Anita Inder Singh
Officialese usually conceals more complex situations than it reveals. The invitations India received at the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) meeting in Bishkek from China and Russia to strengthen trade ties should not deflect attention from New Delhi’s need to craft a strategy to have good ties with them – while maintaining with its strategic partnership with the US. And the communiqué’s call to end terrorism was preceded by China’s advice that India should not to make an issue of Pakistan, which is also a member of the SCO. Obviously India and China have differences over how to handle Pakistan’s extremist training and exports.
Bilateral ties are intertwined with global rivalries
When it comes to trade ties, the SCO communiqué’s call to protect multilateral trade was preceded by a Chinese one asking India to team up to ward off America’s bullying trade practices. India’s response will strengthen or weaken India’s ties with China, Russia – or the US. The fact that India will retaliate to the US withdrawal of duty-free benefits under its Generalised System of Preferences does not imply that that it is somehow taking sides with China and Russia against the US.
After all, India has a border dispute with China. Should it ever come to the crunch America’s global weight will count with India, because the US is the only country which can counter China’s growing military and economic clout singlehanded.
India’s attitude to the US is at variance with those of Russia and China. Unlike India, Russia and China are challenging US global primacy. And one of the aims of their strategic partnership is to limit American influence in what they see as their own spheres of influence. For Russia this implies the Eurasian countries that emerged from the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991; for China the South China Sea and more generally – the western Pacific for China. Unlike India, Russia supports China’s claim to the South China Sea.
At another level, for all the talk in some Indian circles about Russia being India’s tried and trusted friend, Moscow is neutral on the Sino-Indian conflict. It has also advised India to join China’s Belt and Road Initiative, which India views as a unilateral push to advance China’s interests and a threat to India’s sovereignty because it cuts across disputed turf in Pakistani-occupied Kashmir.
On the US-Russia front, India should not view last October’s deal to buy Russia’s S-400 missile as implying that Russia has done it a unique favour. The missile would help India to track aircraft beyond its borders and project power in the Indian Ocean, where Beijing has grown increasingly assertive. But Russia has always had two irons in the fire. Moscow offered Beijing the S-400 in 2015 and started delivering the missile to China in 2018. Delivery to India of the S-400 will start in 2020 – if India does not back out of the deal under American pressure to buy the F-35 with the intent of advancing interoperability between Indian and US forces. Even if India sticks to the deal, the outstanding point is that the S-400 deal will not upset the Sino-Russian tie. In fact, India and Russia signed the deal as Moscow and Beijing extolled the highest levels of their tie – and hailed the golden age of their partnership just before the SCO summit.
India’s strategy pundits should also take note of other factors that strengthen the Russia-China tie. China’s need for gas and oil entails amicable ties with neighbouring Russia, which is one of the world’s biggest energy producers. Also, with Moscow’s consent China has established its sizeable economic presence in Russia and Central Asia. It has built railways in Russia and constructed railway lines connecting Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan to China. Earlier this year, their connectivity was further strengthened by the building of a rail bridge across the Amur river, linking the Russian Far East with northeast China.
The Russia–China call for more Indian investment and trade is welcome. But China is already the top trading partner of the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union (EEAU). In 2016, India ranked in the 18th place in imports to the EEAU and the 15th place in exports from the EEAU. Unfortunately, India’s efforts to connect with Russia and Central Asia are hampered by the absence of shared borders with any country in the region.
At another level, some in New Delhi wrongly thought that the International North-South Corridor (INSTC) could counter China’s BRI. Founded in 2002 by India, Iran and Russia, the INSTC was inaugurated in January 2018. Apart from India, all other members of the INSTC , which include Iran, Eurasian Russia and its “near abroad” in Central Asia, the Caucuses and Europe, have joined the BRI. Each has stronger trade and investment ties with China than with India. And Indian media reports have missed the listing of the INSTC in the Annex to the joint communiqué issued after China’s Second Belt and Road Forum on 27 April – though it is not specified what projects China will carry out along the Corridor.
The SCO meeting highlights the necessity for New Delhi to build up its bilateral ties with Beijing and Moscow. But as it tries to maxmise its diplomatic options it must reconcile India’s need with its wish to strengthen its strategic partnership with the US, whose global ascendancy is challenged by China and Russia.
Anita Inder Singh is a Founding Professor of the Centre for Peace and Conflict Resolution in New Delhi