On shifting, unstable ground: India faces harsh realities as it navigates the China challenge and a swiftly changing world

Whether or not recent peace talks in Moscow will increase the chances of ending the Sino-Indian border dispute, the conflicting realities of India’s ‘friendships’ with Russia and the US underline that New Delhi should pay more attention to India’s place in the global strategies of both countries.

“Russian, Chinese top diplomats to discuss strategic partnership in conditions of pandemic,” was the headline in TASS, Russia’s official news agency, when foreign ministers Sergei Lavrov and Wang Yi met at the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation conclave in Moscow last Friday. In a show of Moscow’s diplomatic adroitness in the story that followed, TASS added two sentences later, “Besides, they held a trilateral meeting with their Indian counterpart Subrahmanyam Jaishankar.” Was that an aside or afterthought, given Russia’s neutrality in the Sino-Indian border dispute and its simultaneous support for China’s territorial ambitions in the South China Sea?

India often lauds the “trusted” friendship of Russia which, since the 1970s, has been its largest arms supplier. At the moment India-Russia bilateral ties look good for two different reasons. First, Moscow will include India in clinical trials of Russia’s anti-Covid vaccine. Second, as India’s main arms seller, it was the country which defence minister Rajnath Singh visited soon after the outbreak of the Ladakh clashes to request the expediting of arms deliveries, especially the S-400 missile system. But Russia has always kept its Indian and Chinese irons in the fire. It sold the S-400 to China first, in 2015, and to India in 2018, as Moscow and Beijing hailed the golden age of their partnership.

Russia and its ‘comprehensive’ strategic partner, which is rising, aggressive China, jointly challenge America’s global primacy. In India’s absence – explained by China’s intrusions into Ladakh – China’s participation in Russia’s Caucasian military drills in the third week of September will upgrade its strategic and political value to Moscow. Chinese troops will be drawn from a unit involved in border clashes with India.

At another level, Sino-Russian interdependence is strengthened by ascending China’s need for gas and oil from neighbouring Russia, which is one of the world’s biggest energy producers. Now, as the US and India impose their differential bans on the Chinese telecom giant Huawei, it will shift investments – you’ve guessed where – to Russia! A strong China can advance Russia’s global interests more than any other country. India should ponder its comradeship with Russia.

The US is India’s top economic and strategic partner. Even in the absence of an alliance, India subscribes to Washington’s concept of the Indo-Pacific. Russia has advised India against going along with the concept, which excludes China. In turn, China threatens India.

The state-steered Global Times editorialises that India’s “sense of superiority” flows from its “geopolitical mobilisation capabilities”. Australia, Japan and America are its suitors in the Indo-Pacific. China’s advantage, rants the tabloid, is based on strength and it must be “prepared to completely defeat India’s illusions through military actions”. For India to provoke China “is hitting a rock with an egg”.

Since the Ladakh clashes in June some Indians have favoured an alliance with the US. But India’s ‘alliance hopefuls’ could start by questioning themselves. Is the US interested in a military pact with India? An alliance entails binding pledges. What commitment do the hopefuls want the US to make, or think Washington will make?

In a presidential election year, at a time when Washington is withdrawing US troops from Afghanistan because of Nato’s failure to quash the Pakistani-trained Taliban, shouldn’t the advocates of ‘alliance’ disabuse themselves of the idea that America will ‘rescue’ India in the event of a Sino-Indian land war? In fact, none of India’s three partners in the Quad – the US, Australia and Japan – has a land dispute with China. Both Australia and Japan wish to maintain their robust trade ties with China.

A strengthened military bond with the US would certainly enable India to gain access to more American materiel, help with technology development and information exchanges with US intelligence. But these will not alter the balance of power between China and India. Most importantly, India’s economic resources will decide its long-term aims and how much military gear it can buy.

Moreover, American and Indian strategic priorities differ. America’s top priority is Southeast Asia. From the Indian side, barely before the Ladakh skirmishes, chief of defence staff, General Bipin Rawat, marked the strategic distance between India and the US by depicting India as a South Asian power in its Indian Ocean neighbourhood, not an Indo-Pacific one. Since the outbreak of hostilities, Jaishankar has put the lid on talk of India forging an alliance with any country.

Russia and the US will be steered by their world interests. Facing political, economic and military exigencies, India is not the highest priority of either. But doesn’t nonalignment imply that neither is India’s top priority? The anti-Americanism of Russia and China, Russia’s wish to benefit from China’s growing economic clout challenge India to define its place in a world that is changing in part because of the political cat’s cradles being woven by their complex, rivalry ridden ties.

On India falls the onerous task of defending its sovereignty. New Delhi must display the competence that will put India on the rails to progress and success in military and global competition against China. Only then will India define its place in and secure its national interests in a dynamic, unreliable world.

DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author’s own.


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