Over the last decade, there was much talk in foreign policy circles of a new Cold War. Many observers predicted a return to the type of bipolar superpower contest witnessed between 1945 and 1991, with China taking the place of the erstwhile Soviet Union. Others countered that the world is fundamentally different today. The United States (US) and China’s economies are deeply interdependent and the latter is enmeshed in a web of economic networks and multilateral institutions, making it much less likely that the international order will split into rival blocs.
Neither side of this debate fully accounted for one actor: Russia. Great powers do not vanish overnight. It was evidently a mistake to assume that post-Cold War Russia would be a relatively marginal player in world politics.
A new Cold War may well be upon us, but not in the way most imagined. Russia’s war in Ukraine, Beijing’s implicit support for Moscow, and the remarkable unification of the West have reintroduced the possibility of a bifurcated world. The ability of the West to cut Russia off from global economic networks reinforces this division.
These are far from ideal circumstances for India, which has, over the last three decades, pursued a diverse range of partnerships as a way of preserving strategic autonomy, or maximum options in its foreign relations. Strategic autonomy has allowed India to grow by transcending geopolitical cleavages. For example, China is India’s largest source of imports, the US its largest buyer of exports, Russia its primary defence supplier, Iraq and Saudi Arabia its top oil suppliers, and Qatar its top supplier of natural gas.
Strategic autonomy is hard to maintain in an increasingly polarised world. India risks alienating the West — or worse, running afoul of sanctions likely to persist in great measure at least until Vladimir Putin is in power — by buying Russian weapons and oil. Similarly, India risks provoking China (and now Russia) through its increasingly close relationships with the US, Japan, Australia, and Europe. Many have also argued that Russia, weakened by war and sanctions, will become China’s vassal and undermine India by withholding defence supplies in a future Sino-Indian conflict.
India’s response to Cold War bipolarity was to be non-aligned, whereby diplomatic activism compensated for material weakness. However, though it was overlaid with Nehruvian post-colonialism, non-alignment was essentially the pursuit of enlightened self-interest, i.e., policymaking based on India’s interests alone, instead of serving a particular ideology or bloc. Strategic autonomy can thus be considered non-alignment sans moralism, and still holds significant potential to help India pursue its great-power ambitions, today, from a position of relative strength.
Several factors suggest this. First, although Russia may become dependent on China, no great power — that too one with thousands of nuclear warheads, a permanent United Nations Security Council seat, and a strong desire to reclaim imperial glory — tolerates subordination for long. Russia is already concerned about its power asymmetry with China, as well as China’s increasing inroads, literal and metaphorical, in Central Asia. If Russia reacted negatively to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization knocking on its European door, it will hardly sit idly by while China begins to do the same in Asia. Therefore, as Russia’s largest arms buyer accounting for one-third of its export market, India will possess significant influence as a counterweight in Moscow’s China policy.
Second, as China is learning, a declining great power partner given to delusions of grandeur and military aggression is more of a liability than an asset. Unlike Russia, China does not desire to upend the US-led international order so much as control vital portions of it and be fully recognised as an equal of the US. Beijing will also be careful not to instigate a financial war with the West by extending substantial assistance to Russia, a country that only accounts for 2% of China’s total trade. Thus, during the current crisis, China has reportedly denied or deferred military assistance, access to yuan reserves, exchange rate support for the ruble, and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank investment for Russia. The actual limits of the “no limits” China-Russia relationship will not resolve Russia’s predicament, leaving room for India to act as an honest broker between Russia and the West.
Third, and finally, as long as China’s actions remain a major concern in the Indo-Pacific, India will be a vital part of the West’s strategy. Although some analysts argued that India’s unwillingness to publicly criticise Russia for invading Ukraine would alienate the West, India’s Quad partners soon agreed that individual approaches may vary. The US officially admitted its tolerance for India’s “distinct” relationship with Russia. In a further sign of India’s value to its strategic partners, on his visit to India on March 19, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida announced a five-year investment package worth $42 billion.
Ultimately, each side of the debate over the new Cold War is partially correct. The world is deeply interdependent but also increasingly polarised, and will retain both features going forward. While observers may continue to emphasise India’s dependence or constraints on this or that front, Indian policymakers themselves have adroitly navigated this complex terrain so far. If anything, the coming world order will call for greater diplomatic skill and foresight. India has proven historical reserves of both, and remains structurally well-placed to navigate the new geopolitics.
Rohan Mukherjee is an assistant professor of political science at Yale-NUS College The views expressed are personal