India Risks Losing Out in a "Contest of Ideas"

by Brahma Chellaney
April 22, 2014

This is one of five essays in the roundtable “Asia-Pacific Perspectives on the Ukraine Crisis.”

India has watched with unease the Ukraine-related developments that have triggered Europe’s most serious geopolitical crisis since the end of the Cold War. These events threaten to unleash a new Cold War, or at least a renewed East-West ideological struggle. U.S. President Barack Obama’s new sanctions-based approach toward Russia in response to its annexation of Crimea sets the stage for a potential clash between Western democracy and what some U.S. ideologues have described as “Putinism.” Obama himself calls the crisis a “contest of ideas.” The question many are asking is whether this portends the advent of an ominous new era.

Russia has gained little from the annexation of Crimea, which was already under its de facto control. But it has displayed contempt for international law and lost a government in Kiev that had been friendly to Russian interests. Russia also faces sanctions-related costs at a time when its economy is already fragile and its borders remain precarious.

Yet the “contest of ideas” threatens to unhinge Obama’s rebalance toward Asia. Even before the Ukraine crisis began, many wondered whether this policy would acquire concrete strategic content or remain largely a rhetorical repackaging of policies begun under Obama’s predecessor. Now the United States could be forced to focus its attention on the states on Russia’s periphery, increasing the likelihood of a new Cold War. Thus far, Washington’s rebalance to Asia has remained more rhetorical than real, in part because of U.S. foreign policy’s preoccupation with the Middle East. Furthermore, the Obama administration has been reluctant to say or do anything that might raise Beijing’s hackles.

Asian states that rely on the United States as their security guarantor were jolted by Obama’s inaction on the 2012 Chinese capture of Scarborough Shoal, located within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone. This development occurred despite a U.S.-brokered deal under which both Beijing and Manila agreed to withdraw their vessels from the area. Obama’s silence on the capture, coupled with his administration’s apathetic attitude to the U.S. commitment to the Philippines under the Mutual Defence Treaty, emboldened China to effectively seize a second Philippine-claimed shoal, the Second Thomas/Ayungin Shoal, without attempting to evict the eight Filipino sailors living there.

Another jolt came when China established an air defense identification zone that usurped international airspace over the East China Sea and extended to Japanese- and South Korean-controlled islands or rocks. Washington refrained from postponing Vice President Joe Biden’s previously scheduled trip to Beijing or otherwise demonstrating its disapproval of the Chinese action beyond verbal statements but advised U.S. commercial airlines to respect the zone. This response conflicted with Japan’s advice to its commercial airlines to ignore China’s demand that they file their flight plans through the zone in advance.

These two events showed that the Obama administration, despite its rebalance toward Asia, will not act in ways detrimental to the United States’ close engagement with China. Washington indeed has declined to take sides in the bilateral disputes between China and its neighbors—unless, of course, U.S. interests are directly at stake, such as in freedom of navigation in the South China Sea. The Obama administration has also charted a course of neutrality on the recrudescence of Sino-Indian and Sino-Japanese territorial disputes.

Against this background, a protracted showdown with Russia over Ukraine would leave even less space for the United States to rebalance toward Asia. However, it will create greater space for China to disturb the territorial status quo in Asia. In a new Cold War setting, it will not be the United States but Russia that would likely pivot toward Asia. A sanctions-centered U.S. policy of selective containment of Russia could compel Moscow to cozy up with China, including to escape containment and to promote energy outflows and capital inflows. This may be particularly true if U.S. sanctions seek to bar Western investments in the Russian energy sector—a move that could prompt Moscow to reverse course and accept Chinese investments in “strategic” fields. Western sanctions against Russia could thus enable Beijing to gain important benefits, including more favorable terms for Russian energy resources and greater access to the Russian market for Chinese goods. Put simply, the only power likely to gain geopolitically from the recent turn of events in Ukraine is China, which remains a revolutionary power bent on upending the status quo in Asia. Its growing geopolitical heft has emboldened its muscle-flexing and territorial nibbling.

In order to isolate Russian president Vladimir Putin, Obama could be tempted to cede more space to Beijing in Asia. China’s geopolitical gains would be further solidified if the U.S. jettisons its post–Cold War policy of seeking to influence Russia’s conduct through engagement and integration. The United States is closing the door to Russian accession to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and effectively ousting Russia from the group of eight (G-8) by making it the group of seven again—an action that can only accelerate that institution’s growing irrelevance in international relations.

India, by contrast, could be a loser in a second Cold War that redivides states along a bipolar axis. India lost out in the first Cold War because of its reluctance to take sides. Although India has progressed from doctrinaire nonalignment to geopolitical pragmatism, it sees itself as a bridge between the East and the West, not as a partisan. In the Ukraine crisis, New Delhi has treaded cautiously, supporting Ukraine’s territorial integrity but opposing sanctions on Russia. If a new Cold War is to be averted, a diplomatic solution must both protect Ukraine’s territorial integrity and respect Russia’s legitimate security interests. Ukraine should remain neutral between the East and the West—a sovereign buffer between NATO and Russia. India could help broker such a solution, which, while ensuring European peace, would also contribute to Asian security.

Brahma Chellaney is Professor of Strategic Studies at the independent Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi. His latest book is Water, Peace, and War: Confronting the Global Water Crisis (2013).

This is one of five essays in the roundtable “Asia-Pacific Perspectives on the Ukraine Crisis.”

1. Crimea: A Silver Lining for the United States’ Asian Allies?

    By Rory Medcalf

2. India Risks Losing Out in a “Contest of Ideas”

    By Brahma Chellaney

3. Taiwan Is No Crimea, But…

    By Alexander Chieh-cheng Huang

4. Japan’s “Proactive Contribution to Peace” and the Annexation of Crimea

    By Tetsuo Kotani

5. The Korean Angle on Crimean Fallout: America’s Perception Gap

    By Seong-hyon Lee