India and Multipolarity - In the Years After the Cold War
0 comments | by Andrew Korybko on June 29 , 2017
In the years after the Cold War, India’s media came under the powerful control of unipolar informational forces which invested heavily over the past two and a half decades to deeply entrench themselves into this sphere. Just about every single mainstream news outlet in the country is favorable to the US at the expense of China, with some of them outright encouraging anti-Chinese hostility through whatever manner of “clever” and “convincing” arguments that they attempt to spin. Russia fares much less regularly as a topic in the Indian press, but mostly because it hasn’t had much of a presence in South Asia since the Soviet era. When it is mentioned, it’s usually done so in a positive connotation out of respect for the decades-long relationship between Moscow and New Delhi, though the substance of this partnership has greatly weakened and remains a rhetorical shell of its former self.
Indian media has always been hostile to Pakistan and vice versa, so this editorial mainstay can’t be used in judging whether New Delhi’s informational services are more unipolar or multipolar. The easiest litmus test that any observer can apply is in simply analyzing the differing attitudes that a said publication has towards China and the US. If China is presented in any manner as an incipient threat, whether due to its New Silk Road deals with Pakistan or its anti-US naval activity in the Indian Ocean, then that’s a red flag that the given news outlet is catering to the unipolar agenda. Likewise, if an alliance with the US is presented as the ultimate “counterbalance” to China, then that’s also a smoking gun that the publication cannot be trusted to provide an objective analysis about current events. The very few multipolar outlets that remain in India are alternative ones, internet forums, and social media, and they present the world in forward-looking development terms where India, for as proudly as it abides by its traditional foreign policy, plays a constructive role in cooperating with China in building a multipolar Eurasian future that counteracts the US’ unipolar one.
India is in a contested economic situation because its top export partner is clearly the US, while its largest import one is China. The reason why the US receives $35 billion worth of product from India is because American textile and technology companies set up shop there over the past two and a half decades by exploiting the country’s high-skilled and low-wage labor force. China’s inclusion as the top origin of imports with $52 billion is obvious and this has to do with India’s immediate proximity to the Asian economic powerhouse. It’s important to also mention that India imports $30 billion from Saudi Arabia and $24 billion from the UAE every year, mostly of energy resources and workers’ remittances (if that can be called an “import”), which explains why Modi visited both of them since he’s been in office and just got back from a tour there last month. India is also trying to heighten its economic engagement with Iran, both in the real-sector and energy spheres, so taken together with Saudi Arabia and the UAE, it’s predicted that imports from Mideast countries (India’s West Asian vector of development) will greatly outnumber those from China. The development of the North-South Corridor between the EU and India via Iran, Azerbaijan & the Caspian, and Russia will also aid in India’s overall Western geographic economic pivot by giving it a viable export outlet, as will its efforts to capitalize off of the Ashgabat Agreement tangent of this route in accessing the Central Asian market.
Looking eastwards, the Asia-Pacific region won’t by any means be neglected by the country, and the Trilateral Highway through Myanmar and Thailand will intertwine India’s economic future with that of ASEAN. Furthermore, Indian President Mukherjee recently spoke about the need to counterbalance China in this wider region, which can be inferred to mean not only in the hostile military terms that one has come to expect from India, but in the soft power economic ones as well. Indian-Indonesian economic ties are forecast to skyrocket in the future as both countries develop their maritime merchant marine fleet and make headway in integrating their gigantic economies across their neighboring east Indian Ocean seaways. East Africa, particularly the East African Community and its littoral points of access in Kenya and Tanzania, is another destination for Indian exports in the future as well. India is already Kenya’s second-largest import destination just slightly behind China and Tanzania’s top import and export partner. Taken together, India’s multidirectional trade vision is called the “Cotton Route” and it’s intended to be New Delhi’s counter to Beijing’s “New Silk Road”. The author wrote about the geo-economic prospects for this vision last year in an article for Sputnik, and it’s recommended that the reader peruse it if there’s any additional interest in the form that India’s global project might take.
What India essentially plans to do is move into all of the markets where China is well established, primarily in ASEAN, East Africa, and Europe, and instead of engaging in friendly competition with it, it appears as though New Delhi might seek to displace it out of New Cold War acrimony for rival Pakistan’s number one geopolitical partner. This will be examined later on in the country profile, but it’s again important for the reader to consider the importance of grand strategic intentions in assessing a country’s unipolar, multipolar, or contested status. India’s global economic expansion could be a positive and beneficial event for the entire multipolar world, provided of course that there’s no hostile intent behind. If, however, India wants to – as its President himself even spoke about – “counterbalance” China, then this creates an instant rift in the multipolar BRICS alliance and means that India is functioning at least in part as an economic member of the “China Containment Coalition”. In terms of scope and scale, India is the only Eurasian country that’s even capable of one day competing with China (the EU as a fragmented mess of states isn’t unified enough to be a singular actor at this point), which is why the US has such a deep desire to co-opt it in favor of its goals and turn its entire state potential against Beijing. India is still very far behind China in just about all developmental indictors, but it has the future potential of being a major obstacle for the multipolar world if it betrays the BRICS alliance and starts fiercely competing against China.
Where India gives off powerful mixed signals is in its institutional loyalty because it’s nominally a member of BRICS and is in the accession process of becoming one in the SCO too. India has played an important role in helping to build multipolar economic and financial infrastructure, which makes it all the more confusing why it’s rambunctiously flirting with the unipolar world. The only explanation that can be proffered at this point is the one that was earlier elaborated on in Part I in describing in detail the difference between economic and institutional multipolarity on one hand, and geopolitical multipolarity on the other. If one wasn’t aware of this principle difference, then they’d be forgiven for thinking that India was a multipolar world leader simply through its membership in BRICS, which unfortunately isn’t as simple of a case as the casual observer might think.
It’s hard to gauge the sentiments of over one billion people in as diverse and relatively decentralized of a society as India, but in attempting to make the best effort that’s possible, it’s sufficient to say that Indians have ambivalent feelings about China and the US. These two countries are the two most reliable contextual indicators that just about anybody can ask about in trying to acquire a clear picture of where someone stands along the unipolar-multipolar divide. While it’s true that the average Indian cherishes the Soviet-era friendship that they had with Russia and genuinely appreciates all of the support that Moscow gave to them during the Old Cold War, it’s also equally the case that a sizeable proportion of these individuals hold a resentment against Russia for not being there for them during the testy 1990s and early 2000s when the Kashmiri tensions bubbled back to the surface. Additionally, Russia doesn’t significantly figure into India’s strategic calculus in the same manner as China and the US do, so asking about Indians’ views towards the country is less likely to produce an accurate measure of their position vis-à-vis unipolarity and multipolarity. Another thing to keep in mind is that Russian influence in India pretty much evaporated after 1991, and although Moscow is still the largest arms supplier to New Delhi in absolute cumulative terms, not much else of its presence in South Asia can be seen or even read about by the average Indian.
Things are a lot different with China and the US, however, and the Indian population has been ginned up by their mostly unipolar-controlled mass media outlets into developing a sort of geopolitical Sinophobia. The overly publicized sighting of a Chinese submarine in Sri Lanka a couple years ago was manipulated on command by the US’ friendly information mediums in the subcontinent in order to hammer home the artificially constructed point that China is somehow a “threat” to India and must therefore be “contained”. Purposely left out of the mainstream hysteria is that Sri Lanka is located along China’s most important Sea Line Of Communication (SLOC) and in clear proximity to the US’ Indian Ocean naval hub of Diego Garcia. Beijing has a sovereign right to protect its SLOC in international waters, and docking at the friendly Sri Lankan port wasn’t intended to convey a message to New Delhi, but rather to Washington, which took note and eventually succeeded in seeing to it that former President Rajapaksa lost his reelection bid in a razor-thin vote in January 2015. This event is given such attention by the author because it’s the genesis of the misleading media-driven myth that China is a “rising enemy” to India and was responsible for altering almost the entire country’s view of their East Asian neighbor.
In response to the “defensive nationalism” that exploded after the docking of the Chinese submarine in Sri Lanka, Indians ‘naturally’ searched for a “counterbalance” in the US, just as Washington’s strategists expected they would. The intensified economic relations between the two sides in the 2000s contributed to the atmosphere of “feel good” relations that pervaded the bilateral partnership, contrasting with the “doom and gloom” scenarios about China that Indians were being force fed by their mainstream media. Increased cultural and academic exchanges coupled with blossoming economic and political ties made the US appear as much more of a preferable partner to Indians than China was ever presented as being, but again, these broad conclusions are only the result of a highly sophisticated perception management/information warfare operation against China that has been waged on the Indian mind. At any rate, it wildly succeeded in fostering the false images of China as an “aggressive” out-of-regional force and the US as its “peaceful” foil, and this stereotype was only reinforced when China announced last year that it will commit $46 billion to the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) through Pakistani-administered Kashmir. This proclamation received universally negative attention in the Indian press and contributed to the reinforcement of false geopolitical stereotypes about supposed “Chinese aggression” against India. In parallel, the US’ Pivot to Asia and its grand strategic objective of “containing” China became more attractive to Indians and reinforced the false positive stereotypes about the US that Washington was seeking to cultivate in ‘winning hearts and minds’ in advance of the Indian establishment’s pro-unipolar pivot.
Notwithstanding the heavy and subversive unipolar pressures on India, it’s reasonable to believe that New Delhi would naturally align with the multipolar world, particularly in practicing pragmatic relations with its Chinese Great Power neighbor. It’s no secret that the two sides have their fair share of disputes stretching along their shared Himalayan border, but this doesn’t mean that they have to be solved aggressively with one another or that any of them needs to call in the “Lead From Behind” assistance of a third-party actor like India is doing with the US. Prior to colonialism, the Chinese and Indian civilizations had never waged a war against the other in history, with conflict only erupting once during their brief 1962 border clash due to India’s insistence that China honor the one-sided and unilaterally imposed border that the British originally drew decades before then. China resents that India hosted the Dalai Lama and that it currently administers what Beijing claims as “South Tibet” (known as Arunachal Pradesh in India), but that’s not any cause for an outbreak of violence in the present. Similarly, India is upset that China acquired control of Aksai Chin after the said 1962 conflict and is Pakistan’s number one all-weather ally (crucially constructing CPEC through Pakistani-administered Kashmir), but again, that in and of itself is no reason for stoking hostility against its neighbor. Each of these disagreements could be settled civilly or indefinitely frozen until an opportune moment arose to resolve them. In the meantime, win-win multipolar cooperation between two of the world’s largest economies could revolutionize international affairs and restore the pre-imperial historical moment when both of them were at the top of all global economic rankings.
For whatever reason it may truly be – whether it’s the sincere desire of Modi’s BJP elite or that the Indian “deep state” establishment has been totally tricked by the US – India does not seem interested in this beneficial vision of future geopolitical cooperation with China and is instead pursuing what can be described to be three core tenets of its contemporary hostile policy. Rather than peacefully co-exist with China and Pakistan, India wants to “contain” Beijing, confront Islamabad, and conquer all of Kashmir. This analysis might be considered as “alarmist” and an “overreaction” by some, but in all objectivity, no other reasonable explanation exists for why India would partake in the series of drastic unipolar-oriented steps that it did all throughout April without being guided by these ‘principles’. The author comprehensively wrote about this for Peter Lavelle’s new online portal The Duran, and it’s suggested that the reader review the two-part article if they’d like to learn more about the specific details involved, but the general idea is that India, perturbed by CPEC and Beijing’s refusal to go along with India’s internationalization of the bilateral dispute that it has with Pakistan over Masood Azhar, is now on the cusp of agreeing to a de-facto military alliance with the US via the “Logistic Support Agreement” (LSA) and joint sub-hunting exercises. Due to the elite’s obsessiveness – whether out of sincere desire or having been totally misled by the US –in abiding by the precepts of “containing” China, confronting Pakistan, and conquering all of Kashmir, India has broken with its natural geopolitical partner and is dangerously at the brink of destroying BRICS and catalyzing a nasty Cold War with China to the US’ ultimate divide-and-rule unipolar benefit.
More and more, India’s political system is beginning to emulate that of the Western Democracies, including all the way down to the defining characteristic of the US’ ‘either-or’ rule. A sort of “two-party” system, or at times a “two-coalition” one, has even been taking root in India between the BJP and the Indian National Congress, and the 2014 election that swept Modi to the premiership had a lot of similarities to the way that the US typically conducts its presidential campaigns. Praised for being the “world’s largest democracy”, India does in truth have the largest Western Democratic-like system which is subject to most of the same electoral tricks as its North American and European counterparts, which makes it regularly manipulatable during preplanned cycles.
Relatedly, this means that the US can interfere in orchestrating a “legal” regime change every time that Indians go to the polls, though this shouldn’t be understood as meaning that every change of administrations in Indian history had the US’ hand behind it. Instead, what’s important to emphasize is that the US can play games within the Indian system very much like it does within its own and within other Western Democracies or systems very closely related to it. It’s tempting to say that India has a Sovereign Democracy, and while it does exercise sovereignty over its version of democracy, that said manifestation is very closely related to Western Democracy and isn’t as distinctly separate from its contemporary structural forbearer as the Russian or Iranian systems are.
There’s nothing at all wrong with that, but it just means that India is much more likely to be subjected to electoral manipulation than other countries with relatively more differentiated models are (although they too are of course targeted in their own way). As for how this relates to the unipolar-multipolar question that the research seeks to answer, it’s difficult to say, since it could work to either side’s advantage in the long run. For the moment, however, it catapulted Modi into his national stewardship position, but it could also be his undoing the next time that Indians go to the polls, unless, in a fashion typical of Western Democracies and very closely related systems like India’s (especially in the political cultural sense), a fear mongering event occurs to scare voters into supporting Modi as the “only candidate” that can “stand up to China”.
Like with any country’s elite, it might seem difficult to put one’s finger exactly on where India’s elite stand in relation to the unipolar-multipolar question. In the past, there used to be a lot of political elite that were close to the Soviet Union due to the close nature of Cold War-era ties, but nearly all of the on-the-ground benefits that this reaped for both sides have been washed away in the past two decades. Nowadays, the state of the Russian-friendly elite is largely a cherished historical memory from a fading generation, though it’s constructively used in bettering bilateral relations in areas of shared mutual benefit such as the arms trade. Also, not all of the Russian-trained political elite in India have retired yet, so they still retain a certain degree of influence over national affairs, however much this has declined over the past two and a half decades. Again, in what has become an important theme throughout this country profile, it’s more relevant to discuss the presence of Chinese- and American-friendly elite in getting a better picture about India’s unipolar or multipolar standing.
It’s not really known what proportion of the Indian elite are favorable to China, though it can be inferred that there definitely aren’t as many as when compared to those who affiliate with the US. Part of the reason for this has already been expounded upon earlier and deals with the generally negative or “fearsome” Western-manufactured image that China typically evokes nowadays, while the opposite is mostly the case when it comes to the US. Complementary to that, Indian elite have a greater chance of interacting with the US on economic, cultural, and political terms than with China, despite China being literally right next to India. Again, this deficiency of discourse is due to the dilemma of anti-Chinese distrust that the US has provoked in the Indian psyche, but also by the relative lack of temporal opportunity that China has had in positively interacting with India. The Cold War frayed relations between both sides and put a clamp on the bilateral exchange of their people, while the US wised up to the prospective advantages of “cultural and diplomacy” earlier than the Chinese did. Along that same tangent, it wasn’t until the mid-2000s and the formalization of the BRICS community that India and China were in the same mutually cooperative organization with one another, which ‘broke the ice’ between them and was supposed to start a new era of bilateral relations. The US didn’t use anything similar in its own experience to jumpstart its relations with India, but then again, it didn’t have to owing to historical circumstances and its much more impressive and attractive economic might in the immediate post-Cold War years of engagement.
In considering all of the aforementioned, it can conclusively be estimated that the majority of the Indian political and economic elite hold favorable ideas towards the US and might even have direct ties with it, while significantly less have this sort of relationship and positive bias when it comes to China. All told, it can be taken to mean that Washington wields much more influence over the Indian elite than Beijing ever could hope to do, and in the present geopolitical situation of the Indian establishment’s anti-Chinese hostility, declaring one’s close ties with China is “politically incorrect” and socially discouraged. This sentiment could either denote that there are more Chinese-aligned elite than is popularly thought (due to their public silence in this regard) or that some of the existing members of this ‘class’ have been pressured to ‘convert’ to pro-American supporters. There’s no way to definitively know the true status or numbers of the Indian elite that are pragmatic towards China, but judging by the Indian establishment’s concerted anti-Chinese policies (with the only major exception being in a limited multilateral context as per the BRICS format), it can be inferred that they don’t occupy anywhere as influential of a position in the country’s society and are left to the margins of decision making.
When it comes to the Indian military, just like its Western counterparts, it’s not a meaningful political actor and doesn’t significantly affect domestic or international policy.
India has long been thought of as a traditional multipolar state, but the research suggests that this is a very misleading description of how its government has behaved over the past couple of decades. While it’s true that India practices economic and institutional multipolarity in seeking to rearrange global trade and finance networks, it glaringly neglects to advance any sort of geopolitical multipolarity owing to the obsessiveness that its elite has in adhering to the three guiding precepts of New Delhi’s foreign policy – “containing” China, confronting Pakistan, and conquering all of Kashmir. Like the research explained at length above, the Indian establishment does not have to resort to hostility in resolving its neighborly problems, nor does it need to involve a third party actor (the US) in assisting it, though this is unfortunately what New Delhi has taken to doing recently. The geopolitical tension that India’s regional policy will inevitably create will shake the very foundations of the same prior economic and institutional multipolar advances that it had earlier made in concert with its BRICS allies, though it’s unclear at this moment to what extent Indian decision makers are aware of this or even care.
In examining India’s policies in hindsight, especially as regards its initial warming to the US in the late-Cold War period of the mid-1980s, it becomes more accurate to describe the country as a continually contested one, albeit one which prided itself on this status and purposely retained it for as long as possible in order to “counterbalance” all of the world’s Great Powers. To an extent, India succeeded for a while in doing this, as well as in cultivating a convincing air of multipolarity through its partial adherence to select elements of this global vision, but it never fully committed to geopolitical multipolarity, wherein lies the contemporary issue that the US has adeptly exploited. To be fair, India didn’t make too many pretenses of geopolitical multipolarity either, and it was through Russia and China optimistically giving it the benefit of the doubt and holding out high hopes for it by projecting their own visions onto their partner that the rest of the genuine multipolar world was largely fooled by New Delhi’s “counterbalancing”. The US, sensing a prime opportunity to weasel its way into South Asian affairs and ‘flip’ another major country to its side just as it did with China in the 1970s, encouraged its allied media outlets in India to orchestrate a prolonged anti-Chinese information campaign concurrent with Washington’s discrete outreaches to New Delhi. The end effect, as can be seen in the present day, was to entice India into the unipolar fold.
Taking stock of the strategic revelations contained within the research and the detailed overview of India’s particular situation, it’s most accurate to describe the country as being a contested one which has sharply turned towards unipolarity as of late. Calling India “multipolar” is misleading because it has never genuinely practiced the geopolitical iteration of this vision, nor does it seem intent to ever do so. It has always been a contested country which clothed its “counterbalancing” in multipolar terms, seeking to appeal to emerging global forces as a means of preventing an overdependence on its Western partners. The time has come, though, where the US has called India’s bluff and appealed to its self-understood geopolitical interest (“containing” China, confronting Pakistan, and conquering all of Kashmir) in order to make a major power play in the New Cold War. The Indian establishment might not represent the full wishes of the people that it presides over, but nevertheless, the “world’s largest democracy” was never expected to be fully “democratic” in that sense, anyhow. After all, regardless of the country, the “deep state’s” (the permanent intelligence-military-diplomatic bureaucratic) apparatus never totally takes into account prevailing attitudes of the population, understanding that they could be dangerously influenced by competing international forces in working against the “national interest” or conveniently encouraged to ‘fall into line’ through state-supported information campaigns when the time is appropriate to ‘justify’ a given policy.
Conclusively, the world’s longest-lasting contested state seems to have finally picked a side and is no longer “counterbalancing” between all the Great Powers like it had previously sought to do, instead throwing its lot in with the unipolar world and dramatically upsetting the global balance of power in the New Cold War.
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