The recent visit by President Vladimir Putin to India was possibly more successful than the much touted 2+2 dialogue, which had just preceded it. While the 2+2 would always have the signing of the COMCASA as its highlight, opening doors for procuring restricted equipment as also enabling India to obtain real time maritime information, the IndoRussian summit would overshadow it.
The signing of multiple defence agreements with Russia including the much questioned and debated S-400 anti-aircraft missile defence system, despite threats of sanctions by the US, conveyed India’s strategic autonomy in international relations. This approach assumes importance as the changing geo-strategic environment in South and South East Asia, coupled with rising India-China rivalry in multiple fields, adds to India’s challenges.
India needs to maintain strategic ties with both the US and Russia, China being a common thread. There is no denying the fact that China is militarily and economically superior and would continue to push its weight not only on the Indian border but also in South Asia, which India considers its backyard. While India remains wary of China and avoids challenging it in different domains, it needs to have relations with nations which can either act as a mediator to control Chinese aggression or coalitions which are intended to contain it. Thus, arises the importance of Russia and the US.
India therefore rightfully ignored US threats of sanctions under CAATSA when it went in for multiple deals with Russia. It knows that while it may remain a strategic partner of the US and be a major purchaser of US military hardware, however Russia is the nation which based on its influence in the region would be a strong supporter, especially where India-China relations are concerned. Russia has always supported India, though as India moved closer to the US camp, it did give the impression that relations with Moscow would wane. There were many forums where China would have desired to keep India away; however, it was through Russian insistence that India was drawn in. The Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) was created in 2001 to keep former Soviet Republics from falling under American influence. Its formation was speeded up by the surprisingly rapid victory of the US in Afghanistan.
At that time Russia was the dominant power and China being isolated, was seeking allies. Over the years, China grew rapidly while the Russian economy and power waned. India had traditionally been a Russian ally. Seeking a nation closer to it than China, as also possessing the ability to challenge China, Russia pushed for the entry of India into the SCO. China countered this by drawing in its own ally, Pakistan. Thus, for Russia the presence of India would ensure that the organisation did not move under Chinese control. This fear has been fuelled by the fact that most Central Asian Republics forming part of the organisation are partaking Chinese loans as part of the Belt and Road Initiative. The Russia-China-Pakistan consultations forum on Afghanistan was created to counter the growing presence of the ISIS in Afghanistan. It kept even the affected country (Afghanistan) and India, a major contributor to its development, out. This was perceived by India as an attempt to reduce its influence in the region. It was after a visit by the National Security Advisor, Ajit Doval to Moscow that India was made a member of the forum.
It is also believed that the meeting between XI Jinping and Narendra Modi in Wuhan in April set the peace after Doklam. It was also a meeting where discussions may not have been in India’s favour as Chinese presence has since increased in Doklam with better infrastructure, however with no construction activity towards the Siliguri corridor. Speculation also remains rife that the subsequent meeting in Sochi between Putin and Modi had Putin guaranteeing control on Chinese aggression in the region. The US-India strategic alliance is also aimed at containing Chinese expansion in South and SE Asia. During the 2+2 dialogue, the US wanted to upgrade the interaction of the QUAD from assistant/ deputy foreign secretary levels to foreign secretary levels, which India refused. India was not keen to openly indicate its willingness to challenge China in the region. The same had also been reiterated by Modi in his speech during the Shangri La dialogue in June this year. India simultaneously has almost 60 per cent of its armoury of Russian origin. The major problem is of spares. These on occasion are hard to come by. Continuing procurement would ensure ready availability of spares for prior purchases. Further, India can never be dependent on one camp.
Unless the Indian defence industry comes of age, India would need to procure from multiple sources. Chinese clout in international organisations including the UNSC and the NSG has ensured that India is kept at arms’ length. It would never readily consider India’s admission to these organisations. It is only with time and push by nations close to both that China may relent. Russia is possibly the only one that fits the bill. Further, in an environment of sanctions, as existing between the US and Russia, it is essential to indicate a willingness to maintain relations with a trusted ally, rather than succumb to pressure. Had India succumbed to pressure, its relations with Russia would have waned. The same approach is likely on purchasing Iranian oil too.
India may risk US sanctions, knowing it may hurt the US equally too, but would neither surrender its interest in Chabahar or stop oil procurements. It must consider its own strategic interests before considering those of its allies. In summary, India’s alliance with the US as part of the QUAD is an offensive approach to challenge China, while its alliance with Russia in containing Chinese aggression is more passive in nature. For India, Russia means more just a time-tested ally and a supplier of weapons. It could be the only nation to contain an aggressive China in its immediate neighbourhood.
The writer is a retired Major-General of the Indian Army