Playing the India Card: The Coming Amerindopean Alliance
In the early 1970s, President Richard Nixon could see that the correlation of forces in the Cold War was moving to America’s disadvantage. The U.S. itself had been weakened by the frustration of the Vietnam War, and at the same time, in Western Europe, it seemed possible that pro-Soviet communist parties might be able to enter elected governments. Meanwhile, in the Middle East, Latin America, and Africa, as well as Asia, communist regimes and insurgencies were gaining.
Indeed, in those days, the world seemed to be drifting into what diplomats called multipolarity; that is, the U.S. would be less the uniquely powerful leader of the free world—and more just one of several power blocs around the planet.
Faced with this relative power shrinkage, Uncle Sam needed a new friend to bolster his side. Fortunately, such a friend was available: the People’s Republic of China. For decades, Mao Zedong’s communists had been allied with their fellow communists in Russia, and yet beginning in the 1960s, the two red regimes split. Indeed, they actually skirmished along their common border in 1969; estimates hold that scores, and perhaps hundreds, were killed on both sides.
So when Nixon traveled to Beijing in February 1972, sharing a toast with Mao, both the symbolism and the strategic reality were enormous. The Cold War thus entered a new phase, in which the U.S. now possessed a far better hand. In other words, Nixon had played the “China Card.”
The play worked well: The U.S. plus China helped shift the correlation of forces, and then along came Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush to clinch the Cold War win.
Now, a half-century later, the situation is much changed. The Chinese economy, having grown some 13,000 percent these past decades—much of that growth at the expense of the U.S., through one-sided trade deals and rampant intellectual property theft—now stands as an enormous economic rival, as well as a serious military threat.
And as China has waxed, the U.S. has waned; our so-called unipolar moment lasted just a dozen years, from the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 to the foolhardy decision to invade Iraq in 2003.
As a result, our “soft power”—that is, the leverage of our cultural prestige and moral suasion—has declined. And as for our “hard” power, our economy has been prosperous but hollow; we’ve only just learned how much we depend on other countries, starting with China, for vital wares. And as for our military power, it’s hard to know, today, the true status of our armed forces; overstretched as they are, how many of our men and women in uniform are sick, or at risk, from the coronavirus?
Indeed, if we want to be bleak, we can raise an uncomfortable, but perhaps plausible, question: What if our military, as well as our society, has just been caught flat footed by the most effective asymmetric weapon in world history—namely a stealthy virus? What would that say about our military intelligence? And how do we know that another killer pathogen isn’t coming in a few years?
In other words, we’re in a situation somewhat analogous to where we were in Nixon’s day: In a world made multipolar once again, we need more poles on our side.
Fortunately, today, there’s another giant Asian country that might prove to be a needed friend: India.
Like China a half-century ago, India has a huge population, and yet it has mostly been an economic under-performer. Deeply influenced by socialist and peacenik thinking, India initially did little to develop itself economically, even as it sought to avoid taking sides during the Cold War.
And yet still, India could not escape power politics: In 1959, it accepted as a refugee the Dalai Lama, who had fled from nearby Tibet, and ever since, the India-based holy man has been a thorn in the side of the PRC.
For instance, just three years later, in 1962, India found itself in an armed conflict with China—which India lost, albeit with minimal strategic repercussions.
So India, mindful of the danger to the north, China—and also the danger to the west, Pakistan—managed to develop a nuclear weapon in 1974. And in the last few decades, it has finally accelerated its economic growth, such that today, it boasts the seventh-largest economy in the world. Admittedly, India’s output is still meager on a per capita basis—and its overall economy is only about a fifth that of China’s—yet still, India now takes its economic and military power seriously. So it’s entirely possible, perhaps even likely, that India is on a path toward a China-like ascent.
Moreover, India has considerable soft power: It’s a democracy, and as such, it poses a direct challenge, on the Asian continent, to the totalitarians in Beijing.
Furthermore, the Indians are fully aware of their growing role. In a March 25 op-ed for StratNewsGlobal, Vijay Gokhale, who recently stepped down as foreign minister for the incumbent government, wrote in some detail about how India’s growing rivalry with China has been heightened further by the coronavirus. As Gokhale put it, “If we prevail in this fight, we will show the rest of the world, that imperfect as it may be, democracy is the better method of delivering results in the face of an international crisis.” The veteran diplomat continued, “When 1.3 billion Indians can prove this by our deeds and actions, we will gain the world’s respect and we will emerge as a global leader.”
Meanwhile, as The Wall Street Journal’s Sadanand Dhume observed on April 2, anti-Chinese sentiment, spurred by virus fears, is sweeping throughout Indian political and popular culture.
Indeed, in a gutsy display of democratic solidarity, India has greatly warmed its relations with Taiwan—the free and independent breakaway state that the PRC reviles even more than the Dalai Lama.
To be sure, India’s path has hazards: It has fought, for instance, four conflicts with Pakistan over the last seven decades, and that country, too, has nuclear weapons. And China has long been Pakistan’s main ally.
So we can see: A vulnerable U.S. and a vulnerable India need each other. As an aside, it’s worth noting that in its 231-year history, the United States has found itself in a conflict—hot or cold—with just about every major power on earth, including Britain, France, Germany, Japan, Russia, and China. The one notable exception is India; we’ve always gotten along.
And now, we’re seeing the beginnings of an even closer friendship. As this author has noted, Indian prime minister Narendra Modi is a kindred spirit to Donald Trump; both are, after all, right-wing nationalists. Modi had a successful visit to the U.S. last fall, and Trump traveled to India in February. In other words, the U.S. has already played the India Card.
To be sure, Trump is no one’s idea of a Nixonian strategist. Moreover, Modi’s Trumpian qualities might not be an asset in Washington, D.C. after the upcoming presidential election.
To be sure, the first instinct of a President Joe Biden—and his regents—will likely be to want to undo everything Trump has wrought, including his card dealt to India. And yet still, even Democratic globalists will soon realize that the pro-China business relationships of Wall Street neoliberals can no longer form the basis for national policy.
In the meantime, in this new era of multipolarity, we might consider the likely power blocs around the world. We can think of the U.S. and North America as one bloc; second, there’s Europe (yes, the United Kingdom just Brexited from the European Union, and yet as a practical matter, the U.K. isn’t going anywhere far, economically and diplomatically); third, there’s China; and fourth, there’s India. And yes, there’s Russia, runted as it is, which has infinitely more in common with Europe than with China.
Of course, one could make a case for the bloc-status of other nations, notably, Japan, but in this rough neighborhood of a world, it’s impossible to be a truly great power without nuclear weapons. And the same nuke-wielding threshold applies to other countries that might wish to make power-bloc bids, such as South Korea, Indonesia, and Brazil. (And so yes, nuclear-tipped Israel, small as it is, might yet emerge as its own tiny tech-heavy bloc.)
Yet if we accept a new Big Four for the 21st century—the U.S., Europe, China, and India—then we can see how an adroit American president might be able to pull together a superior correlation of forces in a struggle with China. That is, the U.S., plus Europe, plus India, vs. China. If one is in a mood for neologisms, one might even call it the Amerindopean Alliance.
Admittedly, right now, Europeans might not be in a mood to do much in concert with the U.S, and yet Trump won’t be president forever. And so the cultural ties that bind are likely to stay binding—especially if the alternative is Chinese hegemony.
And as for the U.S. and India, we might think back to one huge asset we Americans have: the English language. Not everyone in India speaks English, but the Indian elite all know the international lingua franca.
This author once heard Herman Kahn, the famed nuclear think-tanker, say that the
most important fact of the 20th century was that the Americans and British spoke the same language—and that’s why they ended up on the same side in two world wars and a cold war.
Similarly, in the 21st century, one of the most important facts could be that the U.S. and India speak the same language.
And that’s how we could make the most of multipolarity—adding India, and thereby improving the correlation of forces.