May 23, 2018

Harinder Sekhon: close ties with Russia are a balancing factor in India´s foreign policy

Interview by Erik Eenlo, BNS

The two-day meeting between Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping at the end of April ended with a statement in which the leaders emphasized the need to maintain calm in all India-China border regions. They also instructed their armed forces to enhance communication in order to prevent miscalculations in disputed border areas. How would you describe the current state of relations between the two Asian powers? Have they been able to move forward from the border tensions that aggravated their relations last year?

The two leaders met at Wuhan. Both countries worked towards this meeting to break the ice as India seeks to ensure that there are no standoffs like the one at Doklam (a small piece of land on the Tibetan plateau lying at the juncture of Indian, Chinese and Bhutanese borders – BNS) as the country moves towards general elections in 2019.

For China too, an adversarial relationship with India is not in its interests as it faces more serious geopolitical challenges especially to its East in the Pacific and South China Sea. India and China both seem to be responding to recent regional and global developments, which have injected a heavy dose of uncertainty and unpredictability in the external environment of both countries.

While political challenges remain and the Chinese seem rigid in resolving the border dispute, closer and deeper economic relationship is now part of bilateral ties. The two economies are highly complementary and have good potential for increased cooperation, though India has concerns about its rising trade deficit with China.

A report by the Chinese news agency Xinhua has pointed out that bilateral trade reached a record high of $84.4 billion last year, up 20.3 per cent from 2016, the fastest growth for five years. China has become the largest trading partner of India, with Chinese imports rising by more than 40 per cent in 2017. Bilateral trade in Q1 hit $22.1 billion, up 15.4 per cent year-on-year.

It is a work in progress but relations are on the whole cordial.

We have witnessed feverish diplomacy in East Asia since January when North Korea´s leader Kim Yong-un decided to send a delegation to the Olympic games in South Korea and agreed to begin meetings with officials in Soul. The detente on the Korean peninsula seems to have ushered in wider efforts and processes to improve relations between South Korea and Japan and Beijing and Tokyo. South Korean president Moon Jae-in visited Tokyo (first such visit in six years for South Korean president) last week (May 9 – BNS); Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi and his Japanese counterpart Taro Kono promised in April to give the relations between their countries “a new starting point”. How does India perceive the dynamics under way in East Asia?

India’s engagement with the region is not new. East Asia is of great strategic and economic significance for India. The transformation in India’s economy was accompanied by important parallel foreign policy developments. In 1992, India initiated a Look East Policy that intended to increase India’s economic engagement with East Asia especially the ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations – BNS) countries. India also sought to project itself as a regional power through greater political heft in East Asia by adopting a more vigorous international profile in keeping with the forces of globalization that were beginning to come into play with the emergence of the region as a major centre of economic growth. India soon realized that its interests in East Asia would be best served by fostering close economic and strategic ties with Japan, South Korea and Vietnam, engaging even with China to counter any possible threat from that quarter posed by the latter’s rise.

India and ASEAN countries have been holding summits for the past 15 years. They signed a free trade agreement in 2009, and trade between them totalled $71 billion in 2016-17.

India is now using the Act East policy as a counter to China’s ambitious One Belt, One Road initiative, a vast network of infrastructure projects that promises economic development through connectivity but actually challenges the regional security order. India hosted leaders of all ten ASEAN countries as guests at its Republic Day celebrations and also hosted a summit to forge closer relations amongst the members.

China´s assistance has been instrumental for Russia to withstand Western diplomatic and economic pressure over the last four years. Relations between Moscow and Beijing have become increasingly close ever since Moscow began its aggression against Ukraine in the spring of 2014. Chinese defence minister Wei Fenghe said at the beginning of April that his visit to Russia is a signal to the United States. How is India seeing these developments and has Beijing been trying to use its leverage with Moscow to pressure India given the fact that Delhi also has a long-standing partnership with Russia?

The growing friendship between Russia and China, as well as Moscow’s appreciation of the Belt & Road Initiative and the plans to co-develop the Eurasian Economic Union with the Silk Road Economic Belt, are being watched closely by India. India has reservations about the geopolitical consequences of the Belt & Road Initiative, as it will serve to consolidate China’s power in India’s neighbourhood. India has particular concerns about the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor as it involves issues of its sovereignty.

Russia’s recent overtures to Pakistan, especially in the military field, are another area of concern. The evolution of Russia’s approach to the Afghanistan and Pakistan/Taliban’s role in the search for a solution, and, in particular, statements made by mandated Russian officials dealing with our region that make light of India’s concerns about Afghanistan related issues have caused confusion. That Pakistan has begun to tout a Pakistan-China-Russia axis against an India-US axis in the region speaks of the diplomatic impact of Russia’s revised perspectives.

Russia´s involvement in the poisoning of former double agent Sergei Skripal in the United Kingdom and its inability to prevent the Syrian regime from carrying out chemical weapons attacks in Syria has plunged Moscow´s relations with the West to a new low. India did not take part in the British-led coordinated expulsion of Russian intelligence officers working under diplomatic cover from over 20 countries. Has Delhi voiced discontent to its partner in relation to its uncivilized behaviour in the world?

PM Narendra Modi and British PM Theresa May released a joint statement after their talks in London on 18 April, where they said, “In the wake of the appalling nerve agent attack in Salisbury, the UK and India have reiterated their shared interest in strengthening the disarmament and non-proliferation regimes against the spread and use of chemical weapons.” Though Russia was not named in the statement, the indication was clear enough in the reference to the Salisbury incident.

Earlier, India abstained from voting on Russia’s proposal at the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) for a joint Anglo-Russian investigation into the incident. India’s abstention is certainly not a sign of support, especially as it was soon followed by the joint statement.

How is India managing to balance its growing relationship with the United States and its long-term partnership with Russia? There are inevitable contradictions involved. How high is the relationship with Washington in Delhi´s list of priorities at a time when developments in the world are forcing the US to be constantly distracted from its relations with South Asia in general and India in particular?

The striking contrast between deteriorating Russia-US ties and improving India-US ties has put an additional burden on Indian diplomacy. Of late, a perception has grown that India-Russia relations are not as good as they should be and that, in fact, a degree of drift is occurring, leading to some misapprehensions on both sides. From India’s perspective, close ties with Russia are a balancing factor in our foreign policy and give us the strategic autonomy that we feel we must have in dealing with the US. Our rising engagement with the US is not at the expense of Russia.

India-Russia relations have traditionally been driven at the official level, and while this has given certain stability to the relationship, it has also constricted its scope. At the state level the two countries have recognized that the relationship is beneficial for both and, despite drastic changes in the international scenario, have tried to conserve it a high level of mutual understanding. The unbroken regularity of the India-Russia summits since the year 2000 testifies to this. This unique aspect of bilateral ties has, however, not created extensive linkages at multifarious levels between the two societies, whether in the area of business, education, culture, media or people to people contacts in general. Summit level diplomacy has kept the relationship oriented in the right direction but expansion of ties beyond sectors controlled by the government – defence and energy – has not occurred sufficiently. Despite efforts at the highest level, and using the institutional mechanisms available, trade levels have remained abysmally low and investment levels have failed to pick up.

In the context of our much-improved ties with the United States, the strategic convergences that are emerging with it in the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean regions, and sizeable purchase of American arms, should not be seen as detracting from our Russia relationship. More so, as the enhancement of our ties with the US has occurred at a time of serious deterioration of US-Russia ties. We would expect Russia to appreciate that the expansion of our ties with the US fulfils needs that cannot be adequately met by Russia.

The factors at play in our US relationship are far more varied than those in the case of any other major power, whether it is the scale of our trade, investment, educational, R&D, S&T, diaspora and other ties, including military exercises.


Dr. Harinder Sekhon is a Senior Fellow at the Vivekananda International Foundation and has over three decades of research, writing and teaching experience on various aspects of Indo-US relations, US policy and strategy in Asia and regional security challenges in South and East Asia.

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