Managing relations with US, Russia and China
Anita Inder Singh
This article was published in Business Standard on June 17, 2018
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s accounts of India’s international relations at the Shangrila dialogue in Singapore and the SCO summit in Qingdao underlined the country’s good ties with the US, Russia and most Asian countries. But “good ties” may require strenuous efforts to balance India’s interests between the US, Russia and China. All have different aims and interests in Asia.
India is in a ‘global strategic partnership’ with the US, which sees Russia and China as its main security threats. But New Delhi will defy Donald Trump’s imposition of unilateral sanctions against Iran and Russia and buy Russia’s S-400 and other weapons. Compliance with American sanctions on Iran would adversely affect India’s trade-expanding development of Chabahar port and the building of the International North-South Transport Corridor, which it has initiated with both Iran and Russia. Defiance of Washington is therefore the right policy – as long as New Delhi remembers that Russia’s world interests do not coincide with those of India or the US.
Unsurprisingly, then, the “Indo-Pacific” is an area of controversy between India, Russia and China. Friendly with both Washington and Moscow, India sees itself as a central player in the Trump administration’s “Indo-Pacific”, which now has a new “Indo-Pacific Command” to maintain security there. Significantly though, Modi, in his speech in Singapore, highlighted India’s ambiguity by saying that ASEAN was at the centre of the Indo-Pacific. Meanwhile, a case could be made that as America’s main challenger, China is the central player in the Indian and Pacific Oceans.
Whatever its exact definition, the “Indo-Pacific” signifies America’s determination to counter China’s growing power in Asia. India will soon join US, Australia and Japan in a naval exercise by the QUAD across the Pacific. Yet India has assured Russia and China that neither the Indo-Pacific, nor the QUAD, which it views as a multilateral dialogue, is directed against any country.
To Russia, the “Indo-Pacific” is of scant interest for an obvious reason. Mr. Trump’s Indo-Pacific does not include Russia because Washington rightly does not view Moscow as a threat in the area. Compared to China and the US, Russia plays a weak hand in the Indo-Pacific although it supplies arms to India, Vietnam and China.
India and Russia also hold different views on territorial contests. In 2014 India joined the US in expressing concern on maritime freedom and security in the South China Sea (SCS)
Russia is neutral on the Sino- Indian border dispute. Like Russia, India is not a party to disputes with China and some of its neighbours in the SCS. Russia criticised a 2016 ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague rejecting China’s claim over much of the SCS. Less than two months after the ruling, its warships joined Chinese naval forces in a bilateral drill in the SCS.
With Russia, India sees itself in a special privileged partnership reflecting their wish to craft a multipolar world. Meeting at Sochi in May, Vladimir Putin and Modi resolved to take the Russia-India tie to ‘newer heights’. In contrast, over the last few years China and Russia have lauded their ‘comprehensive strategic partnership’ as increasing ‘global strategic stability’ and have hailed their ‘best time in history’. True, Russia’s historical-political, and China’s economic, clout over Central Asia have created a competitive spirit between them. But both challenge America’s primacy in Asia. So Russia shares more interests with China than with any other Asian country.
Meanwhile, as the world’s largest arms importer, India gets most of its weapons from Russia and the US. But its reliance on two world rivals arouses the suspicions of both. Last winter Russia publicly alleged that India had allowed the US military to inspect a Russian submarine. Evidently Russia does not regard India as a reliable friend. India denied the charge. Russia certainly has an interest on retaining India as one of its top arms customers. It wants a deal on the S-400 in 2018; India does not want to set a time-frame for one. In contrast. Russia first offered the S-400 to China in 2015 and started delivery in March this year.
Energy ties are also expanding. Last year state-owned Rosneft became the largest single foreign direct investor in India when it took over 49 per cent of Essar Oil. India has invested heavily in Russian oil in Siberia and recently started buying Russian liquefied natural gas. Like India, China has made major investments in Russia’s energy projects and is an important market for Russian fuel. A Russia-China gas pipeline which will deliver natural gas to China by 2019 is ‘83 percent complete.’ Moreover, Russia is China’s top crude oil supplier.
Overall, Sino-Russian economic ties are strong. Since the imposition of “post-Ukraine” sanctions in 2014, China’s share of Russia’s foreign trade has grown and it is now the largest single-country investor in Russia. India accounts for 1.3 percent of Russia’s imports and 1.8 per cent of its exports; China for 11 and 22 percent respectively. Sixteen per cent of India’s exports go the US, 0.72 percent to Russia; 5.8 percent of its imports come from the US, 1.9 percent from Russia.
India’s political and economic interests in Asia have placed it on a slippery international path. It must tread carefully to maximise its options with the US, Russia and China. That will be an outstanding diplomatic feat.
Anita Inder Singh is a Founding Professor of the Centre for Peace and Conflict Resolution in New Delhi