India May Have to Take Sides in Volatile Polycrisis

The United States is keen on reducing Russia’s power and is making desperate efforts to contain China to retain supremacy, whereas Russia and China have come closer, dividing the world into two rival camps. Amid the growing conflicts in the world, India has the advantage of dancing in both camps as it is a bulwark to China in the East and a destination for investment, but for how long? India may have to take sides if push comes to shove as in the Cold War

By Cmde Ranjit B Rai

Opinion

The leadership of the United States of America, with NATO nations, is hell-bent on reducing Russia’s power by providing weapons, economic aid and ‘five eyes’ intelligence to Ukraine in the war with Russia, which is in its third year with some territorial gains by Russia. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken rushed to Kyiv on May 14 to assure Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky that the USA would provide aid, and he attended to his request for a Patriot air defence system for the city of Kharkiv, which is under threat.

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On the other hand, unless Russian forces annex the strategic port of Odesa for control of the Black Sea, President Putin is unlikely to give in or agree to a ceasefire in the current imbroglio. If cornered, he threatens to use Russia’s nuclear assets.

Apart from the impact of the Russo-Ukraine war, the brazen October 7, 2023, armed incursions from the Gaza Strip into southern Israel by Hamas with other Palestinian militant groups are taking a toll on Israel as this is the first attack on the Israeli territory since the 1948 Arab–Israeli War. It has led to an Israel-Hamas-Palestinian-Hezbollah war. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, determined to eradicate Hamas and Palestinian terror, attacked Gaza by land and air and now Rafah, and opposed the very idea of a Palestinian state.

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The two conflicts involving world powers have made the global economy gyrate, commodity and shipping costs have risen, and market volatility has contributed to financial instability and food shortages, especially in low-income countries. In the Red Sea and the Arabian Sea, shipping costs have spiralled as the Shia Islamist military and political organisation, the Houthis (Ansar Allah), with arms and tacit help from Iran have attacked 14 vessels, including attempts on two US destroyers, USS Gravely and Carney.

The Russo-Ukraine war, Israel’s attack on Gaza, the attacks on Western vessels by the Houthis, and the involvement of Iran and various world powers in these conflicts have made the global economy gyrate, commodity and shipping costs have risen, and market volatility has contributed to financial instability and food shortages, especially in low-income countries

On February 18, 2024, MV Rubymar of the UK succumbed to a missile attack and sank in the Red Sea with 24 crew members on board. On February 19, the Houthis downed two Israeli MQ-9 Reaper drones with the Iranian-supplied loitering Siqr (Falcon) missiles. On February 22, MV Islander, a British-owned ship, was targeted by two anti-ship ballistic missiles and was fired at by the Houthis from southern Yemen. An Indian Navy destroyer rushed to help and landed an Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) team and a medical team on board to assist MV Islander. The large Iranian cargo ship Behshad, call sign EPBW3, is reported to provide the Houthis with real-time shipping intelligence to plan attacks.

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Such a volatile, unpredictable situation is termed a ’polycrisis’. It was coined in the 1970s by historian Adam Tooze, and polycrisis was quoted in the 2023 World Economic Forum at Davos in the Global Risks Report as “the coming together of multiple challenges where disparate crises interact such that the overall impact far exceeds the sum”.

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The USA’s desperate efforts to contain China to retain supremacy are also not bearing fruit. China holds on to the South China Sea area, which it has usurped, and is expanding its PLA Navy and space capabilities, which are predicted to be arbiters in future conflicts. China has partnered with Russia to provide it with energy and weapon technologies, and both cooperate in the UN Security Council. Hence, two camps were formed: one led by the USA and the other by Russia and China.

The US has warned India of the ‘potential risk of sanctions’ after India inked the 10-year Chabahar agreement. The geopolitical equations and rivalries for control and cooperation over trade routes around India are gathering momentum. The story of two ports – Gwadar in Pakistan and Chabahar in Iran – has just started as it has implications for foreign interests, investments, and plans

In times of poly-crises, no Navy can easily operate alone at sea and needs to deploy in coordinated multi-national operations. This led Vice Admiral Brad Cooper, Commander of the US 5th Fleet from Bahrain under US Central Command, to launch Operation ‘Prosperity Guardian’. It is a US-UK-led force that ensures freedom of navigation and the safe passage of all shipping in the Red Sea, the Straits of Bab el Mandeb and the western Arabian Sea. This is the critical and shortest waterway that connects the Atlantic Ocean with the Mediterranean Sea towards the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean through the Suez Canal.

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India has not joined Operation ‘Prosperity Guardian’, but in a change of policy, INS Talwar operated in Task Force 153, currently under Egyptian command, which is one of the five Task Forces under the Combined Maritime Forces (CMF) Bahrain, with a rotational command by navies. This is a new tack as Indian forces in military operations have always operated independently or under the UN Flag.

On May 14, India signed a long-term 10-year agreement with Iran to operate the Shahid Beheshti Port Terminal at the Chabahar port. It is a four-hour passage from Pakistan’s Gwadar, which China has constructed. China has signed long-term strategic agreements with Iran, which allows China to use the Chabahar port. Iran is under severe US sanctions, and the US has warned India of the “potential risk of sanctions” after India inked the 10-year Chabahar agreement. The geopolitical equations and rivalries for control and cooperation over trade routes around India are gathering momentum. The story of two ports situated in the Arabian Sea, Gwadar in Pakistan and Chabahar in Iran, has just started as it has implications for foreign interests, investments, and plans.

External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar, an experienced diplomat, in his book ‘The India Way: Strategies for an Uncertain World’ offers analyses of challenges and spells out possible policy responses and has responded to the USA. Jaishankar has emphasised that the Chabahar project will benefit the entire region, and people should not take a ‘narrow view’ of it

External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar, an experienced diplomat, in his book ‘The India Way: Strategies for an Uncertain World’ offers analyses of challenges and spells out possible policy responses and has responded to the USA. Jaishankar has emphasised that the Chabahar project will benefit the entire region, and people should not take a ‘narrow view’ of it. Currently, India has the advantage of dancing in both camps, of the USA and Russia-China, as India is a bulwark to China in the East and a destination for investment, but for how long? The USA and China are at loggerheads, and President Biden has recently upped duties on goods from China. India may have to take sides if push comes to shove as in the Cold War.

-The writer is a Commodore Ranjit B Rai was a former DNI and DNO in the Indian Navy and Vice President of the Indian Maritime Foundation.