All major powers face two-front challenges - Hindustan Times
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All major powers face two-front challenges

Oct 19, 2022 08:05 PM IST

Like the US, Russia and China, India is also facing two-pronged challenges. but there is enough wiggle room. To be effective, India’s foreign policy must be pragmatic. till now, Delhi has done well in coping with the geostrategic challenges of Covid-19 and the war in Ukraine

As the old liberal international order gives way to an unfamiliar multipolar world order, the major and middle powers face formidable strategic challenges. A striking feature of the global strategic landscape is that most powers face a two-front challenge, which puts pressure on resources and prevents the kind of single-minded focus necessary to lead and shape events. The situation becomes clear if we analyse three major powers — the United States (US), Russia and China — alongside the European Union and India.

The unipolar moment may have passed, but as the pre-eminent power, the US still has the wherewithal to determine the contours of the global strategic landscape. (Getty Images/iStockphoto) PREMIUM
The unipolar moment may have passed, but as the pre-eminent power, the US still has the wherewithal to determine the contours of the global strategic landscape. (Getty Images/iStockphoto)

The unipolar moment may have passed, but as the pre-eminent power, the US still has the wherewithal to determine the contours of the global strategic landscape. However, with the war in Ukraine, the US faces two fronts: An immediate strategic challenge in the form of Russia, which has disrupted the European security architecture through its actions in Ukraine; and a second front represented by China, which is the most consequential strategic rival of the US and is doing everything to threaten US interests not just in Asia (Taiwan) but also elsewhere (South/East China Sea).

Having participated in both wars of choice (Iraq) and necessity (Afghanistan), the US must have learnt the lessons of “strategic overextension”. It will need the help of its allies and partners to face this two-front challenge; this depends on actions taken to secure the trust of partners such as Europe, Japan, India, South Korea and Australia.

For China, the main strategic threat comes from the US. But in Asia, China also faces a strategic challenge, particularly from India, Japan and Australia. As the ongoing Party Congress has made clear, Beijing believes in a hegemonic Asia, while the other countries listed here believe in a rules-based, multipolar Asia. Interestingly, China could also be easily accused of strategic overextension, having discarded the Deng Xiaoping philosophy of hiding its strength, biding its time, and opening several fronts. In addition, China appears to be hobbled by serious internal problems related to the economy, fallout from a disastrous zero-Covid-19 policy, a declining population, and the real possibility of falling into the middle-income trap. How China deals with this two-front challenge may well determine the broad contours of the future world order.

To avoid a two-front situation, Russia signed a joint statement with China on a no-limits relationship. But Moscow now faces a two-front situation itself. One, it has incurred the wrath of the US, and the sabre rattling between the two powers now includes even the potential use of nuclear weapons in the face of embarrassing battlefield reverses. Worse, there is no high-level dialogue between Russia and the US.

The second front is the crucial decision by Finland and Sweden to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (Nato). If Finland is accepted, as it certainly will be, its 1,340 kilometre border will become Nato’s longest boundary with Russia. Looked at from Moscow, this must be the most serious strategic threat facing Russia.

Europe, which was sure it would never see war on its soil after World War II, appears stunned by the Ukraine conflict. It is debatable whether the war has upended the world order, but there is little doubt that it has seriously disrupted the security architecture in Europe. Russia has emerged as an existential threat, not just to Ukraine but also to several countries in Europe. Russian actions have seriously jeopardised the continent’s energy security, and it is staring at a winter of discontent. At the same time, Europe’s starry-eyed views about China — at least in the economic realm — have turned out to be misplaced. It is now viewed as a systemic rival, which must be countered by collective action from Brussels. The “no-limits” Sino-Russian alliance is thus an existential challenge for the US and the EU.

And finally, India. Pakistan may have ceased to be the primary strategic threat that New Delhi faces, but it remains a major security challenge. It is, however, undeniable that China has emerged as the chief strategic threat to India. Things came to a head in Ladakh in 2020; since then, the relationship has nosedived, and it will take major optimism to hope things will ever go back to status quo ante. Since India is not as powerful as China and isn’t a treaty ally of any significant power, its foreign policy will continue to be characterised by external balancing and setting its internal house in order. Quad, a grouping comprising the US, Japan, India and Australia, is a good bellwether of which way India’s foreign policy is tending.

What are the implications of this two-front situation faced by most major and middle powers? First, it is abundantly clear that a multipolar world is in the making, mainly because there is no single power to call the shots. A bipolar world seems unlikely because the two likely predominant forces are locked in deadly strategic rivalry.

Second, all powers are engaged in strategic hedging to a greater or lesser degree. Even the US relies on it, resorting as it does to external balancing (Quad, for instance) to counter China. Finally, there is enormous wiggle room for “swing powers” such as India in such a scenario.

To be effective in such an environment, however, foreign policy must be both nimble and pragmatic. By this token, India has done well in coping with the geo-strategic challenges unleashed first by Covid-19 and subsequently by the war in Ukraine.

Mohan Kumar is a former Indian ambassador to France and is currently an academic The views expressed are personal

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