Brahma Chellaney, The New Indian Express
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is just the latest example of “might makes right”. Despite claims to the contrary, the world has never had a rules-based order. Just consider the history of this century, especially the number of military invasions of sovereign states that have occurred since the year 2001.
International law is powerful against the powerless, but powerless against the powerful. Both the Russian invasion and the West’s no-holds-barred retaliatory economic war against Russia, including practically expelling it from the Western-led financial order, mock a rules-based order. While Russia’s aggression is violating Ukraine’s territorial sovereignty, the West’s economic warfare is violating Russia’s economic sovereignty.
Yet this conflict holds global implications, with the potential to remake our world, including spawning the polarization of both the world economy and international politics.
As a new Cold War dawns, the US appears returning to a “with us or against us” approach. This promises to bring countries that take an objective and balanced view under intense pressure. It is also likely to complicate, if not strain, American ties with countries that insist on remaining neutral or taking a more nuanced approach than Washington’s black-and-white portrayal of the situation.
In echoes of a familiar Manichaean logic, US President Joe Biden’s administration is seeking to prod India to be on America’s side against Russia by implicitly asking, “Are you with us or against us?”
Team Biden has bristled at India abstaining from the United Nations votes to condemn Moscow, including at the Security Council on February 25 when Russia vetoed a US-sponsored resolution deploring the Russian invasion as a violation of the UN Charter. India, however, has implicitly criticized Russia’s abandonment of the path of diplomacy and repeatedly called for an end to all violence.
According to the US-based news website Axios, the State Department has recalled a strongly-worded cable to American embassies instructing them to inform India and the United Arab Emirates that their neutral stance on Ukraine put them “in Russia’s camp”. US diplomacy has a record of using media “leaks” to convey messages or warnings. In 1998, to spoil India’s ties with China, the White House leaked Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s letter to President Bill Clinton about the Indian nuclear tests.
The Axios story ended by saying that India “has faced allegations — rarely discussed by the US in public — of democratic backsliding and repression of religious minorities.” The implication is that, unless New Delhi falls in line, the Biden administration could start discussing such allegations in public.
US pressure has already compelled the UAE to reverse course. After abstaining in the Security Council, it voted in support of the March 2 non-binding resolution in the General Assembly condemning Russia. However, 35 countries abstained on the General Assembly resolution, including all of India’s major neighbours, while a further 11 didn’t vote at all.
Here’s the paradox: No head of a Western government has condemned China’s nearly 23-month-long border aggression against India or even urged Beijing to pull back the nearly 200,000 troops it has massed along the Himalayan frontier in violation of binding bilateral accords. Yet the Western bloc demands that India be firmly on its side over the Russian aggression against Ukraine, which is a member of neither NATO nor the European Union.
When Donald Trump was the US president, his top officials, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien, regularly blasted China’s aggression against India, calling it “incredibly aggressive action”, “unacceptable behaviour” and part of a “clear and intensifying pattern of bullying”.
But the Biden administration, having placed outreach to Beijing as a high priority, has been wary of publicly supporting India against the Chinese aggression. Biden hasn’t uttered a word on that aggression. Indeed, Biden’s recently unveiled “Indo-Pacific Strategy” refers to China’s military actions against India since 2020 not as “aggression” but in neutral language — as “the conflict along the Line of Actual Control with India”.
Even in the India-Pakistan context, Team Biden isn’t firmly on India’s side. It has hedged its bets by retaining Pakistan as a “major non-NATO ally”, despite America’s humiliating defeat in Afghanistan at the hands of Pakistan-backed Taliban terrorists. Biden’s failure to impose any penalties on Pakistan also explains why that country is still missing from America’s list of state sponsors of terrorism.
Yet now Team Biden demands that India side with the US against Russia over Ukraine, which historically has been viewed by Moscow as its strategic buffer. Its unstated message to India is: “Do as I say, not as I do”.
India’s measured response to the Russian aggression enjoys bipartisan support at home. For India, the US has increasingly become an important strategic partner. But Moscow, which rescued India half a dozen times by vetoing UN Security Council resolutions over the decades, remains an equally important friend.
Had India voted with the Western bloc to condemn Russia, it would have burned its bridges with a country that remains a critical source of weapons and military technology in projects ranging from the Brahmos missile to nuclear submarines. To help shore up India’s defences against China, Russia has advanced the delivery of its S-400 air and anti-missile system.
The US values its strategic autonomy. So should India. Undermining ties with Moscow would make India dependent on America, whose unpredictability is legendary.
The US is already bagging billions of dollars worth of Indian arms contracts every year. Yet it is working to make India its sole arms client, including by seeking to leverage its domestic law — the 2017 Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) — to downgrade Indian defence ties with Moscow. Given the advent of the new Cold War, it is likely to step up that effort.
India now holds more annual military exercises with America than any other country. The US has already overtaken Russia as the largest arms seller to India. New Delhi wishes to further deepen its ties with Washington. But such cooperation cannot be exclusionary.
A “with us or against us” approach that seeks to compel India to make a choice between the US and Russia will only bring the blossoming Indo-American relationship under strain.
Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and the author of nine books, including the award-winning “Water: Asia’s New Battleground” (Georgetown University Press).