New Delhi: As a new Cold War looms between the United States/ Western Europe on one side and Russia/ China on the other, India has no choice, given its historical policies of Non-Alignment and strategic autonomy, but to balance its geopolitics between the two camps. The camps are by no means distinctly delineated with divisions in the United States itself on engaging or confronting Russia and their extents and China provoking more expansionist and trade apprehensions in the United States on account of their shared Pacific geographies than in Western Europe. But should US-Russia relations travel further south and new flashpoints open in the Middle East besides Syria, Western Europe, concerned about overbearing Moscow on its eastern and north-eastern flanks, would be compelled to make further common cause with Washington. China, which has more or less aligned with Russia in the present circumstances, a neat turnabout from Cold War rivalry, will have no choice but to get still closer to Moscow, since an overweight Western bloc will, sooner than later, hurt the politico-economic interests of Beijing. It devolves on India, therefore, to be highly sensitive and watchful about the looming new Cold War. Its engagement with one side must bear clarity of not being tilted against the other and a steady stream of communications must issue forth to forestall the smallest likelihood of misunderstanding. There is simply no getting away from the fact that India is Non-Aligned. Even as a divided world expects us to compromise, it also demands that we stay true to our convictions since independence. It is in our interest to adhere to the course set by Jawaharlal Nehru.

This longish preface becomes necessary in view of India’s participation in military exercises under the aegis of the China-Russia-led Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). The SCO was established in the immediate post-Cold War period with a manifest aim to counterbalance NATO. India is participating in the SCO military exercises in Russia which would bring it on the radar of Western Europe and the United States. The exercises are, to be sure, counterterrorism manoeuvres which have already generated pleasing headlines in the subcontinent since India and Pakistan will jointly participate in them arguably, outside UN missions, for the first time since independence. Since India has placed Pakistani terrorism at the centre of its geopolitics (misguidedly, in this writer’s analysis), it perhaps pins hopes on some positive spin-offs from collaborated efforts. It is also apparent that Russia and China desire to keep India-Pakistan differences, including those on terrorism, within the bounds of the SCO to present a picture of Eurasian unity in the face of general NATO threats and particular eastward expansions in Europe.

Viewed in isolation, India’s participation in counterterrorism manoeuvres with other SCO states may not be alarming at all. But it is the spin that could be placed on it by leadership SCO states such as China and Russia that is most worrisome. More than even spin, China and Russia could tangle India in SCO playing on its terrorism worries in a manner to compromise its policies of Non-Alignment and strategic autonomy and bring it in the crosshairs of NATO and the West. That denouement cannot be near given India’s redoubtable record of Non-Alignment and strategic autonomy but nevertheless chances cannot be taken. In this matter China cannot be trusted at all. The recent summit between Narendra Modi and Xi Jinping was actuated by Chinese apprehensions of a new Cold War, heightened trade risks with the United States, and the uncertain North Korean situation. Seeing India’s earnestness for peace, China could dangle baits. Anything to do with SCO as a whole should be viewed with suspicion by India. It must not lead its preoccupations with Pakistan to disarrange its engagements with the rest of the world. Assigning excessive weight to Pakistani terrorism blinds India to equal or greater geopolitical dangers. At the earliest India must clarify that its participation in counterterrorism manoeuvres in Russia under the SCO are not directed at other powers or regional groups and that the country will never compromise with its traditions of Non-Alignment and strategic autonomy.