Chinese President Xi Jinping (L) and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi don't see eye to eye in the Himalayas. Photo: AFP / Kenzaburo Fukuhara

New Delhi has yet again attempted a balancing act over rising Russia-West tensions.

On January 31, the UN Security Council took up the issue of Russia’s buildup of troops on the Ukrainian border for discussion at America’s behest.

India tried a tightrope walk that attempted to please both the West – by calling for diplomacy in alignment with the Minsk Process – and Russia, by asking that “legitimate security interests of all countries” be taken into account.  

Yet India’s continued neutrality has not yielded the desired result, particularly on the issue that bedevils it the most – China. The most apparent reason behind India’s balancing act on Ukraine is its military dependence on Russia.

Despite drawing closer to the US in recent years, India sources close to 55% of its arms from Moscow. Russia is also a key supplier for India’s nuclear program, and the two countries jointly produce weapons systems.

India recently sold supersonic cruise missiles, jointly produced with Russia, to the Philippines. This is one of the few examples of India having sold indigenously manufactured weapons systems to other countries – a key goal for Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government.

Moscow provides New Delhi with crucial political support over Kashmir at the UN Security Council. More important, Russia is a critical partner for India in dealing with Taliban-controlled Afghanistan.

Yet New Delhi has also pursued closer military cooperation with the US, aligning with the latter’s much-vaunted pivot to Asia. India has been an enthusiastic participant in the US-led Quadrilateral Security Dialogue with Japan and Australia, two countries with equally stormy relations with China.

However, whenever New Delhi is seen by one side as tilting too far toward the other, it faces blowback. In the end, it gains very little.

Ships taking part in the Malabar exercise in the Bay of Bengal, India, November 3, 2020. Photo: AFP / Indian Navy

India may be an enthusiastic participant in naval exercises with Quad members, but it has also sent troops to Russia-led Zapad military exercises in Belarus. Yet soon after India signed three “foundational pacts” with the US, which gave both countries’ militaries access to each other’s facilities, Russia inked a security cooperation pact with Pakistan.

Russia has since conducted military drills with Pakistan and even sold its helicopter gunships in 2018 to New Delhi’s ire. Meanwhile, Washington continues to pressure New Delhi to drop its purchase of the Russian S-400 missile defense systems.

Yet it is on China, which is India’s most critical security challenge, that New Delhi has received very little support from either Moscow or Washington.

Much like Russia in Ukraine’s Donbas region, where Russia has intervened to protect the interests of Russian speakers and has handed out Russian passports to the inhabitants of these territories, China has attempted to create frozen conflicts along its disputed border with India. Whole villages inhabited by Chinese citizens have sprung up overnight in disputed areas.

China claims large parts of Indian-administered territory. The entire Indian border state of Arunachal Pradesh, a region the size of Austria, is claimed by China as “Southern Tibet.”

Yet on this, the most serious security threat faced by India in recent decades, New Delhi remains unconvinced about US support and reliability.

On India-China tensions, Russia has offered little other than platitudes about the virtues of bilateral diplomacy; Moscow will do nothing to endanger its strategic partnership with Beijing. President Vladimir Putin’s meeting last week with President Xi Jinping, where the two cemented their countries’ strategic alliance further, is bound to cause nervousness in New Delhi.

However, Russia’s actions toward Ukraine presage a shifting global order in which an evolving China-Russia alliance also threatens India’s strategic interests. Its position on the Ukraine issue, then, is not a bold foreign policy position but one borne of prevarication.

The dilemma for New Delhi is that strategically, Russian threats toward Ukraine are indirectly a threat to New Delhi’s interests. What motivates Russia to menace Ukraine is also what has caused a rise in Chinese aggression toward India along their disputed border.

 

This photograph released by the Indian Army on February 16, 2021, shows People’s Liberation Army soldiers during military disengagement along the Line of Actual Control at the India-China border in Ladakh. Photo: AFP / Indian Ministry of Defence

Just as Moscow does not want closer integration between the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and Ukraine, Beijing’s aggressive tactics along the India-China Line of Actual Control (LAC) are a warning to New Delhi not to get too close to the US.

Indeed, during a visit to India in March, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov referred to the Quad as an “Asian NATO.” Senior officials in Beijing have also echoed this position.

The US has argued that a Russian invasion of Ukraine would threaten the international order, where states do not annex bits of each other on a whim. Not only will this resonate with Middle Eastern states, given Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990, but it remains a cause for worry in India too. 

The critical question is whether the US will intervene to protect the international order. The world is caught between a Russia-China axis looking to reshape that international order and the US uninterested in, or incapable of, protecting it.

With few benefits accruing to its own national-security interests, India’s balancing act between the two is a cautionary tale for other countries. New Delhi’s goal of pursuing a balanced foreign policy to reach its goal of becoming a rising power in a multipolar world now looks complicated. Regional capitals will have taken note.

This article was provided by Syndication Bureau, which holds copyright.

Dnyanesh Kamat

Dnyanesh Kamat is a political analyst who focuses on the Middle East and South Asia. He also consults on socio-economic development for government and private-sector entities.