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June - July 2007


Political News

Power Shift to the East - The Beginning of a New Multilateral Order

by Sashanka Sekhar Banerjee


This is the seventh year of the new millennium, yet the spill-over effects of the 20th century’s ideological and geo-political conflicts continue to dog the contemporary world’s nation-states across the great divide of the still-relevant, good old Cold War. While the world has not yet completely unburdened itself of the baggage of the past, as destiny would have it, mankind is yet again placed having to face a new generation of ideological conflicts driven by competitive geopolitical ambition for dominance in a volatile and uncertain world.

Karl Marx had said: Conflict determines all progress. We have conflict and bloodshed all round us in the post-cold war world, in fact too much of it, but we are not quite sure what progress we have achieved so far?

As the Soviet Union collapsed and the curtain clumsily fell on the Cold War, President George Bush Senior, in the early nineties of the last century, defined the contours of what he described as “the new world order” wherein the US laid claim to be the world’s sole super-power. There was no power on earth on its own that could match or challenge the might of America, then more than now. However by virtue of a combination of events, this period of sunshine and glory for the US proved short-lived lasting for no more than a decade from 1991 to 2001.

The terror attacks of 9/11 of 2001 changed everything for the US, in fact the entire world. Unable to fully comprehend the significance of the uniquely new ideological challenge of militant Islam, the political leadership of America, partly because they were out of their depth for reasons of unfamiliarity with a non-European challenge and partly because they were

gripped by “arrogance of power”, a phrase coined by Senator John D Rockefeller, committed a series of monumental policy mistakes, which are beginning to catch up with realities.

When America went to war against Afghanistan in 2001, it decimated both the Taliban and al-Qaeda. Nobody questioned the wisdom of that decision. What has come to haunt President George W Bush was his choice of General Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan’s Military Dictator, taking him on board as the key military ally of America in it’s war on terror. Washington allowed Musharraf and his ISI, America’s junior partner to set the political agenda of the War on Terror against the Taliban and Al-Qaeda, Pakistan’s very own creations. The German strategic thinker Otto von Bismarck had agonised that if a junior partner in a military alliance got the upper hand over the dominant partner, it could become a recipe for disaster. If it is true that the ISI has played its part in allowing the Taliban and the Al Qaeda to regroup and resurge on the soil of Pakistan, it is a sure sign that that Islamabad has not given up its very own doctrine of strategic depth in Afghanistan. In the long run, Pakistan wants Afghanistan to be effectively under its domination. The Taliban was created to serve as the human shield of Pakistan Army’s military campaign in Afghanistan. It was not meant to be disbanded.

The US decision to take Pakistan, India’s perennial tormentor, as a trusted ally in its war on terror, touched a raw nerve in New Delhi. India has vital strategic interests in Afghanistan and is compelled to take the back-door route to safeguard them.

It is remarkable that the US military strategists failed to take note that there were no surrender ceremonies to record the defeat of the Taliban and al-Qaeda as was expected at the conclusion of a decisive conventional war. The defeated fighters simply melted away to return to the battlefield to engage the victors in a punishing bloody sub-conventional warfare, which as it looks now may last for a long time, destabilising large parts of the world. America’s failure to understand the full significance of the seminal event was a serious lapse and a gargantuan military blunder.

In the midst of the war in Afghanistan, the coalition forces encountered something they could not believe they would come face to face with. At a place called Konduz, located at the centre of the battle zone in Afghanistan, the US Army by chance surrounded a whole battalion of the regulars of the Pakistan Army fighting alongside the Taliban and al-Qaeda. Legend has it that a nervous telephone call from Pakistan Army’s GHQ in Rawalpindi to the Pentagon in Virginia led to a temporary cessation of hostilities around Konduz for two days allowing the Pakistani troops to evacuate to home base. According to unconfirmed reports, in a secret intelligence operation organised by the Inter-Services Intelligence of the Pakistan Army, among those airlifted to the safety of Pakistan were Osama bin Laden and Aiman al Zawahiri. If this report is true, it is beyond belief how it escaped the attention of the US ground forces. Alternatively, is the current search for Osama bin Laden a mere charade?

George W Bush’s invasion of Iraq is likely to go down in history as the biggest political blunder and military miscalculation of his presidency. He chose to open a new front in Iraq when the coalition forces had not yet completed their mopping up operations in Afghanistan. Secular Iraq had no WMDS, did not threaten the security of the US nor did the regime in Baghdad have any known links with one or the other terror outfits. Nobody denies Saddam Hussein was a despicable tyrant but removing him from power was the function of the people of Iraq. Regime change through foreign intervention is interpreted as a violation of the sovereignty of nations. Majority opinion in the world rejects such adventurism. An ancient civilisation has been destroyed, a beautiful country devastated and traumatised and thousands of innocent lives have been lost. The sad thing is that the US is not accountable to anybody for this gruesome tragedy. It did not seek the authorisation of the UN, which upset Germany and France, two NATO allies, thereby causing a schism weakening the legendary Western Alliance, which had defeated international communism ending the cold war. Russia, India and China opposed the invasion on grounds of principle. The misadventure of the invasion of Iraq and the subsequent security disaster that followed, have together diminished the moral authority of the US.

America’s decision to expand the domain of NATO eastwards right up to the borders of Russia – no more a cold war adversary as in the past - angered Moscow no end. There was no good reason to adopt such gratuitous belligerence towards Russia at a time when Moscow was working towards reconciliation with Washington. US interference in the election processes in Ukraine and Georgia, which Russia believes lie within the sphere of its influence, was also resented by Moscow. Both Russia and China have commercial interests in Iran and are opposed to America taking any precipitate military action against Tehran.

Increasingly concerned over America showing signs of being a trigger-happy super-power, both Russia and China flushed with monies flowing from their fast growing economies have formed an alliance and are together devising means of putting in place checks and balances against US “unilateralism”. The US has nobody but itself to blame for the emergence of such challenges to its dominance.

As America made many enemies, it is left with a shrinking roll call of friends. The world, as it is beginning to appear now, is entering a “new” new world order, founded on the rejection of the US as the sole super-power in a unipolar world. As the old order is yielding place to new, the most notable new development is the emergence of new power centres. The old batch of Great Powers of the Western World apart, we have now an emerging batch of Great Powers of Asia seeking their due place under the sun.

An unique feature of the tragedy of 9/11 is that it heralded the rise of the power of Militant Islam challenging the world’s democracies, a new development in the political history of mankind. Never mind, this unique challenge lacks strong technological backup, its real driving force is the numbers game in the global population stakes, which the US has no power to match. The complexity of the challenge is so great that it has thrown America, the one Western power that really matters in today’s world, in a tizzy of confusion. Washington is yet to articulate a proper response to this new borderless non-state ideological challenge. Yesterday’s geography is fast becoming today’s history.

As it is becoming evident that America is losing its moral authority in the world, the emerging great powers of Asia see it as an opening and an opportunity to declare their bid to be at the high table and be counted.

China is a practitioner of no-nonsense diplomacy. It pulled up its socks and undertook some spectacular military manoeuvres if only to announce to the wide world – the US more than the others - that it has arrived and it should be taken seriously. On January 12, 2007 China tested its first anti missile system in outer space by blowing up one of its own weather satellites. It symbolised the beginnings of the militarisation of space by China. The killer technology-demonstrator in space show-cased the vulnerability of the surveillance satellites and global positioning system of the US making it harder for its precision guided missiles to efficiently target Chinese military assets in the event of a conflict over Taiwan. The US opposes a forcible takeover of Taiwan by China and is committed to defending it if attacked. If China had expected that the shootout in space would have forced the US to come to the negotiating table and talk to China on the weaponisation of space it was living in a fool’s paradise. The shoot out was too defiant a move to warrant a dove-like response from the US, as yet the world’s sole superpower. I would not be surprised if the US decides in a secret move to crowd the orbit with decoys and redundant satellites rendering Chinese killer vehicles in space confused and largely ineffective. Yet the Chinese challenge to US global supremacy has become real, which Washington can no longer ignore.

The Chinese Government announced in early 2007 that it had decided to increase spending on defence from $35 billion in 2006-07 to $46 billion in 2007-08 bringing it at par with Japan’s military budget of $ 46 billion. Such a steep increase among other high-tech military projects will go to fund the development of a Chinese “blue water navy” as a prelude to fulfilling its ambition to becoming a naval power with global reach.

In the midst of these developments, President Hu Jintao’s declaration that China is committed to a “peaceful rise” is looking not so convincing.

North Korea is China’s close communist ally. Pyongyang test-fired 7 missiles including the long-range Taepodong 2 missile in July 2006. The missile fell into the Sea of Japan, causing consternation in Tokyo. Its subsequent test of a plutonium-processed 1 kiloton atomic bomb on October 9, 2006 constituted a component of the bigger picture of China’s military buildup.

Although they are supposed to be Beijing’s Japan-specific strategic threat projections using North Korea as a proxy, these ominous developments have alarmed Tokyo and the US in equal measure. The US is busy trying to persuade Japan that it will provide a nuclear umbrella and defend it if attacked which in other words means telling the Japanese Government not to exercise the nuclear option. In the context of the multiplication of new strategic threats raising their ugly heads in its close proximity and its present nationalistic mood, Japan may not be quite impressed by such assurances.

China has its own reasons to be worried about resurgent Japan’s intentions. The new Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has expressed a wish to form an Asian democratic alliance comprising Australia, South Korea, the US and India. He did not include rival Communist China in the proposed grouping. In this Japan-led democratic initiative, India may well be a key beneficiary. If the alliance develops military undertones in the form of a “Asian NATO” in time it will not be to the liking of Beijing. The unknown factor will be how will this new experiment impact on the underground pro-democracy movements in Tibet and Hong Kong. There are signs that China may be feeling insecure, which explains the imperatives of its new phase of military assertiveness.

Articulating a potentially historic shift of power equations, President Vladimir Putin of Russia, sharing a common platform with India’s Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh, made the announcement of an agreement in New Delhi on January 26, 2007 of the need to build a “trilateral format co-operation”

with China. Three weeks later the Foreign Ministers of India, China and Russia met in New Delhi on February 14, 2007 to progress the idea. A declaration said that the real objective of the trilateral interaction was the promotion of economic co-operation and to fight terrorism jointly.

There is scepticism, however, that such a trilateral format may perhaps not be wholly workable. To expect India and China to establish a synergy together as friends and allies at the drop of a hat, when a solution to the long-running border dispute is still nowhere in sight and Beijing’s clandestine support of Islamabad’s nuclear arsenal meant to strategically tie down India is still on-going and operational, seems too artificial a construct to carry any conviction. It is, however, left to Russia to pull out a rabbit and produce a miracle.

A contributory factor in the formation of the trilateral format was that the three Asian powers have begun suspecting that Washington’s so-called War on Terror has developed geopolitical ambitions, which are inimical to their strategic interests.

Outside this charmed tri-lateral format lies Iran’s nuclear defiance. It is increasingly being seen as symptomatic of the general frustration among nations with American selective insensitivities vis-à-vis the national interests of certain chosen medium-sized and smaller powers. Sunni Pakistan can have nuclear weapons but Shia Iran cannot have it. Not to be left out, Saudi Arabia too, America’s long-standing friend and ally, has recently shown signs of its own desperation with America. It was no more a political sacrilege for the King of Saudi Arabia to describe the US-led Coalition Forces in Iraq as an Occupation Force. This is the “end of history” in real terms for America.

Can the US show moral leadership by denouncing all nuclear weapons across the board, giving a clarion call for universal nuclear disarmament? Desperate times cry out for desperate remedies.

President Putin’s one great worry is that the US may try once again to use the so-called “China Card” against Moscow as it had done in the past to the Soviet Union’s great embarrassment and strategic discomfort. Before laying down office - it could be that he may not - Putin seems to be working assiduously on finding devices as to how he can help to stop this from happening.

An ominous mix of alternative possibilities seems to be emerging out of these developments. One scenario is that the contours of Cold War’s Chapter 2 may be shaping up. The other possibility is that we are perhaps seeing the dawn of a new Multilateral Order heralding the potential end of America’s sole super-power status. This means that we are seeing the emergence of India, China and Russia as the front line proponents of a multi-lateral order in the “new” New World Order.

However, in the contemporary reality of globally integrated markets and interdependence, a new Cold War will be bereft of any ideological underpinnings just as Multilateralism will merely be an instrument of power sharing in global governance. Competitive jockeying for power may produce a mild cold war mindset but these diplomatic positions are more likely to compliment each other rather than be mutually exclusive of each other.

A remarkable thing has happened during the last about 10 years or so. A billion people have joined the world’s consumer society. China, India and Russia are among the greatest beneficiaries of this process. This phenomenon is expected to produce its own dynamics. The great powers – old as well as the new – are conscious of the paramount need to preserve, protect and promote these economic gains.

Between them, the three Asian giants account for 40 percent of the world’s population, a fifth of the global economy and half of its nuclear warheads. An Asian Common Market, which India is busy promoting, if it sees the light of day, will have an impact on the global economy. As for now China, Russia and India are fast emerging as the world’s new Great Powers –the pillars of post modern multilateralism - , dominating global manufacturing, energy supply and demand, and increasingly the service sector. The Times of London in an editorial on February 15, 2007 wrote “ as their societies grow richer and their global reach longer, India, China and Russia’s interest in asserting their collective economic and political strength becomes greater. The world is seeing extraordinary changes as these three powers forge a powerful new geo-strategic alliance”.

Although the message is clear that these powers are challenging US unilateralism, it is only appropriate that they have also included in their declaration that it will not be an anti-American alliance. Nations, however big and mighty, in their right minds and in the light of their own vital self-interest, can hardly afford to upset the US beyond a certain point. Any attempt at crossing the threshold could prove counter-productive for their own economic health. America too has a responsibility to prove to itself and to the rest of the world that it is a responsible and a truly benign super-power.

The writer is the author of “India’s Security Dilemmas – Pakistan and Bangladesh” published by Anthem Press, New Delhi

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