Interview with General (ret.) Asthana: „The battleground for ‘Undeclared Third World War’ is likely to be Indo-Pacific“

Interview with General (ret.) Asthana: „The battleground for ‘Undeclared Third World War’ is likely to be Indo-Pacific“

Global Review had the pleasure to have an interview with Indian General (ret.) Asthana about the geopolitical situation in Asia and the escalating Sino-American conflict i the Covid era.. The author is a strategic and security analyst, a veteran Infantry General with40 years experience in national & international fields and UN. A globally acknowledged strategic & military writer/analyst authored over 350 publications. Interviewed by various National and International news channels/newspapers/organisations. Currently Chief Instructor, USI of India, the oldest Indian Think-tank in India. On Board/Governing Council CEE, IOED, IPC, ITVMNN and other UN Organisations. On Advisory Board of SWEDINT, member EPON. Former Additional DG Infantry. Awarded twice by President of India, United Nations, former Prime Minister Maldova and Governor of Haryana

Global Review: General Asthana, you claim that we are living in an era of an Undeclared Third World War. You define as a paradigmatic shift:

“The conventional war has now taken a back seat, but space exists for such wars at regional level within the overall ambit of Third World War. The new paradigm will be that unlike earlier World Wars, all countries will not be at war, because all of them may not agree to common narratives of key players, hence some countries would be at hot war like Saudi Arabia and Yemen, some countries in military posturing stage, and some will be using other dimensions and instruments of war like economic warfare, trade, diplomatic, technological and information war including cyber warfare. The space dimension is not yet fully explored; hence with recent advancements in this field, the world may see former President Ronald Reagan’s fancy dream of ‘Star Wars’ to new potential. COVID-19 has been a wild card entry in the ongoing world war“. 

     What is the difference to the terms Cold war or New Cold war or geopolitical power struggle as we already in the Cold War haven´t seen a conventional war, but many proxy wars, economic warfare like the COMECON list and also Reagan´s SDI? Is it not old wine in new pipes? Why is it not a new Cold War? 

Major General S B Asthana

Most strategists normally call the present global situation as ‘Cold War 2.0’. Cold War as per Cambridge Dictionary, is a state of extreme unfriendliness existing between countries, especially countries with opposing political systems that expresses itself ‘Not through fighting, but through political pressure and threats’. This expression was usually used to describe the relationship between the US and the Soviet Union after the Second World War. The erstwhile Cold War has as you mentioned did see geopolitical power struggle, economic war, but did not see conventional war..  The present geopolitical situation saw conventional war in different forms with changed instruments and dimensions. The annexation of Crimea, Saudi Arabia’s entry into Libya, The long drawn US Taliban war without UN sanction, triggered by terror action, missile attack by US in Syria, Drone attack on General Sulemani, and missile attack on US base in Iraq by Iran are examples of ‘Fighting’ and limited conventional wars with different dimensions and instruments. In the definition of conventional war, it is presumed to have commenced whenever a projectile/arsenal crosses international border to cause damage on the adversary. There are numerous examples of conventional wars in the present scenario. 

The number of casualties suffered in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, and other areas, and the number of refugees displaced due to these conflicts surpasses the total casualties as well as refugees of both the earlier World Wars put together. In Syrian War alone 3.5 million people have been killed, so far. The global strategic situation described above is way beyond that definition/bounds/realms of cold war. It has graduated to conflicts, capture of territory like South China Sea, innumerable deaths and economic destruction ; hence calling it Cold War 2.0 will be understatement. The reality check carried out in my article you referred, from definitions of War, Force, World War and CNP, clearly brings out  that the global situation has  every element of a World War, except that the dimension, instruments and modalities had changed, and the war has not been ‘Formally Declared’; hence it may not be wrong to call it “Undeclared Third World War with Changed Instruments and dimensions” and the world has already entered in preparatory phase of it, without recognising it to be so.

  Global Review:  Do you think that a declared war will be that disastrous that even the most fanatic nationalists wouldn´t start it?

Major General S B Asthana 

The kind of nuclear and other arsenal which USA, Russia and China have, an all out war is certain to be a mutually assured destruction (MAD). I am of firm opinion that irrespective of personalities on top, it is unlikely that these countries will go for all out war. Even if a war starts with accidental triggers or some reckless action, there will be unsurmountable global and domestic public pressure to negotiate, because destruction of humanity does not suit anybody.   

Global Review: You speak of an axis China- Russia- North Korea-Syria-Iran versus the USA- Israel-Saudi Arabia- Japan- South Korea in a coming or existing conflict, while the rest of the world would engage in strategic balancing. However, Trump different to the Democrats and Republicans try to get Russia. North Korea and Syria out of this alleged axis to focus only on China and Iran. You also claimed that in this Undeclared World War, not the whole world would be involved, but was it in World War 1 and World War 2? You wrote: „All countries will not be at war, because all of them may not agree to common narratives of key players“. But did they agree on a common narrative in World War 1 and World War 2 or weren´t there some axis, while the rest of the world engaged in strategic balancing?

 Major General S B Asthana

 Let me answer your question in two parts. Firstly, the alliances which I indicated are time specific and will change with situation. Novel coronavirus pandemic can be one such situation, wherein global anger seems to be going against China. In international relations, the national interests of countries do not change significantly with political parties and personalities. US-China strategic competition is there to stay irrespective of personalities, although there can be minor variations in handling situations. Secondly in World War 1 and World War 2, there were countries like Switzerland, which did not take part, but the countries which fought, were either on Allies side or the opposing side. In cold war era there was a group of Non Aligned Countries. 

In this preparatory phase of incoming undeclared third world war, the countries will follow what suits there national interest. Like countries stood with US in asking for probe on outbreak of Coronavirus, but even allies did not support US, when it walked out of JCPOA. Such events will be more common in future. Turkey is involved in driving out Kurds, who helped global fight against Daesh is a case of war, as it entered Syria. US and Australian navies are doing military posturing in South China Sea and Chinese adventurism in its core interest areas is an attempt to pressurise/coerce countries suffering from pandemic. The fact that all such events are happening simultaneously, it gives out new dimension of war. There are countries which are asking for accountability of China in COVID-19 and still working with it not to disrupt their supply chain, to fight the pandemic. This is an example of strategic balancing.        

Global Review: Do you think many nations would join an anti-Chinese COVID-19 front demanding compensation for economic and human losses? Do you think Trump could have success with an anti-Chinese alliance? Is it justified to criticize China for the COVID-19 virus, as such a virus could theoretically occur in any other part of the world? Isn´t this just a blame game that doesn´t lead to pragmatic crisis management?

Major General S B Asthana

Many nations have already filed for demanding compensation for economic and human losses against China for alleged delay in response in intimating the world about human to human transmission of COVID-19. There is a global anger against China and its intensity is directly proportional to the number of deaths in respective countries. In my opinion, the global anger is not for origin of virus, but for allegedly hiding facts, allegedly manipulating WHO resulting in delay in global response and alleged destruction of early samples which could have helped in formulation of vaccine. The anger is also not against Chinese population, (who are being viewed as victims), but against Chinese leadership/CCP  Let us face facts that Wuhan was first city in the world under lock down as per Chinese admission. If all transits in and out of Wuhan had been sealed and virus was contained in Wuhan, the world would not have suffered. The world also noticed Chinese adventurism in South China Sea, Indo-Pacific, and Ladakh, making unfair use of its early recovery from COVID-19 to convert it into strategic gains and profiteering by opening ‘Health Silk Road’ as against grants sent by Taiwan, and coercion by Chinese diplomats in countries not following their narrative; hence an anger against China is natural.

Global Review: How do you think the Undeclared Third World War would develop if Trump is not re-elected, but a Democrat president or afterward another Republican candidate? Is the US foreign policy more a  personal or more a structural question?

Major General S B Asthana

I do not think there will be any change in US-China equation/foreign policy by election results of US. The American anger against China, economic and strategic competition with China will remain and has to be managed by any future President of US. The differences can be very minor in terms of their styles of governance. 

Global Review: You wrote that the new world order might not be China-centric or US-centric, but maybe multicentric or multipolar:

„The economic offensive and military posturing of China in Indo-Pacific, especially in the South China Sea and US response has increased the pace of ongoing Third World War. COVID-19 has exposed some vulnerabilities of US and created huge trust deficit for China globally; hence the idea of everyone accepting one/two countries as superpower or global leader may soon be outdated, in the future world. It may appear that China has an upper edge because of controlling COVID-19 earlier, but it is too early to predict because the global anger and trust deficit is against China; hence the strategic situation is fluid. A new global order will emerge, which may not be US/China centric.“

Parag Khanna has a similar view: In his new book „The future is Asian“ he claims that an Asian system is emerging, reviving old historical positions in the world economy, revitalizing old cultural, political and economic interconnectedness beyond the old and new Silk Road. He also thinks that the financial crisis was a Western financial crisis as it hadn´t much impact on Asia and that intra-Asian trade is already surpassing Western-Asian trade : 

„Here the is a more likely scenario. China´s forays actually modernize and elevate these countries, helping them, to resist further encroachment. Furthermore, China`s moves have inspired an infrastructural „arms race“ with India, Japan, Turkey, South Korea and others also making major investments that will enable weaker Asian nations to better connect to one another and counter Chinese manoeuvres. Ultimately, China´s position will not be of an Asian or global hegemon, but rather the Eastern anchor of the Asian- or Eurasian-mega system?“

Do you think this is a realistic assumption? Doesn´t get China which is kickstarting its economy very early after the COVID-19 crisis not in a favourable pole position in the world economy and an advantage in the undeclared Third World War? And would China be satisfied or saturated with the role of an Eastern anchor of an Asian or Eurasian mega system? Which role do you think China, Russia, India and South East Asia could play in such an Asian or Eurasian mega system?

Major General S B Asthana 

I think my views in this aspect are no different than Parag Khanna. In response to last paragraph of your question, China certainly has advantage in kickstarting its manufacturing and rebuilding supply chain and shifting assembly lines to ‘Health Silk Road’ but global trust in China has taken a beating, which will affect its economy adversely in incremental manner. COVID-19 made US and world realise the need to be self-reliant, instead of making China a global factory and then falling prey to its unfair profiteering even during pandemic. The world will look for other alternative manufacturing hubs, but none is likely to replace China in near future as global factory. The diversification will happen slowly but surely. 

China aims to be Developed society and global power by 2049. In the interim it wants to have China centric Eurasia. Overambition of Chinese leaders and its aggressiveness to assert itself is slowly pushing most of the regional and global players against it, which will start impacting its strategic position. Given a choice China will not be satisfied as Eastern anchor, but will like to replace US, and BRI signifies that. Russia will like to play much bigger role in global affairs and continues to be a military power to reckon with, under strong leader, but its influence gets restricted due to economic constraints. South East Asian countries are growing economies and can be alternatives to China in manufacturing, but will largely be under Chinese strategic influence. India is a strong but developing country with young population and strong leadership, with no expansionist design, would remain influential in South Asia. Its global clout will continue to increase as its economy improves.    

Global Review: Parag Khanna in his book „The Future is Asian “describes the coming new Asia as multipolar, inclusive, mostly peaceful due to multicultural diversity, historical traditions and natural geography  which prevents great power conflicts among Asians (China/India: Himalaya) , inclusive, not hegemonic, interested mostly in trade. He also writes: 

„The principal lesson from Asia´s geopolitical history is that no one´s power dominance has lasted for very long before meeting sufficient resistance- internally, from neighbours, or both- to dash its hopes of eternal hegemony. Whether the Mongols, Ming China, or imperial Japan, Asia´s disparate societies have proved too diffuse and impenetrable to be fully absorbed by others. Over the millennia, Turkic, Persian, Arab, Indian, and Russian empires have also sought to establish hierarchies in Asia with themselves as the core power. Asia will always be a region of distinct and autonomous civilizations, a number of which, including China, India and Iran, have an ingrained sense of historical centrality and exceptionalism. As a result, the most any power has achieved to be a thriving sub-regional anchor in a multipolar Asia- very much the scenario unfolding today.“ 

Do you think that this sort of new Pan-Asianism is realistic and have the Asians drawn the historical lessons of the past? Or will we see a re-emergence of the Japanese Great Prosperity Sphere like in the 30s, this time replaced by a neo-imperial Chinese Co-Prosperity Sphere and even a Sino-American war or great power conflict? 

Major General S B Asthana

Historical facts enumerated in Parag Khanna’s book are fact based pages of history. I see multi polarity on the horizon in Asia, with emergence of India, Japan, Vietnam and some other countries improving their comprehensive national power (CNP) along with China. The Sino-American or great power conflict will continue in undeclared warfare domain including all the instruments and dimensions quoted in my paper. As you quoted history, I must point out that the great powers collapsed, when the ambitions of their leaders grew beyond their capacity. Historically Hitler would not have met his fate, had he not attacked Russia in winters. I find China also moving similar way, by opening so many fronts simultaneously, including domestic ones, despite knowing the fact that the global anger is against it.  It’s pushing everyone who doesn’t succumb to Chinese narrative against itself or in US camp. The maximum powerplay is in Indo-Pacific, where some South Asean countries have launched protests against China in UN and Australia has joined US naval FON operations. It can, therefore, be argued alongwith the other reasons mentioned in my paper referred above, that the battleground for ‘Undeclared Third World War’ is likely to be Indo-Pacific. 

Global Review: Many countries don´t want to get involved in the escalating Sino-American conflict. Russian strategists Karaganow and Suslov, therefore propose an antihegemonic New Non-Alignment Movement with Russia as its frontrunner. They write:

„Russia’s foreign policy should be based on the following ideological triad:

  • Preserving international peace;
  • Promoting the freedom of countries to choose development models; defending sovereignty and diversity; countering any ideological, political or value hegemony; and positioning Russia as a guarantor of a “New Non-Alignment”;
  • Jointly protecting the environment and combating new global challenges, including pandemics; promoting a new development philosophy based on the preservation of the global human habitat, and, above all, of man himself, focusing on his moral and physical health and well-being , rather than constantly growing consumption.

It is desirable that each of these ideas become the basis of the relevant policy, a set of foreign policy initiatives.

Russia’s mission in this case would be saving the planet from nuclear catastrophe and environmental disaster, protecting sovereignty and freedom of choice for all countries. This is not an urge for Russia to make everyone happy at its own expense, as it was in Soviet times, but a policy that meets the interests of Russian society. Since such a mission cannot be carried out unilaterally, it is necessary to seek maximum cooperation of all countries in order to consolidate peace and protect the environment. One of the slogans for the proposed policy could sound like “Let’s save the planet together.”

Do you think such a New Non-Alignment movement could become attractive and feasible for many countries, including India which was also a member of the old Non-Alignment Movement? Do you think many countries would follow the Russian proposal?

Major General S B Asthana

What Russian strategist has mentioned is from Russian perspective, but his theme is appreciable. Certainly many countries do not want to be part of Sino-US strategic power play. The recent and practical form of non-alignment will be ‘Strategic Balancing’ as enunciated in my referred paper.  There will be more frequent cases of issue based alliances, and conditional support based by countries based on own national interest. You will find that even countries in Chinese neighbourhood, or US allies continue to trade with both. When a large number of countries including US allies, strategic and trade partners joined AIIB, against the wishes of US, it was quite evident that a time has come that many countries will like to have alternate sources of funding other than west dominated IMF or Japan dominated ADB and will follow their own national interest. Similarly when China exhibited aggressive design of converting feature and atolls to artificial islands, with a view to have South China Sea as ‘Chinese lake’ based on unilateral interpretation of history ignoring international laws, UNCLOS and decision of ICJ, a group of democratic countries huddled together to form QUAD with a potential to counter balance such moves, as Chinese aggressiveness has possibility of obstructing global trade and exploitation of global commons. Strategic balancing is therefore going to be new normal.

Global Review:  Nixon and Kissinger were praised for their Ping-Pong diplomacy, for their detente, for their joint front with China against the Soviet Union which brought the collapse of Communism. However, Carter, Reagan, Bush Senior, Clinton always thought that by free trade and integration of China in international institutions China could become a democratic and capitalist partner. Bush Junior already spoke of China as a strategic competitor and wanted an Asian pivot. However, 9-11 and the involvement in the Iraq and Afghanistan war brought the focus of US foreign policy to the Greater Middle East. Obama wanted to change this gradually by disengaging in Iraq and not intervening in Syria, but it was only a partial disengagement and his TTIP and TPP free trade areas were not established to counter China. After China joined the WTO and pushed its New Silk road. China became a real economic superpower. Trump´s America First was a reaction to this. Trump seems to have a rather Hobbesian view of things, not the free trade perspective of Locke—change and world peace by trade. Many US commentators are now also criticizing Nixon and Kissinger for their China policy that they betrayed Taiwan, Vietnam and made China´s rise possible. Others hope there will be a reset of US-Chinese relations, but a commentator in the Global Times claimed that there won´t be any reset and going back to the US-Chinese relations of Nixon era as the whole situation has changed and China and the USA were now competitors for the position of the next world power? How do you comment on the US/American China and foreign policy? What were its gravest mistakes? Do you think that the Iraq and Afghanistan war were the definite imperial overstretch that had the consequence that the USA messed up its unipolar momentum for a new world order? Was the US policy too Sinophile and underestimated the consequences that Asia would rise while the USA and the West would decline? 

Major General S B Asthana

USA under various Presidents faced different challenges to one basic aim ‘America must remain the global Leader’. The initial policies were directed towards USSR and communism, which was seen as the biggest challenger post Second World War. Later as China opened its economy, US found it worthwhile to invest in China, with an attraction of cheap labour, land and started developing it as manufacturing base. The relationship became so intense as US chose to keep quite, even during Tiananmen Square episode. After USSR disintegrated a number of breakaway countries opted for democracy.  

US policies in Middle-East were biased by oil politics initially, having favourable regime and destabilising unfavourable ones. Its entry into Afghanistan to topple Taliban government and punish al-Qaeda was a compulsion after 9/11 attack in New York and its fight against ISIS caliphate was also a compulsion. The prolonged stay in this region was to checkmate Russian influence and oil. Once shale oil reserves were found in USA, further stay was a strategic error, as US found itself overstretched without proportionate gains.   

As Chinese economy saw sharp rise along with its technological and military power, the US policies saw some shift. Later when China started exerting itself in South China Sea and started competing with US for resources as well influence globally, the competition became very stiff, and ignited the trade war.  Chinese adventurism in Indo-Pacific started the cold war and the same became heated cold war after China converted the features into islands. Now with outbreak of COVID-19, and further adventurism in Indo-pacific, BRI, China is the biggest competitor of US its foreign policies will be directed against China, not to lose its position as global leader. This tug of war will continue irrespective of personalities.   

Global Review: If you review the China policy of Gandhi, Rao, Singh, Vajpayee and Modi, did the Indian China policy have different phases and what was right or wrong about it in your opinion?

Major General S B Asthana

The Indian policy vis a vis China has always been of peaceful co-existence and continues to remain so. India and China have unsettled borders and like any two neighbours, it has many divergences and convergences, which have been changing with time. The trust level was better in pre-1962 era till Chinese annexation of independent Tibet, and Dalai Lama’s escape to India.  In fact the main reason of a setback in 1962 was overconfidence of Indian leadership that Chinese will not attack India, hence it did not prepare itself adequately. Later Indian forces gave befitting reply to Chinese and never lost any engagement with them.  Having betrayed the Indian trust, the main problem between China and India continues to be ‘Trust Deficit’ besides borders, which present leadership is trying to address, notwithstanding occasional spoilers like present standoff in borders. Chinese nexus with Pakistan, which continues to launch proxy war through sponsored terrorist and Chinese support to them is another area of divergence. China also understands that India is a strong country, a large market and tries to calibrate its relationship with India time to time. I visualise that the relationship will remain of cooperation and competition, with occasional threats of confrontation, due to non-demarcation of Line of Actual Control and unsettled borders.  

Global Review: Despite and because of COVID-19 geopolitical power struggles and climate change continue to exist. An ecological, sustainable world economy would be needed. How to solve these ongoing world problems? Do you think the world economy and the world political system has to be restructured? Will globalization be replaced by glocalization and more resilient national economies What should be the lessons from the COVID-19 crisis and what could be the next black swan we could have on the radar? Or do you think the world will do business as usual after the COVID-19 crisis, maybe even worse? 

Major General S B Asthana

The outbreak of Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19), has put humanity to one of the biggest risks of this century, but has taught the lesson of self-reliance, and non-interference in biological and ecological cycle to the entire world. It exposed the vulnerability of strongest nations to unprecedented human tragedy triggered by a possible biological weapon (accidently or otherwise), while the global powers were busy strengthening other elements of CNP. It exposed the dangerousness of any possible biological weapon to the world, adding a new dimension in ongoing undeclared third world war. It has also exposed the suspicion that despite Biological Warfare Convention, the researches on such arsenal are being pursued. I think more talks and conventions on biological researches are needed and stringent punishment be given by global community to countries, which choose to pursue it, by global condemnation. If we don’t do it, there can be a next virus/bacteria emerging somewhere destroying world peace and stability. This solution is an idealistic statement, because world powers don’t mind using pandemic for strategic dominance. 

The economic offensive and military posturing of China in Indo-Pacific, especially in South China Sea and US response has intensified ongoing undeclared Third world war post pandemic. COVID-19 has exposed some vulnerabilities of US and created huge trust deficit for China globally; hence the idea of everyone accepting one/two countries as superpower or global leader may soon be outdated, in the future world. It may appear that China has an upper edge because of controlling COVID-19 earlier, but it’s too early to predict, because the global anger and trust deficit is against China is unprecedented. The global order as well as the economy will get restructured and a new global order will emerge, which may not be US/China centric. The globalization will certainly be replaced by glocalization and more resilient national economies, as you can see incentivisation of companies to shift from single global factory.  All countries, big or small will protect their national interests, look for self-reliance and will protect their strategic choices. It can also be argued that post pandemic this undeclared Third World War could last for decades, and what we are witnessing is the preparatory phase of the war. The world is yet to mentally accept  the transition of Cold War 2.0 into  undeclared Third World War with new dimensions to encompass economic warfare, diplomatic, trade, technological, space, information war including cyber warfare, besides added threat of weapon of mass destruction in the form of coronavirus.

Major General S B Asthana,SM,VSM (Veteran) 

(The views expressed are personal views of the Major General S B Asthana, and do not represent the views of any organisation or Government). He can be reached at Facebook, LinkedIn, and Google+ as Shashi Asthana, @asthana_shashi on twitter, and personnel site

The author is a strategic and security analyst, a veteran Infantry General with 40 years’ experience in national & international fields and UN. A globally acknowledged strategic & military writer/analyst authored over 350 publications. Interviewed by various National and International news channels/newspapers/organisations. Currently Chief Instructor, United Service Institute of India. On Governing Council of Confederation of Educational Excellence (CEE), Security Council of International Organisation of Educational Development, International Police Commission, (IPC, India), United Nations Collaboration for Economic and Social Development in Africa (UNCESDA). On Advisory Board of Swedish Armed Forces International Center – SWEDINT, Member Norway based UN organization-Effectiveness of Peace Operations Network (EPON). Expert Group Challenges Forum, Former Additional DG Infantry. Awarded twice by President of India, United Nations, former Prime Minister Maldova and Governor of Haryana.

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