India’s ties with two major powers, US and Russia were in focus last week at the annual summit between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Vladimir Putin in New Delhi. The US was the elephant in room, as India signed up for the purchase of five S-400 surface-to-air missile defence system from Russia.
New Delhi has tried to keep the event low key, which is understandable considering that the US has threatened sanctions on countries doing big deals with Russia’s defence industry. Punitive sanctions automatically kick in as the US had put in place a law last year, called Countering America’s Adversaries through Sanctions Act (CAATSA). New Delhi is hoping that Washington will note the legacy issue connected to defence purchases from Russia as well as India’s strategic compulsions for acquiring the missile shield.
Unlike the NDA’s government’s off-key neighbourhood policy, Modi has managed relations with both the US and Russia reasonably well. Like all nations, India looks to fulfill its national and strategic interests in foreign policy. For this, New Delhi needs both the US and Russia. The US, because Washington can opens doors for India to nuclear suppliers group and UN Security Council and get access to the state-of-the-art technology which America shares with trusted allies. Once India signs the three foundation agreements and the end-user protocol for defence cooperation, New Delhi will get better access to US technology.
India has long been under US sanctions for its nuclear tests of 1974 and 1988 and denied top of the line technology. Much of that was lifted after the India-US civil nuclear agreement was signed in 2005. Besides, America remains the world’s number one economy and the US market is the world’s most lucrative.
The case with Russia is different as it has been a traditional defence ally and arms supplier. India has been for decades buying military hardware from Russia. Although in recent years New Delhi varied its procurement policy, turning both to the US and Israel, our production establishment is well-oiled to handle equipment made in Russia. India also services much of the Russia-made hardware in the country. Over 70 per cent of defence purchases still come from Russia. Chances of a transformation to defence cooperation between India and the US picks up are high. But for now, New Delhi hopes that Washington understands its legacy issue.
In mid-September, National Security Adviser Ajit Doval was in Washington to meet his US counterpart John Bolton and defence secretary Mike Pompeo, and make them understand New Delhi’s dilemma so that India is exempted from sanctions on Russian defence purchases. New Delhi presumably got some assurance from Washington on exemption. However, nothing is clearly known as of now. A one-time waiver for the S-400 defence system may have been worked out but future orders would be difficult unless there is a dramatic change in relations between Washington and Moscow.
As ties between Moscow and Washington have veered dangerously close to the Cold War era, Indian diplomacy has to be nimble footed enough to ensure it manages to keep its relations with both major powers intact. In managing diplomatic relations, countries often have to do the balancing act. New Delhi is adept at doing the tight rope walk between nations who are at daggers drawn. Be it Israel and Pales tine, Iran and Saudi Arabia, Indian diplomats have successfully skirted the bumps. But times have changed and now it is a different ball game, with mercurial US President, Donald Trump at the helm.
Trump has gone out of his way to woo India mainly with an eye on China’s growing political and military might and Xi Jinping’s decision to project China’s power. India as a major Asian country can help balance China’s overwhelming pressure in the Asia Pacific and Indian Ocean region. But Trump is unpredictable and can be publicly be sarcastic and off hand. Recently he dubbed India as tariff king, for its high duties on US goods, especially the Harley Davidson cycles. . “We have a country, take India. Good relationship. They want to make a deal now because they don’t want me to do what I’m going to do, what I have to. So, they (Indians) call us. They didn’t want to make a deal with anybody else,” Trump boasted.
The US President is right, Modi is in no mood to antagonize or provoke Trump. Much like the US, New Delhi is wary of China’s growing clout in the region. The Doklam standoff indicated how quickly the two Asian giants could get into an armed conflict. President Xi Jinping’s new Belt and Road Initiative as well as the maritime Silk Route, may have captured the imagination of the developing world in both Asia and Africa but India is wary. Russia and China are moving closer and with the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor at the centre of XI’s One Belt One Road initiative. In this context, India needs to keep its options with the US open.
India is aware that in a world which is in a flux, it is best not to get drawn into either the US orbit or the Russia-China axis. The liberal order that was in place since the end of World War II, is giving way, but nothing new has to take its place yet. American power is waning, though it is still leagues ahead of the rest. China is emerging as a major challenger to US, and
India’s relations with Russia in the Cold War years was much like Pakistan’s ties with China. Moscow in the past had always stood up for India at a time when the US and its friends were in no mood to blame Pakistan, a quasi NATO allay. All that is past and India’s relations with the US have taken a dramatic turn for the better since the India-US civil nuclear agreement was signed in 2005. George W Bush and the Newcons were eager to woo India to balance out China’s growing economic and military might in the Indo Pacific and Indian Ocean region.
India-Russia took taken a downturn when Moscow made overtures to Pakistan. However, the informal summit in Sochi in May helped to reignite ties. Modi and Putin have also established a personal rapport. Modi’s opening remarks after the talks emphasized the special ties: “India gives top priority to its relations with Russia. In this rapidly changing world our relations have become more relevant. Our Special and Privileged Strategic Partnership has consistently received new energy and direction from the continuous series of nineteen summits. And our cooperation on global issues has acquired new meaning and goals.”
Though many believe that Prime Minister Modi is moving into the US sphere of influence, he is unlikely to jeopardize ties with old friend Russia. Modi is well aware that in the past Moscow had stood like a rock for India. As of now New Delhi has managed its ties with both big powers deftly.