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Cold War 2.0: India's Strategic Conundrum

In every era of international politics, rivalries between the world’s superpowers have been a constant. The growth of an assertive China and Russia’s disruptive behaviour, such as the ongoing war between Ukraine and Russia, have placed both countries at odds with the United States and its allies on the world stage. The ancient ideological battle cry of "capitalism vs. communism" has returned but been reframed as a conflict between democracy (the United States and its allies) and authoritarianism (China, Russia, and others). Several names are being thrown around to describe the current state of instability in the global order, including the new Cold War or Cold War 2.0.

As the United States and its European allies, on one side, and Russia, on the other, continue to play a deadly game of geopolitical brinkmanship over Ukraine and the security architecture in Europe, a new Cold War may be perceived as the return of the previous Cold War. The current status of the US-China relationship, which has entered the strategic competition phase, is reminiscent of the Cold War in a second sense. The third interpretation of "Cold War 2.0" might refer to an alliance between Russia and China to challenge the US-led international system.

India faces the tricky dilemma of relying militarily on the United States and Russia, albeit in different ways. India’s major trading partner is China, which has been increasingly aggressive. The United States is India’s largest export market, yet it has been critical of the country’s restrictive economic policies. The United States, India’s most important strategic ally, advocates for New Delhi to increase its presence in Asia. Neither side wants an aggressive China to take the upper hand in this new Cold War.

There has been a shift in Asia’s power structure, with China asserting its position and hegemony. Since then, the Chinese government has altered its policies and practices. China’s rising regional strength has made it feel less necessary for it to adhere to the confidence-building measures with its neighbours that have been established over time. It has begun to show its muscle along the contested border regions between India and China, leading to increased violence and extended standoffs.

Up until recently, India played the role of a "swing state," remaining neutral between the region’s two superpowers. This is evident from India’s hesitant response to the Quad at first. In his keynote address to the 2018 Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi expressed his hope that his country and China will "operate together in trust and confidence, sensitive to each other’s interests."

The 2017 Doklam border conflict is widely seen as the catalyst that caused India to re-evaluate its membership in the Quad. If this is true, then the border skirmish at Galwan in 2020 was probably a deciding factor in India’s decision to join the Quad and adopt the Indo-Pacific Strategy while being an active member.

A new foreign strategy for the 21st century is being drafted as battle lines are drawn in the Indo-Pacific, besides the Ukraine war. The "Great Game" now extends from Afghanistan to this enormous region of immense geopolitical importance. A hazardous geometry of fault lines and historical strategic mistrust characterise the Indo-Pacific. It has become the focal point of China’s endeavours to build its preeminence as the lone, dominant superpower. The region is becoming the epicentre and nerve centre of international geopolitics and a new global power game. Significant population centres surround it. Eight of the top twenty economies are located in this region, giving it enormous geoeconomic significance.

This region is witnessing the emergence of fresh dangers and challenges to the current global order, driven by a revisionist China. An ambitious Xi Jinping plans to undermine the current international system, which is dominated by the US, by centralising the "Middle Kingdom." Establishing supremacy in the South China Sea and the Taiwan Strait and making preparations for the potential annexation of Taiwan are key components of that objective.

India has huge stakes as well as issues in this rivalry. being a developing state striving to preserve its national security from China and Pakistan. India wants the geopolitical spotlight to stay on China and not move to Russia. Why does it want to?

Tensions between the US and Russia are not a new concern for India, and foreign policymakers have responded to this rivalry earlier as well. New Delhi is equally invested in its ties with Moscow and Washington, given their importance to the country. The relationship with the US is a "global strategic partnership," and with Russia, it is a "special and privileged strategic partnership." India-US connections have expanded in recent years, but India-Russia ties have not. More than 80 percent of India’s primary weapon systems are Russian, favouring Russia. India’s strategic circles generally believe that the US has not viewed Russia as an equal partner since the Soviet Union crumbled in 1991. The Ukraine conflict is also caused by the US-EU’s refusal to include Russia in European security. India walks a tightrope between the US and Russia, but it is not easy. The US has threatened to counter America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) sanctions if India acquires expensive Russian weapons like the S-400 missile defence system. The Russia-Ukraine conflict has hampered India’s military modernization because of increased Western sanctions. The US may also encourage India to join its attempts to isolate Russia. New voices in the US may warn India of CAATSA sanctions if it continues buying Russian armaments. This would hurt India’s military relations with China. The new Cold War also means heightened US-China competition as the US tries to undermine Xi’s China Dream of 2049. In the last 25 years, America’s China policy has shifted from optimism to competitiveness. In 1998, Democrats under Bill Clinton envisioned a strategic relationship with China, which produced terminology like G-2 or Chimerica to describe close US-China cooperation on global concerns. Now, the US has a consensus to compete with China. Russia openly siding with China in this competition raises American eyebrows. Therefore, the US could have sought a strategic balance with Russia to focus on China.


The new Cold War between the US and China also fits India’s security interests and gives New Delhi freedom to manoeuvre with the US. The last Cold War scenario is a Russia-China alliance against the West. History suggests that Russia-China alliances do not last long. Therefore, collaboration is possible, but an alliance is doubtful. India wants to avert this and will continue to wean Russia off China. India’s stance on the Ukraine conflict shows this. This would benefit the US, but Washington has not grasped the Chinese element in India-Russia relations. In designing its Indo-Pacific policy, Japan neglected Russia’s location and capabilities. Russia’s operations in Afghanistan and Pakistan can hinder India’s efforts to balance China. US Indo-Pacific policy ignores the continental (land) factor. India and Russia have to work together to weaken China’s strength. Through efforts like the International North-South Transport Corridor, this alliance would diminish Russia’s economic dependence on China (INSTC). Complications with Russia would divert US priorities to Europe, hurting Indo-Pacific policy. The US should recognise Russia’s role in India’s efforts to balance China. India must prevent Russia and China from deepening their strategic alliance. The US should not utilise outmoded approaches like sanctions to damage its partners. Middle powers like India and Japan do not want Russia to be dependent on China. They should also stress that American sanctions on Russia, Iran, and Myanmar do more harm than good and serve China’s goals.

New Delhi is the logical fulcrum of this new struggle to determine India’s and the world’s futures, given that India is situated in the centre of the new Cold War that is developing around it. India stands to benefit the most if she plays her cards intelligently; on the other hand, there are aspects of its long-standing relationship with Russia that it cannot unbalance. India’s neutrality is probably not a wise choice in the current environment.

However, economic dependency on China is also essential to retain under current conditions. With the United States and its allies, it will be an unequal collaboration. Due to the immense power disparity, it is a guarantee that the United States will be first among equals. However, the trade and security benefits of joining an alliance led by the United States will be significantly bigger and more equal than those that India would receive from a partnership with China. India has to perform a difficult balancing act in world power politics in the event of a protracted new Cold War, which would cause several political and economic challenges. India must leverage its diplomatic and economic capabilities to strengthen its position as a regional and global player.



(Zahoor Ahmed Mir is a Research Scholar from Jamia Millia Islamia Delhi. He can be reached at mirzahoor81.mz@gmail.com.


Nasir Khuehami is the National Convenor of J&K Students Association. He is pursuing Masters in Conflict Analysis and Peace Building from Jamia Millia Islamia and can be reached at Khuehamiayaan@gmail.com).


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