"From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic," said the ever-eloquent Churchill, "An 'Iron Curtain' has descended across the continent". He went on to praise the US as the "primary power" in the world, and argued for a "special relationship" with it. Truman was listening intently. That speech of Churchill is considered to be the start of what would be called the 'Cold War'. Essentially, it was 'war', without actual warfare, between nations on either side of the 'Iron Curtain'.
On the one side was the Soviet Union and the communist regimes under its control, like East Germany, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria and Albania. And on the other side were mainly West Germany, France, Italy, the UK, the Scandinavian nations, and of course the US. The dividing line between the two was where World War II had ended, with the fall of Berlin to the victorious Russian troops and the suicide of Adolf Hitler, in an underground bunker. The irony was that Russia and the Western powers were Allies during the entire War but would turn into bitter rivals after the war, separated by different ideologies: democracy and communism.
The Cold War continued until the Soviet Union imploded in the late 1980s under Mikhail Gorbachev. With the Soviet economy in a shambles, he ushered in market reforms and democracy. The Berlin Wall had earlier fallen and the regimes that had been under Soviet control had started to break away. East and West Germany became one country again. That is how matters remained until a few years ago. The major change has been the phenomenal rise of China, both as an economic and military power. Till the mid-1960s, the economies of India and China were roughly at par. Now, the Chinese economy is five times India's and it has replaced Japan as the world's number two economy, second only to the US. India got a bitter taste of China's military prowess when Chinese troops badly mauled the Indian forces in the winter of 1962 during a brief war in the Himalayas. That defeat still rankles in India. Since then, though New Delhi has ramped up its army to a far more effective force, Beijing has not been far behind. A recent clash along the Line of Actual Control in the Himalayas produced casualties on both sides but ended in a stalemate.
Meanwhile, there has been a global strategic realignment that looks like it will stretch into the near future. India had earlier been close to the Soviet Union, with even a "Friendship Treaty" signed between the two countries under the prime ministership of Indira Gandhi. Its traditional foe, Pakistan, had aligned itself with the US. However, with the end of the Cold War and the break-up of the Soviet Union, Islamabad and Beijing developed close ties, while the relationship between New Delhi and Washington became warmer. The nuclear deal signed between Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and US President George Bush in 2005 signalled the new power alignment. Russia virtually withdrew from the scene.
China's President Xi Jinping has made no secret of occupying what it claims is its rightful place as the 'Middle Kingdom', and eventually overtaking the US to become the prime power in the world. India is not taken seriously as a rival, even though India might imagine so. Nevertheless, in pursuit of its "string of pearls" theory, China has set up a network of military and commercial facilities in several ports, all the way from China to Africa, thereby virtually encircling India. The main countries that have helped China in this process include Myanmar, Sri Lanka, and Pakistan. Even Nepal, traditionally close to India, was recently egged on by China to protest against India building a road on what Nepal claims is its territory.
In addition, there is the highly ambitious 'Belt and Road initiative' (BRI) that Beijing hopes will link a multitude of countries, from China to Europe, bringing them under its influence. In that connection a pact has reportedly been signed between Beijing and Tehran, with far-reaching consequences that should concern the US and India. It can be argued that oil-rich Iran has virtually been driven into the arms of China, given the past hostility between Washington and Tehran and the sanctions imposed by the US. The US has other sources of oil, but for China getting Iranian oil will be a god-send. And adding Iran to its BRI will open the doors to Europe.
China has also been muscling into the South China Sea, most of which it claims as its own. Other countries in east and south-east Asia, such as Japan, the Philippines, Taiwan, Vietnam, and Indonesia dispute this, thereby bringing them closer to the US. Yet another development has mollified India. On July 6, Washington suddenly announced that foreign students studying in the US, who are now being compelled to conduct their studies online due to the continuing pandemic, would have to return to their countries. This was in conformity with Trump's 'America First' presidential campaign. But it imperiled the careers of some 200,000 Indians studying in US universities. It could also have weaned away many of Trump's supporters of Indian origin, an important consideration with the Presidential poll only four months away. Whatever the reasons, on July 14, Trump did an about-turn and rescinded the earlier order, letting Indian students in the US breathe easier.
Putting all these developments together, the pattern of a new 'Cold War' emerges. The main antagonists on one side are the US, India, Japan, probably Australia, and the countries in south-east Asia, and on the other China, Pakistan, perhaps Turkey, and Iran. As an ancient Chinese saying goes, "May you live in interesting times". Indeed, we are.
The writer is a former editor of Khaleej Times
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