Empires never vanish; they leave fingerprints on the world as they rise and fall.
Their secrets and friends become intangible undercurrents moving beneath modern geopolitics. China, India, Russia, the Middle East and the West comprise the five great political landmasses grating against each other, unable to escape colliding ambitions.
What they want and how they intend to acquire it should dominate policy.
Amongst the noise of its siblings, India is often forgotten. We have Putin curled up in his web annexing neighbours, Xi Jinping courting economies into the jaws of a honey trap and the Middle East picking fights with everything that moves – including itself.
This leaves India and the West making eyes at each other in the form of lucrative trade arrangements. Trump’s February visit is a sign that the West is circling the world’s fifth-largest economy before it succumbs to the temptation of ancient friendships.
Australia barely has its toe in the water. While activists scuttle Adani, 1.3 billion consumers await our co-operation in sharp contrast to a caged dictatorship known to collapse economies over hurt feelings. Australian MPs understand this, but they can’t figure out how to find the Silk Road. Instead, they tie their wrists with Beijing money and talk about India as a safety net they’ve never checked, waiting to rescue them from Pacific powers.
Everything that makes India an attractive prospect also underpins her risk. She is governed by politicians wary of a rising middle class, stricken by poverty, brutalised by religious division, buoyed by the explosion of industry and surrounded by trigger-happy regimes. Unlike Australia, India has been torn apart before. In this situation, safety is not a commodity, it’s a negotiation.
This may explain why India joined the notorious Shanghai Cooperation (SCO), a move that perplexed experts. The SCO is an evolution of the Shanghai Five (China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan), which now includes Uzbekistan, Pakistan and India with Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia loitering at the edges. These are not natural allies but a collection that wants to keep the West and the United Nations out of its internal affairs. Between them, they account for half of humanity, 80 per cent of Eurasia and a quarter of the world’s GDP.
“These are not natural allies but a collection that wants to keep the West and the United Nations out of its internal affairs.”
They are a significant force of influence with India the odd one out in this batch of authoritarians. The SCO promises non-interference in domestic affairs and the preservation of each other’s sovereignty in exchange for the maintenance of hostile borders and the opening of trade corridors, freeing up the transfer of wealth between resurrected powerhouses. These are roads well-travelled. For India, prosperity in the shadow of tyranny may be safer than standing beside the West.
The SCO is the reason China can intern Uighurs in re-education camps without protest from Islamic leaders. Violating human rights is common within the signatories and while Russia and China sit on the UN with veto powers, the West can’t do anything about it. We saw this play out live during the protests in Hong Kong. As millions flooded the streets begging for help, the SCO’s Secretary-General Vladimir Norov insisted member states oppose external forces interfering in Hong Kong’s affairs.
Thomas Ambrosio warned us that the SCO was formed as an attempt to stop liberal democracies taking root in Asia. Australians that dream of Capitalism usurping Communism are in for a nasty shock. Not only is Xi Jinping warming to Maoism, theocracies are popping up faster than Putin can re-arrange Russian law to extend his reign. Meanwhile, India’s constitution, which was founded as a ‘democratic republic’ was changed in 1971 to include “socialist”, making them sympathetic to regional dictators and forever invested in their ‘special relationship’ with Russia left over from the USSR.
India’s ‘Look-East’ and ‘Act-East’ policies outrank Western opportunities, primarily because India is aware of China’s aspirations and knows that it must hold its footing on the political stage as China quietly empowers Pakistan.
The SCO is an interesting solution to this awkward quagmire and if that means ignoring Australia when China tells it to, that is something India is likely to live with.
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