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Issue No.: 573 | March 2015

Global Power Structure in Transition: A New Bipolar World Underway? Part Two

B. Ramesh Babu
Relations between nations are multi-faceted and there is always room for disagreements on some issues even as they work together on shared interests.

India’s Russian Link

In the changing global strategic architecture, it is most crucial for India to build on our equation with Russia. In the recent past, i.e., since the country’s rightward political/ideological shift in the wake of economic/political reforms launched in 1990s, India moved closer to the US. This was also the period of Russian retreat from the global arena. India allowed its traditionally close relations with Russia to slide down and stagnate. There was a quick succession of leadership at the very top in Russia for a decade or more. Consequently, the Russian side also let things slacken. It seemed that India was forsaking the friendship of a trusted and dependable ally at a time when the latter was on the decline. This was a mistake and Putin’s Russia has given us the opportunity to make amends. 

Prime Minister Modi grabbed the opportunity with both hands. He utilised the BRICS and G-20 Summits to foster a warm and friendly personal equation with the powerful and brave Russian leader. He invited Putin to visit the Kudankulam nuclear complex during the annual India-Russia Bilateral Summit scheduled for early December 2014. Modi went all out to turn the Russian President’s brief visit into an eventful revival of the bilateral equation. He declared Russia as the "foremost defence partner” of India. As many as 20 new agreements were signed and Russia agreed to build twelve new reactors in the Kudankulam nuclear complex. Joint production of advanced weapons and helicopters were announced. India would also buy more weapons from Russia immediately. Russia also agreed to ship huge quantities of LPG to India immediately. The overland pipeline was found to be commercially unviable. A multi-billion dollar deal was signed between ESSAR and ROSNETT, the Indian company and Russian corporation respectively.

In an imaginative innovation with vast potential, Modi declared that Russia and India will focus on direct bilateral trade in diamonds. Instead of addressing the joint session of the Parliament, Modi invited Putin to jointly inaugurate the World Diamond Conference. Russia is the World’s largest diamond producer. India is the World’s biggest centre for cutting and polishing rough diamonds. The annual exports from India are in the order of $20 billion. Alrosa, the Russian group of diamond miners, signed contracts with 12 Indian companies for the supply of diamonds worth $ 2.1 billion over the next three years. Modi announced the creation of a Special Notified Zone for the import of rough diamonds on a consignment basis and to re-export unsold ones. This is indeed a huge and "sparkling” new addition to India–Russia bilateral trade.

The revival of the multi-pronged link with Russia naturally triggered quick expression of displeasure from the US. This was not the time for "business as usual” with Russia, they remarked. America was deeply pained over the Ukrainian crisis and also because the Crimean Premier Sergey Aksyonov, who was on America’s sanctions list, accompanied Putin. I don’t think India should worry much over the adverse American reaction. There are many issues of even greater importance for India than to be upset over America’s policies – its double standards in dealing with Pakistan sponsored terrorism against India, for example. Relations between nations are multi-faceted and there is always room for disagreements on some issues even as they work together on shared interests.

Close and extensive economic and defence relations between India and Russia are crucial for both nations. Russian economy needs the Indian market for exporting their vast energy reserves and India needs access to the vast energy source to meet our ever growing demand. If the two sides work out a Rupee-Ruble arrangement for all transactions between the two nations, the foreign exchange hurdle of the dollar route can be bypassed. That will be a real breakthrough. Retaining Russia as a viable alternative defence partner and weapons supplier is vital strategically. There is another key dimension to our link with Russia. In our multi-pronged strategy of containing China, we also need Russia on our side as an extra backup in case of another war on the Himalayan border. Let us not forget that Russia stood aside during the 1962 war with China instead of supporting the fellow communist ally as expected. Russia needs China in facing the US and the West. But Russia also needs access to India for energy exports and weapons sales. 


It is clear from the above analysis that another paradigm shift in the architecture of the global power structure is in the making. As the world transits into a new balance of power, India should be agile to the crucial need to keep its options open. We are now a global player in our own right and there is no need to be defensive in seeking to influence global balance of power in our favour.

It is important to be alert to the possibility of the US and China reconciling their differences, even as we seek to move closer and closer to the US on all fronts, including the strategic security area. (This will be the theme of next article dealing with the very significant visit of the President Obama to India in January 2015). Top policy makers of the US know that there is an unseemly disconnect between its cooperative economic and hostile strategic/ideological policies towards China. This needs to be sorted out. If China decides to give up its expansionist designs in South Asia and Asia Pacific, reconciliation between the US and China should not be insurmountable. For example, Robert D. Blackwill, an influential foreign policy analyst in the US and a former American Ambassador to India, suggested Presidential level direct and secret interaction between the two leaders, as a way out. He strongly recommended that Obama and Xi should personally sort out the differences between the two nations. What is even more significant is the fact that Blackwill outlined his ideas along these lines in a speech before the China Foundation for International and Strategic Studies, Beijing, on 11 December 2014, at their invitation. He stated:

"Because of profound differences in history, ideology, strategic culture, and domestic politics, the United States and China have diametrically opposed and mutually incompatible perceptions regarding the future balance of power in Asia – in short, the two countries have conflicting grand strategies.” 

He went to add,

"Although both sides will deny it publicly, the main thrust of U.S. policy is to maintain its strategic primacy in Asia, and the main thrust of China’s policy is to replace the US as Asia’s leading power. There are those in each country who disagree with these trends, but they are in a distinct minority in both nations. This being the case, until one side or the other, or both, change grand strategy, which I do not foresee happening anytime soon, there is no prospect of building fundamental trust not to say a strategic partnership between the US and China. The agreements of the recent Beijing Summit on climate, military confidence building measures investment facilitation, high-tech cooperation and the visa convenience do not affect that deeply rooted and potentially dangerous strategic reality.”

Ambassador Blackwill, therefore, advocated direct one-to-one dialogue between the two Presidents to sort out the differences so as to avoid a conflict/showdown neither side wants.

President Obama is not as ideologically oriented as President Bush and the other predecessors in the White House. It is very relevant to point out that President Obama’s first foreign trip was to China and he took the initiative to invite China to work together with the US as the G-2 of world affairs. He asked China to play a more active role in South Asia. Naturally, India conveyed its strong displeasure to the top leadership in Washington. However, China refused to fall into what it dubbed as "the American trap” to make China the junior in America’s global hegemony. China sees itself as a global super power in its own right and a rival to the US. Obama quickly dropped "the hot potato” and hurried back to the safety of the established national policy of anti-communism!

Time doesn’t stand still and it is entirely likely that the US-China mutual perceptions have mellowed since then. In any case President Obama has not been a vocal critic of China’s abysmal record on human rights violations, whereas he was openly critical of the military regime in Myanmar, for example! Obama and Xi are ideally suited to take brave and innovative departures from the entrenched and frozen postures of the past. Obama need not worry about electoral politics anymore. He has only two years left in his presidential tenure and is literally free to do what is necessary for the good of his country whether it is politically right or not. After all, every President wants to earn an honourable place in the nation’s history. Obama has already shown that this will be his approach during his second and final term as the President. He forced much needed changes in the nation’s immigration laws through an Executive Order. Immigration reform is one of the most controversial issues in American politics, which no previous President dared to touch for three decades. Obama succeeded in providing much needed health care to millions of poor citizens in spite of the passionate opposition from Congress. 

The latest and most welcome departure from the past was his decision to restore diplomatic relations with Cuba. American policy towards Cuba is probably the single most uncontaminated failure in recent history. Antagonism to Castro’s Cuba is one of the long lasting "holy cows” of American politics. May be President Obama is not averse to put an end to the legacy of ideological antagonism towards communist China, another "untouchable” of American foreign policy! Such a breakthrough would certainly rank equal to the Nixon era "opening of China” orchestrated by the astute strategist and the then Secretary of State, Dr. Henry Kissinger in the midst of India-China War of 1962!

On the other side, the Chinese President Xi is equally well suited to initiate daring departures from the frozen and unproductive policies inherited from the part. He is in full command and all potential rivals are either eliminated or have "left” the field. He has also succeeded in getting on top of the military establishment. A number of the top commanders of the PLA were sidelined and a couple of them were even charged with corruption and publicly humiliated, which was intensely resented by the top brass in the armed forces. Furthermore President Xi has long years to go and is known to be a powerful leader. May be, he would also like to go down in his nation’s history as a great leader and a statesman!

All in all, we are living in interesting times in world affairs. Equations between and among the major powers of the world – the US, China, Japan, India, Russia and EU – are in for realignments and re-re-alignments till a new and durable global balance of power emerges.

If all this churning is prompted at least partly by India - a global player and also a worthy target, we have reason to be happy, I think! At the same time, we should be astute and strong enough to withstand the turbulence. 

DR. RAMESH BABU is a specialist in International Relations, American Politics and Foreign Policy.
He is a Visiting Professor at the University of Hyderabad, and
Scholar in Residence, Foundation for Democratic Reforms, Hyderabad. 
Formerly, he was Sir Pherozeshah Mehta
Professor of Civics and Politics, University of Mumbai.

Part One of this article was published in the hard copy of the February issue of Freedom First (page 25)  as well as on the web issue no. 572  






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