In this handout photograph taken and released by the India's Press Information Bureau (PIB) on October 12, 2019, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi (right) along with Chinese President Xi Jinping look on during their summit in Mahabalipuram in Tamil Nadu state. Photo: Handout / PIB / AFP

By following a course of multi-alignment, the Indian government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been seeking security as well as economic partnerships with big and middle powers alike since its first term in office in 2014. This policy strategy rests on the assumption that India can ably defend its business as well as security interests by avoiding the trap of over-dependence on any particular power and maintaining space for maneuverability (strategic autonomy). However, this has involved a delicate balancing act in the US-China confrontation and the US-Russia face-off.

The US has embarked on an “Indo-Pacific” strategy to counter China’s Belt and Road Initiative and a new great-game scenario has emerged with the enhanced Chinese footprint in the South and Southeast Asian region through the BRI and the American rollback policy through its Indo-Pacific strategy. The US under the Obama and Trump administrations considered a strategic partnership with India crucial to the American Asia-Pacific (later renamed Indo-Pacific) strategy. New Delhi also apprehends serious Chinese encroachments into India’s strategic periphery through Beijing’s BRI and maritime strategies.

However, asserting the Indian desire for strategic autonomy, Modi’s speech at the Shangri-La Dialogue on June 1, 2018, clearly signaled New Delhi’s reluctance to share the objectives of the other members of the Quad (the US, Japan and Australia) and strengthen the quadrilateral format primarily as a way to contain Chinese influence. It took a broader view of its Indo-Pacific policy by inviting Russia, the members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and China to help maintain a free and open Indian Ocean for trade and navigation.

On the other hand, during the 2+2 meeting between India and the US on September 6, 2018, the two countries signed the defense pact known as the Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA) to facilitate Indian military platforms’ access to encrypted, cutting-edge and high-end secured communication equipment from the US, which was intended to enable India to put Chinese moves in the Indian Ocean and Himalayas under close surveillance.

Apart from devoting considerable time toward discussing and sharing viewpoints on Indo-Pacific strategy, the two countries also agreed to conduct a tri-service military exercise during the dialogue. In the evolving scenario, while the US is not assured of India’s unambiguous support for its Indo-Pacific strategy, Chinese suspicions of India’s pro-US gesture have not been dispelled.

The balancing strategy has required delicate handling. After the Doklam standoff, in the subsequent informal meetings at Wuhan, on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and recently in Mammlapuram, Chennai, although India and China made efforts to reach a level of understanding, doubts persist in their relationship. China’s varying viewpoints on issues of vital importance to India such as Kashmir and terrorism substantiate this contention apart from Beijing’s long-held opposition to India’s membership in the Nuclear Suppliers Group and permanent membership in the UN Security Council.

Similarly, Indo-Russian relations cooled off once India forged ahead with its strategic partnership with the US. On the other hand, Russia moved closer to Pakistan and China in the realms of strategic cooperation and Pakistan successfully inked a few important defense deals with Russia, causing concerns to India. Even as India expressed its desire to bring in the old dynamism in Indo-Russian relations and move ahead with the S-400 missile deal, swords of US sanctions continued to hover over the Indian head. India continued to be dependent on Russia for equipment and technological assistance, as the bulk of its defense procurements were from the erstwhile Soviet Union.

New Delhi’s current drive toward cutting-edge defense technology and sophisticated weapon systems from the US should not have blinded it to considering ties with Russia on an equal footing. Last week, indicating India’s marginalization and isolation from regional security dialogues, Sputnik reported that Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov had said Moscow has an interest in Iran joining the Russia-China-US format for Afghanistan talks. He said: “We have a dialogue with them [the United States] on Afghanistan. There is a Russia-China-US format that Pakistan has joined. There is interest in connecting Iran to this format. It can be promising.”

India’s path of strategic autonomy benefited it in terms of trade, and avenues for India-China cooperation also opened for a while during the ongoing US-China trade war. However, this could not translate into sustainable India-China relations

India’s path of strategic autonomy benefited it in terms of trade, and avenues for India-China cooperation also opened for a while during the ongoing US-China trade war. However, this could not translate into sustainable India-China relations as India’s balancing act sought to satisfy both during the confrontation. The more worrying development so far as India’s business interests are concerned is that even while strategic bonding between India and the US appeared to be stronger than at any time before, President Donald Trump’s administration did not hesitate to tighten the screws on New Delhi in the areas of trade and migration. This might be the results of India’s ambivalence toward the US strategies on China and Russia.

India’s balancing act has allowed it to maintain ties with middle powers with adversarial relations among them, such as Israel in the field of technology and armaments while allowing leeway to maintain relations with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates in the areas of investment, energy trade and migration. But the flip side is that the delicate balancing strategy has yielded bitter outcomes when equations involved a great power on the one hand and a middle power on the other. For instance, the US pressure on New Delhi to tighten the screws on Iran has produced such undesired outcomes as negative impacts on India’s energy deals with Iran and its failure to combine efforts and put into operation the Chabahar port as an alternative route to Afghanistan bypassing Pakistan.

India considered cooperation with middle powers such as Japan crucial to meet its security concerns vis-a-vis China in its strategic periphery and underline the need for maintaining an open and rule-based Indo-Pacific region. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe extended Japan’s cooperation to India in the areas of infrastructure, connectivity and investment. However, India-Japan relations would be contingent on how the American Indo-Pacific strategy evolves and India’s possible role in it.

It is to be seen how India manages to tread a cautious path to forge ahead with its regional strategy focusing on connectivity, infrastructure, peace and development while the call for militarization of the Indo-Pacific region appears to be a near possibility. However, the problem is India is currently going through a phase of economic slowdown that, unless addressed, soon will put its bargaining power vis-a-vis other significant powers in jeopardy, making its balancing strategy less effective and while its focus shifts toward security issues.

New Delhi’s recent decision not to be part of Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) – a trade pact among 16 countries including 10 from ASEAN and other middle powers such as Japan, China, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand – on account of bilateral economic issues such as trade imbalance with China points to the link between the strength of India’s economy and success of its regional and foreign policies. This move indicates the fledgling aspect of India’s “Act East” policy.

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