by Lorenzo Di Muro
With us or against us is not a formula applicable to India today. The enlarged West led by the United States has realised this. After criticising India’s ‘ambivalence’, it has now lowered its tone and strengthened cooperation in strategic areas. Whereas Russia did not even try, incensing the ‘constructive’ role played by Delhi, described after Beijing as a privileged partner in the Foreign Policy Concept published in late March 2023.
Since the beginning of the Russian invasion of Ukraine – which, according to Pankaj Saran, Delhi’s former ambassador to Moscow (2016-18), has ‘upset’ the Indian strategic community – Narendra Modi’s government has put on a good face, by adapting to the geopolitical earthquake triggered by the military offensive.
Indian diplomacy has called the warring parties to dialogue on the basis of UN Charter principles, above all respect for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of states. It has also made an invitation to send humanitarian material to Kiev. Modi himself has warned Putin, before a worldwide audience and with rare clarity, that ‘now is not the time for war’. This was a concept reiterated in the G20 joint declaration made in Bali in November 2022, when Delhi assumed the rotating presidency of the meeting. Last March, the Indian authorities hosted Ukraine’s Deputy Foreign Minister Emine Dzhaparova, the first official visit to the subcontinent by a senior official from Kiev. And in May, on the sidelines of the G7 summit in Hiroshima, Modi starred in a face-to-face meeting with Ukrainian President Zelenskyy, the first to take place since the start of the conflict. Delhi has not, however, embraced Western positions. It did not formally condemn Russia’s ‘special military operation’ in the UN nor did it adopt sanctions. On the contrary, it has increased imports from the Federation to unprecedented levels, making it its first source of oil supplies. Although the relationship with the Kremlin continues to be described as unique, firm and constant, Indians are increasingly concerned about the continuing war in Ukraine, the result of which is the progressive understanding between Moscow and Beijing, India’s main strategic threat. Hence also the gradual strengthening of relations between the latter and the West, the United States above all others – the US being, according to Modi, India’s ‘key partner’ for the coming twenty-five years – and then Japan, France, and Australia.
India’s objective is to transform itself into a ‘developed nation’ by 2047, to secure a place in the sun on the geopolitical chessboard, or – in Indian rhetoric – to become a ‘Vishwa Guru’. This goal is subject to at least two preconditions. First, internal socio-economic development, followed by the strengthening of the military and diplomacy, and therefore the consolidation of influence first in one’s own geographical surroundings and then around the globe. Second, a regional balance of power that does not result in an order centred on China, which is intent on extroverting itself in the Indo-Pacific and becoming increasingly assertive along the more than three thousand kilometres of disputed borders.
For this, Delhi needs both the West – a source of capital and technology as well as a deterrent against Chinese expansionism – and Russia, a counterweight to the cumbersome Chinese neighbour, a traditional supplier of armaments, diplomatic cover, and today of raw materials at advantageous prices. India’s margins for manoeuvre are, in short, limited. That is why it hopes for a cessation of hostilities between Kiev and Moscow that does not entail the latter’s being crushed by Beijing.
2. Ties with Russia are at the heart of India’s strategic debate. The Soviet Union and the Russian Federation have not only influenced economic-ideological thinking in independent India, but also constituted an indispensable source of armaments and technology for civil and military use, nuclear and space included, while providing a convenient diplomatic umbrella at the UN Security Council.
More than anything else, in the axis with the Kremlin, India sees an indispensable lever to use in its relationship with its Chinese rival. With the collapse of the USSR, the ‘uni-polar moment’, and the rise of Beijing, Indian decision-makers have progressively diversified their strategic relations by moving closer to the United States and its allies. The downsizing of the liaison with Moscow, appreciable above all in terms of military supplies, thus predates 24 February 2022. Yet it has been stimulated by the aggression against Ukraine, as well as by the push for the indigenisation of the arms industry and fears over the growing Sino-Russian ‘friendship without limits’.
Indian strategists fear several scenarios. Russia could be forced to side with Beijing should Sino-Indian tensions escalates, both in terms of military supplies and on the level of diplomacy. Moscow could be forced to oppose more directly the strategy for a ‘free and open’ (read: anti-Chinese) Indo-Pacific, promoted by India and the United States, among others. Russian weapons could start integrated Chinese high technology on account of American restrictions on the export of strategic goods to rivals, leading to military assets in use by Indian Armed Forces not keeping up with China’s state of the art. Finally, a triangular cooperation could come into being involving Beijing and Moscow with India’s existential enemy, Pakistan, narrowing the military gap with Islamabad.
More nightmares pile on – some of which came into being the last year. For instance, the delays in the delivery of the S-400 air defence system and other vital national defence assets, as admitted in late March 2023 by the Indian Air Force. This is a repeat of what happened in 1962 when, because of the Cuba crisis, Moscow blocked the delivery of Mig-21s while tensions grew on the borders with China, later resulting in the brief conflict that ended in bitter humiliation for India. Not to mention the inflationary tendencies caused by the Ukraine war which are being passed on in the prices of raw materials such as food, fuel, and fertilisers. These undermine India’s economy, already shaken by the coronavirus pandemic.
Nevertheless, Delhi has no intention of breaking with Moscow or contributing to its isolation, which would fuel Beijing’s ascendancy, not least because the Indians are aware that the glue keeping the Sino-Russian odd couple together is the combination of Western pressure and converging commercial interests, starting with the energy sector. The Russians and Chinese distrust each other and compete for influence in former Soviet Central Asia and the Russian Far East. Moreover, Russia remains India’s prime supplier of armaments, willing to co-develop and co-produce assets such as the Brahmos supersonic missiles, on which Delhi is banking to become an arms exporter, also for anti-Chinese purposes. Russian-made armaments imported by India cover the entire operational spectrum and account for about 60% of those currently in the Army’s possession. This dependence cannot be overcome in the short to medium term.
Moreover, the Indians capitalise on the consequences of the West’s reaction to the invasion of Ukraine: sanctions have forced the Kremlin to offer its hydrocarbons at favourable prices. And India – an energy-hungry country, destined to drive the increase in global energy demand over the next fifteen years – has not been shy. It has exponentially increased its purchase of Russian oil, from an average of 50 thousand barrels per day in 2021 to around 2 million in April 2023. This has made Russia the foremost supplier of crude oil to India and the latter the foremost supplier of refined crude oil to Europe. Indian companies thus increase profits while the country hoards black gold at almost negligible cost – a mechanism that in mid-May was at the centre of the strides of Brussels diplomacy chief Josep Borell.
But it is not all doom and gloom. The Indians complain about the widening trade deficit, the Russians the uselessness – as Lavrov put it – of the billions of rupees collected. The Kremlin is pushing to use the yuan, a development that would support the internationalisation of the Chinese currency, and greatly irritate Delhi. It is no coincidence that so far there has been no progress in negotiations to formalise a payment system in India’s national currency or to increase Russian imports from India, despite a list of over four hundred commodity items having been delivered to Delhi at the end of 2022. The impasse was confirmed in mid-April, when Russian Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Trade and Industry Denis Manturov visited the subcontinent yearning for the need for negotiations on a free trade and investment protection treaty. Manturov met with Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, but the latter made no mention of any such negotiations and instead declared that it was ‘urgent’ to tackle the impediments to Indian product access to the Russian market, from tariff barriers to payments to logistics. This was said without prejudice to the bilateral relationship’s cogency, which was reaffirmed a few weeks later after the summit between the respective defence ministers.
3. If Russian reliability is under scrutiny, American and Western reliability is moving forward. From India’s viewpoint, relations with America and its European and Asian allies are imperative. Delhi sees the West as an inescapable source of dual technology, capital and investment, export markets, and anti-Chinese deterrence. As well as the route to become a manufacturing hub embedded in the global value chains – India’s chronic Achilles’ heel along with the low investment in research and development.
In this framework, India’s recalcitrance to take sides against Moscow rests also on the awareness of its own role in the US-led containment of the People’s Republic. Without India, there is no Indo-Pacific. After the reprimands in the early months of the conflict in Ukraine, Washington has shown signs of understanding Delhi’s approach to the proxy war with Moscow through Kiev. Indeed, the Ukraine crisis may have helped clarify the rationale for India’s policy, moulded on the pragmatic pursuit of its national interests that sometimes cannot be compressed in those of America. It was in this sense that the Assistant Secretary of State for Central and South Asian Affairs, Donald Lu, stated last April that in fact the difference of views on Ukraine had ‘strengthened’ the bond with India instead of souring it, teaching the two countries to cooperate in divergence. This is evidenced by the string of bilateral and multilateral initiatives in recent months.
The US-India Initiative on Critical and Emerging Technologies was inaugurated in Washington in early 2023. According to US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, it is a ‘strategic bet’ aimed at creating an ‘ecosystem’ that will serve the geopolitical, economic, and technological interests of the two countries. It is a step towards sharing technologies vital to India’s rise, including war. As the White House has made it known, the subjects of discussion include the co-development and co-production of HEX reactors for jets, munitions, semiconductors, and so on. The implementation of these negotiations was discussed in the first session of the US-India Strategic Business Dialogue in early June; this Dialogue has the task of facilitating the transfer of cutting-edge technologies.
In April, the Department of Commerce announced that the US government treats Delhi similarly to its NATO allies in terms of sharing technology. So much so that the share of transfers that need special licences has decreased from 25 to 0.5 per cent over the last twenty-five years. Secretary Gina Raimondo emphasised the need for the US and India to ‘lead the world together in this technology ecosystem’ and called Modi an ‘incredible visionary’.
The previous month, Secretary of the Air Force Frank Kendall, after meeting with the Indian leadership, had clarified that the Pentagon is finalising an agreement with counterparts on information sharing and implementation of some clauses of the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement, signed in 2020 and fundamental in the military sphere on a par with the Interconnection Security Agreement and the Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement. Without concealing that some of India’s requests ‘can be problematic’, mostly due to the Make in India plan that requires production in the subcontinent, Kendall confirmed that the United States is working with Delhi on emerging technologies (ISTAR, artificial intelligence, jet propulsion systems) and that it is moving towards overcoming restrictions that have hitherto made this cooperation complicated.
Last April, the Cope India joint air exercise was also restarted, with Japan as observer. Discontinued since 2018, this exercise was held in the states of West Bengal and Uttar Pradesh. Furthermore, Modi’s official visit to Washington in June was also announced. In February, on the other hand, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen had named India as a ‘key beneficiary’, in terms of funding for technology entrepreneurship and infrastructure projects, of the $200 billion plan that Washington has earmarked for the Partnership for Global Infrastructure and Investment.
In January, the Indian Ministry for Commerce had announced that Apple intends to expand its production in the subcontinent, from the current 5-7% of global production to 25%, by 2025. The American company echoed this news in May by announcing 13-billion-dollar investments between now and 2030. In the meantime, Cisco, the leading US digital technology giant, announced that it will start manufacturing in India with investments in excess of 1 billion dollars. Walmart plans to export 10 billion dollars a year from India by 2027, while Tesla seems to have reopened talks with Delhi on a plant on the subcontinent.
There is strengthened collaboration with the other members of the Quad, a quadrilateral security dialogue that includes – besides the United States and India – Japan and Australia, and the objective of which is to curb Chinese projection in the Indo-Pacific.
Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida visited the subcontinent in March and promised investments of 42 billion dollars over the next five years, calling India an ‘indispensable partner’ for a ‘stable, free and open’ Indo-Pacific, echoing the definition given in Japan’s National Security Strategy published at the end of 2022. A few days earlier it was the turn of Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, who visited the INS Vikrant, the first aircraft carrier designed and built in India (which should embark French Rafale fighters or American F/A-18s), announcing that for the first time Australia will host Malabar naval exercises between Quad members, and India will participate in the Australian Exercise Talisman Sabre. According to Albanese, ‘there has never been a point in both countries’ histories’ with ‘such a strong strategic alignment’, nor a ‘busier or more productive time’ in the two countries’ ‘defence and security partnership’.
The leaders of the four Quad member countries then met during the G7 Hiroshima Summit, issuing a series of joint communiqués on synergy in areas such as cyber security and emerging technologies, and emphasising the need to preserve the Indo-Pacific ‘free from coercion’, i.e. from Chinese domination.
The Indian equation includes France. The respective governments signed an agreement in January on air-independent propulsion (AIP), aimed at modernising India’s Kalvari-class submarines, while in May President Macron announced that his ‘friend’ Modi would be the guest of honour at the 14 July parade. It goes to prove that Paris is Delhi’s foremost European interlocutor in security matters and is among its main arms suppliers.
Talks with the West were buttressed by the order Delhi place last February for airliners – the largest order in history: 220 from America’s Boeing and 250 from Europe’s Airbus. Finally, mid-May saw the first meeting of the EU-India Trade and Technology Council, set up in 2022 and focused on collaboration in high-tech sectors, starting with semiconductor production and digital technologies.
In short, there is no shortage of points of friction with the US-led West, from relations with Russia to those with Iran, from American restrictions under International Traffic in Arms Regulations to the treatment of minorities under the Modi government. But the US is now India’s largest trading partner, a major foreign investor and Delhi’s leading partner in terms of number of joint military exercises. The US is one of the keys to the (re)emergence of India’s power, also on the economic-technological level, exploiting trends such as reshoring and friendshoring. America wants to be part of the Indian ‘miracle’, first of all in the context of its policies targeting China.
4. The war in Ukraine has forced India to face strategic dilemmas. Alienating Russia is currently out of the question. And trust with America is still in the making. In this regard, sources inside the State Department quoted recently by The Financial Times attest that we are at a ‘decisive’ stage. The Indians are relying on the fact that the Americans will be forced to continue deepening bilateral relations for reasons of national interest, namely the containment of Beijing. Not least because, despite Washington whipping out the stick when necessary, the carrots from overseas point in this direction.
The giant in the room is in fact China, whose perception by India has been profoundly marked by the violent clashes on the Himalayan border in the mid-2020s and the subsequent recurring tensions along the world’s largest disputed border. The cold shower in Galwan, in the midst of the Covid pandemic, dispelled any doubts about the threat posed by the People’s Republic, which managed to expel India from a thousand square kilometres in eastern Ladakh. So much so that the 18 military-level negotiation meetings, the restart in February 2023 of the Working Mechanism for Consultation and Coordination on India-China Border Affairs, and last April’s meeting between the respective defence ministers in Goa, did not bring any normalisation. The Chinese continue to describe the border situation as ‘stable’, calling on the other side to set aside the diatribe – hence to recognise the alteration of the status quo – in order to concentrate on Indo-Chinese relations as a whole. Instead, the Indians reiterated that China’s violation of existing agreements has ‘eroded the entire basis of bilateral relations’.
If things do not substantially change, the stalemate is bound to continue, not least because of the People’s Republic’s perceived aggressiveness in India’s strategic surroundings. Feeling that its back is covered, Beijing could, moreover, boost pressure on the Himalayan border and in the other Indo-Pacific areas where the influence of the two Asian giants overlaps.
This is why Foreign Minister Jaishankar pointed out that the Russian-Indian relationship is among the most stable in the contemporary world, but that this is not enough in itself. If Delhi and Moscow aim at a multi-polar world, it ‘must necessarily have a multi-polar Asia at its centre’. That is, an Asia in which Beijing does not dictate the law. So the Indians are currently wary of turning their backs on the Russians. Much more than American retaliation for non-alignment over Ukraine, they fear Beijing’s growing influence on Moscow, also evidenced by the Kremlin’s opposition to initiatives like the Quad and AUKUS reiterated at the last Shanghai Cooperation Organisation summit. This is the reason why Delhi hopes the US will take into account the strategic consequences of ostracising Moscow and that the Federation preserves as much room for manoeuvre as possible.
India’s idea of itself is high and equally high are its ambitions, which are based on enormous potential that is counterbalanced by chronic internal faults and structural delays that create domestic destabilisation. Next year’s elections will be decisive for the continuity of Modi’s geopolitical project, that hinges on socio-economic development and the construction of a pan-Indian national identity based on Hindu nationalism.
Within this framework, to put it in Jaishankar’s terms, Indian foreign policy is geared towards the ‘relentless quest to go up (the hierarchies of, ed.) the international order’. To this end, the yearned-for ‘multi-polarity’ signifies from the Indian perspective the possibility of pivoting to competing centres of power according to one’s contingent interest, without binding itself in formal alliances that would undermine the claimed ‘strategic autonomy’ essential to avoid having to bend to the wishes of others. The objective, also with a view to dealing with the Chinese threat, is to leverage the Russians, the Americans, and other Indo-Pacific actors under pressure from Beijing. Even if the border with the People’s Republic were to heat up again, Delhi would not seek American intervention. But it does expect concrete aid, in the form of military and intelligence supplies, as has been the case for the past three years.
Delhi does not know whether its double games will work, whether they will help prevent the ultimate Sino-Russian embrace. This holds true especially if the West continues to treat the Federation as a pariah. India’s tactics could prove untenable and even deleterious should Washington adopt punitive measures or Moscow be induced to seek refuge in Beijing. For now, India is confident of its relevance to America’s anti-Chinese strategy in the Indo-Pacific, Big War’s primary theatre. It is convinced that the Americans will continue their courtship and that the Russians will shy away from bowing to the cumbersome Chinese neighbour.