Monday, July 15, 2024

Sweden Joins NATO: Walk Towards Instability and Nuclear Paradox

Sweden’s NATO membership is a push towards a Nuclear Paradox.

Indo-Swedish convergence view of China as a common threat is a misconception.

Territorial expansionism is not limited to Europe; the hegemonic aspirations of powers are also visible in the Indo-Pacific.

Many misunderstood the request for Chinese research ships to Sri Lankan waters.

In the late nineteenth century, Rudolf Kjellén, a Swedish political scientist at the universities in Uppsala and Göteborg, coined the word “Geopolitik.”. Geopolitics is a widely used word in the present day. It was used for the first time by Kjellén, who feared Russian expansionism in the Baltic Sea and designed a strategy to counter Russian expansionism, protecting Sweden and Finland. However, Kjellén failed to convince the Swedes to counter Russian expansionism and transferred his work to the German school of geopolitical thinkers, which ended up with two World Wars. A century after the geopolitical thinker Rudolf Kjellén, it is as if we were revisiting his thinking when Sweden joined NATO to counter Russian expansionism in Europe. 

NATO and Nuclear Paradox

Security is not a one-way street. Insecurity in Putin’s Russia increased when NATO secured the Baltic Sea, its ‘NATO lake in Europe. Sweden, the 32nd member of the US-led alliance, will transform the Baltic Sea, which is critical for Russia’s naval defense and trade routes, into a ‘NATO lake.’ Geographically, Sweden has one of the longest land borders facing Russia, which makes a direct concern for Russia’s immediate security. While the expansion of NATO is celebrated in the West as an additional shield against the aggression of Putin, there is a danger of a step up in the nuclear escalation ladder towards the use of a nuclear weapon. 

Ever since the last atomic bomb was dropped, we have lived in Oppenheimer’s world of nuclear deterrence. During strategic confrontations among major powers, nuclear weapons would come into play, and today, it’s back due to a war in Europe. According to Gen. Mark A. Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, “It’s the nuclear paradox, the more successful the Ukrainians are at ousting the Russian invasion, the more likely Putin is to threaten to use a bomb — or reach for it.” President Biden was alerting that “we have a direct threat of the use of a nuclear weapon if, in fact, things continue down the path they’ve been going.” Further, the CIA warned that ‘under a singular scenario in which Ukrainian forces decimated Russian defensive lines and looked as if they might try to retake Crimea — a possibility that seemed imaginable that fall — the likelihood of nuclear use might rise to 50 percent or even higher‘. The new geopolitical context where the West sees NATO expansionism as a solution may not be the best recipe for the Baltic region to be wrapped in the “nuclear paradox.” 

China in the Indian Ocean and India’s South Block’ Hindutva’

Assessing Sweden’s NATO entry and its relationship with India, Dr. Jagannath Panda and Mahima Duggal explain ‘Sweden’s NATO entry will not directly impact its relations with India, but the NATO link will certainly enhance convergence on China as a common threat. The new NATO membership will also add to Sweden’s awareness about the Indo-Pacific through distinct local voices from East Asia, South Asia, Oceania, or the Pacific. Unfortunately, this assessment of Indo-Swedish convergence view on China as a common threat and Swedish push factor towards the Indo-Pacific is a dangerous geopolitical context that will further escalate the tension in Asia, impacting stability. 

Territorial and block expansionism is not limited to Europe; the hegemonic aspirations of powers are also visible in the Indo-Pacific. China’s 2023 August map indicates the Chinese expansionist agenda claiming Indian territory. Indian External Affairs Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar quickly rejected it, explaining, “Just making absurd claims doesn’t make other people’s territory yours.” While rejecting, India does not watch and wait for China’s actual interventions; countering and deterring the aspiration is a given condition to many nations, including India. Such nations have limited choices but to propagate their own identity, “Bharat,” now a project successfully implemented from India’s South block, the Ministry of External Affairs. Like Kjellén, a Swedish nationalist who wanted to protect their territory from their neighbor’s aggression, many world leaders today will use their nationalist script, an enabler of geopolitics, and a political tool to claim territory and justify the expansionist agenda.

The recent book of Dr. Subrahmanyam Jaishankar’s ‘Why Bharat Matters’ attempts to anchor Indian Foreign Policy toward the principle of Ram (Hindu God in Ramayana); using the lens of Hindu mythology, Jaishankar wishes India’s neighborhood and the rest of the world also would follow the principle of Ram, connecting the ‘The Ramayana to build a rules-based order’; there is a disconnect that I have observed in Minister’s book and danger of over-hyped ‘Hindutva‘ identity, overspilling with hegemonic aspirations that could impact India’s immediate neighborhood. As India propagates Hindutva, bringing the immediate neighborhood closer to India will be challenging. There will be a challenge to cater to the minority community of different religious backgrounds well in India and its surroundings. Hinduism, as tied to Bharat, goes hand in hand with an appetite for geographic expansion, exemplifying the intertwining of spirituality backed by mythology and applying it to foreign policy, which is not a welcoming cocktail to India’s neighborhood. The pull factor where surrounding nation-states of India are dragged towards the civilizational state ‘Bharat’ will create a gap between India and its neighbors. An extra-regional power could easily exploit this gap, and India should return to a moderate posture after the elections, understanding the consequences.

The Chinese view of India was captured when I visited Sri Lanka last month. A Chinese diplomat speaking to this author, questioned me on Sri Lanka’s independence and the Chinese research vessel moratorium by the Sri Lankan government, “Is Sri Lanka an independent nation? You won independence from the British in 1948; are you independent from India today? India thinks the Indian Ocean is their ocean”. Further adding, “You didn’t see the Indian submarine? What if we had a Submarine visiting Sri Lanka?” referring to the INS Karanj visit last month, February 2024. The one-hour-long conversation was good enough to understand China’s position in Sri Lanka and the Indian Ocean. Sri Lanka’s blockade of the Chinese research ship’s arrival was a considerable concern to Beijing. Acceptance of the same research vessel from the nearby island, Maldives, was the multiple options and maneuvering space China had created in the Indian Ocean. 

However, the request for research ships to Sri Lankan waters needed to be understood by many scholars and explained to the Chinese diplomat. “China didn’t want to do research; you [Sri Lanka] government invited China and now changed the position.” According to the diplomat, the initial request came from Sri Lanka and not from China since Sri Lanka wanted to develop its technical capacity to conduct scientific research in Sri Lankan waters. While India believes it was a Chinese intent to collect oceanographic data for submarine warfare. 

The tension has escalated in the Indian Ocean with the arrival of Chinese research vessel Xian Yang Hong 01 at the same time India announced a missile test off the Odisha coast. India’s Agni-5 missile test from the Indian ICBM program can target the Chinese mainland, a direct threat to China. China sailed the Xian Yang Hong 01 closer to 260 nautical miles off the coast of Visakhapatnam, where India bases its nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines. China will not take a passive posture in the present geopolitical environment, clearly explained by Zhou Bo, a former People’s Liberation Army Senior Colonel, ‘Chinese aircraft carriers and their support vessels will eventually reach the Indian Ocean. If India disrupts restocking supplies for these ships in a third country – like Sri Lanka – then Beijing will be “furious,” explained Zhou.

The strategic confrontation is in full play in several European and Indo-Pacific geographical theaters. There is hubris with the West and NATO, a foreign policy dysfunctionality in the US, territorial aggression of China and Russia, and populism where nationalism is propagated in the wrong direction in India. As the preeminent futurist Herman Kahn, in his 1960 book ‘On Thermonuclear War,’ rightly assessed, “Deterrence itself is not a preeminent value; the primary values are safety and morality.” Unfortunately, it is as if we wish to return to where we left off a little more than three decades ago: the use of a nuclear weapon.

Author profile
Asanga Abeyagoonasekera

Asanga Abeyagoonasekera is a Senior Fellow at the Millennium Project in Washington DC and the author of Teardrop Diplomacy: ChinaSri Lanka Foraypublished by Bloomsbury (2023).

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