Indo-Russian ties: which way?

The visit of Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to India next week will give the two sides an opportunity to discuss recent strategic shifts in the Asia-Pacific region that may impact upon the Indo-Russian summit next month and bilateral ties in the longer term.

Mr. Lavrov will be visiting New Delhi on November 29 to finalise the political agenda of President Dmitry Medvedev's visit to India in the second half of December. In this context it is important for Moscow to find out what role India sees for itself in Washington's strategy of containment of China.

Visits to Asia-Pacific

This strategy came to light when Mr. Obama visited India, Indonesia, South Korea and Japan earlier this month, even as U.S Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Secretary of Defence Robert Gates and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Michael Mullen paid visits to six other countries in the Asia-Pacific area — Cambodia, Malaysia, Australia, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea and Tonga.

This is how Ms Clinton summed up the message that the South Pacific visits sent: “What we are intent upon doing is not just demonstrating we're back by flying from capital to capital, but putting real meat on the bones of that position … Obviously, our military, in close cooperation with yours, is looking at how we can upgrade the presence of the United States in partnership with Australia and others,” she said in an interview to an Australian daily.

During Ms Clinton's visit to New Zealand, the U.S. effectively revived the Cold War-era Pacific Security Pact, ANZUS (Australia-New Zealand-U.S.), which lapsed into a coma after New Zealand, in 1984, banned U.S. nuclear powered warships from entering its harbours. The Wellington Declaration on a New Strategic Partnership between New Zealand and the U.S., which Ms Clinton signed, paves the way for the full restoration of the tripartite defence pact.

Four days later, Mr. Gates, in Melbourne, announced the establishment of a new bilateral working group that, according to the Pentagon's American Forces Press Service, will be tasked with facilitating “greater U.S. naval presence and port visits in the region.” U.S. visitors also declared Washington resolve to expand its footprint in South-East Asia. Ms Clinton called for beefing up U.S. military presence in Singapore, which implies a firmer grip on the strategic Strait of Malacca, strengthening defence cooperation with Thailand and the Philippines in the fight against terrorism and natural disasters, and stepping up interaction with Vietnam.

Earlier this year the U.S. decided to go through with $6.5 billion worth of weapons sales to Taiwan, provoking strong protests from China.

During his visit to Japan, Mr. Obama assured his hosts that the U.S.-Japan alliance is “the cornerstone of American strategic engagement in the Asia Pacific” and “the commitment of the United States to the defence of Japan is unshakable.”

Moscow's concern

There is consensus in the Russian expert community that Mr. Obama's visit to India was focused on winning support for Washington's strategy of containing and encircling China. Most experts think that India is not willing to play the role of “a fulcrum of U.S. anti-China policy,” as one analyst put it.

However, India's reluctance to upset the U.S. in the slightest way, displayed at the trilateral RIC meeting of Russian, Indian and Chinese Foreign Ministers in Wuhan, China, and which came on the heels of Mr. Obama's visit to India, raised concerns that New Delhi may be cozying up to the U.S. a little too far for Moscow's comfort.

According to informed sources, Indian diplomats struck down a reference to “non-bloc” principles for building “an open transparent inclusive and balanced security and cooperation architecture in the Asia-Pacific region” in the Russian draft of the Wuhan communiqué.It will be remembered that India's joining of a short-lived quadripartite forum with Japan, the U.S. and Australia three years ago, followed by joint naval war games held by the four nations plus Singapore in the Bay of Bengal, caused a brief chill in Indo-Russian relations that was felt during Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's visit to Moscow in November 2007.

It may be a coincidence, but a day after the RIC meeting in Wuhan, Moscow bluntly stated its refusal to “artificially narrow down” the debate on the United Nations Security Council reform to “one or two models,” i.e. the 4G formula advocated by India. A spokesman for the Russian Foreign Ministry said that Moscow would support a reform that has “a far larger than two-thirds” support among the U.N. members and that it would “take years” to reach a compromise formula.

New Delhi's reluctance to upset Washington has raised concerns in Moscow.

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