September 27, 2022

Testing times for India to retain geopolitical supremacy

Considering its pursuit to maintain an independent foreign policy, India’s ability to strike a delicate balance to stabilise its relations with both nations has also come into question.

By Namrata Asok

India and Russia inked a record number of Memorandums of Understanding (MoUs) on December 6 (last Monday) taking a positive step forward in terms of military-technical cooperation at the inaugural ‘2+2 dialogue’. India had only adopted this mechanism with its fellow Quad members in the recent past, but a sudden tonal shift has now led India to include Russia in this system. While it is reasonable to explain that India, being one of Russia’s most important export markets for military equipment, is simply trying to maintain its ‘special and privileged’ partnership, the dialogue prompts us to look between the lines and question how secure India is in its relationship with Russia and the US. Considering its pursuit to maintain an independent foreign policy, India’s ability to strike a delicate balance to stabilise its relations with both nations has also come into question.

The formation of the Quad has now ascertained India’s growing affinity to the US. As opposed to the Cold War era, India is no longer apprehensive of choosing sides to the benefit of its foreign policy. US-India defence trade has increased substantially in recent years, and investment and trade in general have been booming. The revival of the Trade Policy Forum (TPF) after four years and the US Consul General Judith Ravin’s prediction last month that trade with the US will eventually amount to USD 145 billion this year, is expected to strengthen Indo-US ties in the near future. Union Minister for Commerce and Industry Piyush Goyal and US Trade Representative Katherine Tai’s discussions at the TPF also suggest that the target of achieving bilateral goods and services trade worth USD 500 billion in the next seven-eight years can be reached. India’s role as a key player in the Indo-Pacific Region, as well as its geopolitical importance, owing to its proximity to China, makes it an indispensable partner to the US in its grand strategy to counter China’s escalating impact, especially with regards to the resource-rich South and East China Seas. The Chinese threat aside, India has also stood with the US and other western nations in their collective efforts to take a firmer stance on the Taliban government in Afghanistan.

Yet, despite being forthright in conveying its desire to maintain an independent foreign policy, India has not ignored its age-old ties with Russia. As we know, most of India’s military equipment is of Russian origin, and the 21st India-Russia summit solidified major defence deals pertaining to the delivery of the S-400 Triumf surface to air missile systems worth USD 5.43 billion, the production of the AK 203 assault rifles in Amethi, greater military-technical cooperation, and with that, the RELOS (Reciprocal Exchange of Logistics) agreement which would allow the sharing of logistics, a variety of military facilities and most importantly, serves as a platform to encourage interoperability. The Indian Navy particularly stands to benefit from the RELOS agreement, as it would enable India to gain inroads in the Arctic due to the presence of Russian naval ports and the possibility of availing their facilities, according to the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA). more than anything, deals like the procurement of the AK 203 rifles establish India’s aim to shift from being a purchaser of arms to an arms exporter, indicating an inclination towards eventual domestic production.

The CAATSA conundrum

With such deals under their belts, the US would be anything but blasé about the situation. CAATSA (Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act) appears to have thrown a serious curveball at the US’ plans to smoothly progress forward in its relations with India. The Act imposes sanctions on Russia, Iran and North Korea, and, in Russia’s case, declares that any country purchasing any equipment (not including spare parts that may be required for equipment already in possession) would be subject to other sanctions. Sanctions were recently imposed on Turkey, a NATO ally, and China for the same. Some experts explain that the US is simply ‘punishing’ Russia for its acts of cyber-espionage in 2016 and very recently, its attempts to encroach on Ukraine, six years after the Crimean annexation. However, can the US truly afford to sabotage its relations with India to simply subdue the Russians? Despite warnings from the US, India decided to go ahead with the acquisition of the S-400s in 2018, with Former President Donald Trump issuing a grave response at the Oval Office, stating that ‘India will soon find out’ if he would be prepared to grant the nation a Presidential waiver, which serves as an exception to the Act. Under current circumstances, President Joe Biden possesses this special power, and is yet to make a decision. A report by the Stimson Centre, an influential non-profit and non-partisan think tank based in Washington, claims that India-US ties could suffer a huge blow, setting it back by 10 years, unless India is granted a waiver, or if symbolic sanctions, rather than those that could have massive political and economic consequences, are imposed upon it.

Some experts have also stated that India’s acquisition of the S-400s must be lauded by the US instead. India’s attempt to improve and strengthen its arms and air defence systems would render it one step closer to being a powerful force in the region against China, and would also be a fringe benefit to the US. But we must remember that India is not swaying under the influence of the US or Russia. China is an immediate foe to India, and so is Pakistan. The Stimson Centre’s report elaborates on this, expressing that the US’ considerable distance from the Indo-Pacific region leaves it unable to gauge India’s security concerns at the borders.

Nonetheless, it would only be wise if the US waives the sanctions against India, and recent consensus in the US indicates a growing inclination towards this course of action.

In reality, Indo-Russian ties have been rather strained, considering the formation of the Quad on India’s part, divergent stances on Afghanistan in the UN Security Council, and Russia’s growing affinity to China in a bid to regain lost relevance in the region.

Revitalised Sino-Russian and Russo-Pakistani ties: A major dilemma for India

There happens to be a notable tendency for many to assume, especially following the dialogue and the summit, that India and Russia’s long-lasting friendship are undoubtedly without any disturbances. In reality, Indo-Russian ties have been rather strained, considering the formation of the Quad on India’s part, divergent stances on Afghanistan in the UN Security Council, and Russia’s growing affinity to China in a bid to regain lost relevance in the region. While India and Russia celebrate 50 years of the 1971 Indo-Soviet Treaty of Peace, Friendship and Cooperation this year, Sino-Russian ties have received a boost with the extension of the 2001 Treaty of Good Neighbourliness and Friendly Cooperation. The first half of this year also saw Putin and Xi solidifying ties with regards to joint space technology cooperation and nuclear energy, wherein Russia agreed to build two nuclear reactors for China. Both Russia and China stand to gain much from their relations. Former Australian diplomat and foreign policy expert Bobo Lo recently stated that Russia could project itself as a greater force on the ‘world stage’ by supplying China with military equipment, while China could expand its inventory of equipment through acquisitions from Russia. In recent times, China has clearly overtaken India and emerged as one of Russia’s largest export markets in defence and otherwise. Furthermore, Sino-Russian cooperation concerning the resource-rich Arctic is far ahead of Indo-Russian cooperation pertaining to the same. Chinese investment has become indispensable to the Russian Arctic energy projects, such as the Arctic LNG 2 and the Power of Siberia 1 and Power of Siberia 2 projects, which ensures the supply of natural gas via gas routes from Eastern and Western Siberia respectively. However, this is not to say that China and Russia have not undergone difficulties. In 2019, Russian officials expressed worry over China possibly reverse engineering a wide variety of Russian military equipment, cultivating a sense of distrust, and following this, the country suspended the delivery of the S-400s to China in 2020. While Moscow claimed that the suspension was due to difficulties posed by the pandemic, it may have in fact been Russia’s stern response to China after Valery Mitko, president of the St. Petersburg Arctic Social Sciences Academy was accused of spying for China and revealing sensitive information regarding certain submarine detection technologies.

Apart from this, Russo-Pakistani ties have also improved, with renewed negotiations in trade, defence and energy. Russia has been noted to have provided Pakistan with military hardware, which poses a serious security challenge to India. In addition to this, a few days before the dialogue and summit, Russia and Pakistan held NSA level talks at Moscow for the first time since 2018, and discussed a variety of issues related to defence, cybersecurity, counter-terrorism and anti-narcotics. A common factor in Russia’s ties with China and Pakistan happens to be the exchange of and investment in energy. Although not at China’s scale, Islamabad and Moscow have agreed on a flagship venture to build a 1,100 km long pipeline from Karachi to Lahore for the supply of Liquified Natural Gas to industrial consumers, which further affirms that the two nations will continue to closely cooperate with each other in the next few years.

Though India has made it clear that it does not want to jump on either the US or Russian bandwagon to maintain its power in the region, it is also working hard to stay on terra firma, as a consequence of its balancing act to maintain stable ties with both countries

Considering these, it is quite apparent why India has chosen to add Russia to its rotation of ‘2+2’ dialogues. Though India has made it clear that it does not want to jump on either the US or Russian bandwagon to maintain its power in the region, it is also working hard to stay on terra firma, as a consequence of its balancing act to maintain stable ties with both countries. To understand India’s challenges, it has become increasingly crucial to look at the bigger picture and comprehend these micro-events as part of a larger whole. Ultimately, it has become an irrefutable fact that one cannot observe Indo-Russian or Indo-US ties in a simplified manner, or as isolated phenomena.

Namrata Asok is a Political Science and History Graduate from St. Stephen’s College, New Delhi. Views expressed are personal and do not necessarily reflect the views of https://strategicaffairsindia.in

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