Second Cold War (US-China) in the offing and India could be speared by Human Rights

Photo of President Xi Jinping meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Emmanuel Macron, President of the European Council Charles Michel and President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen via video link in Beijing, capital of China, Dec. 30, 2020.
[The Dec 30, 2020 Virtual summit of Xi Jinping with European Heads of State]

Human rights is the new ideological divide in the coming Second Cold War. The confrontation between the Western Capitalist world and the Eastern (Soviet Union and China) Communist bloc was the centerpiece of the First Cold War that ended with the demise of the Soviet Union in 1992-93, with the free market-capitalist ideology coming out on top. It was around the time that China having got the measure of the US-dominated international system and benefitted from Chairman Dengxiaoping’s reforms which incentivized Western capital and manufacturing industries to set up shop in China and to gain from low labor costs and state subsidised infrastructure, such as ready-to-occupy factories and industrial parks (such as Shenzen outside Hong Kong) with nearly free supply of water, electricity, etc. and, at the demand end, unfettered access of Chinese manufactures to the wealthy American market, led to China’s rapid emergence in the new millennium as the workshop of the world, and its equally rapid rise up the economic rank-order of countries.

China did not abandon Communism. Rather, its imaginative leadership, starting with Deng, coupled the capitalist get-go spirit and native entrepreneurship with socialist state control that strengthened the Chinese Communist Party’s grip on Chinese society until now when, under the leadership of President Xi Jinping, it is no liberal haven but is economically firing on all cylinders even with a pandemic raging all over the world that US scientists now claim is due to the novel corona virus engineered as a biological weapon that escaped the confines of a government lab in Wuhan.

Human rights was not an issue in Sino-US relations during the Donald J Trump presidency. The focus then was more on strongarming China into leveling the playing field where bilateral trade was concerned, and closing down Chinese access to American technical research in a host of cutting-edge knowledge areas, ranging from nano tech to bio-electronics, high speed computing to data fusion, robotics to artificial intelligence, wherein Chinese high-tech companies, when not stealing classified research through cyber means disregarded intellectual property rights (IPR) and simply replicated high-end products and processes for its own market and for export. And it promulgated laws that compelled foreign companies, seeking to set up manufacturing hubs in China, by law to transfer their proprietory technologies whole to their Chinese partners — usually some Chinese state agency or the other in private sector guise. Alongside, the Chinese also helped its investors to buy off advanced technology Western companies and soon the Chinese tech sector not only got up to speed on the entire range of technologies but also pushed China into the forefront of tech-wise competent countries.

European firms were as much victims of China’s predatory economic and trade practices as American companies. But because Trump made a show of beating down China by himself and because he had sufficiently riled EU capitals by badtalking NATO and poisoning the cross Atlantc partnership generally, the rift between Europe and the US widened and China quickly exploited it. In end-December 2020 in a virtual China-EU summit there was agreement on cross investments, which is now on hold. This because the new US President Joe Biden, in the old presidenial mould, sought to revive a collegial relationship with Western Europe. And secondly, Xi’s China, a little too full of itself, began brazenly to, on the one hand, treat its minorities, especially the Tibetans in Tibet and Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang with criminal harshness — ethnocide campaigns, concentration camps, etc, showing absolute contempt for human rights, certain its wealthy trading partners would rather make money off China than make an issue of mistreatment of these peoples and, on the other hand, to aggrandize disputed territories on land ( Ladakh, Bhutan) and sea (South China Sea, Senkaku/Diaoyu Island chain).

With the US-European consensus on dealing with China solidifying, the Biden Administration in continuation of the Trump line, has challenged Beijing on a host of issues, making it clear that a hard push was coming. Thus, for instance, China’s soft power arm — the so-called Confucius Institutes that the Chinese government had funded and set up on numerous university campuses in the US and Europe, are being shut down. Ostensibly, these institutes were there to spread Chinese language and culture; except they actually functioned as distant police posts of the Chinese state — keeping tabs on Chinese students, reporting on their public anti-China utterances, and even functioning as facilitators for the shanghai-ing of advanced research carried out on these campuses, among other nefarious activities.

The line between the two blocs was formally drawn at Anchorage in Alaska March 18 where the US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken and the Chinese foreign policy chief Yang Jiechi got into a slanging match with a lot of finger-wagging at each other, with the latter — referencing the January 6 insurrection in Washington DC, the institutionalized ill-treatment of Blacks, violence against Asian-Americans and minority communities in America, newly promulgated laws in various states within the US to make voting difficult for these people, all of which renders nonsensical the theoretical democratic rights enjoyed by all Americans — telling Blinken that China will have none of the Yankee notions of democracy and human rights. And by way of an ‘in your face’-measure, Beijing announced the elimination of elected government in the erstwhile British colony of Hong Kong. Beijing then upped the ante, responding to US sanctions on Chinese Communist party notables of Xinjiang held responsible for the excesses against the Muslim Uyghurs and on the export of Xinjiang-grown cotton — an economic lifeline for that province, by counter-sanctioning US officials and unleasing a domestic campaign against buying Western goods.

Sino-US relations were, in any case, headed south fast. The US Navy is reviving a separate fleet for the Indo-Pacific — the 1st Fleet, and increasing its freedom of navigation patrols in the contested waters of the South China Sea. US Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin’s recent swing through Asia, other than to find a way out of the Afghan imbroglio, was to firm up a pan-Asian coalition against China. More active than ever before, the Chinese Navy is now using swarming tactics with supposedly civilian vessels to crowd out fast patrol boats and corvettes of the navies of the Philippines and Indonesia, and of Japan around the Senkakus.

These are large geopolitical developments. But underlying them is the human rights and democracy divide alluded to earlier. China and its main strategic partner, Russia, make no bones about their polities not giving a damn about individual rights and freedoms. The West led by the US, on the other hand, make a fetish of them and, ignoring the fairly deplorable state of affairs at home, seek hypocritically to make these issues something of a litmus test. It is hard to impress anyone with such blatant two-faced policy that amounts to using the relative low state of human rights and slide in democratic order as a means of harrassment and diplomatic pressure.

It is in this melee that India finds itself gingerly traipsing around the edges. The problem for the Indian government is this: It cannot credibly claim that excesses are not routinely committed in the country against religious minorities (Muslims), and Dalits and the other lower castes, that the National Register of Citizens in the borderlands of Assam and in the Northeast is not an inherently discriminatory device to select people for conferment of citizenship and the benefits that accrue from such status, or that the Indian State is becoming more illiberal in terms of freedom of expression, and less tolerant of criticism. The US-based Freedom House has accummulated evidence, collated data, and based on this trove of information concluded that India is slipping badly in the democratic sweepstakes. It formally downgraded India from a “free” country to “partly free” — which is really bad considering just how much the Indian government invests in India’s democratic status to finagle all manner of considerations from the West, and specifically in the fight against China. And what must have really hurt the Prime Minister was its assessment that “The changes in India since Modi took charge in 2014 form part of a broader shift in the international balance between democracy and authoritarianism, with authoritarians generally enjoying impunity for their abuses and seizing new opportunities to consolidate power or crush dissent.”

India’s plunge down the freedom list will be diplomatically used to pressure countries such as India sensitive about their ‘democratic’ credentials. Modi’s India has reacted to such slippage by threatening to have its own human rights commission evaluating developments in the US and other countries in the West. This is no bad enterprise to launch to keep discussions with Western governments on an even keel. The ability to counter US/European charges of disrespect for human rights, etc in India by trotting out the obvious patterns of discrimination against “foreigners” and coloured minorities of all stripes makes for a handy cudgel to hit back with. But if the Modi government is really serious about such a counter then an Indian human rights council or commission will have to be constituted as a permanent body that looks everywhere, keeps tabs on all countries. And it will have to publish reports on a regular basis with facts marshalled in an orderly fashion accompanied by sober analysis. Considering most Indian official agencies are a mess, the prospects of such a thing working are dim.

Absent such an institutional counter, the Indian government can do little else than hope that the official soft-peddling of criticism will suffice in pushing the human rights abuse issues to the background in bilateral dealings with the western countries. It can also try and divert attention by making common cause with the West in reprimanding Asian and other countries falling short on democratic and HR metrics. This has obvious dangers that India is now facing with Delhi going a little overboard in admonishing the military junta in Myanmar, for instance. This is bound to have negative repercussions for India and tighten China’s stranglehold on that country. Shedding its initial caution on the displacement by the military junta in Myanmar of the Aung San Suu Kyi-guided government, it suddenly turned around and came out publicly and shrilly against the increasing violence in Yangbon. Instructed by the Jaishankar-ministered MEA, the Indian permanent representative at the UN Security Council, threw India’s support behind the US position and a neighbour under the bus. Rather than limiting himself to urging “maximum restraint” on both sides — which “evenhanded” stance the Myanmarese junta would have appreciated, he formally condemned the military’s violence against the Myanmarese people, no doubt much to Yangbon’s annoyance and Beijing’s delight. It instantly earned India a place in the junta’s doghouse. One wishes Modi’s MEA had left the treatment of Aung San Suu Kyi, et al alone and said nothing at all. Crucifying a neighbouring state for democratic shortfalls sets India up for precisely the kind of political shellacking it has sought to avoid on the receding democracy-front. Because it will not prevent India from being roasted by the American and European do-gooding agencies. So why deliberately shove your hand into a beehive as Delhi has now done on the Myanmar issue and be surprised at being stung?

This sort of unthinking policy to win a reprieve from the US only hurts India’s national interest while increasing the American leverage on Indian foreign and military policies. Myanmar is but a symptom of the larger malaise afflicting the country in the external realm where between China, relentlessly pushing its advantage, and the US, just as strongly motivated to enlarge its “democratic” camp by hook or by crook, India becomes the passive subject of assault by both sides.

The Modi government would be better advised, and India better off, if with China on his mind, Modiji rethought the path he is set out on of aligning closely with Washington — a line that Jaishankar is pushing hard, and instead worked to recover India’s “strategic autonomy”. Regaining such autonomy will not in any way prevent the country from cooperating militarily and otherwise with the US and other interested states to hogtie China. What it will preclude is this tilting to the US position on any and everything as a policy reflex that potentially has high cost in the short, medium and long term. China will try and screw India at every turn for any reason — just because it can, to extract advantage. The Modi government is now ensuring that the US too will punch India around, also because it can and because it wants Delhi to toe its line.

But unlike in the 1950s when India got up everybody’s nose, in the Second Cold War that’s beginning, there’s no Krishna Menon in our ranks rhetorically to skewer China for its genocide in Tibet and Xinjiang, or show up America for its democratic pretensions, and otherwise dance expertly around the human rights minefield. Krishna Menon was a “pain in the ass” for everybody and no one did more harm to the Indian military and the cause of national security than he. But he was also the only Indian diplomatically feared by everyone for his waspish tongue and “take no prisoners”-debating style that frequently reduced those he targeted into angry incoherence.

About Bharat Karnad

Senior Fellow in National Security Studies at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi, he was Member of the (1st) National Security Advisory Board and the Nuclear Doctrine-drafting Group, and author, among other books of, 'Nuclear Weapons and Indian Security: The Realist Foundations of Strategy', 'India's Nuclear Policy' and most recently, 'Why India is Not a Great Power (Yet)'. Educated at the University of California (undergrad and grad), he was Visiting Scholar at Princeton University, University of Pennsylvania, the Shanghai Institutes of International Studies, and Henry L. Stimson Center, Washington, DC.
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19 Responses to Second Cold War (US-China) in the offing and India could be speared by Human Rights

  1. sendmyjunk says:

    For the US, human rights is a stick to beat wayward countries with but not a criterion to decide friend or foe. The real fight is that China wants to bring about a favourable-to-herself world-order and the US does not want to give up its present preeminent position. India with or without good human-rights record is a useful tool for the US. BJP for India’s sake should stop harassing Muslims, Sikhs (of late), other minorities, liberals, intellectuals, and seculars.

    • krishna soni says:

      There is a huge difference in what the lutyens and media say and what is the ground position,no doubt the NDA gov does not favour minority appeasement politics but calling it harassing would be unfair,for the small hindu muslim clashes these occur from 1947 till 2021,and for the question of dalits and Obc castes, modi himself belongs to obc caste and our president is a dalit and now the question of sikhs arise,refer to the past incidents of 1983 and 1984 RSS was one of the key organisation who promoted hindu-sikh unity,they never distinguish hindus from sikhs,jains and buddhists,in the recent kisan or COMMUNIST andolan some khalistani organisations sponsored by Pak isi like the sikh for justice try to gain advantage of the situation by calling it as a persecution of sikhs though the kisan bills which are very imporant to break the marxist bondage of our economy and our nothing to deal with a community,it is all a hoax.I definitely agree that India should have its own Indian human rights council or commission.

      • sendmyjunk says:

        My friend, science, critical thinking, good education for all, business-friendly & competitive economic environment, functioning institutions, checks & balances, law & order, and equality will make a strong India. Bashing Pakistan to win elections , finding glory & destiny in religion, PMO as the only decision maker, crony capitalism, disdain for experts, undermining institutions, stifling dissent is destroying India. Once present leader is gone, there would be a vacuum. You may see the Army stepping in.

    • San Mann says:

      US now has less credibility on human rights. Recently in Alaska they gave a lecture to the Chinese delegation on human rights, but could not muster a reply when they received one in return. This is what happens when the new ruling party in Washington has been trying to rig the election laws in its favour, and even trying to import illegal aliens as new voters, just to entrench themselves into power. Washington, DC today looks like an armed camp, with thousands of armed troops occupying the capitol, behind barbed wire fences. Meanwhile, the US military and Capitol police are being subjected to an unprecedent purge in the name of uprooting “racism”, but which is really for the purpose of installing loyalists. The ousted president had been subjected to an inquisition campaign to cripple his presidency, by alleging without proof that he was a stooge of Russia. Now the new president looks like a senile blind Dhritarashtra, with the vice president as his Gandhari. Under their blind gaze, all of their Kaurava clan are running amok. All of these things which the ruling party in USA are unwilling to admit, is nevertheless plainly obvious to the world at large. America’s own human rights image is looking more and more tarnished, with its credibility tattered and twisting in the wind.

    • San Mann says:

      Stop accusing India of “harassing Sikhs of late” — you’re peddling ridiculous nonsense for your own communal ends. In what way has India been harassing Sikhs? Are you speaking of the Jan 26 riots in which 394 police personnel were injured by rioting Sikhs? There was certainly harassment of police by the rioters, but exactly how were Sikhs harassed? I see that Islamists like yourself are very anxious to co-opt Sikhs, as per your divide-and-rule imperialist tradition against kaffirs. Sikhism is considered to be a homegrown faith, and part of the national culture. Just because some crooked rioters tried to create an incident, don’t think that you and your Islamists will get some free opportunity to insert yourselves to divide the other communities whom you aspire to lord over. That will never be allowed. I say this as a lifelong atheist.

  2. Amit says:

    Before reaching a conclusion that India is being too accommodative of US interests or being speared by the US over human rights, one should show evidence. So far, I’m not convinced that this evidence is there. The Jaypals of the world made a lot of noise about Indian human rights – this was during the Trump administration. The congressional hearings on Kashmir also happened during the Trump administration. Even Kamala Harris has been quiet after the elections on Indian human rights. Her niece has spoken, but who cares! After Biden came to power there has been noticeably less rhetoric directed against India. There is general rhetoric on human rights, but the specific rhetoric is aimed mainly against China and Russia. In fact, there was much more anti India rhetoric over various issues with Trump than with Biden so far.

    As for India bending over backwards to accommodate the US – again, where is the evidence? India is still going ahead with the S400 purchase and having high level discussions with Russia on security matters. And sanctions against other countries based on CAATSA is more a reflection of American paranoia on Russia than angst against India or Turkey (well, maybe Turkey is a little different). The only real evidence of India bending backwards for the US was over Iranian oil. Now, Iran was deemed less important than the US…seems like a reasonable decision (hope India got something in return).

    As for the Quad, I’ve seen the US change it’s perception of the Indian Ocean and accommodate the Indian vision rather than the other way around. The Quad is more open to other powers now, and freedom of navigation is more the focus. There is also higher understanding of the Indian definition of the Indo pacific rather than the US definition. So how is this Indian capitulation to US interests?

    Even the defence secretary’s recent visit to India did not highlight human rights as a major issue. Based on how the US communicated, it is clear that they need India as much as India needs the US. It is not beyond the pale of US politicians to shoot themselves in the foot and sanction India over CAATSA, but to say that India will be speared by the US over human rights is at best a hypothesis at this stage. Nothing more.

  3. Gaurav Tyagi says:

    The CEOs of a host of Indian businesses and industries in China have expressed concern over the continuing coronavirus-related visa and travel restrictions being pursued by Beijing which they say are hampering their activities.

    They expressed their concern during their interaction with the Indian Ambassador to China, Vikram Misri. Misri, who is on a visit to Shanghai, inaugurated on Friday the Amrut Mahotsav festival, marking the 75 years of India’s independence.

    In their interaction with Misri, the CEOs stated they were experiencing difficulties in operations, mostly on account of travel and visa restrictions being maintained by China as part of its Covid-19 measures, official sources said.

    Misri assured them the Indian Embassy will continue to engage with the Chinese government on the issues related to the travel restrictions, the sources said. (PTI)

    India detected more than one lakh Covid-19 cases on Sunday, the highest daily increase recorded in the country since the beginning of the pandemic. The previous high of 97,894 cases was achieved on September 16 last year, after which India’s cases started sliding.

    India has become only the second country in the world, after the US, to add more than 100,000 Covid-19 cases in a single day at any time during the pandemic. According to data from the health ministry on Monday, the country recorded 103,796 cases in the past 24 hours.

    The biggest sufferers are approximately 23,000 Indian students mostly pursuing Medical studies in China.

    They are stuck up in India since last year. The Chinese government doesn’t want them coming back to China citing the huge Corona virus spike in India.

    Vikram Misri cannot do anything. I don’t see normal flights resuming between China and India anytime soon.

  4. vivek says:

    what is guarantee that Indian human rights council , if constituted as a permanent body(although chances are nill) will monitor internationally, will not work per US interest ? After all its money which drive such organizations.

  5. krishna soni says:

    Respected Sir @Professor Karnad , in this article Paul Antonopoulos ‘’
    mentions that India should form a COALATION OF CIVILISATIONS .It is for these reasons that India, Greece, Cyprus, Armenia, Syria, Iraq and Egypt must establish a Coalition of Civilisations to counter the persistent threats made by jihadism emanating from Turkey and Pakistan. It is only natural that India, as an emerging global superpower, must take the reins and spearhead such a coalition if it is to elevate itself to unprecedented heights of global respectability and influence.

    Just as the U.S. draws on its alliances with NATO and key regional states like Colombia in Latin America, Japan in East Asia and Israel in West Asia; or China draws on Pakistan in South Asia and Ethiopia in Africa; or Russia draws on the partially recognised South Ossetia and Abkhazia in the South Caucasus and Syria in the Middle East to project power and influence, India is severely lagging in having strong and reliable allies outside of its immediate neighbourhood.

  6. Gaurav Tyagi says:

    @ sendmyjunk- What you say makes sense except for your last point that ‘once the present leader is gone’

    Modi is not going anywhere till 2024 at least. He also have plans to contest 2024 elections and continue holding power till 2029. He will be 79 years of age at that time.

    Amit Shah & Adityanath (the U.P. CM) both are waiting in the wings to be the next PM.

    Indian army largely comprises of big talking, no action types. They are happy milking the government and enjoying their power/perks. As per my opinion, they will never interfere in the country’s domestic politics.

    • sendmyjunk says:


      I was alluding to after the passing away of Modi ji. The highly controlling and centralised style of his will not allow next level leadership to flower. This is what happened with Congress. Indira Gandhi did not let anyone grow to be the next national-level leader.

      I agree with your Army comments, but a vaccum has its own dynamics. There are plenty of Officers (I happen to know a few) who think they can fix nations problems better and faster than civilians.


    Another wonderful article by Dr. Karnad. Recently there have been noises emanating from China’s premier website globaltimes regarding India’s acceptance of Taiwan as a separate state. The Chinese are saying that if India wants to establish ties with Taiwan then China will not continue to accept Sikkim as part of India and in future may establish ties with separatist forces in Sikkim. The Chinese also warn of greater support to the North-Eastern insurgents in states like Assam, Manipur and Nagaland.

    Do you think China is able to create and support insurgents in the North-East ? Will China be able to co-opt Myanmar and Bangladesh in this project since these two countries can be great launchpads for insurgents in the North East ?

    On another topic do you think China will be able to support India’s Naxalites and Maoists operating in central India and create more headache for India’s security planners ?

    I would love to know your answers on the same.

    Thanks and regards with best wishes

  8. By email from Joydeep Sircar,,
    Wed, 7 Apr at 9:57 am

    Excellent piece. We must not pander to the Americans about human rights, but fight back tough. The idea of setting up a Human Rights Commission to investigate US abuses is fine and in fact long overdue. A sharp poke in the gut will wake up the US that lndians can and will fight back. The one man ideally suited to the task is the waspish Subramaniam Swamy, but is he too much of a US lover to do the job?

    More relevantly, is the US a becoming a liability for us? Are we holding our breath for Harris to take over and change the US from floundering sheep to hawk?

  9. Amit says:

    I wanted to make some comments about India’s relationship with the US and the role Trump has played in the geopolitical outcomes for India, primarily in response to the general perception among this audience that Trump was great for India, and the US is not a partner to be relied upon.

    Firstly, about Trump. I think he was overall more harmful for India than helpful. He was certainly helpful on China as he went hammer and tongs after China, which suited India admirably. He also went after Pakistan initially, but changed his tune mid way when he realized that India would not send troops to Afghanistan and was actually looking to support mediation between Pakistan and India. He may have been helpful in the middle east too as several Arab countries toned down their antagonism towards Israel, but in terms of benefiting India, this may have been the least helpful.

    However, his other actions indicate more harm than help. He was quite severe with India on trade. He made India bend on Iran and Venezuela – India had managed to get exceptions from the Obama administration on Iranian oil, but could not do so with Trump. His cancellation of the JCPOA also made Iran go into China’s arms, which was negative for India. Trumps antics with EU allies also led to the trade agreement between the EU and China (which was signed after Trump left the office). But this is not good for India as we have an important block more aligned with China, while India does not yet have a trade deal with the EU. He also copped out of the TPP which would have kept the ASEAN somewhat aligned against China. Now China has its own deal with ASEAN/NZ/Australia. All these are net negative for India. All under Trump. He was also quite insulting to the Indian PM many times and has been dismissive about India (climate change, tariff king etc.)

    Yet, analysts in India jump up and down praising Trump and wax eloquent about him. Don’t understand the hoopla! I think the only reason India-US relations flourished in his tenure was because of Indian perseverance and steadfastness rather than Trump’s benevolence towards India.

    On the other hand, if we had someone like Biden earlier, we would not be in the mess we are with Iran right now. The EU also may have delayed signing the trade deal with China, and maybe we would have a stronger anti China technology block. We would continue to have the Indo-Pacific/Quad and the security assistance to India due to it. That would not have changed.

    Finally, about the US being unreliable. I think India has learned how to handle the US much better due to the Trump experience. Also, the US has much less relative power compared to even a few years back and has much convergence with India on China. I think India will handle the US just fine going forward. Human rights and CAATSA notwithstanding.

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