Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been hosted by President Vladimir Putin at two successive showcase events staged at the two ends of Russia – the 22nd “International Economic Forum” in St. Petersburg in May 2018 and, last week, the Fifth “Eastern Economic Forum” (EEC) in Vladivostok. Moscow has traditionally used such conferences to consolidate its relations with friendly countries and to sweeten up states it seeks to cultivate, whence the invitations to attend the EEC, besides Modi, to Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamed and Mongolian President Battulga Khaltmaa.
Russo-Indian relations are stuck in a rut and have been for a while, notwithstanding the flowery rhetoric. In a September 2017 meeting with his then Indian counterpart, Sushma Swaraj, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov described Indo-Russian friendship “as strong as stone”. This was presumably in response to Pakistani leaders routinely talking of relations with China as “higher than the mountains, deeper than the sea, and sweeter than honey” (in Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s words) and Beijing reciprocating in a more measured tone by calling Pakistan an “iron brother”.
What these descriptions mean, and whether they suggest that Sino-Pakistan relations are stronger than Indo-Russian ties – because iron cuts stone, is anyone’s guess. In practical terms though Russia, and its predecessor state the Soviet Union, have over the last seven decades put out for India. It has not, however, made for satisfactory relations.
But in pursuit of newer geopolitical schemes to fit their changing national interests and the uncertain times, neither country has thought it fit to pull away from the other because both governments appreciate the geostrategic utility of keeping close. The importance to Delhi of Russia to prevent the United States and China from becoming overbearing is matched by Moscow benefiting from proximity to India in its big power politics. While the intention to grow their uni-dimensional relationship into a multi-dimensional one is not lacking, India seems unable to move other than with great deliberation when fluid international circumstances demand a faster pace and more driven policies.
To date, Russian assistance in licensed production of equipment and sales to India of advanced military hardware (such as the S-400 air defence system) and of lease of otherwise unavailable weapons platforms, such as the Akula-II class nuclear-powered attack submarines (SSNs) and, possibly in the future, long range Tu-160M long range bombers, have been the strategic glue. But this aspect is sought to be underplayed.
In the run up to the EEC, the press reported numerous arms deals awaiting signature in Vladivostok, including Indian production of AK 203 assault rifle and Kamov 226 helicopters, none of which were signed. Delhi apparently feared riling US President Donald Trump. Instead, in an attempt to enlarge the engagement envelope Modi talked up the one billion dollar Indian credit line to provinces in the Russian Far East, approval of 50-odd accords worth $5 billion, and the 150-member strong delegation of Indian entrepreneurs and industrialists accompanying him to explore business prospects.
The September 5 Joint Statement issued at the end of the annual 20th Indo-Russian summit between Modi and Putin that piggybacked on the EEC, declares their interest in diversifying the bilateral links. To emphasize which, some 28-29 of the 81 points in the Statement pertain to trade, commerce and economic issues generally, including those referring to Russia as supplier of oil and gas, versus 16-17 points dealing with security-related matters. Also, there was mutual support for each other’s geopolitical tilts. Eight points – some of them elaborated at considerable length, stress the importance of multilateralism and multilateral forums, which are anathema to the Trump Administration but music to Putin’s ears. Likewise, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) is touted as a means to obtain “a multi-polar world order based on equal and indivisible security” – a common Indo-Russian goal directly challenging Beijing’s and Washington’s designs tending to bipolarity in the international system. It was the G2 concept the Barrack Obama government was partial to but Trump has jettisoned, preferring the confrontational style of the Cold War that saw USSR, its primary opponent, decimated.
India, of course, would like nothing better than to see another bout of “hot peace”, this time to reduce a bumptious China in the Indo-Pacific. Whether or not that goal is achieved, Beijing’s preoccupation with America’s security initiatives will lessen Chinese military pressure along the Line of Actual Control and is welcomed by Delhi. But the attitude of a passive beneficiary is unbecoming, because Modi seriously underestimates India’s leverage with the U.S. and with China. No other Asian country has India’s all-round heft to balance China strategically, and with Beijing’s access to the U.S. market closing, only the vast consumerist-minded Indian middle class can absorb what China manufactures.
The Joint Statement, however, hints at the larger geostrategic gains from opposing detrimental moves by US and China on the global chessboard. If India’s Eurasia policy is pivoted on connectivity to Afghanistan and Central Asia and landward to Russia via a rail and road grid radiating from the Iranian port of Chabahar, Russia’s Middle East strategy rests on a Turkey-Syria-Iran linkup under Moscow’s aegis to balance the Islamic bloc headed by Saudi Arabia supported by Washington, whence Moscow’s warning to Trump to not take its neutrality for granted in case he imposes a war on Iran. Thus the Vladivostok Statement favours (1) “an inclusive peace” in Afghanistan that Delhi has sought, (2) respect for “the sovereignty and territorial integrity” of the Bashar al-Assad-ruled Syria propped up by Russia, and (3) “mutually beneficial and legitimate economic and commercial cooperation with Iran”, which Washington has already sanctioned several Indian and Russian entities for.
A timid Modi feels India cannot get too close to the US without upsetting Russia and vice versa even as China looms, as much a security threat as an economic and ideological one and, therefore, fails to take the hard decisions to escape the thrall of the big three powers. Without a truly grand strategic vision and plan, his government makes do with tactical counters, actions and maneuvers. A security architecture that neutralizes China and minimizes the role of an unreliable America in non-Sinic Asia’s security is not valued. A geopolitical setup to further these objectives based on loose security-minded coalitions minus the US and China, to wit, BRIS (Brazil-Russia-India-South Africa), not BRICS, and “Mod Quad” (India, Japan, Australia, and a group of rich and capable Southeast Asian nations), and not the Quadrilateral, is not followed.
Parts of such potentially decisive groupings are already in place owing to India’s involvement in BRICS and its “Look East, Act East” policy. But the missing vision and direction from the Modi government mean policy voids that events such as EEC cannot fill.
Published in my occasional ‘Realpolitik’ column in Bloombergquint.com on September 11, 2019, https://www.bloombergquint.com/opinion/enlarging-indias-engagement-envelope-with-russia