What lessons does Ukraine offer South Asia?

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When the United States and Russia sit down for talks next week on strategic stability in Europe, a few words could derail the negotiations – “Ukraine” and “sphere of influence.” Many in Washington and Brussels view Russian President Vladimir Putin’s recent demands to be to let Ukraine fall back into Russian influence and veto Moscow over Western military policies in central Europe.

Moscow, however, says the problem lies elsewhere – with the expansion of the Western sphere of influence closer to Russia’s borders. While the Soviet-led Warsaw Pact was dissolved in 1991 at the end of the Cold War, the Russians point out, the Western military alliance, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, persisted. Moscow insists that the United States and Europe have broken promises not to push NATO east.

Although the idea of ​​a “common European home” shaped the rhetoric, Moscow increasingly felt like a subordinate in the new regional order. Over the past fifteen years, Russia has pushed back interventions in Georgia and Ukraine and has regularly challenged Western policies in Europe. Putin has now drawn a red line against the further expansion of NATO in the East and the absorption of Ukraine by the West. He threatens to go to war if there is no formal agreement with the United States and NATO on these two issues.

Whatever the nature of the settlement, it will have important implications for India and its South Asian neighbors. Asian nationalists denounced spheres of influence – or delimiting exclusive zones between dominant states – as a very 19th-century concept. It was natural, given that they had been the recipients of European imperialism. But the idea has a longer lineage and is really part of the framework to avoid conflicts between the great powers.

The Asian powers are hardly innocent when it comes to spheres of influence. As Japan emerged as a great power at the turn of the 20th century, it wanted to carve out its own sphere of influence in Asia, called the “Greater East Asia Co-prosperity Sphere”. Japan justified the expansion in the name of liberating Asia from the influence of European colonialism and building a new Asian order. The idea of ​​“Asia for Asians” has not disappeared from the regional agenda. This slogan now belongs to the region’s new budding hegemon, China. Although President Xi Jinping denies seeking an Asian sphere of influence, his policies emphasize the search for one. These include attempts to push America out of Asia and demand a veto over the security policies of its neighbors. This is in fact the essence of a sphere of influence – to protect its area of ​​interest from intervention by other great powers.

Some Chinese academics tell us to take it slow; they say that Asia, at least East Asia, has always been within China’s sphere of influence. They point to the so-called tributary state system that China ruled until European colonial powers landed in Asia. If Beijing’s rule is East Asia’s “natural state” to which we are now returning, the hands of China tell us, we should just get used to it.

India is also no stranger to spheres of influence. Although traditional Indian rhetoric proclaims the sovereign equality of nations and rejects the politics of power, Delhi’s regional politics have been anything but. While all states are equal on paper, what matters in the real world is the unequal distribution of power among nations and the policies to deal with it.

Upon independence, India inherited a vast sphere of influence in the subcontinent and the Indian Ocean from the British Raj who had dominated the region since the early 19th century. But an India divided along religious lines has turned economically inward and kept its distance from the West, and has struggled to maintain that heritage. But the aspiration never ceased.

A rising India is now trying to reclaim some of that influence in the subcontinent and the Indian Ocean, but it faces a newly powerful China that is rapidly gaining ground. The growing national identity in the region also makes it difficult to apply the traditional framework of regional domination.

India is not the only one. Many middle powers seek to build or rebuild spheres of influence – Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Egypt in the Middle East and the Horn of Africa. Australia pushes back the growing Chinese influence in the Pacific Islands. Fear of an American withdrawal has created an urgency for regional powers in the Middle East to expand their networks of influence.

Realists argue that the unipolar moment is over and that the United States can no longer rule the world on its own. As Graham Allison of Harvard University puts it, the unipolar moment was about America’s global sphere of influence. In the developing multipolar world, he says, there will be many spheres of influence.

This logic should lead to accommodations between Washington, Brussels and Moscow on European security. But the devil, as always, is in the details. Meanwhile, any peaceful deal between Russia and the West will inevitably come at the expense of Ukraine. At a minimum, Ukraine will have to come to terms with the loss of Crimea, which Russia took by force in 2014.

The West has imposed many sanctions on Russia and promises many more if Moscow invades Ukraine. But the West makes no promises about the use of military force to overthrow the Russian occupation of Ukraine. That the United States and NATO have no desire to fight Russian troops on the Moscow borders is Putin’s influence in the talks to come. However, if Putin over-plays, the long-term costs for Russia will also be heavy. This is the assumption guiding Biden to seek a reasonable compromise with Putin.

What lessons does Ukraine offer South Asia? If Delhi allows problems with neighbors to fester for a long time and acts in an authoritarian manner, smaller states will mobilize other powers to strengthen their strategic autonomy vis-à-vis India. Delhi cannot forget the importance of being sensitive to the concerns of its neighbors. The pursuit of a South Asian sphere of influence also requires Delhi to think regionally rather than just nationally on issues that affect the subcontinent as a whole. But if India’s neighbors go too far, say, by exaggerating the “Chinese card” against Delhi, they invite Indian intervention in their internal affairs. At this point, they might find that China can’t really help them against India next door. Remember that neither the United States nor China could prevent India from breaking their ally Pakistan half a century ago.

India’s neighbors cannot ignore the fact that Delhi’s stakes in the South Asian neighborhood will always be higher than those of China. And that Delhi, despite its massive and growing power asymmetry with Beijing, will fight for its interests in the region. The Russian economy, for example, represents barely a tenth of the European Union’s GDP at around $ 17 trillion; but Moscow organized circles around Brussels and Washington in central Europe. Moscow has shown that its interests cannot be ignored, but the cost has been high in the form of economic and political isolation of the West.

Spheres of influence are here to stay as instruments for regulating competition between the great powers. But they only last when the ruling power is wise and its neighbors cautious. Otherwise, neither the great power nor its neighbors will be safe.

This column first appeared in the print edition on January 4, 2022 under the title “For South Asia, a lesson from Ukraine”. The writer is visiting professor-researcher at the Institute of South Asian Studies at the National University of Singapore and editor-in-chief on international affairs for The Indian Express.


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