Gorbachev will continue to shape Asia long after his death

The West may remember him fondly, but it's the East where his legacy has lasted longer

Mikhail Gorbachev with then Indian prime minister Rajiv Gandhi in New Delhi in 1986. AFP
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With Mikhail Gorbachev’s passing, obituaries have had to sum up the impact of a man who led a superpower and remade the world. Naturally, they tend to focus on his success in ending the Cold War and his failure to hold together a semi-liberalised Soviet Union. But the stories about the fall of the Berlin Wall and major arms control treaties are really the story of the Cold War in the West.

Gorbachev left a separate set of legacies in Asia, which have arguably lasted longer but never became as storied, perhaps because they could only be described in terms of pragmatic realpolitik rather than soaring idealism. Perhaps that is also why there is less recognition of the extent to which Gorbachev’s policies continue to shape the region, or how his objectives in Asia have survived into his successor Vladimir Putin’s foreign policy.

It’s worth remembering that Gorbachev’s chief mission upon becoming general secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in 1985 was to reboot the increasingly stagnant national economy. It had become increasingly accepted among the party elite that the union could not dig itself out of its hole alone; it needed the co-operation of the established industrial economies of the West as well as the up-and-coming ones of the Asia-Pacific. But to open up the flows of trade and technology, the Cold War’s hot conflicts would have to be ended.

Gorbachev’s most ambitious vision was a collective security system for Asia that included Moscow, Beijing and New Delhi

Seeing an end to the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan was at the top of that list for both the US and China, Moscow’s two largest and fiercest rivals. Within a year of coming to power, Gorbachev was describing the Afghan war as a “bloody wound” and indicating that Moscow must get out as soon as possible. By 1989, Gorbachev had pulled off that difficult trick, paving the way for increasingly warm ties with Washington and full rapprochement with Beijing. By 1990, Gorbachev was selling advanced Su-27 multi-role fighter aircraft to China, its former enemy. This pattern of arms sales and military co-operation between Moscow and Beijing has continued ever since and grown steadily more intimate.

India had long hoped for a negotiated settlement over Afghanistan, and a Soviet withdrawal, in order to bring an end to high-level US military aid to Pakistan, the new frontline state. But by the time the Soviets had come to an agreement with Pakistan, India’s concerns had significantly shifted. Now its main worry was that extremists would replace the communists in Kabul, and export their ideology through Pakistan to India, especially Kashmir. This fear proved, at least in the Indian establishment’s view, to be both prescient and persistent, given that the very same struggles continue today. But Gorbachev remained unmoved to then Indian prime minister Rajiv Gandhi’s repeated public and private calls to action. In fact, Soviet intelligence even began to fund Mujahideen groups to protect its interests from even more radical groups.

India, however, had been given special treatment in other ways. Ever since the British withdrawal from the Indian Ocean in 1971, India had been determined to establish itself as the regional power, and relied on the heavily subsidised weapons provided by the Soviet Union to rapidly expand its military capabilities. The USSR was only too happy to help and thereby weaken the US influence in the region. In response to New Delhi’s shopping list, Gorbachev insisted on making ever more sophisticated weapons unavailable from any other source available at low prices. In a global first, this extended to overriding concern within the politburo and leasing a nuclear-powered cruise missile submarine to India.

And yet, with the end of the Cold War and facing increasingly severe economic difficulties, Moscow not only lacked incentives to spend such huge sums competing with Washington in the distant Indian Ocean, but began to see arms sales as a vital source of revenue. Arms sales to India continued, but they now took on a commercial and transactional rather than geopolitical hue. The sticker shock soon put a sharp end to the ambitious expansion of the Indian Air Force and Navy. While India’s economic and diplomatic influence have bloomed in the decades since, its military advantage in the region has never recovered.

Gorbachev’s most ambitious vision of all was a collective security system for Asia that included Moscow, Beijing and New Delhi working together to solve and prevent regional conflicts without turning to “outside” powers such as the US. This is an idea that Mr Putin has also frequently attempted to float several times in the years since.

Unfortunately, there was no common purpose either then or now that made sense to all three countries. India and China’s difficult relationship was not created by the Cold War, so its end could not produce reconciliation. Despite the best wishes, Gorbachev was never able to find a deeper, self-sustaining geopolitical or economic or synergy with India, and neither have his successors. And yet, it seems the two sides have never stopped looking, captivated by the possibilities as much as the satisfaction of simple mutual validation.

Ironically, Gorbachev’s hard work to end the Cold War in the West gave India a chance to reset its relationship with the US. Decades of suspicion and resentment began to slowly melt away as India realigned its economy with the capitalist world. There’s been little looking back ever since.

Gorbachev’s spell in power was a brief six years, and yet the transitions he oversaw were so fundamental that we’re still living with them 30-plus years later. His demise is unlikely to mean that the new order that emerged will pass from the scene.

Published: September 02, 2022, 5:00 AM