How India will now balance between the Russian Federation, China and the United States

Over the past decades, India’s foreign policy has been considered a model of strategic balancing: New Delhi has managed to maintain good relations with Moscow, Washington, Tehran, and London.

How India will now balance between the Russian Federation, China and the United States
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This was favored by the seemingly indestructible liberal world order. In political terms, it assumed unequal conditions for states: those who were unconditionally loyal to the United States that claimed hegemony or were among the so-called “civilized countries” could consider themselves safe. Those countries that generally recognized Western dominance or disagreed but did not risk challenging it also felt relatively calm.

Those who tried to resist this dictate or successfully approached the role of troublemaker found themselves in the position of pariahs, threatening an imperfect, but generally working system, built on the basis of numerous checks, balances and implicit obligations. Such a situation, in which the United States declared its dominance, but tried to avoid excessive expenditure of forces and resources to maintain it, gave the absolute majority of states freedom of foreign policy maneuver. In this situation, India could implement its key foreign policy imperatives – the desire for sovereignty, great power and accelerated economic development.

The events of recent years, and especially this year, however, have taken India out of its comfort zone. The new reality puts it before a large number of challenges, which the leadership of the republic has so far successfully overcome, once again demonstrating an exceptional ability not to quarrel with anyone more than necessary and to extract maximum profit from the conflicts of other great powers.

Washington is one of the top priority partners for New Delhi. The United States is the only superpower at the moment, and there is no reason for India to quarrel with it. The states view the republic as a springboard against the PRC, and in the American perception, the Indian-Chinese rivalry is predetermined by the very fact of the neighborhood of the two Asian giants. They will inevitably clash over spheres of influence; therefore, the United States does not need to enter into a full-fledged alliance with India, it can simply strengthen its military capabilities without binding itself with unnecessary obligations.

The important role played by India in American strategy forces the US to turn a blind eye to many things that other countries would be blamed for, such as New Delhi’s actions on the Kashmir issue. Instead, India is “the world’s largest democracy” and Washington and New Delhi are declared “natural allies.”

The Indian leadership is completely satisfied with this: besides, who would refuse a mutually beneficial partnership with a superpower that asks for almost nothing in return? More than two million Indians living in the US are actively investing in the republic, helping to boost the national economy with American money. In addition, the US is the world’s technology leader and the largest consumer of Indian export IT services.

At the same time, the Indian authorities are solving a difficult problem: how to develop relations with the States without becoming dependent on them. As the main trump card, New Delhi uses the same US political interest in India: if Washington tries to openly put pressure on it, demanding that it actually abandon the balancing policy, the local political elites go on principle. A typical example is the story of the purchase of Russian S-400 systems, when New Delhi reacted harshly to attempts to impose secondary sanctions (a certain role in this was also played by the peculiarities of Indian political culture, in particular, the consistent rejection of unilateral measures not approved by the UN). The US was forced to retreat. At the same time, in less critical cases, as in the situation with the purchase of Iranian oil, India has demonstrated its readiness to take into account Washington’s concerns and stop, at least formally, its imports.

Although there are pro-American people in the elites of the republic, the main part of the leadership looks at things soberly, realizing that the favor of the hegemon entirely depends on India’s position as a force opposing the PRC, and can be replaced by anger at any time. And then India will turn from a democracy into a “false democracy” in American discourse.

India’s relationship with Beijing is much more complex – and much more ancient. At the moment, the Indian leadership considers China, firstly, as a country with which there is an unsettled territorial dispute (China occupies the Aksai Chin territory in Ladakh and claims a number of Indian territories, the largest of which is the state of Arunachal Pradesh – in the Chinese interpretation of Southern Tibet). And secondly, it sees China as a potential rival in the Indian Ocean region, East Africa and Southeast Asia. In addition, India is worried about the large deficit in joint trade.

At the same time, New Delhi is aware that Beijing remains a neighbor with whom it will have to coexist and negotiate in any case, as well as one of the largest trading partners, with which the smooth functioning of many sectors of the economy and the well-being of hundreds of millions of Indians depend on trade exchange. Initiatives designed to replace as much as possible imports from China with domestically produced goods have not yet been successful. In general, India seeks to force China to recognize it as an equal center of power, entitled to its own sphere of influence and to make the most of the factor of confrontation with Beijing to further improve relations with the United States. At the same time, Indian politicians are well aware that the rivalry with China is not of an existential nature. The current status quo suits both Beijing and New Delhi.

The question of how to further build relations with Moscow has become, perhaps, the most serious challenge for the Indian elites. On the one hand, Russia is a traditional partner, this idea is firmly rooted in the opinion of society and part of the political and military elites, and these sentiments cannot be ignored. On the other hand, relations with the Russian Federation are devoid of the obvious strategic meaning that they had in Soviet times: then the USSR and India were alarmed by the expansionist plans of China, and the unofficial Soviet-Indian alliance guaranteed that the PRC would not risk hitting one of its neighbors without the risk of being hit. 

Now Russian-Chinese relations have improved to such an extent that the Indian media are seriously talking about the gradual vassalization of Moscow by Beijing. In addition, relations between the Russian Federation and India are devoid of an economic basis, which the republic’s elites perceive as an indispensable element of a strategic partnership. Until recently, the trade turnover between the two countries did not exceed $11 billion, the lion’s share of which accounted for the military-technical cooperation and peaceful atom. At the same time, in the eyes of the Indian leadership, Russia retained its value as a potential partner in a future polycentric world order, allowing India to balance relations with the United States.

This stagnation has sunk into the past with the beginning of the special operation. Russia, cut off from Western investment, technology and markets, has found an alternative in the East. India suddenly received a whole package of proposals that are hard to refuse. Most notable was Russia’s willingness to sell oil at a huge discount, and India hastened to take advantage of it – once again soberly weighing the degree of readiness of the West and the US itself to turn a blind eye to this.

At the same time, it is not clear to what extent New Delhi understands the long-term, truly strategic consequences of Russia’s turn to India, Moscow’s willingness to share existing technologies and build new production chains, up to the linking of entire areas of national economies. The scale of the ongoing changes is so great that the very comprehension of it takes time. And the results of the decisions that the Indian leadership will make in the coming months will determine the relationship between Moscow and New Delhi for decades to come.

Alexey Kupriyanov, Izvestia newspaper

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