The meanest trap to fall into is to begin with the assumption that once we have seen hell, we are bound for heaven. End-2020 mass-produced inestimable variations on the theme of the ‘worst year’. While it doesn’t necessarily alter the discourse, a little perspective can always set the record straight. It’s not ironic that somewhere in the great beyond, Fernand Braudel is smiling his sad, old man’s smile. Let us absolve ourselves thus: We didn’t miss the penumbra of the pandemic in January 2020. We just couldn’t guess how far its umbra would stretch. Moreover, much of what went on in the power play on the map still stuck to patterns of predictability and held course, despite sharp twists, awkward turns and sudden bursts of speed.
Which is why 2021, the Year of the Ox (strength and stubbornness), ought to consolidate the Great Gains of China in 2020, the Year of the Rat (good fortune). The ox also inspires confidence.
Notice how, with an eye on the clock ticking away to New Year’s Eve, the European Union (EU) caved. Before that “geopolitical coup”, as one China watcher called it, Beijing had signed and sealed the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) with 14 other Indo-Pacific countries, including Australia, on November 15th. The EU’s U-turn, after spending most of 2020 growing a spine—helped undoubtedly by public opinion in most developed countries that had turned decidedly anti-China—makes the job more difficult for the incoming US administration. On paper, China’s investment agreement does not amount to much given the inroads Chinese companies have already made in Europe. But Beijing sees it as a diplomatic victory since it seeks to pre-empt any effort Joe Biden might make in trying to build a multilateral coalition of democracies to corner Beijing.
Reposing faith in the likelihood of Biden taking—and sustaining—a tough stand on China seems, however, to be the prerogative of the partisan, mainstream media in the US. Rather, of some of their columnists and talking heads. It’s too soon to forget the president-elect’s lifelong proximity to the myth of China’s peaceful rise and the characters thereof, to say nothing of his son Hunter’s deep dealings on Xi Jinping’s turf. 2021 is hinged on the new administration set to take charge on January 20th and the new president’s primary job would be at home. Biden would be challenged to meet America’s fiscal crisis, even if Republicans on the Hill, in their competitive haste to shed Trumpism, cooperate. That crisis is the biggest since the Great Depression. When one adds the pandemic, it doesn’t surprise that few experts, and fewer ordinary Americans, have time for foreign policy. Beijing, meanwhile, began the year as it ended the last one—walking away with its successful exploitation of the transition circus in Washington.
None of this augurs well for India. The US-China cold war predated the presidency of Donald Trump. Where Trump made a difference was in taking the fight to the Chinese leadership and getting in its face. But as with much of what he did abroad, even sound policy was sold unsoundly, or not at all. One of the givens for New Delhi through most of the Trump years was the no-questions-asked support from Washington in its geopolitical wrangle with China and the few-questions-asked latitude on domestic game-changers. More than the individual in the White House, it’s the convergence of the volubility of the Democratic left and what is about to become a fully Democrat-controlled, vengeful Congress—Capitol Hill was actually being stormed by pro-Trump protestors at the time of going to press—disproportionately swayed by the same left of the party, that could narrow a Democratic administration’s room for manoeuvre. While Delhi doesn’t quite need to care about Justin Trudeau, DC is another matter. A Democratic administration, riding on the sole ticket of undoing Trump, could take that task too literally and extend it to every sphere.
While every other strategic concern in Delhi would be eclipsed by the change of guard in Washington in 2021, South Block suddenly does not seem to have too many big friends or reliable, sizeable buddies. Shinzo Abe is gone. Trade-battered Australia, having braved its own return to the Quad, has just got a trade-off from China for joining the RCEP and may again become a hesitant partner in the maritime and naval domain. What’s more, the Quad was resurrected thanks largely to Trump. Already, ‘Asia-Pacific’ has returned to the media literature with a vengeance. The UK, not accounting for much strategically in the Indian Ocean Region, will spend a long time looking in the mirror. On the other hand, Messrs Macron and Merkel have just taken the fight out of the Continent. The ‘illiberal democracies’ in Eastern Europe, of course, never wanted to believe the Belt and Road Initiative posed a mid to long-term threat of neocolonisation with Chinese characteristics. Closer home, the RCEP has reaffirmed Beijing as master of the Indo-Pacific even as the South China Sea shows no sign of calming.
It would be ironic if, after decades of harping on strategic autonomy, Delhi had to hunker down and wait for the indefinite winter of anxiety to pass just when it had begun to see alliances as something not altogether abominable. And yet, in the sea of uncertainty suddenly engulfing India, little is stabler, or more predictable, than its strategic partnership with the US. Therein lies the reason for hope—ironically again, in the institutional durability of the status of bilateral relations, irrespective of the resident at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Unless America undergoes a Marxist-lite revolution, most things should hold.
Which cannot be said of the Great Game territory. Of all the neighbourhood crises that could come to a head, the fate of Afghanistan has the worst security implications for Delhi. With the US determined to lose the war and leave the country to the Taliban, jihadists could again find refuge there and turn Afghanistan into a global launchpad. Now, that would be in neither Delhi’s nor Beijing’s interest, but things may have moved well beyond the point of functional, issue-based strategic cooperation between India and China.
The EU’s u-turn, after spending most of 2020 growing a spine, makes the job more difficult for the incoming US administration. Beijing sees the investment deal as a diplomatic victory since it seeks to pre-empt any effort Joe Biden might make to build a coalition of democracies to corner Beijing
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India’s next looming mega-crisis is also of Chinese design, rather literally. That disaster, if it were to happen, would certainly not be scheduled for 2021 but last month, China’s state-owned Power Construction Corp announced plans to build a mega-dam and 60GW hydropower project on the Yarlung Tsangpo (Brahmaputra) in Tibet. Part of the 2021-2025 Five-Year Plan, this project, aiming at three times the capacity of the Three Gorges Dam, is an environmental and humanitarian catastrophe in its conception itself. And it’s one that could devastate India’s economy and kill millions. As Brahma Chellaney recently wrote for Project Syndicate: ‘China’s over-damming of internal rivers has severely harmed ecosystems, including by causing river fragmentation and disrupting the annual flooding cycle…In August, some 400 million Chinese were put at risk after record flooding endangered the Three Gorges Dam. If the Brahmaputra mega-dam collapses—hardly implausible, given that it will be built in a seismically active area—millions downstream could die.’ China has indeed ‘not hesitated to use its hydro-hegemony against its 18 downstream neighbors’, including its friends, and recently warned India how it ‘could “weaponize” its control over transboundary waters and potentially “choke” the Indian economy.’
China’s dams are Thomas F Homer-Dixon’s world on steroids. Homer-Dixon’s eye-opening 1991 article titled ‘On the Threshold: Environmental Changes as Causes of Acute Conflict’, published in International Security, showed how changes in our physical environment impact conflict. Future conflicts, he argued, would more likely occur from resource scarcity. We have been living in that world for three decades at least. From the Sahel to Somalia, the map of conflict is not disappearing anytime soon, irrespective of whether the US chooses to project power militarily—to prevent or mitigate conflict—or not. For some time now, all we have seen is the US withdrawing troops from one place to only deploy them elsewhere. For example, last month, Trump announced the withdrawal of 700 troops from Somalia as part of the effort to end America’s “endless wars”. However, within days, 5,000 Marines and sailors had to be dispatched from the Horn of Africa to provide safe passage to the 700 moving out—not going back home but getting redeployed elsewhere in East Africa. These circular motions should have served as a lesson that American withdrawal is not only unwelcome but also undoable. The biggest example of that is, of course, Afghanistan, but the new US administration, against the backdrop of debate on Congressional authority over the military, will have to hit the ground running on bulwarking its promise of multilateralism.
It would be ironic if, after decades of harping on strategic autonomy, India had to hunker down for the winter of anxiety. And yet, little is stabler, or more predictable, than its strategic partnership with the US—its institutional durability, irrespective of the resident at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue
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Multilateralism, which America’s old Trump-dumped allies are apparently crying for, should not become a shambolic, immobile behemoth that never gets its feet off the ground where unilateral, or limited collaborative, surgical strikes seemed to have worked in recent years—in fact, twice in 2020 itself. (The EU, trash-talked to humiliation by Trump as with NATO, could stand up to China with him in office. But with Biden and his promise of rebuilding bridges on the way, the EU lost its nerve and yielded, evidently angering the president-elect’s team that had asked Brussels to wait. Now there’s an irony nobody is talking about!)
‘And of the many things I saw more clearly, one was how Reagan was a great president precisely because he had surrounded himself with such realist and pragmatic luminaries as George Shultz, Casper Weinberger, and James Baker III…As inspirational and unyielding as Regan’s rhetoric was—morally arming the United States against Communist oppression in Central and Eastern Europe as never before—Reagan and the men around him never would have countenanced the kind of military action chosen in Iraq,’ lamented Robert D Kaplan in In Europe’s Shadow (2016). In many ways, Ronald Reagan was the apogee of the marriage of American idealism and Nixonian realism. Part of that had stayed with his vice president when, as president, he went to war against Saddam with a coalition of 39 states. That realism was erased in the era of ‘liberal hegemony’ unleashed in the post-Cold War high of the Clinton years. His administration, nevertheless, did not intervene when it should have in the Balkans. By the time of the Iraq war of 2003, geopolitical pragmatism was a distant memory. Occupied abroad and exhausted at home, the US did not see China’s rise for what it was for a long time, till the maverick president arrived, whose foreign policy, while informed by realism, has borne too much taint of the transactional to perhaps leave an imprint.
That’s a pity, for Trump was better abroad than at home. Whether the Biden administration builds on his success in the Middle East (with Israel and Arab states) or reverts to a status quoist two-steps-up-one-step-back will be one of the first questions answered in 2021, irrespective of Binyamin Netanyahu’s fate. Nearer home, a test for the new administration will be Venezuela where the challenge will be to get Nicolás Maduro out without retaliation from his allies in Beijing and Moscow. The Venezuelan fuse is actually shorter than Iran or North Korea.
The new administration is unlikely to have any option but to pursue the US-China decoupling and not yield on America’s financial and technical knowhow. This, in the long run, should work out well for India but would bring little cheer in the near future. For the short to medium term, Beijing will be on a roll, asking troops to be combat-ready to act any second, tightening Party control on the private sector with vanished or executed tycoons, threatening to switch off water, etcetera. China cares about its image when it comes to the West, not the East and the rest. If 2020 ended with Beijing getting back more than it had lost in the early months, 2021 might turn out to be the wolf warrior’s best year yet. There’s not much those at Beijing’s receiving end can do except regroup till the US knows its new mind.