India’s tango with the great powers

Geopolitical and economic factors and the re-energised relationship between the U.S. and India are the drivers of change in the trilateral relationship between India, Russia and China. The cumulative impact of these two trends points to a new, emerging configuration of the triangular relationship

February 07, 2015 12:33 am | Updated April 02, 2016 04:18 pm IST

The latest trilateral meeting between the foreign ministers of India, Russia and China was held on shifting strategic sands. It would be no exaggeration to say that the triangular relationship between these countries is entering a new phase — one that differs significantly from the past. India’s ability to navigate this unfolding terrain will not only impinge on its relationships with Russia and China, but also on its wider, international objectives and choices.

The drivers of change in this trilateral relationship are primarily geopolitical and economic. The civil war in Ukraine shows no sign of abating, nor indeed does Russia’s involvement in the conflict. The resurgence of the fighting in eastern Ukraine has left the peace talks in tatters. And Russian support for the rebels has ensured that the Ukrainian forces cannot gain the upper hand. Indeed, the Ukrainians have suffered heavily in the recent fighting. This has led to a chorus of calls in the West to arm the Ukrainian forces. Although U.S. President Barack Obama has demurred against this, several influential voices — including Mr. Obama’s nominee for Defence Secretary, Ashton Carter — have come out in favour of providing heavy weapons to Ukraine.

Any such move will lead Russian President Vladimir Putin to dig in his heels still deeper. Russia already faces a raft of economic sanctions imposed by the European Union (EU) and the U.S. The Russian economy is apparently wilting under the one-two punch of these sanctions and the free-fall in oil prices. The projected slowdown in growth, the depleting foreign exchange reserves, the rising inflation, the downgrading of Russia’s credit rating to junk status: all point to a serious economic crunch. The economic sanctions have already led Russia to tilt closer towards China. The talk of providing weapons to Ukraine or imposing further sanctions will accentuate this shift.

The second driver of change is the re-energised relationship between the U.S. and India. The U.S.-India Joint Strategic Vision put out during Mr. Obama’s visit not only singles out the South China Sea dispute but also commits India and the U.S. to work together with other democracies in the Indian Ocean and Asia-Pacific region. The wisdom of issuing such a statement is debatable. Are we staking our credibility before creating capabilities? Does it needlessly restrict our room for diplomatic manoeuvre in the event of a crisis in the South China Sea? New Delhi insists that a strategic embrace of the U.S. need not limit its relations with China. While this may be true in some generic sense, we should not forget that every move on the chessboard of international politics will invite countermoves. We do not yet live in a world that is free of consequences.

India-Russia relationship The cumulative impact of these two trends points to a new, emerging configuration of the triangular relationship between India, Russia and China. Going forward, Russia-China ties might become the strongest side of the triangle. From India’s standpoint, this is historically unprecedented. New Delhi’s strategic ties with Moscow first took shape in the late 1950s. The backcloth to the blossoming of this relationship was provided by India’s deteriorating relationship with China owing to the disputed boundary. At the same time, ideological and strategic ties between Moscow and Beijing were coming apart. Although the Russians played an ambivalent role during the war of 1962, Indo-Soviet ties, especially in defence, continued to tighten.

The clashes between Soviet and Chinese forces in 1969 led Moscow to propose a treaty of friendship with India. The treaty was eventually consummated at the height of the Bangladesh crisis of 1971. This crisis also saw the American opening towards Maoist China, which subsequently led to a strategic nexus aimed at the Soviet Union. While New Delhi and Moscow were pulled together by their shared concerns about Beijing, India found its choices being circumscribed in other areas as well. For instance, after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, India publicly supported the Russians, while the Americans and the Chinese covertly assisted Pakistan and the Mujahideen against the Red Army.

By the time the Cold War drew to an end, there was a rapprochement between Russia and China. The collapse of the Soviet Union also led India to look more towards the West. Yet, at no point, was there a possibility of a Russia-China entente of the kind that is now crystallising. Nor did the normalisation of the Russia-China relationship outweigh Indo-Russian ties. Most importantly, the developing relationship between Moscow and Beijing did not impact on New Delhi’s immediate interests.

All this appears to be changing. In June 2014, Russia announced the lifting of its long-standing embargo on arms sales to Pakistan. In November, Russia and Pakistan signed their first ever military cooperation agreement. The Russians argue that if India can buy defence equipment from the U.S., why couldn’t they sell to Pakistan. The problem for India, of course, is the strategic import of such moves by Russia. Then again, we must realise that our growing proximity to the U.S. reduces our leverage over Russia. As does Russia’s increasing tilt towards China. As always, a bit of history can be useful.

Russia-China ties might become the strongest side of the triangle. From India’s standpoint, this is historically unprecedented.

Back in the 1960s, the Russians first mooted the idea of selling military equipment to Pakistan. The Indian response was swift and sharp. In a meeting with Soviet Premier Alexei Kosygin, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi bluntly said that “nothing should be done from which it could be inferred that the Soviet Union treated India at par with Pakistan.” India, she added, was “especially worried with regard to Soviet help [to Pakistan], as such help might neutralise what we have obtained from the Soviet Union.” Moscow promptly backed off. The Russians did so because they needed Indian support in their own problems with China. Moreover, India — unlike Pakistan — was not an American ally.

Security architecture The strategic picture now is rather different. Discussions in the recent trilateral meeting underscored the complexities that will confront India. The joint statement issued in Beijing makes the usual noises about the desirability of a multipolar world. Yet, several points need to be unpacked. The statement calls for a security architecture in Asia that must be “open, inclusive, indivisible and transparent”. The use of “indivisible” is interesting. This refers to the American “pivot” and attempts at rallying its allies. By contrast, the India-U.S. statement supports — at least rhetorically — the U.S.-led efforts. The Chinese and Russians have clearly taken note.

Things would be easy for India if it confronted stark choices between the U.S. and China. Consider the position taken by the three countries on climate change. The statement hopes that in 2015, a legally-binding instrument would be arrived at on the basis of “equity, common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities.” This fits with India’s negotiating position so far. But the fact is that the U.S. and China have already agreed upon a plan that effectively carves out an exceptional space for themselves and leaves little for countries like India to work with. This is a nice example of the “G2” solutions for which India will have to watch out.

Another instance of this might be in international trade. The joint statement affirms that the World Trade Organization (WTO) must remain the “preeminent global forum trade”. This reflects their concern about U.S. efforts to create new regional trading blocs in Europe and Asia. The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) being negotiated by the Obama administration aims to bring into force a very different kind of Free Trade Agreements (FTA) in Asia-Pacific, which will bring on to the trade agenda a new set of norms and standards. The Chinese have been explicitly kept out of it by the Americans — in the hope that China will eventually have to come to terms with this trade agenda. Indeed, as the TPP negotiations near completion, the Chinese have informally conveyed to the U.S. their desire to get on board. As in climate change, a U.S.-China convergence on this issue will hurt Indian interests.

Then again, there are issues where the three countries’ interests seem closely aligned — and in opposition to the U.S. They have agreed to support a U.N. General Assembly (UNGA) resolution prohibiting intervention and “forced regime change”. This cuts against the idea of Responsibility to Protect (R2P), which was introduced by the western powers through the UNGA and sought to be built up as a norm governing interventions.

India’s relations with the great powers, then, are entering a period of unprecedented complexity. There are no pat solutions or simple trade-offs. And every move we make will be consequential.

(Srinath Raghavan is Senior Fellow, Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi.)

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