Even as a new order is being shaped in the Indo-Pacific with India at the heart of this emerging strategic geography, developments in Afghanistan have managed to underscore for New Delhi the evolving political map of South Asia itself. In a matter of hours, the old order folded like nine pins in Afghanistan in 2021 and all that was left were the ruins of the last two decades.
The new order is yet to emerge fully, but the contours of that order can be discerned based on the past experience of the Afghan nation and the region. The West was, in any case, cutting and running but the speed of Taliban advance meant that once again the United States (US) had to live through the Saigon moment with diplomats being evicted by helicopters and sensitive documents being destroyed.
A new order
Even as Afghanistan was crumbling, Biden was pushing back against suggestions that the Taliban could swiftly conquer Afghanistan by arguing that, “the likelihood there’s going to be the Taliban overrunning everything and owning the whole country is highly unlikely.” And in less than a month, western nations were left scrambling to evacuate their citizens and diplomatic staff even while acknowledging that there will be a new government in Afghanistan. After talking of freedom, democracy and human rights for the last two decades, the West moved quickly towards accommodating the Taliban regime in some form.
The western governments have now been telling their people that some form of accommodation with the Taliban, whether evolved or not, is important for the larger good of the Afghan people as this would mean Afghans taking ownership of their own future. While the humanitarian catastrophe unfolding in Afghanistan will be brushed aside, the strategic consequences of Taliban’s re-emergence will have to be reckoned with by the West for a long time.
The new order is yet to emerge fully, but the contours of that order can be discerned based on the past experience of the Afghan nation and the region.
If, as is being suggested in some quarters, one of the reasons for the US withdrawing troops from Afghanistan is to focus attention squarely on the competition with China, then the credibility of western assurances as a security guarantor after the Afghan debacle have been put under a scanner. The coalition of partners that the West is trying to construct to manage China’s rise is likely to face greater fissures as western allies look at the Afghanistan car crash with a degree of foreboding.
The limits of American power today are all too palpable and the embarrassment of Afghanistan is likely to constrain western strategic thinking for decades now. The US, perhaps, couldn’t have built a nation in Afghanistan but the manner in which the withdrawal unfolded casts a long shadow on Washington’s ability to manage the emerging, highly volatile global order. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has a lot to do with what Vladimir Putin saw western vulnerabilities being exposed in Afghanistan.
India gaining ground
For India, this is an important moment in regional political evolution. In its 75th year after independence, its centrality in the wider Indo-Pacific is today well-established. New Delhi wants to play a “leading role” in the international system so that it can shape global outcomes, rather than merely being a recipient of the frameworks set by others. In the Indo-Pacific, a large part of its foreign policy today is to find opportunities in a challenging environment to shape global outcomes.
One of the ways in which India, along with others, have responded to this is to push the envelope on building issue-based coalitions amongst like-minded nations. The plethora of minilaterals in the Indo-Pacific today underscore the stark void in this vast geography when it comes to institutionalisation. And in the absence of major power consensus, the ideas of middle powers like India have found greater receptivity.
Even as India is setting up new terms of engagement in the wider Indo-Pacific, the evolving South Asian landscape has meant maintaining stable relations with old partners like Russia.
The plethora of minilaterals in the Indo-Pacific today underscore the stark void in this vast geography when it comes to institutionalisation.
The Indo-Pacific Quadrilateral Security Dialogue or the Quad, involving the US, Japan, India and Australia, has the been most talked about platform in this regard. Its dramatic resurrection since 2017 and a growing profile has conveyed a new sense of purpose to the wider region, reassuring some and creating anxieties for China.
With two summit level meetings in 2021, one virtual and one in person, within a matter of six months, the agenda of this nascent platform has been widening to include some of the most critical issues of our times such as vaccines, emerging strategic technologies, infrastructure connectivity and maritime security. But it is the commitment of India, Japan and Australia that ultimately convinced the US to invest in this initiative.
Yet, even as India is setting up new terms of engagement in the wider Indo-Pacific, the evolving South Asian landscape has meant maintaining stable relations with old partners like Russia. New Delhi understands the critical role Russia plays in the regional and global balance of power. India hosted the regional dialogue on Afghanistan in November 2021, which saw Russian participation with Iran and the Central Asian Republics.
The convergence on Afghanistan and the threats emanating from there is remarkable given that Moscow was quite supportive of the Taliban in the initial days. There is quite a distance from wanting to see the Americans out to managing the negative externalities emanating from the Taliban takeover. And not surprisingly, Russia has moved closer to Indian assessment of the regional security. There is a reason why India has maintained a stoic balance in its response to the Ukraine crisis despite western pressure to publicly condemn Moscow’s action.
Unlike in the past, India’s growing weight in the global order ensures that its ability to navigate great power politics is much stronger now.
As the global structural realities undergo a fundamental transformation with the rise of China and its assertive pursuit of its ambitions, both Moscow and New Delhi are trying to figure out their responses. Despite the Cold War historical legacy, Russia has moved quickly to cement ties with China. India, too, has witnessed the withering away of the ‘hesitations of history’ when it comes to the US and the wider West. Unlike in the past, India’s growing weight in the global order ensures that its ability to navigate great power politics is much stronger now.
As it balances China’s rise and builds a strategic partnership with the US, India remains keen to invest in a stable relationship with Russia. The India-Russia engagement of today is responding to today’s geopolitical imperatives, not of the past. Devoid of yesteryear’s sentimentalism, this is a relationship that is grounded in pragmatism, which ensures that while New Delhi can do little about Moscow’s gravitation to Beijing, it can insulate its own burgeoning ties with the US from the overweening presence of Russia.
India’s past diffidence in making certain foreign policy choices is rapidly giving way to greater readiness to acknowledge the need for a radical shift in thinking about internal capability enhancement by leveraging external partnerships. Non-alignment is finally giving way to a ‘new balance’ in crafting partnerships that can serve vital Indian interests.