Will India be Sandwiched Between A “Clash of Civilisations” And A “Thucydides Trap”?

India faces a complex web of global interactions that demand careful navigation. The upcoming decade is particularly significant for India as it seeks to establish itself as a major global player, all while dealing with potential challenges such as the ‘Clash of Civilizations’ and the looming ‘Thucydides Trap’
By Sutanu Guru
  • Culture and religion will be the main source of conflict in the world after the Cold War, according to the ‘Clash of Civilizations’ theory
  • In 2022, Sweden was convulsed by gang war and rioting by Somali and other African migrants that injured more than 100 police officers
  • During the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, Osama Bin Laden, considered an American “ally”, formed the extremist group Al-Qaeda
  • Western powers led by the US facilitated the entry of China into the World Trade Organisation in 2000, ensuring China also became the dominant export powerhouse

WHAT are the options before a rising regional power like India? It faces acute dilemmas and unprecedented challenges of perfecting a balancing act. The latest conflict unleashed in West Asia after the brutal savagery of Hamas terrorists on October 7 2023 reveals this in the starkest possible manner. Israel is a friend and strategic partner of India. But Islamic countries like Saudi Arabia and UAE are also strategic partners. Shorn of diplomatic jargon, there is no way India can take sides. This balancing act was practised last year itself when Russia invaded Ukraine and the West imposed draconian sanctions on Russia, including a ban on imports of Russian oil & gas. The United States has become a strategic partner of India in this century. But Russia has been a “relatively reliable” friend and partner for long and sustained the military infrastructure of India when India’s relations with the US were not in the pink of health. Most importantly, the Indian economy needs oil & gas at the most competitive rates possible. So far, India has navigated these treacherous waters successfully. Then there is the existential threat from China. Rapid decoupling is impossible. And, expecting Russia & even the US to come to the aid of India in the event of a military conflict with China would be naïve, to put it mildly.

The next decade is critical for India as it moves towards becoming a $ 10 trillion economy, becoming a middle-income country with a per capita income of $ 10,000 a year. When India reaches that stage, it will become immune to pressures and threats. Yet, it needs stability in the world and the absence of prolonged conflict as they inevitably hamper economic growth, even if India is not directly involved. The sudden and unexpected explosion of violence in West Asia shows the dangerous minefields India has to navigate during its journey towards a global power status. To study the options that India has, one needs to example undercurrents of contemporary history. Essentially, there is a clear possibility of both a “Clash of Civilizations” and the emergence of a “Thucydides’ Trap” phenomenon in the next decade. There is a possibility of India being sandwiched between the two.

For most Muslim migrants living in Europe, the culture and values of the host countries are alien. Not so in India. For Indian Muslims, it is a story of living together for centuries with Hindus, Christians, Sikhs and people of other faiths

Post-Cold War World

The writing on the wall was crystal clear when people living in East Germany, encouraged by fellow Germans in the West, simply broke through the Berlin Wall. Troops stationed there to prevent East Germans from crossing over remained mute spectators, some even joining the joyous celebrations. It was a matter of time before the United States would formally win the Cold War. In fact, it took hardly any time, going by the arc of history. The Soviet Union collapsed in December 1991. America and her allies had won the ideological war. There was a sense of triumphalism in Europe & North America. One well-known scholar Francis Fukuyama gained stardom by pronouncing in his book ‘The End of History’ that there would be no more ideological wars in the future as “Western” values like democracy, liberalism & individual rights would become universal. Western societies were so giddy with “victory” that many swallowed this rather over-optimistic hypothesis hook, line & sinker.

Clash of Civilisations

Not everyone was so starry-eyed and sanguine about the future. One such person was another reputed scholar Samuel P Huntington of Harvard University. Around the time Fukuyama was writing about the end of history, Huntington came up with a hypothesis called “Clash of Civilisations” that eventually became a bestselling book. Huntington was sceptical of the view that the collapse of the Soviet Union signalled an end to conflicts. In his opinion, while the ideological war between Capitalism & Communism might have come to an end, it was inevitable for conflicts of other kinds to emerge in the world. He identified culture and religion as the two emerging fountainheads of global conflict. According to Huntington, the world was characterised by different cultures with vastly differing values and religions. While there were more than half a dozen such “cultures” defined by geography, Huntington was of the opinion that three “cultures” would be the predominant players in 21st-century conflicts. The first was the “Christian” bloc led by the United States that publicly professed to support liberalism, democracy and individual rights. This block was indeed overwhelmingly the dominant force in the world when Huntington expanded his hypothesis economically, militarily and in terms of soft power projection. The second bloc of culture that had the possibility of becoming a global force in the 21st century was “Sinic” led by China.

This bloc would be unabashedly authoritarian and scoff at the liberal values and individual rights espoused by the US-led block and offer an alternative vision of governance where collective rights trumped over individual rights. The third block would be centred around Islam in which countries even with varying cultures would find a common glue in a resurgent Islam. There was no question of this bloc espousing Western liberal values. In fact, Huntington posited back in 1992 that this bloc would be characterised by authoritarian regimes, broken states and hostility towards the West. In all this, he had identified India as a unique culture of its own with predominantly Hindu roots and even Japan as a unique culture of its own.

Since 2012, Xi Jinping has done everything to dash liberal hopes that China would transition into a democracy and open society like the West. He is now considered as powerful and authoritarian as the founder of the modern Chinese Communist Party and former dictator Mao Ze Dong. He is now President for Life

There was a lot of serious study of cultures, historical analysis cum data and a bunch of sociology and political science apart from faith-based identity thrown into the work done by Huntington. Of course, he faced a lot of flak for his work, his assumptions and his hypothesis about an impending clash of civilisations. Huntington was variously described as an Islamophobe (Islamophobia as a term had started gaining currency in Western academia and intellectual circles back then), a white supremacist, a racist and a closet Imperialist among others. But he stuck to his guns. Without going into deep details of his analysis, what Huntington forecasted back in the early 1990s was: that the Islamic world and the Western bloc would become increasingly hostile to each other in the 21st century. According to him, while some authoritarian Islamic states would remain officially allied with the US-led Western bloc, the voice on the street would be implacably hostile. There would be no convergence of values and culture between these blocs. But, according to Huntington, the more consequential and defining clash would be between the “Sinic” block led by China. At a time when the US and its allies appeared invincible in the early 1990s, Huntington argued that the monopoly over power exercised by the US-led bloc would be in danger as the Asian countries started performing relatively better in the decades to come. His most important conclusion for this feature was: that the Sinic bloc would ally with the Islamic bloc and offer a “different” vision to the world. Whether like it or not, cultures represented by a Hindu majority India would be compelled to join the Western bloc as allies as their existence could be threatened by the Sinic and Islamic blocs.

The Western Versus Islamic Bloc

What has happened since then?

  • Islamist terrorism has emerged as a potent threat across the world. Even though the paper titled “Clash of Civilisations” was first published in 1993, there was a serious attempt to bomb and destroy the World Trade Centre in New York.
  • Israel had been confronting terrorism for decades-including the ghastly 1972 Munich Olympics massacre where about a dozen Israeli athletes participating in the games were taken hostage and killed by Palestinian terrorists.
  • The “Islamic World” had already sent its signals to the Western world back in 1983. A large contingent of US and French soldiers were in Lebanon to help contain a civil war. Trucks laden with explosives armed into the American base and killed about 280 American & French soldiers. The chastened American and French forces withdrew from Lebanon.
  • By the time the first serious attempt to destroy the World Trade Centre was made in 1993, Jammu & Kashmir in India was already wracked by Islamist terrorism masquerading as a fight for a “free” Kashmir. But Indian concerns were largely ignored as the big powers were busy elsewhere. The US suffered another humiliation in Somalia during the civil war in 1993 when troops sent to capture a warlord and his lieutenants were themselves surrounded by a mob baying for their blood. “Black Hawk Down” is a famous Hollywood movie based on that fiasco.
  • By this time, the academia, the left leading intellectuals and the “liberal” media had started becoming increasingly sympathetic to the “Underdog”, in this case, the Islamists. Osama Bin Laden, an American “ally” during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, had already formed the outfit called Al-Qaeda. His target was the “Satanic” US and its allies. In the mid 1990s, a well-known left-leaning journalist Robert Fisk wrote a lengthy feature in The Guardian on Bin Laden lavishing praise on him as a “Soldier of Peace”. In reality, Al Qaeda had started bombing US embassies and military bases in West Asia and Africa with impunity. The US aimed missiles at Sudan in realisation to “take out” Bin Laden without success. Bin Laden relocated to Taliban-controlled Afghanistan which also faced a barrage of missile attacks. Bin Laden stayed alive and plotted 9/11.
  • Simultaneously, the strengthening of liberal voices and parties in Western Europe led to a flood of Muslim immigrants. The hope was that they would eventually “assimilate” and embrace Western values of democracy, free speech and individual rights. How naïve the liberals were has become shockingly clear after Hamas terrorists massacred about 1400 Israelis on 10/7. Tens of thousands of Muslims across Western European cities have defied the police and marched with chants that point to the destruction of Israel and the extermination of Jews. They have been openly proclaiming that Islam is paramount and far above the constitutions and values of the countries that sheltered them. Even in Canada, Australia and the US, the “left” and the “progressives” have aligned with the Islamists and marched praising the “resistance” of Hamas.
  • In the Indian context, it has been suffering unrelenting terrorism since the 1980s, first with the Khalistanis and then with Islamists. In 1993, Mumbai was convulsed with bomb blasts that killed close to 300 innocent citizens. That was touted as revenge for Hindu-Muslim riots. Between then and 2014, Indian cities and innocents faced elevated terror attacks with 26/11 being the most horrific.
  • When 9/11 happened, the US declared a War on Terror, invaded Afghanistan and threw out the Taliban regime. In an act of extreme folly, it then invaded Iraq which is now a mess. It finally killed Bin Laden who was hiding near a military garrison in Abbottabad. But terror attacks have continued. Its interventions in Libya and Syria have further inflamed the “Muslim” world.
The Indian Option

What can India do in this context when there is a virtual state of war between the Islamic and Western cultures? No matter what the liberals and progressives think, the post-Hamas horror events have shown that the hope for assimilation and convergence of values between Muslim migrants and host countries simply hasn’t happened. Nor is it going to even if you keep singing John Lennon songs invoking peace around the year. Sweden has been the most liberal and generous host country to Muslim immigrants in the last few decades. What has been the outcome? Forget the rhetoric of right-wing conservatives who are usually accused of Islamophobia.

In 2022, Sweden was convulsed by gang war and rioting by Somali and other African migrants that injured more than 100 police officers. The “liberal” politicians finally realised something was deeply wrong. The Prime Minister of Sweden Ulf Kristersson publicly admitted that “multiculturalism” had failed: “Let me be clear. Massive immigration and poor integration just don’t work. That is why we are changing Sweden’s migration policy and making it the strictest in the EU. Segregation has gone so far that we have parallel societies in Sweden. We live in the same country, but different realities”. Many serious analysts reckon that it may already be too late for some European countries like Sweden in this clash of civilisations.

Harvard Professor Graham Alisson wrote an analysis in 2012 arguing that the world could witness another Thucydides Trap as a rising China challenges the sole superpower America for global dominance

India is different and far luckier than Europe. For most Muslim migrants living in Europe, the culture and values of the host countries are totally alien. Not so in India. For Indian Muslims, it is a story of living together for centuries with Hindus, Christians, Sikhs and people of other faiths. Some bigots exist in India. But they always have. For the majority of Hindus and Muslims in India, Indian culture is a shared space and has been so for more than 1,000 years. There is no doubt that growing religious identity is a reality as Huntington had discovered. There are cases of cow vigilantism. There are cases of Muslim mobs throwing stones at Hindu religious processions. There are occasional riots. There have been cases of Indian Muslims swearing allegiance to ISIS. But that’s inevitable when the Muslim population in India is more than 250 million. On this score, India is relatively immune to the clash of civilisations.

The Rise of China
  • Even as all this was happening in the last decade of the 20th century and the first decade of this century, China was quietly moving towards becoming an economic and military superpower.
    Lured by generous tax breaks, a cheap labour force and rapidly improving infrastructure, global multinationals ensued and China became the factory of the world.
  • Western powers led by the US facilitated the entry of China into the World Trade Organisation in 2000, ensuring China also became the dominant export powerhouse of the world.
    Western leaders, businesspeople and thinkers were convinced that growing economic integration with the world and rising middle-class prosperity would eventually lead to China transitioning from an authoritarian regime to a democratic one. After all, South Korea, Indonesia and Malaysia had travelled down that road.
  • Chinese leaders literally “played” their Western counterparts even as their country reaped the massive benefits of globalisation. There were tensions galore but they were brushed under the carpet as there was simply too much money to be made. Chinese leaders also took care not to publicly threaten core Western interests.
  • By 2012, the GDP of China was touching $ 8.5 trillion as it had already become the second-largest economy in the world. No one in the world had any doubts that China was going to be a superpower if it already wasn’t. Enter Xi Jinping.
  • Since 2012, Xi Jinping has done everything to dash liberal hopes that China would transition into a democracy and open society like the West. He is now considered as powerful and authoritarian as the founder of the modern Chinese Communist Party and former dictator Mao Ze Dong. He is now President for Life.
  • In fact, Xi and his associates have made it clear to the US-led Western bloc that they are offering a “better” system to the world. The ambitious Belt & Road Initiative is one part of that vision of global dominance.
  • Xi has trampled upon Muslim minorities in China but forged close ties with Islamic regimes. When the US imposed sanctions on Iran to control its support for terrorism and its nuclear program, China openly and blithely ignored the US.
  • Even after the Hamas attack, China has taken a stand that effectively supports the Palestinian “cause” and has refused to condemn terror attacks against innocent Israeli civilians. Effectively, what Huntington had forecast back in 1993 is coming true. De facto, China and the Islamic bloc are effectively in an alliance that is hostile to the Western bloc. What happens to India and what does it do? Before we get into that, here is another fascinating hypothesis by another scholar.
The Thucydides Trap

Soon after Xi took charge in China, another Harvard professor Graham T Allison resurrected a hypothesis that predates Christianity. A Greek historian of the ancient era named Thucydides argued that the war between a militarily strong Sparta and a rising Athens was inevitable. According to him, conflict is almost certain when a rising power challenges the existing dominant power. Graham Alisson wrote an analysis in The Financial Times in 2012 basically arguing that the world could witness another Thucydides Trap as a rising China challenges the sole superpower America for global dominance. He cited 16 such historical instances of which 12 resulted in conflict and war. There has been a lot of academic debate over this with many calling this hypothesis hogwash. That’s not the remit of this feature. In the 20th century, Germany versus England and Japan versus the United States do stand out as examples of the Thucydides Trap.
In the latest instance, one doesn’t know if military conflict between China and the US has become inevitable. But there is a full-fledged economic and technological war already going on. The US has passed laws that prohibit companies and other entities from sharing cutting-edge, telecom, space, advanced materials, semiconductor and chip technology with China. Multinationals are already “rebalancing” supply chains by moving manufacturing facilities from China to other countries.
India is emerging as a big beneficiary of this move. For all practical purposes, without killing each other, China and America are at war. If their economies were not so closely integrated, perhaps war would have already happened.

What does India do? For one, it has excellent relations with most Islamic regimes and even a lot of goodwill with the “Muslim” street. It would be foolhardy for India to ally with a Western bloc arrayed against the “Muslim” bloc. After decades, Islamic regimes no longer support Pakistan on the Kashmir issue except by token gestures and do not even treat India and Pakistan with the same lens. For them, India is a future superpower with a massive Muslim population while Pakistan is a failed beggar state. At the same time, the reality is that China and its client state Islamic Pakistan will remain implacably hostile to India. It then needs all the help it can gather in this fight which has shades of culture, values and civilisation.
No matter who is in power, the next decade becomes crucial for India as the world is convulsed by both the clash of civilisations and the reemergence of the Thucydides Trap. Once India becomes a $ 10 trillion economy in the 2030s, it will be immune to such pulls and pressures. But till then, it would be a trudge through treacherous swamps.

Sutanu Guru

Sutanu Guru is a journalist with more than three decades in platforms like Times of India, Economic Times, Business Today & Business World. Currently, he is the Executive Director of the C Voter Foundation

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