India must define its place in a changing world

This article was published in Business Standard on December 30, 2017

As the New Year approaches, India’s security interests diverge from the global interests of Russia and China. The 15th Russia-India-China (RIC) trilateral talks in New Delhi on 11 and 12 December made this clear.  So Russia will not put its weight behind India in the Sino-Indian border dispute.  Russia and China agree on challenging America’s global primacy. But the US is India’s key economic and strategic partner. Both countries are members of the Quadrilateral Group, which also includes Japan and Australia and seeks to deter Chinese expansion in the Asia-Pacific.

This annoys China and Russia. At the RIC meeting China warned against “spheres of influence” and “cliques”. Russia asserted that a sustainable security architecture in the Asia-Pacific could not be achieved through blocs.  India must therefore question the nature of its tie with Russia, a friendly country and one of its largest arms suppliers, and with China, its main Asian rival, which challenges its sovereignty.

No longer a superpower, Russia has backed its claim to world power through its military intervention in Syria. This was facilitated by President Obama’s decision to withdraw American troops from there.  China’s global economic and strategic reach is reflected in its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Russia’s silence on China’s hawkishness in the Asia-Pacific does not suit India. Seeking global power, China is building a combat-ready army, capable of being deployed worldwide by 2050.

China and Russia think their tie stands at the apex of history and that they are destined for a long-term strategic partnership.  Unlike the troubled Sino-Indian tie, the Russia-China entente is facilitated by the absence of any territorial contest between them at the moment. Moscow and Beijing are strengthening bilateral economic links and regional connectivity, between the Russia-sponsored Eurasian Economic Union and the BRI. China’s huge investments in Russia – $ 4 billion in the Russian Far East alone – compared to about $ 4.07 billion in India – make Russia’s mismanaged economy look like a good business bet.

Russia has joined China in calling on India to join the BRI. This India has so far refused to do on the grounds that the BRI reflects China’s national interests and unilateral decisions rather than consultative processes. New Delhi is also angered that the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor cuts across territory disputed by India and Pakistan.

More than that, the convergence of Sino-Russian world interests impinges upon India’s counter-terrorism aims and its wish for a stable balance of power in Asia.

The joint stand of RIC  against terrorism has been  widely reported in the Indian media. But ‘cooperation’ against terrorism  meant refraining from  mentioning  Pakistan-based terror groups such as Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed.

At another level, India is against dialogue with Taliban, while Russia and China have held talks with the group. China’s support for Pakistan stems from their iron friendship; Russia’s from its world interests. Highlighting differences with India, Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov asserted that inclusive political dialogue for peace in Afghanistan should include the Taliban and ‘other’ countries.

Since 2015 Moscow has perceived its interests coinciding with those of the Pakistani-trained Taliban against their common foe, ISIS, which sought to overthrow its client President Assad in Syria. ISIS also threatens the Taliban in Afghanistan. Taliban fanatics, guided by Pakistan, could help defeat ISIS fanatics.  Russia justified its diplomatic intervention in Afghanistan because America had failed to defeat the Taliban. In New Delhi, Lavrov predicted the failure of   Donald Trump’s Afghan strategy, with its stress on military force.

Claiming to have trounced ISIS, President Putin recently announced a partial withdrawal of Russian troops from Syria. Whether the pullout of Russian troops really marks a military triumph for Putin in Syria is questionable. But coming close on the heels of that announcement, Putin’s one-day whirlwind tour of countries as diverse as Syria, Turkey, Egypt has confirmed Russia’s status as the main power-broker in the Middle East.

The chances are that Russia thinks it can use its influence to outsmart the US in Afghanistan –  just as it has in Syria – by interacting with several parties, including Pakistan, the Taliban and China.

Consistency is not a virtue in international politics. Each country judges issues on their merits or demerits, in accordance with its own interests. Like Beijing and Moscow – and to New Delhi’s dismay – even the terrorist-fighting US believes that terrorist-training Pakistan’s cooperation is essential to lead the Taliban to peace talks.

So India must note that in Afghanistan, as in the Middle East, Moscow will be steered by its regional and global interests – as is the US.

Finally, every country seeks to maximise its political and economic options. It is not just a world- power-hungry Russia which supports China’s BRI. Japan, India’s partner in the Quad, and the biggest donor to the Asia-Africa Growth Corridor, which is intended to counter the BRI, recently decided to finance some of China’s BRI projects.

The  anti-Americanism of China and Russia, China’s clout, Russia’s wish to benefit from it, and Japan’s association with the BRI, all challenge India to define its place in a world that is changing in part  because of China’s  global ambitions, which are backed by its economic and military strength.  India will not advance its interests by thinking in terms of “us” and the Chinese “them”.  Only if the  quality of its diplomacy is backed by rapid economic progress will it find its way through the ever-changing maze of international relations.

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