After the Second World War, the United States and the Soviet Union entangled in a non-military face-off and ran after each other’s sphere of influence. For more than half a decade, both major powers indirectly fought to expand influence and hit each other’s alliance structures, but never engaged in a direct war. There was a point in history when the US and eleven other western nations formed a NATO alliance to counter communist expansion in the form of the Warsaw pact in 1955. One overarching reason for non-engagement in a confrontation is the development of nuclear deterrence on both sides.
The Cuban Missile Crisis was the only episode of the cold war when leaders of the U.S. and the Soviet Union engaged in a tense, 13-day political and military standoff in October 1962 over the installation of nuclear-armed Soviet missiles in Cuba, just 90 miles from U.S. shores. However, disaster was avoided when the U.S. agreed to Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev’s offer to remove the Cuban missiles in exchange for the U.S. promising not to invade Cuba. Kennedy also secretly agreed to remove U.S. missiles from Turkey. Therefore, nuclear weapons played a key role to cap the possibility of an all-out war, but confrontation shifted to a non-kinetic way of war known as a cold war.
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What happened after the Soviet’s defeat?
After the Soviet defeat in Afghanistan, the cold war never ended and the United States was searching for a new adversary and military independent conflict to justify its war-mongering narratives. The U.S shifted its threat perception from the Atlantic to the Pacific region. The term ” Indo-Pacific ” coined by Trump means that India, the United States, and other major Asian democracies, especially Japan and Australia, will join in curbing China in the new framework of growing “Cold War” influence.
Primarily, the current trends of this cold war are seemingly economic and revolving around trade, investment, and infrastructure development but the strategic and military components of this cold war are not lagging far behind. Then, what is indicating this cold war shift?
U.S Indo-Pacific Strategy declares China, Russia and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea’s (DPRK) as the new rivals and ramped up its new cold war in the Indo Pacific. The immediate contest is referred to as a ‘tri-polar tug of war’ between these three emerging threats in the Indo-Pacific in the areas of global governance, economic rise, cyber threats, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and energy supply. In this tri-polar tug of war, the U.S accused Russia and China of being repressive and revisionist states and committed grave human rights violation records which are unacceptable in the U.S led world order.
In the backdrop of U.S accusations, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov along with their Chinese counterpart rebuffed the U.S statement and stated that “the U.S led global governance practices are against the will of the international community and hence, China and Russia will jointly contest the U.S policing behaviors”. Beijing has already flexed its politico-military muscles to counter the Indo-Pacific alliance and containment strategies against its peaceful rise. Now Moscow also joined Beijing as a strategic partner to expand its influence. In contrast to power politics among major powers in the Indo-Pacific, the Indian Ocean (IO) is the new theater for the emerging cold war. In this scenario, what constitutes IO as a new theater for the cold war?
For the world economy, the Indian Ocean region IOR is the center stage where geopolitics and economics intersect and influence the world order. The Indian Ocean is home to strategic competition among regional and extra-regional states. When it comes to maritime trade, the Indian ocean presents itself as a pivot to the vast geo-economic arena connecting IO to the Middle East and the African continent. More than 80 percent of the world’s oil trade passes through the SLOCs of IOR.
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Two choke points, the Strait of Malacca and Hormuz, make the Indian Ocean strategically important for Chinese and other littoral states’ maritime trade. The economic rise of China is heavily dependent upon sea-borne trading routes, and more than 70 percent of its oil supplies go through IOR. Moreover, IOR hosts 90% of oil transportation routes to US allies like Japan and South Korea. Historically, all conflicts in the maritime domain happened in the Atlantic and Pacific,
Hence the Indian Ocean remains an arena of maritime trade and commerce
Pakistan, a key littoral state, strategic partner of China in CPEC which is a crown jewel of China’s BRI project; closely located at the mouth of the Strait of Hormuz. India on the other side is one of the largest littoral states in the Indian Ocean and a key US strategic partner to contain China, sits at the mouth of Malacca Strait. India holds Andaman and Nicobar Islands and can block Chinese entry into the narrow strait of Malacca and pose a serious threat to Chinese maritime trade. For China’s uninterrupted maritime trade and transportation of vital energy supplies, the economic corridor from Gwadar to Xinjiang provides the shortest and safest route.
Pakistan and India in a larger tri-polar tug of cold war make the whole scenario more complex, when all five countries, the US, Russia, China, Pakistan, and India are all nuclear-weapon states and are competing in IOR. As the US and Russia are extra-regional states and their mainlands are least vulnerable to the nuclearization of IOR. But Pakistan and China are the regional states of the Indian Ocean and facing the direct impact of this cold war. To ease out this vulnerability, China has its military and economic stratagems for this cold war.
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China’s stratagems are economic prosperity, hard and soft power projection, and technological advancements that make it rising power. Belt and Road initiative (BRI) is vital to augment energy supplies for its economic growth. As most of the Chinese backyard is highly vulnerable to US naval presence encircling as far as it can to contain its influence. From the East to South China Seas, the US is ramping up its naval deployments and taking East Asian nations as its alliance partners in its containment strategy.
The US is fueling the fire in East Asian countries with enhanced defense cooperation and benefiting from maritime territorial disputes with China. In South Asia, taking India as a net security provider is a move to create chaos as Pakistan and China will never affirm India’s role and have no choice but to counter it. While considering the regional realities and power politics in the Indo-Pacific region, Pakistan must be cognizant of all the developments and enhance its power projection.
The author is an instructor at Maritime Center for Excellence (MCE), Pakistan Naval War College Lahore and an M.Phil in Strategic Studies from National Defense University (NDU) Islamabad. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. The views expressed in the article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.