Delhi’s dance with the great powers

Author: C. Raja Mohan, Observer Research Foundation

If India was slow and rather muted in responding to the Russian annexation of Crimea earlier this year, it was among one of the few nations to express concern at China’s forcible deployment of an oil rig in the disputed waters of the South China Sea close to Vietnam. Thereby hangs a tale. Those in the West disappointed by India’s reaction to Russian actions in Europe do not appreciate India’s complex balance-of-power calculus in Asia. Moscow has long been central to India’s efforts to limit Chinese influence in Asia.

India was the only democracy during the Cold War that built a strong security partnership with Soviet Russia, with the latter supplying India with most of its military hardware and strategic technologies. Delhi was also alone among the major Asian nations to nurture sustained political warmth towards Moscow, encouraged by the American embrace of anti-communist Pakistan and India’s split with China. Yet it kept some political distance from Moscow, refusing to back Soviet proposals for Asian collective security and maintaining relations with the West and Asia.

India’s economic liberalisation in the 1990s, and the concerted efforts of the Bush administration to cultivate warm relations with India as a major Asian power, also saw a reduced strategic weight placed on India’s relations with Russia. And the growing economic, political and military ties between Russia and China have turned India’s regional security calculus on its head. In the past, Delhi saw Russia as a bulwark against China.

Today, Russia’s central relevance for India is about its potential role in shaping the Asian balance of power.

Strong political ties with Russia are an integral part of India’s hedge against the current uncertainties in US policy towards Asia, especially the unintended outcomes of American engagement with Pakistan and potential negative consequences of a political accommodation between a rising China and a weakening America.

In Central Asia, partnership with Russia has been crucial for raising India’s strategic profile in the region — for example a potentially significant military presence in Tajikistan. Russia has also been supportive of India’s full membership of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization but has been constrained by China’s insistence on bringing Pakistan in. If riding piggyback on Russia has had its advantages, India also finds itself limited by the quest of the Central Asian governments for greater distance from Moscow. As in Central Asia, in the Middle East and North Africa, India has often found itself on the side of Russia.

These convergences are tactical rather than strategic.

Delhi’s stakes in the Gulf and the Middle East are very high and its policy towards the region is historically rooted and has a cultural, political and economic dynamic all of its own. As India develops its engagement with Iran, Saudi Arabia and Israel, Delhi’s aim will be to develop an independent foreign policy towards the region rather than tail either Washington or Moscow.

But India’s and Russia’s interests in East Asia run parallel and there is no direct conflict of interest between the two in the region. Their current military cooperation with Hanoi underlines their shared interest in having a strong Vietnam that can emerge as an independent actor in the region. India’s willingness to explore oil in Vietnam’s waters claimed by China is based in part on Moscow’s deepening naval cooperation with Hanoi. In Northeast Asia, India would like to see a more active Russia and has been enthused by the prospect of a long-overdue rapprochement between Moscow and Tokyo. The Russian imperatives in East Asia, however, seem to be overwhelmed most of the time by Moscow’s logic of aligning with China to counter Europe and America.

In the end, India’s partnership with Russia will be significantly influenced by Moscow’s approach towards two important bilateral relations — with Pakistan and China. Since the end of the Cold War, Delhi has worried about possible normalisation of relations between Moscow and Islamabad. It has managed so far to prevent Moscow from selling arms to Pakistan and establish an ‘even-handed’ policy towards Delhi and Islamabad.

Despite relentless pressure from Pakistan, no Russian president of post-Soviet Russia has visited Islamabad. Preserving India’s exclusive and special relationship with Russia vis-à-vis China is proving to be lot more challenging amid the deepening strategic partnership between Moscow and Beijing. India is aware of the hidden tensions in the Russia–China relationship, but they seem relatively dormant as both of them seek to leverage collaboration with the other in their efforts to limit American power.

India would like to believe that it is in the interest of the United States, Europe and Russia to construct a stable equilibrium in Central Europe that would allow all three of them to focus on the emerging challenges in Asia and the Indo-Pacific. India shares the concern in many parts of Asia that strategic inertia and entrenched domestic interests will continue to distract Washington’s attention away from East Asia to the Middle East and Europe and undermine the much-heralded rebalance to Asia.

Delhi, like the other Asian capitals, wonders about the depth of the Russian commitment to Asia. ASEAN was eager to bring Russia, along with America, into the discussions on regional security architecture. Much of the region, however, is disappointed with Russia’s lacklustre participation in the Asian security dialogue and its preoccupation with asserting itself in Europe and standing up against America. Europe, which has never ceased to lecture Asia on the virtues of regionalism, seems unable to cope with the security challenges that have arisen in its own backyard. Europe, it seems, has neither the power to enforce the ambitious norms it professes nor the pragmatism to pursue more modest regional goals in collaboration with Russia.

A failure to find mutual accommodation in the Western part of Eurasian landmass would weaken America, Europe and Russia in the Eastern part of the great continent. For all three, the logic of economic collaboration and political partnership with China is gaining greater traction and the conflicts among them will only increase Beijing’s leverage with Russia and the West. This in turn amplifies Asia’s problems in coping with China’s growing power. For China’s Asian neighbours, the problem is not Russian assertiveness but Moscow’s reluctance to play an effective role in Asian security. A prolonged confrontation between Russia and the West in Europe will have profound geopolitical consequences for Asia, by accelerating the regional power shift in favour of China.

India will find it increasingly hard to rely on Russia, as in the past, to limit China’s power in its neighbourhood. The hopes, raised in the middle of the last decade, for a tighter strategic partnership with the United States to balance China have been dampened by uncertainties in American policy and India’s perennial ideological confusion at home about the meaning and content of non-alignment. In the end, Asia’s major powers, including India, might have to find their own solutions to the consequences of the power shift and the Western and Russian preoccupation with European security. The hopes for a cooperative security system in Asia led by ASEAN are diminishing amid China’s muscular regional policies and America’s strategic incoherence.

Many smaller Asian nations may have no option but to accept Chinese primacy.

Some of the larger ones — especially those with unresolved territorial disputes with China — will have to focus on building strong regional coalitions that might provide some hedge against Beijing’s strength, Russia’s European preoccupations and America’s lack of a Eurasian strategy.

C. Raja Mohan is a Distinguished Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation in Delhi and heads its strategic studies program. He is an adjunct professor of South Asian Studies at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University, Singapore and a non-resident senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Washington DC.

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