Tuesday, 29 November, 2022
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India and US must know the new Cold War is a different beast – China isn’t USSR

In the last Cold War, India had a US, USSR and China card. That has changed now – it can no longer afford to be a prized ally standing aloof.

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With the new US administration – and President Joe Biden himself – making favourable noises about standing up to China, New Delhi should be somewhat relieved. A new Cold War between the US and China will help deepen the US-India partnership and ensure that India is not facing China alone. But both New Delhi and Washington need to understand that the emerging Cold War with China will be a very different beast from the US-Soviet Cold War. This may yet be a problem because neither New Delhi nor Washington appears to be fully facing up to the consequences of this difference.

Most importantly, both India and the US are in a different and weaker position in this edition of the bipolar Cold War than they were the last time. The US is no longer as dominant as it was during the first Cold War. Then, it was the preeminent economic, technological and military power. Today, the US holds on to a significant lead only in one of these areas: global military power. But even this is somewhat less relevant than it was during the US-Soviet confrontation. Unlike the Soviet Union, China’s immediate objective is regional dominance, not global competition.

This is prudent, and though China’s ambitions are likely to expand in the future as it accumulates more power, Beijing’s focus on regional dominance gives it some advantages. Closer to its own territory, the military balance between the US and China is not as lopsided as it would be in the Indian Ocean or even further away. Sure, geography constrains China as much as it did the Soviet Union but that matters only if China decides to push its military well beyond its shore.


Also read: China’s economy and military can overtake US, but it still won’t become global superpower


A much more balanced Cold War

A major difference is that unlike the Soviet Union, China is an economic powerhouse, and it is closely integrated with the global economy in ways that give it great advantage over many countries. China has been using its advantage injudiciously, to be sure, and as the Cold War intensifies, the economic weave between China and the US and its allies will unravel to a large degree. Nevertheless, one source of greater balance between China and the US is that it sits astride a much more productive economy than the Soviet Union ever had, one that makes this Cold War competition much more even.

This also applies to technology: by the 1970s, the US was rapidly outpacing the Soviet Union in technology, especially consumer electronics. But China is keeping pace, partly because of its position as the global manufacturing hub but also because of its own ambitious private sector. There are early signs that the Xi Jinping regime is uncomfortable with the power inherent in free enterprise and it might clamp down, preferring to throttle China’s private sector rather than liberalise its society and politics. Maybe liberals were correct all along about the contradiction between free markets and unfree societies, even if they were wrong about the choices some States will make in resolving such contradictions.

We can only hope that Xi’s paranoia will fully play out internally in China and consequently weaken it. This will help ease the difficulty of balancing China’s power much more efficiently. But this is only a hope for the future: what matters in the short term is that the US has no great technological edge over China.

Thus, this is a much more evenly balanced Cold War, which requires the US to be more careful in treating its partners. It cannot afford to waste its energy arguing with allies about CAATSA (Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act) and other types of sanctions, or the deteriorating state of liberal standards in places like India. It needs its allies a bit more now than it did during the first Cold War.


Also read: Ladakh shows Russia won’t choose between India and China. It doesn’t want to


India caught in between

For partners such as India, unfortunately, this American quandary will provide no comfort. During the first Cold War, India had a Soviet card, and even a China card. That does not exist this time around, as India faces the brunt of China’s power in a variety of forms, from Ladakh to the UN Security Council. What can India do, threaten to side with China? This gives the US some cards this time that it can possibly play. It can easily reverse its earlier logic for supporting India to grow its power — which was that helping India balance China was useful to the US even if India would not partner with the US. Washington could recalculate that India has no option but to balance China, even without the US making any concessions to New Delhi. This is essentially what American strategists calling for an offshore balancing strategy have been arguing about how the US should treat its Asian partners, and it has growing support in the US.

India, thus, cannot approach this Cold War as it did the last one – as if it is a prized ally that can stand aloof and make others bid for its support. This put India in danger the last time also. But the danger this time is far greater because China, one of the two bipolar powers, is its neighbour. It is a direct, territorial as well as political threat, irrespective of how the Ladakh disengagement goes. India’s military is much more capable today and alert to the danger along the Line of Actual Control. And it may be able to put up a good fight on its own today. But whether it can hold off China by itself, especially as the military balance continues to tilt in China’s favour with each passing year, is questionable.

And there are other dangers too. Unlike the early 1960s, China and Pakistan have now been allies for long – “iron brothers” – with India as the only real glue that binds this alliance. In previous instances, Beijing had its own reasons for not militarily coming to Pakistan’s help, including its own military weakness and unpreparedness. But New Delhi will now have to assume, if only for prudence, that it will face both together in any future war.


Also read: ‘Shun outdated Cold War mentality’ — Xi signals China unaffected by criticism by West


A multipolar fantasy

Unfortunately, New Delhi still appears to be in the grip of its multipolar fantasy, something senior Indian leaders trot out all the time. But the world is bipolar, not multipolar, as even a simple assessment of relative power will reveal. This difference has consequences for strategy. Hopefully, India’s talk of multipolarity is propaganda designed to enhance its own position and undermine China’s. But good propaganda should seek to convince others rather than fool oneself. This is an unfortunate Indian tendency that New Delhi has not entirely overcome.

A Cold War is good, especially for weaker powers such as India, but only if it understands its relative weakness. And American strategy also needs to be shaped by its own relatively weaker position in this Cold War.

The author is a professor in International Politics at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), New Delhi. Views are personal.

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13 COMMENTS

  1. India does not need foreign enemies to keep her from achieving her ‘tryst with destiny’…she has a plethora of home-grown ones, all opposition parties, who see see it as their duty to oppose, block, obstruct and stymie all govt reform policies and initiatives.

  2. Until about less than two years, journalists and other thinkers writing about India’s defence strategy were criticising Indian Military’s two-front mindset, with the fond hope that China will now and then bare its fangs and do nothing more. Recent face off shows that China is a bigger threat to India considering the economic burden it has imposed on India. Only silver lining in the dark cloud is that the high altitude border poses challenges not only to India but also to China as the recent retreat of China proves. But, the Chinese are good at biding their time. The threat is not gone fully.

    Gone are the days when the US would fight others’ battles in their territory a la Vietnam, Korea, Afghanistan, Iraq. Since India is not a treaty partner, even the weapons systems would have to be bought at a high cost. India must get accustomed to resist China on its own, with its valiant armed forces to support it.

  3. India needs USA to balance China in Indo-Pacific. But India also needs Russian defense equipment to tackle China in Himalayas ( and Pakistan as well). So India as well as USA need to understand and accept this contradiction. India and USA will have may issues for disagreement and it will be a headache for India dealing with Biden-Harris administration on human rights, Kashmir and CAATSA. But Chinese threat though real, is overemphasized. A bullying China will meet its match with different countries coming together in some form or the other. India will play a galvanizing role in it. But a lot depends on how much India spends on defense, develops its own domestic defense industry and grows it economy without allowing China to have huge trade surplus. Modi and his team has a tough job cut out for next few years!

  4. For a moment I thought I was reading Global Times article, then I again went back and recheck that it was the Print and written by some editor with an Indian name. Anyway coming to the article, it was full of war mongering, where China doesn’t stand a change against US Army and equipments which India is getting, apart from Israel, Japan, France and other European countries. When will China stand against the combined technical power of these countries and even India,s own manufactured one. Coming to moot point of economy, as you tightly said that today,’s economy is interwoven with world bigger economies. So one side you will find China, Russia, Pakistan &Turkey, the other side you will find US, Canada, Australia, UK, France, Germany, Japan, S Korea, India, Saudi.Arabua, UAE, Israel. Now China is basically a manufacturer labour for these countries, what if post Vivid all these countries stop giving contract to China, it’s economy will bust in few years. China has grown at the expense of negligence of US and European countries,, who for the cheap labour went to China and China by reverse engineering and some strange tactics got a favourable Balance of Payment with these countries. China can boast of having US realities bind and good foreign reserved. What if US suddenly change their currency or says that they don’t recognize China reserves, it can be self destructive, but death warrant for China. What if Europe and Quad countries with all other friendly countries apply trade imbargo with China. There is a long list and many ways to counter China, as China has grown much bigger in size than she can handle herself. China’s language against Australia and Canada and Britain seems like threatening economically. If all these countries come together China is gone, sorry Xi is gone along with CCP.

  5. India if utilises US properly can become a greater threat to China. Strength of China cannot be concluded with just their financial position. It takes into account other areas like Defence and global support. Though their economy is growing on one hand, there are visible reduction in the Trade and support from countries like Australia and India. This will make things tougher for China to become a super power.

    China and US are working hard to attain / retain the super power crown. Hope, a third country finally takes the position and great it will be when it happens to be India.

  6. So long as world continues to the ill-gotten wealth in US DOLLERS, the Chinese will remain vulnerable. Chinese have a crude way of dominating even friends. The past year has done huge damage to China. The glass of the trust is broken. The clear indication coming from the reduced exports.
    New cold war is indeed different. USSR had a block with it’s satellite states who stuck around with USSR from second world war till 1990. China has ring of states who tolerate her despite dislike. The far away trading partners have lost confidence, so with no committed market beyond her own borders and limited export capacity in the armament market sustenance may come under pressure particularly with huge commitment in all the worldwide projects of roads and ports.
    If the money saved in cuts and commissions is deployed in capacity building in defense to become an exporter of arms we could be looking at different future for us.
    So long as China is not able to print unlimited money forex reserves of 4 Trillion may not take her very far.

  7. everybody knows the situation the author has explained. why does he assume that the think tanks in india and USA are not aware of the new situation?

  8. Chinese writer . It seems an article flashed as a part of psychological propaganda by PLA . It completely ignores or down plays — the scale and type of RESISTANCE offered by the Indian armed forces this time , which even PLA can not forget so easily and conveniently as the Honourable Professor from JNU wants readers to believe . One thing more on statement that China is an emerging economic power house and now onward it gives them a tactical or strategic advantage over America or India in high seas or on landlocked borders , is too simplistic observation . Both countries , individually or jointly or collectively with other countries which Chinese think or make ” UNFRIEND ” are CAPABLE of offering matching RESISTANCE . Lesson from 2020 s engagement are 1 Any misadventure by any of the conflicting parties can boom rage
    2 It has became practically impossible to change the borders with military might , or obliterate the existence of even a small country by big country . 3 Cost of future conflicts will become prohibitive for all parties to the conflict.

  9. China has a great strength in that Communist Party of China has great influence and discipline which is a strong bond. The leader relies on this for his authority, but if the leader makes a great mistake then he has to go but this leads to great infighting as there is no obvious candidate to replace him.

    This will lead to unravelling of the whole party. This strength is also its main weakness as well.

    Let us suppose that there is a military conflict with India, which will happen in the near future, mark my words.

    What if India is not defeated but instead scores a victory over China?

    Tibet will be free. But China will lose everything.

    In a way China has done India a favour which has changed our thinking that there can be no trust between China and India. Period.

    When the chips are down India can not and should not rely on anyone except itself.

    This is a important lesson Indian policy makers needed as they had blinded themselves to believe in fairytales.

    Let’s hope for all our sakes Indian ruling class learns this lesson quick.

    Jai Hind

  10. Nehru’s fondness for socialism was way different based on his personal experience of UK both in UK and in India. Current crop of govt. servants are frogs in the well with no foreign policy experience with Russia or China or USA. Cold war will keep India in trouble as before.

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