Ukraine Crisis: A Diplomatic Opportunity for India

India’s External Affairs Minister, Dr Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, has had to deal with a very difficult foreign policy challenge for India that arose from the Russian invasion into Ukraine. However, his deft handling of the situation has proved his mettle. The diplomatic challenge needed juggling several interests and conflicts at the same time. So far, Indian Foreign Ministry has handled the issue with skill without coming under any pressure from the parties pulling in different directions, including USA, Russia and China as well as other smaller groups.

The 2+2 dialogue between India and the United States of America combined with the video call between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Joe Biden is significant for various reasons. It provided an opportunity for India and the US to better locate concerns of the other party vis-à-vis the Russian invasion.

For India it is important to pacify the world community about its reluctance to vote on numerous occasions on the Russian aggression, at the United Nations. Though India professes a neutral stand, it is part of a group with North Korea, Iran and China. This causes apprehensions among the US and its NATO allies as India has acquired respectability and status due to its economic strength and recently due to its efforts to mitigate the effects of COVID 19 pandemic. However, during the current situation, India has also maintained that any form of armed aggression upon another sovereign nation is unacceptable.

The 2+2 dialogue may have been an apt platform to clarify to the US, the reasons behind India’s neutral stand on Russia’s aggression. On the other hand, it is common knowledge that India’s defence sector and its numerous weapons systems are structurally dependent upon Russia’s arms and weapons industry. It is estimated that Russian arms equipment and weapons systems account for close to 70% of India’s defence supplies.

Against this background, it is perhaps easy to comprehend India’s neutrality and its absenteeism on crucial votes against Russia in the UN, which has wrongly been perceived as pro-Russia. The pressure, nevertheless, on India from the US and in general the West, has been unrelenting since the invasion began. India, though, has stuck to its position, bearing in mind the consequences thereof and the options it may possess. During this difficult period, however, the Indian establishment’s deft diplomacy and strategic autonomy has prominently been on display.

At the centre of this tumultuous and testing period for Indian diplomatic establishment, Dr Jaishankar has shown exemplary geopolitical acumen. Under his leadership the MEA anticipated Western response to India’s position and has crafted befitting and optimum rejoinders. Since the beginning of the Ukraine crisis, statements from the MEA have been measured and calibrated to pacify the international community.

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India has maintained that any act of violent aggression against a sovereign state is deplorable and have urged the warring parties to resolve the crisis diplomatically. Such astute stance and demeanour have in turn led the international community to recognize that it is national interest that has driven India’s voting behaviour at the UN, the precise message that India wanted to convey.

In the contemporary world, any event of such magnitude like the Russian invasion of Ukraine has a ripple effect on the entire world. India’s recent proclivity toward the United States and the new alliances in the Indian Ocean and the Indo-Pacific region has also felt the tremors.

The formulation of the term Indo-Pacific and the subsequent implementation of a counter China strategy through the Quadrilateral Dialogue (QUAD) have been gradually gaining strength in the recent years. Ukraine Crisis and Indian response brought the QUAD and its members to reassess the situation, which is visible in the visits of Heads of states to New Delhi. The Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida visited New Delhi for an Annual Summit meeting under the ‘Special Strategic and Global Partnership’, but a large part of meeting was devoted to the Ukraine crisis. India accommodated Japanese concerns on the crisis in the statement issued after the deliberations.

Immediately after the Indo-Japan Summit, the Australian PM Scott Morrison also held a virtual summit with Prime Minister Modi. The Aussie PM, while condemning the Russian actions in Ukraine, elicited an understanding of the Indian stance. Further, he elaborated that “he and Modi were of the opinion that the conflict could not be a reason for diverting attention from issues of the Indo-Pacific region”. This indicated that the relationship is not affected. A subtext hidden in the outcome and statements of both summit meetings is a clear indication that geographical distance from an international event still matters. The location of the crisis at the western end of the Eurasian landmass and away from the Indo-Pacific space remains instrumental in geopolitical thinking of Japan and Australia.

The aforementioned summits and their timing point to India’s rising significance in the international system and particularly in the Indo-Pacific. It was only befitting that the Chinese Foreign Minister, Mr. Wang Yi visited New Delhi soon after. This holds tremendous weight in the wake of the ongoing crisis in Eastern Ladakh since the summer of 2020.

It was understood that the Chinese FM was here to invite and persuade the Indian PM to join the BRICS summit in China to be held later in the year. Under the circumstances, Indian diplomacy under the leadership of Dr. Jaishankar has been steadfast and clear in conveying to the Chinese that normalization of relations between the two Asian giants is possible only after complete disengagement at the LAC in Ladakh. Hopefully, before the BRICS Summit, negotiations on the issue will bear results.

Therefore it can be said that the Ukraine Crisis has been turned into a diplomatic opportunity by the Indian diplomatic establishment. The 2+2 summit, Modi-Biden virtual Summit, Indo-Japan Summit, Modi-Morrison virtual summit and finally the visit by the Chinese FM are a testimony to clarity in India’s diplomacy since the crisis began. Moreover, the British Prime Minister Mr. Boris Johnson and the President of the European Union, Ms. Ursula von der Leyen have also visited India in the last week.

Whether it is India’s stand on the crisis or its India’s economic strength or the West’s need, India has become the go-to-destination in the face of deep Russia-China partnership. India has been able to drive home the point that India’s national interests take precedence over international linkages and alliances under the able leadership of Dr. S. Jaishankar, the Minister of External Affairs. This perhaps is the proverbial feather in the cap for Modi government as the top diplomat was elevated to the post of External Affairs Minister in May 2019.

Taliban In Afghanistan: India’s Options

Now that the Taliban has been declared winner in Afghanistan and its elected President Ashraf Ghani fled the country on August 15, 2021 without putting up a fight, the world, especially those in the region are assessing the implications of Taliban rule. The departure of United States Armed forces has been the catalyst for the series of events and emerging geopolitical shifts that will necessitate new thinking in Indian Foreign policy.

US entered Afghanistan to eliminate the Al Qaeda network and its Taliban supporters who were responsible for the attacks on the United States soil. The leader of Al Qaeda responsible for the 9/11 attacks has been eliminated but the Al Qaeda network survives as obviously do the Taliban. The United States may still have some influence on the new Taliban, but for India the political terrain is tectonically different.

India is invested heavily in Afghanistan since the end of the Cold War. In terms of geopolitics in South Asia, Afghanistan accords a vantage point for India vis-à-vis Pakistan, it’s arch-rival. Matters are complicated further with the realization that China with its financial muscle and intention to expand the Belt and Road Initiative will find a stronghold in Afghanistan. Beijing made overtures to the Taliban leadership and met them in Qatar recently. With strong China-Pakistan relationship, India’s situation in the region becomes precarious as it may not have any leverage on its Western expanse.

India’s western borders have remained a concern historically and it expends a lot of energy and investment to consolidate and remain visible in the region. With its immediate neighbour Pakistan, not an ideal one, New Delhi looks towards Afghanistan and Iran, to both manage the western neighbourhood and to balance Pakistan.

India, therefore, has made significant investments in Iran and Afghanistan which are Pakistan’s neighbours towards west. India, imports crude oil from Iran even at the displeasure of the USA, and has invested in creating infrastructure (Schools, Hospitals and Roads) in Afghanistan. It has remained a cornerstone of India’s western geographical strategy.

The returns New Delhi may have been expecting in the form of connectivity and transport networks in the region now stand jeopardized. Under the New Silk Road Strategy of the USA, India would have gained access to Central Asia through Iran and Afghanistan. The current situation, however, alters the dynamic as the Taliban have expressed their resentment with India in the recent past and have gone to declare it as an adversary. India’s increasing proximity towards the United States may have resulted in the Taliban to dislike India.

Pakistan, on the other hand, has harboured the Taliban in safe havens on its Western tribal provinces during their difficult years and will influence decision-making in Afghanistan. Furthermore, it will work towards negating India and reducing its existing footprint in Afghanistan. As China has already approached the Taliban it is likely to extend its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) projects into Afghanistan via the China Pakistan Economic Corridor. In collaboration with regional power China, Pakistan will work to reduce India’s engagement in Afghanistan. The current geopolitical situation, therefore, is favourable for Pakistan.

India needs to take these developments into its stride and create opportunities to engage with the Taliban afresh. A positive beginning could be acceptance of the Taliban as the current interlocutors for Afghan people.

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Internationally, a host of states have expressed their willingness to talk to Taliban as the ruling dispensation of Afghanistan. It may be because of the swiftness with which Taliban has occupied Afghanistan and it seems there is no challenge to Taliban and a civil war is unlikely. India also needs to engage with the Taliban for multiple reasons ranging from the investments made there to the inclusion in connectivity projects to pure geostrategic concerns. India can take heart from the fact that it evokes a lot of goodwill among the Afghan people.

Significantly enough, questions remain about the capacity of Taliban to govern a complex country. First, it will have to raise an economy from scratch to employ the younger generation of Afghanistan (60% of Afghan population is below 20 years of age). Whether China and Pakistan, two main allies of Taliban will be able to revive Afghanistan, remains to be seen. Second, current dominance of Taliban over the entire country will come under strain when local tribal warlords gather strength, aided by the West. The irony is that Taliban will still be riding the infrastructure built by the United States and its allies and India, whom they despise.

Third, acceptability for Taliban in the international system will also depend on the issue of human rights, most importantly women’s rights as they impose Shari’a law under the Islamic Republic in the territory. It is the fear of reprisals from the Taliban and the Shari’a which is causing the mass exodus of Afghans.

India, has been a favoured destination for common Afghans for generations and the international opinion is against the Taliban. India’s diplomatic efforts and negotiating capabilities to engage with the Taliban government will be crucial in the days and years to come. India must forsake idealistic notions in a realist world and should diplomatically engage with Taliban to protect its interests and to stay relevant in the region.