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What lessons does Ukraine offer South Asia?

C. Raja Mohan writes: Russia’s face-off with the West shows that spheres of influence are here to stay as instruments to regulate competition between great powers. But they endure only when the dominant power is wise and its neighbours are prudent.

Written by C. Raja Mohan |
Updated: January 4, 2022 11:32:33 am
In the last decade and a half, Russia has pushed back with interventions in Georgia and Ukraine and routinely challenged Western policies in Europe. (Illustration: C R Sasikumar)

When the US and Russia sit down for talks next week on strategic stability in Europe, a few words could wreck the negotiations — “Ukraine” and “sphere of influence”. Many in Washington and Brussels view Russian President Vladimir Putin’s recent demands as being about letting Ukraine slip back into a Russian sphere of influence and ceding a veto to Moscow over Western military policies in Central Europe.

Moscow, however, says the problem lies elsewhere — with the expansion of the Western sphere of influence closer to Russia’s borders. While the Soviet-led Warsaw Pact was dissolved in 1991 at the end of the Cold War, Russians point out, the Western military alliance, the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, persisted. Moscow insists the US and Europe violated promises not to push NATO eastwards.

Although the idea of a “Common European Home” shaped the rhetoric, Moscow increasingly felt like a subaltern in the new regional order. In the last decade and a half, Russia has pushed back with interventions in Georgia and Ukraine and routinely challenged Western policies in Europe. Putin has now drawn a red line against NATO’s further expansion to the east and Ukraine’s absorption into the West. He is threatening to go to war if there is no formal agreement with the US and NATO on these two issues.

Whatever might be the nature of the settlement, it will have significant implications for India and its South Asian neighbours. Asian nationalists used to denounce spheres of influence — or carving out exclusive zones among the dominant states — as a very 19th-century concept. That was natural, given the fact that they had been at the receiving end of European imperialism. But the idea has a longer lineage and is very much part of the framework to avoid conflict between major powers.

Asian powers are hardly innocent when it comes to spheres of influence. As Japan rose to be a great power by the turn of the 20th century, it wanted to carve out its own sphere of influence in Asia — called the “Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere”. Japan justified the expansion in the name of liberating Asia from the influence of European colonialism and building a new Asian order. The idea of “Asia for Asians” has not disappeared from the regional agenda. That slogan is now owned by the region’s new aspiring hegemon — China. Although President Xi Jinping denies seeking an Asian sphere of influence, his policies underline the search for one. These include attempts to push America out of Asia and demanding a veto over the security policies of its neighbours. That, in fact, is the essence of a sphere of influence — securing one’s area of interest from intervention by other great powers.

Some China scholars tell us to take it easy; they say Asia, at least East Asia, has always been part of China’s sphere of influence. They point to the so-called tributary state system that China ran until the European colonial powers landed in Asia. If Beijing’s dominance is the “natural state” of East Asia that we are now reverting to, China hands tell us, we should simply get used to it.

India is no stranger to spheres of influence either. Although the traditional Indian rhetoric proclaims sovereign equality of nations and rejects power politics, Delhi’s regional policy has been anything but. Although all states are equal on paper, what matters in the real world is the uneven power distribution among nations and the policies to cope with it.

At the time of Independence, India inherited an expansive sphere of influence in the Subcontinent and the Indian Ocean from the British Raj that had dominated the region from the early 19th century. But an India that was divided along religious lines turned economically inward and kept its distance from the West, and found it hard to sustain that legacy. But the aspiration never ceased.

A rising India today is trying to reclaim some of that influence in the Subcontinent and the Indian Ocean, but it confronts a newly powerful China that is rapidly gaining ground. Growing national identity in the region also makes it hard to enforce the traditional framework of regional dominance.

India is not the only one. Many middle powers are seeking to build or rebuild spheres of influence — Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Egypt in the Middle East and the Horn of Africa. Australia is fending off the growing Chinese influence in the Pacific islands. The fear of American retrenchment has created an urgency for the regional powers in the Middle East to expand their networks of influence.

Realists argue that the unipolar moment has passed and that the US can no longer run the world on its own. As Harvard University’s Graham Allison puts it, the unipolar moment was about the American global sphere of influence. In the unfolding multipolar world, he says, there will be many spheres of influence.

This logic should lead to some accommodation between Washington, Brussels and Moscow on European security. But the devil, as always, is in the details. Meanwhile, any peaceful accommodation between Russia and the West will inevitably be at the expense of Ukraine. At a minimum, Ukraine will have to accept the loss of Crimea, which Russia took by force in 2014.

The West has imposed many sanctions on Russia and promises many more if Moscow invades Ukraine. But the West makes no promise about using military force to reverse the Russian occupation of Ukraine. That the US and NATO have no desire to fight Russian troops on Moscow’s borders is Putin’s leverage in the upcoming talks. If Putin overplays his hand, however, the long-term costs to Russia too will be heavy. That is the assumption guiding Biden to seek a reasonable compromise with Putin.

What lessons does Ukraine offer South Asia? If Delhi lets problems with the neighbours fester for long and acts in a high-handed manner, the smaller states will mobilise other powers to strengthen their strategic autonomy from India. Delhi can’t forget the importance of being sensitive to its neighbours’ concerns. The pursuit of a South Asian sphere of influence also demands that Delhi think regionally rather than just nationally on issues that affect the Subcontinent as a whole. But if India’s neighbours go too far, say, in overplaying the “China card” against Delhi, they invite India’s intervention in their internal affairs. At that point, they might find that China can’t really help them against India that is next door. Recall that neither the US nor China could stop India from breaking up their ally Pakistan half a century ago.

India’s neighbours can’t ignore the reality that Delhi’s stakes in the South Asian neighbourhood will always be higher than those of China. And that Delhi, despite its massive and growing power asymmetry with Beijing, will fight for its interests in the region. The Russian economy, for example, is barely a tenth of the European Union’s GDP at about $17 trillion; but Moscow has run rings around Brussels and Washington in Central Europe. Moscow has shown its interests can’t be ignored, but the cost has been steep in the form of economic and political isolation from the West.

Spheres of influence are here to stay as instruments to regulate competition between great powers. But they endure only when the dominant power is wise and its neighbours are prudent. Otherwise, neither the big power nor its neighbours will be secure.

This column first appeared in the print edition on January 4, 2022 under the title ‘For South Asia, a Ukraine lesson’. The writer is visiting research professor at the Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore and a contributing editor on international affairs for The Indian Express

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