An Indo-Pacific Cold War in the Making?

In this exclusive interview by Usanas foundation with Prof. Madhav Das Nalapat, we discuss Indo-Pacific's complex, dynamic geopolitics at a time of intensified geopolitical competition between the United States and China and India's position in the region. This interview covers all the aspects of this complex, multifaceted topic and offers relevant policy recommendations. 

An Indo-Pacific Cold War in the Making?
Via The Diplomat

By Samiksha Roy and Preeti Khenta

On June 18, Usanas Foundation virtually hosted Professor Madhav Das Nalapat. He was one of the earliest Indian voices talking about an "Asian NATO"- a term which has gained increasing recognition only recently. He was also the first to define the Indo-Pacific as stretching from the Horn of Africa to Vladivostok, Alaska, and Chile. In this exclusive interview by Usanas foundation with him, we discuss Indo-Pacific's complex, dynamic geopolitics at a time of intensified geopolitical competition between the United States and China and India's position in the region. This interview covers all the aspects of this complex, multifaceted topic and offers relevant policy recommendations. 

The Transcript of the interview follows: 

Rushali Saha (RS): Professor Nalapat, you were one of the first people to talk about an "Asian NATO". So, could you please tell us a bit of what your vision of this "Asian Nato" was, and has it changed since you first spoke about it in 2014? 

Professor Nalapat: Well, I wish that there would have been good reasons for it to change. Unfortunately, the problem is that NATO is not configured for anything other than cold war 1.0 between the US and USSR. It was a perfect instrument for that. It was a very well-designed instrument to ensure that the Soviet Union did not take over territory other than what it captured during the Second World War. I think they were essentially defending against the coast. I don't think Khrushchev or Brezhnev, or even Stalin boast about the war. It was really serious in any kind of conflict with the west. The Russians had bled themselves terribly during the Second World War. I am very happy that Winston Churchill and Roosevelt were in charge of the UK and the US. Churchill was, unfortunately, dealing with India also. He was responsible for the attenuation of the Bengal famine. A lot of their policy has been responsible for this very unfortunate division of the subcontinent on this absurd belief that Hindus and Muslims are two separate nations. You and I know that the faith we profess, the diet we eat, the lifestyle we follow make no difference to what we are as human beings. It's completely superficial. 

I would only like to say that were it not for Churchill and Roosevelt; they would not have this alliance with the Soviet Union against Hitler. As a consequence of that alliance, Hitler lost even before the first atom bomb was dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I am not going to find fault with Truman's decision. I don't know all the facts about it. I do know about some of the published literature that it would have entailed about 300,000 additional combat deaths if they had not done so because the Japanese are remarkable people. They are pretty fanatic about defending their homeland and emperor. Finally, the compromise that was reached was the emperor, and the emperor system would be spared. I think the allies kept their word even when they had fully occupied Japan. All I would like to say is that Europe needed NATO. The fact is that Yeltsin offered a golden opportunity to the Americans for the Russian Federation, as distinct from the USSR, to come into the fold of the western alliance. Neither Germany, nor France, nor the UK at all welcomed that. The Franco-German alliance, in particular, has dominated the European Union (EU) for a long time. The United Kingdom frankly has always been the odd man out. The Franco-German alliance knew that the minute Moscow entered, that would be the end of Franco-German primacy in the EU, and they opposed it tooth and nail. Unfortunately, in the United States, then, in the 1990s, I am talking about the Clinton period, most of the strategic thinking, even on the Pacific coast, was based entirely on Atlanticism. 

I remember going there and being treated to detailed lectures by 10-15 people from the state department or something in meetings in which all they said was, why are guys like you, you mean countries that are so poor, even thinking of nuclear weapons much less having them? This was way before Pokhran 2, by the way, during the beginning of the Clinton period. Very importantly, why don't you hand over Kashmir to Pakistan? After all, that's where it belongs. I pointed out to them very politely that look ours is a country with a sizeable Muslim population. Today we have about 200 million Muslims; then, it must have been around 150 million at a minimum. The reason why 150 million Muslims realize that they are acceptable and safe in India, and I Would like to say that any Indian who doesn't believe that Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Jains, Sikhs, Buddhists, and atheists have absolutely the same right to be an Indian as any other Indian. Well, that person frankly is not a nationalist. A genuine nationalist is an Indian nationalist. There is no subclassification of the word nationalist. Why is Kashmir important? It is important because Nagaland is important, why Punjab is important. I am not at all happy with this term minority and majority. I am a Malayali; am I not a minority in Delhi? Just because I belong to a particular faith, can I be a majority in Delhi? Malayalis are certainly not a large community in Delhi, at least not as large as in some other parts of India. 

It is significant for India that the idea of India covers Kashmir, covers Nagaland, and Punjab. Like people of any other part of the country, Kashmiris are moderate, modern, liberal, and wonderful people. And if you are telling me that Pakistan is a Muslim country, so it should have Kashmir since it is a Muslim state. I mean, there are Muslims in your country, tomorrow are you going to set them apart in a ghetto, in some enclave somewhere, maybe a location like Guantanamo Bay, or take over some Island and put them there so that you know it's a different nation from the Christians. I mean, it's absurd. In Israel, 20% of the population is Arab. The overwhelming majority accept that they are Israeli Arabs, not Palestinian Arabs. They are a part of a democracy named Israel. A democracy for which, frankly, I have had a soft corner for decades. This is all reflected in my writings about a chap called Mohammed Bin Salman, the crown prince of Saudi Arabia. Well, there's been a lot of vituperation about him, but the fact is that he is the first Al Saud to stand up and say that Wahhabism is not the future, and it was not even the past. He is the first family member ever since the Al-Sauds and the Al-Wahabs entered into this alliance that formed Saudi Arabia. I think an Individual such as that deserves support. That is why I have supported him from day 1. 

One difference between India and China that I can tell you is that When Mao Zedong founded the People's Republic of China, the geographical extent of PRC was twice that of any of the previous governments that had been in power in Beijing be it imperial, democratic or quasi-democratic. It was virtually double. When India was formed, it was not double; it was considerably smaller. Abraham Linkon went into a civil war to ensure the unity of his country. Our people were peaceful, they did not want to go through with it, and they didn't go through it, and I salute that kind of humanity. I would like to point out that values when they are under attack, human security and safety in any form, whether the form of virus or any other form is under attack, it is the duty of those with any respect for humanity to protect and defend them, hopefully by non-kinetic methods but if the other side resorts to kinetic measures. If you do what Mahatma Gandhi advised the British to do, which is to lay down their arms and invite German soldiers into their homes and Hitler into their islands, the outcome of the second world war would have been different. 

RS: Since you mentioned the cold war, sir, and I would also like to bring here the fact that you were one of the first people from India to talk about the "new cold war". So, according to you, do you see Indo-Pacific emerging as the epicentre of this new US-China cold war? How do you see India positioning itself in this geopolitical context? 

Professor Nalapat: Look, I have been very clear that cold war 1.0, frankly given the affiliation of the United States, given the fact that Pakistan in a sense was the godchild of the British. I think that option of joining the western alliance except by surrendering more elements of our sovereignty was not there during cold war 1.0. Today, the cold war 2.0 is not between the US and USSR. It's between the US and China principally. There are two alliances which include the US; I am not going to say it is led by the US. The other is the alliance dominated by China. I don't think joining that is an option. For much, the exact reason why joining cold war 1.0 on the side of Washington was not an option. The complete embrace by the PLA and the Central Military Commission of GHQ Rawalpindi. Now, I don't think GHQ Rawalpindi is particularly distinguished for its humanism or respect for ethical conduct in battle. As far as the Chinese are concerned, they are now, as they openly say, iron brothers with Pakistan. 

At the same time, regrettably, primarily because of serial diplomatic errors made by the United States under the instigation of France, Germany, and the UK. They seem to be slowly coming to their senses. The United States is coming to its senses a little faster. It has accepted the reality of the Indo-Pacific rather than the Atlantic being the cockpit of global affairs. The reality is that there was a systematic battle between the USSR system and the US system. In India, we had a hybrid system, but in large parts, it was based on the USSR system, whether it was planning, take over private industry. I mean, our private sector just after the Second World War was much bigger than the shattered Japanese sector and the non-existent South Korean sector. Today I think Taiwan has about the exact foreign exchange reserves as we have. Taiwan has got, I guess, an export basket bigger than India. That speaks for itself. Fortunately, we had an individual named PV Narasimha Rao, whom I regard easily among one of the best prime ministers of India and the architect of reforms. He was regarded as a timid man, but he was not timid at all. 

As far as the People's Republic of China (PRC) is concerned, allow me to say that I have gone there many-many-many times. I like the people, I respect the communist party, and frankly speaking, Mr Xi Jinping is a formidable adversary to have, but adversary he is. The fact of the matter is that they know the only country in the world that can effectively absorb a substantial degree of decoupling investments from China into another country is India. The Taiwanese themselves have begun decoupling. Japanese have begun decoupling. The United States, Japan, and Taiwan are the three countries that participated the most in bringing China to where it is. They are now doing the inevitable decoupling because three or four years from now; in much of the world, you are not going to buy or unable to buy having components made in China that include ministers the Russian S-400 system which has got components which I am told have come from China. The Sino-Russian alliance has become a reality significantly because of errors made by the western world. Therefore, in my view, we have no option. We have to go with the United States. The people in Washington today can do their mathematics a little better than they used to during the time of Bill Clinton when their mathematics was very faulty, and that is, without India in an Indo-Pacific alliance, that alliance can't possibly hold to contain the Sino-Russian alliance in the Indo-Pacific. 

After Indo-Pacific, this alliance will come to the Atlantic. So, in the Indo-pacific, I think the Chinese are saying we will be the primary power. Both of us (Russia and China) work and take over the Atlantic and dominate the Atlantic. I don't think they are going to keep their word. Siberia, for example, will possibly become more Chinese from the ethnicity perspective than Russians in not very long a time. I think there is a clear understanding of those lines. The Americans understand that. I thought we also understood that. But then, I saw the military chief talking, whom I respect a lot, about the quadrilateral alliance not having any military component. In other words, a Gandhian alliance. I was a little taken aback by that because we don't need that. 

I am an admirer of Mahatma Gandhi. The problem is if the other side breaks specific rules of the games, then it becomes challenging to be a Gandhian and at the same not only to succeed but to survive. I want a strong alliance in the Indo-Pacific not because I want war between the United States or China and India. This kind of military alliance is needed to prevent war, and that's why I support the notion of an Indo-Pacific alliance where India, the United States, Japan, Australia form the Quad and nations like Vietnam, Indonesia, Philippines, Britain, France, Germany, South Africa, Kenya and Madagascar can form the Quad+. The P4 in the Quad, i.e. the central four countries, should not be diluted. Before you have European partners, you need Asian partners. That goes back to "Asian NATO". 

We have to look at facts in the face. We have to stare at the reality of Cold War 2.0 in the face. I didn't reach this retaliation easily. I have been to PRC four times during the Doklam situation. I thought I could pursue the Chinese to understand that throwing India away by demonstrating hostile behaviour to India, as you have been demonstrating in practice, is not a good idea. I am sorry to say they were not convinced by me. They were very courteous to me, but it was clear to me in 2017, after Doklam, that it is an illusion. From then on, I have been talking about Cold War 2.0 as an accomplished fact. The Cold War 2.0 is different. China is not the Soviet Union. We need a military alliance, a design like NATO to deter aggression, deter expansion by authoritarian power, and not cause a war. NATO stopped any prospects of war in the countries it was protecting.

In the same way, my idea of an Indo-Pacific charter, an "Asian NATO", is not designed to ensure war but designed to ensure deterrence to war by showing that there are deadly capabilities and that any combination posed to war with these deadly capabilities will find it impossible to win. I think India, the US, Japan, and Australia are essential partners. India is essential for China that it is kept apart. It's essential for India and the US to be military partner that we form a defensive alliance. There was a chance during Mr Narasimha Rao's tenure for an India-US alliance that was thrown off the table by Bill Clinton. There was a chance during Mr Vajpayee's time under Mr Jaswant Singh as foreign minister for an India-US alliance. I still think that he made a mistake by not sending a division in the Kurdish part of Iraq. It would have given us a certain geopolitical presence. Today Russia is a much smaller economy than India but more geopolitically important than India precisely because it is willing to use kinetic force wherever needed in a way we have not done, except for when we are directly under attack. 

Both the US and India are subject to deliberate cyber intrusion by entities that are essentially controlled. For the US, it is Russia and China. For India, it is majorly Pakistan and China. They want the fringe to expand and expand so that the moderate middle is squeezed and reduced in size in the US and India. We see the hate speech in the US and India. It is designed to weaken society. A society is vital not only when the moderate is strong, but it expands at the expense of the fringe. The reality is anything designed to divide society and divide the moderate middle because unless we have an expansion of the moderate middle, we will not retake a stable democracy. From that point of view, I would like to say that's why the Chinese are already involved in Cold War 2.0. We may not realize that, but it's like living under an illusion. This is the reality of life today. 

RS: Sir, I want to ask you to elaborate on this one point in which you spoke about Taiwan and Australia. If you can talk about how you view the middle power coalition, so to say, emerging in the Indo- Pacific and how do you view it as playing out within the Asian Brotherhood?

Professor Nalapat: I would like to say it was way back in the 1990s. It was P.V Narsimha Rao who gave recognition to Taiwan. No other Government had the guts to do it. Most importantly, he gave full diplomatic status to Israel. Before that, there was a consulate in Mumbai. He is the one who did it. I think there were only consulates at that time. I was among the ones who strongly encouraged him. He had a habit of consulting people from outside the box. He used to speak to people who are from academics, journalism. He spent hours and hours just talking and discussing things with us, even with one or two, even when he was the Prime Minister. That's the reason why he framed wonderful policies. He didn't shut himself up only to the bureaucracy and select a band of views that keep recycling like a kaleidoscope, the same pieces coming together in different patterns. Rao believed in changing the kaleidoscope. I used to push in the case of Taiwan and Israel on one or two conversations subsequently. I believe that some of them somehow came to the notice of the Taiwanese then, with not too many people in the bureaucracy. They said that how can we give full recognition to Israel? That Muslims in India will be unhappy, and the Muslim world will not be happy. We are dependent on Iranian Oil etc. Rao recognized the importance of modern India. Rao recognized the 21st century. He saw the 21st century way back in the 1990s. Americans love Israel. It's my personal view that after what they have been through in Europe, they deserve a pit of land, which is historically a part of their heritage. 

Americans love Israel. President Bill Clinton was not that good, and I would like to say today that Obama was a disappointment too because of the Hillary shadow. Obama without Hillary Clinton was much better in the cases of Cuba, Iran and on various other matters. Even Bill Clinton understood the Importance of India. Rao liked the idea. He went ahead with both Israel and Taiwan.


So I was interested in Taiwan from that time. I was a host of Ma Ying Jeou- President of Taiwan, and I was the Indian host of Dr Tsai Ingram- the current president of Taiwan after a very successful first year. About a year ago, I wanted a second visit. Unfortunately, the Ministry of External Affairs shut it down. Well, they must be having their reason. I had extensive contacts with the Chinese in that period. The point was that this is what I believe as an Indian; if you don't like me, then stop seeing me. I am going to give you the Indian point of view. This is the one reason why after 2017, I used to more or less make every trip to Beijing via Taipei, sometimes via Seoul, sometimes via other capitals but usually via Taipei. Taipei is somewhat like coming from Rawalpindi to Delhi, just about the same people in Delhi. My point is that I am an Indian and what I am saying is what I am believing is true. For example- I have said from day one the government made a big mistake by not buying Iranian Oil, a huge mistake in going along with Donald Trump, he was in some ways a bigger fool than Bill Clinton, but we went along with Donald Trump. That was a huge mistake. We have made some mistakes, including Iran. I think it's unfortunate and which I think is not in our National Interest. 

I have been very open in Washington about my leanings towards Iran. I've been very open about China that India and the United States military alliance is directly against China as long as China is not going to initiate a war. I think that's a reasonable thing to say. I've explained the context of my thinking, and Taiwan is a country that is investing in trillion dollars in the People's Republic of China. Dr Tsai Ing-wen, certainly from the first month of her presidency about five years ago, initiated a move to integrate Taiwanese companies into US- defence and security supply Chains. The supply chain, defence, and security supply chain of Taiwan and the United States are integrated in a manner that is much more than what we have seen between India and the US. Japan and Taiwan integrated very firmly. This is the deliberate policy of Taiwan. Taiwanese are milestones of high tech, whether it is computer chips or something else. Sometimes you produce something in China, but you can't sell it in the United States and much of Europe, hopefully in India as well. P.M Modi was the first to have a wonderful app ban and early recognition of him that he understood the reality of the situation very well. So, Taiwan would be a very significant investment for India, even more significant than Europe, which is more interested in getting capital than giving capital or the Americans as they do very one-sided deals. There's the idea of the fair deal. 95% agree with what I do, and 5% agree with what you do. That's a fair game for them, but unfortunately, today's China is very similar to yesterday's United States. Taiwan is a vital component in the security of the Indo- Pacific. Japanese, Australians, and the United States understand that, and I think more and more people in India understand that.

Abhinav Pandya (AP): Sir, you just mentioned Taiwan. We recently had a significant event, a roundtable discussion on India- Taiwan Relation. We will also have another discussion on the Interaction between journalists from Taiwan and India to promote India- Taiwan ties. So coming back to Russia, I interacted with many people in the Indian official establishment like strategic circles. The dependence on Russia as far as the defence partnership is concerned, that's huge until 2050-2060 for our weapons and defence procurement. We are severely dependent on them. The Indian Official establishment sees that as a grave matter given that they are a little hesitant to abandon that. Recently, the Russian President, Mr Putin, also made it clear that India is more or less on its own if it's about China and India. So how do you think India is going to handle that?

Professor Nalapat:  I must point out that I have never been in the government. I am an outsider to the government. So I don't know what the government is thinking. What I can tell you from my limited range of study is that it is incompatible. For example, Conflict between India and China will involve dimension and scale very different from any conflict between Pakistan and India and significantly different even from 1962. All the incursions taking place continued until May 2020. That's the first time India tugged its heels instead of doing nothing. Unless you go back to the line that you occupied in April 2020. I think we do need a lot more in decoupling. Many of the business people in India forget about the fact that from 4-5 years, if you want a market outside China, Iran, Russia, Pakistan and a few other countries like that, you have to decouple your investments and production units from China. Not every government is going to be as courageous. 

Mao Zedong wanted from day one that China enjoys hegemony over the world. I remember in the 1950s; he stated to the western media that I love swimming in the Yang Sea. I would love to swim in the Mississippi. The hint was somehow missed. What Mao said was that I would like to have a handshake with you guys despite the mud we are throwing on each other, despite the Korean war, and despite what has happened in the Vietnam War. We missed that hint. I think we have to understand the reality of cold war 2.0, and part of the reality will be the large number of weapons platforms that would like to move to India. India is an ideal platform for air platforms and many other platforms. You can't have a situation in which companies are not relocating from China because they will not admit in so many words about cold war 2.0. A country that has not made up its mind as to whether there is even a cold war 2.0 or which side they are on, and as long as you have this, what you are talking about in the 1940s, 50s, 60s. I mean 2002, 2060 dependence on Russia, you are not going to convince them. The Taiwanese are coming to you because they believe that we are not friendly to China, that's what they told me. I said yes, you are right, but at the same time, you are friendly to a country that is now friends with the Chinese military and which shares a tremendous amount of technical and other Intelligence with China and is used as a Catspaw. The same way Chinese are using Pakistan as a Catspaw. 

This opportunity was not missed by Deng Xiaoping in the 1980s, and look where China is. If this is missed by us today, we will be in 30-40 years what we were and what we are today. We could condemn this country for another 30 years of that kind of stagnation by making geopolitical choices with pretty negative and inevitable outcomes. Putin is concerned about being a grandmaster of power excellence on the Global chess floor. I believe that for the first time, after many years, there is a possibility that over time, the US may understand that it's time to bring Russia on their side. Certainly, it's essential to bring Russia on your side in the context of the coming battle in the Atlantic. Whatever the Germans, British or French are going to say; I would like to see Russia on our side. That means that a lot of our critical defence infrastructure is more transparent to them than it is to us. The unshakable Indo- Russia alliance, that's what I mean, and if Putin is working on his interest, Narendra Modi needs to work with Indian interests. Xi Jinping is working on his interest. If Xi- Jinping succeeds, I can tell you Putin will be a beneficiary. India will not be a beneficiary. I can give you that prediction.

AP: How strong is Quad? I mean, we already see an Anti- Quad sort of an Alliance coming up and acting up in a much more coherent manner with much more clarity of thoughts. I can mention a few countries like China, Pakistan, Iran who have signed a 400 million dollar strategic partnership between China and Iran. North Korea is already with China. We have Turkey with China and Saudi Arabia. With the US backtracking for reaching out to Pakistan and Pakistan's mediation between Iranian and Saudis in the middle east, we saw that these people are more or less on the same page. Countries like the Philippines have their reservation with China. So what do you think about this?

Professor Nalapat: I would like to say that I don't believe that Pakistan is ever going to stop embracing the Chinese. Pakistan is not going to stop training, funding, arming, and sending terrorists to Iran. Pakistan does dirty work from both sides. And this is why it has got such a significant degree of high protection from one side. Finally, I want to say; any security alliance is as strong as its weakest link.

AP: You mention that one of the generals was talking about the Gandhian view of having Quad Alliance, and then we are talking about various multiple domains when discussing within the Quad, but when it comes to China, they are more or less seem to have a very determined vision be it about their influence operation for aggression in Ladakh or sending sorties to Taiwan. What is the way out? Do you see some kind of military aggression or a military tactic to deter the Chinese?

Professor Nalapat: I like to avoid any further confrontation with anybody in Pakistan or China. I think Pakistan is in very pretty bad shape. They think they will bend down Afghanistan, but I can assure you that they are facing to bend down themselves. The Pashtuns feel fed up with being treated as second-class citizens together with Baloch and the Sindhis, and the Shias. I think you know that China is in deep trouble. It is a very evolving situation as to what's happening. Still, the reality is we have a golden chance in India to ramp up our rate of growth to double digits throughout the generation the way the Chinese did and to use that as leverage for our geopolitical strengths. The situation facing India, we can use that as our advantage, significantly in the economic sphere. I would like to say that unless we are unsure that the fringes shrink at the expense of these social media and other Intruders trying to expand their boundaries in India, Pakistan, and China involve or America, Russians, or Chinese. The Cybersphere domain is in the contest, and parts of it are taken over.

Some of us don't realize the concept of cold war 2.0 unless it is too late. The Chinese method of warfare is comprehensive warfare across the border. There are not just troops on the border. It's in a lot of other theatres. People who fight such wars are active on the other side. We are capable of defending ourselves, but we have first to understand the war we are fighting, and it's not the same kind of war as 62, 71 or any possible war with Pakistan. It's a war against different kinds of an adversary, and we have to tailor our tactics. Some of these are International Alliance, and part of that is to unlink our critical defences from those who are members of the rival alliance. 

At the end of the interview, Mr Abhinav Pandya, the CEO and founder of Usanas foundation, delivered the closing remarks and thanked professor Nalapat for his time and valuable insights.

Samiksha Roy is a Research Assistant with Usanas Foundation.

Preeti Khenta is a Research Intern with the Usanas Foundation.

Disclaimer: All opinions expressed in the webinar belong to the speakers and are not reflective of Usanas Foundation.