from both sides. Given the rising level of disconnect between the US-led tech world and Sino-Russian tech, enterprises such as Taiwan Semiconducter Manufacturing Company (TSMC) will not much longer be able to source technology from the US while mostly selling its production to China. TSMC will need to find new markets and production centres to replace those in China, and in such a situation, India could emerge as an attractive destination provided both the Lutyens policy matrix as well as efficiency in implementation meet 21st century standards. In the matter of 5G, four of the Five Eyes (the US, Australia, Canada and New Zealand) have already blocked Huawei from advanced telecom infrastructure, thus far the only holdout being the UK, which is in danger of losing its position as one of the Five Eyes unless Prime Minister Boris Johnson walks away from the Conservative government’s earlier welcome to Huawei in the matter of 5G. Just as the expected  decision by the US to majorly sanction Turkey under CAATSA for installing Russian S-400 systems will have a decisive impact on whether India goes ahead with installing S-400 systems, the final decision by the UK on whether or not to include Huawei in its 5G basket is likely to influence decision-makers in the Narendra Modi government. The government is after all working at fashioning a close strategic fit between Delhi and Washington and will be wary of creating severe barriers to such a partnership, especially in technology and defence. Accepting for induction China’s Huawei 5G and Russia’s S-400 systems would in effect result in India’s longstanding policy of the Lutyens version of non-alignment continuing into the indefinite future. The reason for this is that detailed and sensitive adoption of US-linked hi-tech systems will be out of the question once such (admittedly advanced) Sino-Russian technologies become commonplace in India, the way Russian military technologies have been since the 1960s. Indeed, overwhelming reliance on Russia (then the USSR) was a prime factor behind India becoming a leading target of US tech sanctions that began to be scaled back only several decades after they were first introduced, a process begun by George W. Bush and continued by Barack Obama and Donald Trump.

Given the increasing contradictions between the geopolitical ambitions of the Sino-Russian alliance and the longstanding (but now shaky) primacy of the US, India and its neighbourhood will be a major theatre of such rivalry. In particular, both China as well as the US are likely to focus much more than in the past on Sri Lanka and the Maldives, both of which occupy pole position within the Indian Ocean segment of the broader Indo-Pacific. While there has been considerable attention paid to the multiple links between the Rajapaksa family in Sri Lanka and high officials of the Chinese Communist Party, what has not received much attention is the rising curve of contacts between the US Marine Corps and Sri Lanka. Indeed, the strategically situated island is on the way to become an important port of call for US Navy vessels transiting between East and Southeast Asia and the Middle East and Africa. While going it alone may be the declared preference of policymakers in the Lutyens Zone, the realities of relative capabilities make it imperative for India to choose either the US or the Chinese side in matters military. The choice of defence and security partner will also impact sensitive supply chain decisions, a matter that has long been ignored by policymakers still in thrall to the Nehruvian tradition of non-alignment. This is the policy that the Sino-Russian alliance has been urging India to remain committed to, while the US-led alliance has been urging its reversal. It would make sense for India to go ahead with, for example, the setting up of an “Over the Horizon” (OTH) radar system located in the Andaman Islands, perhaps in the manner of Australia, which already has such a system functioning from its territory. Japan too has technology that would be of immense value to all three powers in protecting the sanctity of sea lanes throughout the Indo-Pacific, a geopolitical construct that places India at a potential advantage but which is anathema to the Sino-Russian alliance. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has sought to ensure greater synergy between India’s private and public sectors in matters of national defence. Such moves need to factor in the importance of care in choosing technologies that ensure the country’s safety from hostile action. As in the past, this is a world where once again, two separate technological pathways are emerging and competing. The Atlanticist Cold War was between Washington and Moscow, while the Indo-Pacific Cold War is between the US and China. The two sides offer alternative buffets for other powers at the security table, and to continue to follow the a la carte option would be to forgo the many options available at the buffet table. In economic and commercial matters it is still possible to be “non-aligned”, but in matters of technology and defence, such an option is no longer viable. In the Soviet era, “non-alignment” in effect meant alignment with the USSR, just as modern day “non-alignment” will mean the adoption in effect of a policy course that would block any in-depth techno-security partnership with the US and thereby suit the strategic interests of the Sino-Russian global alliance. Both Russia and China wish to see the “non-alignment” of the Atlanticist Cold War period continue to be followed by India even after the start of the Indo-Pacific Cold War.


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