The Strategic and Geopolitical Limits of the Partnership Between Delhi and Moscow

1 year ago 46

India has gone from neutrality to “multi-alignment”. It does not condemn the Russian aggression in Ukraine and rejects international sanctions. In fact, it is buying Russian hydrocarbons and fertilizers en masse. To justify themselves, Indian leaders refer to Kautilya, author of the Arthashastra, an ancient indigenous form of Realpolitik, while giving moral lessons to the West. The “global South” is thus reinventing the world. However, the Russian-Indian partnership raises questions.

In South Asia and the Indian Ocean, Russia’s strategic partner is the Union of India. These ties were forged in the Soviet era, under Indira Gandhi, and were renewed at the end of the 1990s, when Yevgeny Primakov, Foreign Minister then Prime Minister under Yeltsin, set up “anti-hegemonic coalitions”. The aim, it was believed, was to rebalance relations with the United States and the West in order to change the terms of trade. In truth, Moscow was already working to rebuild an opposition force.

A partnership forged during the Cold War

The close relationship between Moscow and Delhi is reflected in energy cooperation agreements, a military-industrial partnership — half of India’s military equipment is of Russian-Soviet origin1 — and regular naval exercises (“Indra” exercises). Only last year, the Indian Navy took part in the “Vostok 2022” exercises. Other exercises are conducted within the multilateral framework of the SCO (Shanghai Cooperation Organization).

Russia, whose role was essential in promoting the BRICS format (Brazil-Russia-India-China-South Africa), also supported India’s SCO membership. This was done in 2017, along with the integration of Pakistan, a historical ally of China. For Narendra Modi and the Hindu nationalists of the BJP2 (Bharatiya Jana Sangh), joining the SCO is part of the “Neighbourhood policy”; in a way, a policy of “zero problems” with its neighbors.

Before the war in Ukraine, however, Russia hardly had the will or the means to accompany India’s rise to power. The area of relevance of its grand strategy was and remains post-Soviet Eurasia, considered as a “near abroad”3. Russia’s naval presence in the Indian Ocean remained limited, unmatched by that of the United States and its main allies. In the 2000s, the “war on terror” even led to the deployment of Western armadas in the Indian Ocean, a platform for power projection toward Afghanistan (Operation Enduring Freedom).

Western capitals, aware of the new balances in the making of what was not yet called the Indo-Pacific zone, were working to establish a new relationship with India4. In 2006, Washington and Delhi signed a cooperation agreement in the field of civil nuclear energy. Paris was working to export its warplanes and naval technology. As a result, the Soviet quasi-monopoly on arms sales to India was gradually ending. More broadly, Brussels began negotiating a free trade treaty with Delhi. Israel, Australia and Japan are also involved in the process. Since Brexit, the United Kingdom has been negotiating on its own behalf.

These prospects exceed what Russia would be able to offer India. All the more so since Moscow favors its links with China, without being able to benefit from a diplomatic counterweight in the great Asian theater (Moscow seeks to preserve a Vietnamese “sphere of privileged interest”). However, hostility between Beijing and Delhi prevails, due to major territorial disputes and the close rear alliance that China and Pakistan have forged.

Before the East Asian countries and their Western allies were confronted with Beijing’s territorial and maritime claims in the so-called “Asian Mediterranean seas” (South and East China Seas), India had to deal with Chinese ambitions at an early stage. It may have won the four wars that opposed it to Pakistan (1947, 1965, 1971, 1999) but its army was defeated in the Sino-Indian war of 1962. Jeopardized as soon as the PLA (People’s Liberation Army) troops entered Tibet in 1950, Nehru’s Third World policy, which involved an agreement with China, revealed its vacuity. Beijing even argued that American aid to India would deprive it of the role it had claimed in the Third World, a claim that had been explicit since the Bandung Conference (18-24 April 1955).

The primacy of the Chinese threat

In 1962, Chinese troops crossed the McMahon Line5 to take up positions on the Himalayan foothills, overlooking the Brahmaputra. Although the Brahmaputra loop and the Assam region were subsequently evacuated, China acted differently on the western edge of the Indo-Chinese borders, where Aksai Chin, a piece of Kashmir, was annexed (Aksai Chin corresponds to a part of the Ladakh plateau). Since then, Delhi has been demanding the return of this territory. In return, Beijing disputes the rightful membership of Arunachal Pradesh in the Indian Federation.

In the summer of 2017, China and India again clashed over the Doklam plateau in western Bhutan, which Beijing has decided to militarize6. In 2020 and 2021, there were incidents in Sikkim, a small state in the Union of India that borders Tibet (People’s Republic of China) and Nepal, as well as on the Ladakh plateau in the far north of India, bordering Tibet. The Chinese armed forces are challenging the Line of Actual Control (LAC). After clashes which probably caused several dozen deaths on both sides, it pushed its advantage. About 1,500 km² passed under the control of the Chinese armed forces7.

At the same time, Beijing has continued to strengthen its alliance with Pakistan. It has given it access to nuclear weapons and supports its position on the Kashmir issue. Launched in 2013, the vast “New Silk Roads” program has also given a major boost to the “string of pearls” strategy in the Indian Ocean8 , to the point of challenging Delhi’s role in the “Indian Lake” (the former “British Lake”).

The same project includes the opening of a logistical corridor through Pakistan to the port of Gwadar (financed by Beijing), and takes the form of a strategy of encircling India. Moreover, China has failed to firmly and explicitly condemn the terrorism of Islamist movements supported to varying degrees by the Pakistani “deep state”, in the name of the struggle for the reattachment of the part of Kashmir that is outside Islamabad’s control.

In sum, India is under attack on its Himalayan borders (3,500 km), while its naval and maritime ambitions in the Indian Ocean are countered by China. This leads Delhi, in agreement with Tokyo, to promote the Indo-Pacific concept . Established in 2007, the “Indo-Pacific Quad” is its strategic extension. After falling off the radar, it has been revived in recent years9. Delhi and Tokyo are driving the “Freedom Roads” agenda; Washington and Brussels are asserting their vision of East-West routes and infrastructure10.

Vladimir Putin and Narendra Modi in 2019 // kremlin.ru

Vladimir Putin and Narendra Modi in 2019 // kremlin.ru

India challenged in South Asia

Without being a formal alliance, the Quad, the grouping between the United States, Australia, Japan and India, aims to counteract the People’s Republic of China. It is open to other powers in the region, including those of ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations), called the “Quad +”. Occasionally, France is not above joining military exercises conducted within this framework. The demands of Western unity and France’s desire to be a responsible power in the Indo-Pacific zone should lead it to join this “Quad +”. It is true that this requires greater clarity with regard to Taiwan11.

The Quad, the set of bilateral relations between India and Western powers, as well as the military-industrial cooperation established with the same in the post-Cold War period, thus open up perspectives for Delhi other than those proposed by “Russia-Eurasia”, which is obsessed with the post-Soviet area and the Arctic. All the more so since the failure of its troops in the Ukrainian theater exposes for everyone to see the limits of Russia’s military art, of its “combat proven” equipment (in Syria) and of the “brilliant strategist” who rules in the Kremlin. If only for economic and industrial reasons, it will in any case be difficult for Moscow to maintain its positions on the arms market12.

Also, and above all, the war in Ukraine is moving in the direction of closer ties between Russia and China, to the point that many commentators are finally willing to talk about a Sino-Russian alliance13. From Moscow, India can be seen as an example of a country that has been able to develop its own economy. From Moscow’s point of view, India can be of diplomatic and economic service, but it does not carry much weight in terms of grand strategy and global geopolitics. Faced with the “collective West”, the Russians and Chinese are driven by a shared hostility and the belief that the future belongs to them. They are following the logic of a great hegemonic confrontation.

In truth, Indian should be aware of the formation on its northern borders of a vast Sino-Russian Eurasia that would claim to speak and act on behalf of the whole of Asia and the “global South”. Especially since Beijing uses the SCO, which it supervises with Moscow, to reduce India’s diplomatic room for manoeuvre on the international scene. The BRICS forum, whose ideological oversight is provided by the same group, does not give it any more space14.

Finally, Beijing has allies within SAARC (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation) and BIMSTEC (Bay of Bengal Initiative), both of which focus on South and Southeast Asia15. Significantly, no country in the Indian subcontinent and its periphery has condemned Chinese actions on the Ladakh plateau. Thus, there will be no South Asian bloc, led by Delhi, that is able and willing to counteract China. It is in the West and its Asia-Pacific allies (see AUKUS) that India will find partners, and even allies, determined to counter Beijing.

By way of conclusion

Hindu nationalism would still have to distance itself from the “sublime lie” of autochthony (to the point of denying the Indo-European fact), and favor a maritime and global interpretation of the long history of the Indian subcontinent. As a regional crossroads of an Afro-Eurasian system of exchanges, medieval and modern India was situated between East Africa, the Islamic world, Upper Asia and the Far East. Only by turning toward the open sea, more precisely toward the maritime powers of the West and the Asia-Pacific, will it be able to face China’s grip, in Eurasia as in the Indo-Pacific. Putin’s “Russia-Eurasia” will never be more than an unreliable provider.

Indian diplomats and strategists should know that invoking an ancient collection of stratagems (the Arthashastra), or exploiting windfall effects on world markets (oil, fertilizer and grain), cannot be a substitute for high politics. As for Western powers, they will have to pressurize India, to exploit the situation in order to detach it from Moscow. Without aiming to get this “civilization-state” to switch purely and simply to the West, because India is too massive and self-centered for its leaders to make such a drastic choice. In short, it is a question of practicing the art of diplomacy, an exercise that combines persuasion, cooperation and coercion. An exercise in classicism.

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