Russian President Vladimir Putin and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi meet at the SCO summit in Astana, Kazakhstan, on June 9, 2017. Photo: Sputnik / Alexei Nikolsky / Kremlin via Reuters
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi meet at the SCO summit in Astana, Kazakhstan, on June 9, 2017. Years later, India is maintaining relations with both Russia and Ukraine despite their war. Photo: Sputnik via AFP / Alexei Nikolsky / Kremlin

The Russia-Ukraine war has polarized the world order and has posed a difficult choice for the developing countries: whether to support a liberal-democratic Western order or a unitary-authoritarian Russia-China-led order.

To reorient their policy postures, the developing countries, in addition to the geo-strategic calculations, also have to consider the economic and trade factors.

No doubt, the developed countries have their bloc and alliance systems, but a country like India, currently on the threshold of becoming a big power, faces a dilemma on how to respond to the evolving geo-strategic order in the Indo-Pacific region. 

Currently, the Indo-Pacific region is emerging as an epicenter of the power struggle between the US and China.

As clearly delineated on the weekend by US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin during the 2022 Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, the US has launched several initiatives to encourage regional powers to maintain a status quo against the unilateral actions initiated by China.

While favoring these initiatives, regional powers have constrained themselves from bandwagoning with the US mainly because of strong trade ties with Beijing. As a result, the US policy initiatives are proving less effective in providing trade alternatives and containing China’s growing regional influence both militarily and economically.

The United States’ shifting policy postures since the Barack Obama administration and lack of tangible assurance of support to its allies and partners proved ineffective in containing China and posed a security dilemma to the regional states.

For example, the United States’ failure to support the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) to counter the growing Chinese economic expansion compelled Japan to lead in setting up the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP).

Similarly, the US failure to stop China’s naval expansion in the South China Sea is forcing Australia, India and Japan to take a more active role in that sea and surrounding waters. Gradually, some regional countries have started to feel that the US may be unable to take the lead in crafting a suitable response to China’s naval expansion.

The era of the US-led hub-and-spoke security mechanism, where it played a crucial role in maintaining peace and security, appears to be disoriented. In such circumstances, perhaps the major regional powers should take the lead and play a more proactive role in building a new security architecture with the backing of the United States. 

India faces a dilemma

India faces a major security challenge with the rise of China. The dispute over the McMahon Line between India and China is simmering, and the two countries’ militaries are positioned eyeball to eyeball. In the recent past, clashes at Doklam and Pangong Lake have demonstrated the potential for conflagration into a conflict.

In addition, China’s expansive naval presence in the Indian Ocean and its enhanced aid and trade with other South Asian countries raise serious concern in New Delhi, as this region traditionally has been under India’s sphere of influence.

Furthermore, Beijing’s strengthening of relations with India’s arch-enemy, Pakistan, indicates China’s display of power and intentions to subdue India to establish a China-led regional order.

India has initiated several policy measures to engage China by entering the institutional frameworks launched by Beijing, such as BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa), the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), Russia-India-China (RIC), and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB). But instead of building confidence, these measures have proved more of a pressure tactic to push India to fall within the lines. 

Despite growing tensions with China, India has not been able to throw its full weight behind the US for various reasons, foremost among them former president Donald Trump’s offer to mediate instead of holding China responsible for aggression in the Galwan Valley in 2020. New Delhi had to approach Russia to pressure China to withdraw from the territory claimed by India.

Therefore, New Delhi faces a serious security dilemma because of its complicated relationship with China and the conflict between Russia and the United States. These perplexed dynamics complicate making clear choices in its security policies.

Currently, India is an active member of the China-led SCO and the US-led Quad simultaneously. In other words, New Delhi has its feet in two boats moving in opposite directions.

So far, this policy of strategic autonomy has worked very well. However, the question arises, how long can India follow this policy?  

The Ukraine war has brought China and Russia closer than ever before. This growing convergence is creating a security and strategic dilemma for India. As a result, it may not be able to follow its strategic autonomy stance for much longer.

In the near future, it will become increasingly challenging for India to retain its close historical relations with Russia and maintain friendly engagement with China while actively supporting US-led initiatives to decouple Russia from the world economy and support security policies to contain China in the Indo-Pacific region. There is a limit to how far India can stretch its strategic-autonomy policies in the face of the growing intensity of the power struggle between the US and China in the region. 

At this time, India appears to be left with two options. The first option is that it may choose one partner from the two emerging blocs and throw its entire weight behind it. This choice, akin to a formal alliance, could have serious security and economic implications for India.

India’s second option is to give up on its current multi-alignment policy and return to its non-alignment days, thus completely decoupling itself from the ongoing power politics and returning to equidistance. However, it may not be easy for India to isolate itself in its region in the current globalized system. 

Given the complicated predicament in which India finds itself, the question arises, what can it do to secure its economic and security interests in the region? Is there a third option?

Multilateralism: the way forward

India can craft a new multilateral all-inclusive approach instead of siding with one bloc or decoupling itself from the other. Instead of being a spoke in the US-led hub-and-spokes security paradigm, India, with like-minded states such as Australia, Japan, South Korea, Vietnam and Singapore, can lead the formation of a new resident-powers-centric security and economic framework to maintain peace, security, and stability in the region. 

In this new security framework, the regional states should take the primary responsibility for maintaining peace and stability in the region. The framework should be constituted so that it should not appear as an adversary to other resident countries. Thus it should remain open to all those who are ready to play a constructive role in the region.

Both China and Russia should also be included, as their exclusion would be more challenging than inclusion. The United States, although a superpower, should play more of a supportive role rather than dominate the security architecture.

Too much water has flowed through the Ganges since India adopted the non-alignment policy. Also, it can ill afford to join any emerging power bloc. Crafting a new foreign and security policy that meets its current needs is the best way forward.

India must maintain sound relations with the US, Russia, China, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, Japan and South Korea. Hence it needs to support a multilateral security paradigm in the region. Therefore, India should play a proactive role in giving new directions to the multilateral security paradigm.

New Delhi needs to lead from the front in constructing new security architecture in the region and ensure that no single power emerges strong enough to use this architect for its interests. Thus the focus should remain on the common good. If some state follows unilateral or hegemonic actions, it should be exposed by the comity of nations.

India has become a net security provider in the Indian Ocean. It is in the process of building infrastructure around the chokepoints in the Indian Ocean, specifically the Malacca Strait, where it has already established a tripartite command, comprising the army, navy and air force.

Thus, taking advantage of the current perplexing world order, India is in a strong position for multilateralism. It is investing heavily in infrastructure development to become a dominant power in the Indian Ocean and a balancer in the broader Indo-Pacific region.

As is prudent in international relations, nothing is permanent except the national interest. In this direction, India could pursue its national interests without disturbing any other country or balance of power in the region. That is why, despite persuasion from different corners, India not only retains relations with Russia during the war but has been benefiting from cheaper petroleum products while simultaneously providing humanitarian assistance to Ukraine.

India’s strategic orientation in the emerging power dynamics in the Indo-Pacific needs to be increasingly directed toward building a credible all-inclusive security mechanism rather than attempting to decouple Russia from the world economy or contain a rising China in the region. Pursuing this inclusive approach with a focus on soft power and keeping its hard economic and military power on standby can go a long way in helping India to play a leading role and build a new multilateral security architecture in the region.

Taking stock of different strategic dynamics in its region and outside, India has been placing itself strategically to harness its interests. After previously remaining non-aligned and maintaining strategic autonomy, it is now proactively supporting multilateralism, that is, a multilateral Asia and a multilateral world.

In the former, its interests coincide with the US (liberal democracies); in the latter, it is more in consonance with the authoritarian powers (China-Russia). This calculated strategy finds its genesis in the current complex dynamics. 

India shares multiple interests with regional countries. Currently, its security and economic interests are perfectly in tune with most of the countries in the region. However, despite such a huge convergence of interests, India has yet to synergize fully its defense and economic policies and strategies with regional countries to face common regional challenges. 

The time for India to play a proactive leadership role in building the new security architecture in the Indo-Pacific region has come.

United, they stand!

Lakhvinder Singh

Lakhvinder Singh is director of peace and security studies at the Asia Institute in Seoul, South Korea.

Dalbir Ahlawat

Dalbir Ahlawat is a senior lecturer at the Department of Security Studies and Criminology, Macquarie University, Australia.