In January, there was a question in the second general studies paper of the civil services (main) examination in India that might interest the Economist, particularly its Asia section. A 15-mark question asked the candidates to analyse whether the newly formed AUKUS (Australia-United Kingdom-United States) partnership was going to supersede the existing partnerships in the Indo-Pacific region. The tail to the question also asked them to assess the strength and impact of AUKUS in the present scenario. Four months later, the readers of the latest issue of the Economist can be imagined impishly scoffing at the question.
With an eye on countering Chinese power in the region, the most significant goal of the AUKUS pact, on 15 September 2021, was to help Australia build nuclear-powered submarines. In its latest issue, the Economist India’s arsenal of nuclear-powered submarines and other weapon systems such as hypersonic cruise missiles as “prestige military toys”. So were the US and the UK, the country where the newsweekly is headquartered, just pampering Australia with “prestige military toys” in the guise of a China containment strategy? Obviously not.
The magazine had called the pact as seminal as , and the nuclear submarines partnership as an indicator of the maritime sphere becoming the site of great power competition.
One doesn’t know whether the Economist could inform its readers about the prestigious charm of UK’s playful instruments assembled under the Trident nuclear programme.
In the last few weeks, the magazine’s pedantic take on India’s exercise of strategic autonomy on the question of Ukraine seems to have made its pages lose sight of the fact that surrounded by two hostile nuclear-capable states, on its western and northern borders, India’s nuclear-powered submarines and the deterrent effect they constitute could be anything but “prestige military toys”. An elementary awareness of the security scenario that India has dealt with, as well as a familiarity with the basic geopolitics of the region, should have held back the snarky quip creeping into foreign policy analysis in the weekly.
In its dated March 12, and dated April 1, the magazine has taken note of the factors shaping India’s independent line on the war in Europe. However, that’s sprinkled with a hectoring tone, if not smirk, about the “costs’’ of India going against the sanctions-regime and pontificating about it missing from the West-ordained solidarity of “democracies”.
The reasoning behind India’s exercise of strategic autonomy on the matter has neither been difficult to decode nor surprising. In a piece published on this website a few days before the Russian military action against Ukraine, I some of the considerations defining India’s response to what was then an escalating crisis in eastern Europe. But India’s refusal to be identified with either side, and instead having its own realist look at its national interest, has been registered with clarity.
In its approach, as a Delhi-based international affairs academic , India presents a “textbook example of a swing state that refuses to swing either way”. India’s reluctance to park itself in any camp has been particularly important at a time when both sides are rushing their interlocutors to New Delhi because the country seems to be the “most sought after swing state” in the international system at the moment. This, however, shouldn’t blur the fact that India has advocated . And despite its abstentions at the UN vote, its explanatory notes put India’s unease with Russian military as well as the need for keeping the door for diplomatic solution open. In doing so, it has also batted for the adherence to the sovereignty and territorial integrity principle vis-à-vis Ukraine.
While stressing the need for a dialogue between Ukraine and Russia to end the war, in his conversation with the Russian President Vladimir Putin in the last week of February, India’s Prime Minister “immediate cessation of violence”.
But, it’s India’s measured response to the flurry of diplomats visiting New Delhi that has irked a section of commentariat in the international media. The Economist’s snide belittling of India’s security needs in general, and its nuclear arsenal in particular, is as ill-informed as a sign of its peeve about India not hitching itself to the bandwagon of the West.
Besides India, the anxieties of western diplomats, and a part of western media, in convincing the other countries of Asia, Africa and South America in allying with them against Moscow could have counterproductive outcomes. Even the Times, regarded as a newspaper of record in the UK, against the unintended consequence of such enlisting overdrive. “Yet the West also needs to be careful that in seeking to cajole countries to take sides in the conflict, it does not stoke the anti-western attitudes that have so far kept them on the sidelines. In an increasingly multipolar world in which countries believe they have more strategic options, how the West goes about its task is extremely important,” the daily observed in its editorial comment on March 31.
In his latest in the Foreign Affairs, while analysing the Ukraine war from the standpoint of Asian countries, Shivshankar Menon, former foreign secretary of India and now a professor of international relations, has also hinted at a set of responses that western efforts could trigger in post-colonial countries such as India. Menon takes note of the reverse effect of such nudging. “Western criticism and pressure will probably rankle a postcolonial society like India’s.” More significantly, Menon reflects on the fact that many countries in Asia wouldn’t echo the high decibel of indignation.
“As shocked as Western policymakers profess to be by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, they might remember that such behavior is neither unprecedented nor representative of a real change in the norms of state behavior in Europe and the world. For one, such a violation of sovereignty and territorial integrity is something that Asia has seen and experienced in the past at the hands of major powers. The long list of outside interventions and invasions (including the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the Vietnam War), of ongoing proxy wars and “frozen” conflicts in which casualties mount daily, is proof that major powers are content to pay lip service to norms about sovereignty and territorial conflict even as those norms are repeatedly breached,” he wrote, before adding that this doesn’t suggest justifying Russian action but the need to be realistic about the demands that western countries are making on Asian and African states.
Menon’s brief reference to the scars and suspicions of historical memory would find context when one looks back at the approach of how the leading powers in the West and a section of its press, including a collage of the Economist’s cover pages, pitched wars of the present and the last century.
With the visiting diplomats, as the Economist helpfully and predictably informs us, outnumbering “stray cows’’ on Delhi’s streets, India continues to be an unimpressed guest. Always tough to be positioned in an either or split in global camp politics, India has been difficult to be nudged even as a swing state, leave alone the thought of it being taken as a client state. To the utter bemusement of the Economist, a country with “prestige military toys”, which in some other world are called nuclear-powered submarines and hypersonic cruise missiles, can also think about playing the complex games of strategic autonomy.
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