Being India: The unbearable lightness of choice in other’s wars

Much has already been penned about the impact of the Ukraine war on India. As one of the few nations that enjoys good relations on either si...

Much has already been penned about the impact of the Ukraine war on India. As one of the few nations that enjoys good relations on either side of the divide caused by the Ukraine war, India batted for peace at a time when a choice other than picking virtue over vice appeared sacrilegious. The choices that nations make are often dictated by preferences that prioritise the interests of its people and state over others. An underlying travesty is that this textbook theory of international relations, often applied liberally in the decisions that superpowers choose, is expected to be discarded in the cases of others.

Years ago in New York, while in graduate school, I assisted former US Ambassador John Hirsch on research and was required to invite and accompany guest speakers to the class. One day, the speaker happened to be a former senator from South Dakota. During our conversation en route, the guest speaker told me how he was looked up as a hero in India but was thought of as an enemy in Pakistan. Senator Larry Pressler, the guest that day, was referring to the well-known Pressler Amendment which he helped enforce in 1990. The Pressler Amendment banned American economic and military assistance to Pakistan unless the president certified on an annual basis that Pakistan did not possess a nuclear explosive device. In the midst of our conversation, Pressler regretted that America repealed the Amendment in the 1990s. A few years after the Amendment was tossed out, Pakistan exploded its nuclear device.

America had its own reasons to lift the ban: Its weapons industry needed buyers, its politicians invented an alibi for Pakistan as a frontline state against militant Taliban and terrorism, its generals found reasons for their bonhomie with the military junta in Pakistan. Everyone looked the other way. America’s decisions were straight out of a textbook theory of realism that emphasised upon a state’s narrow interests as a key driver of its decisions.

In the years that followed, the US continued to supply funds and weapons to the Pakistan government, which in turn ran with the hare and hunt with the hound. Terrorist acts happened thousands of miles away and no one bothered in America. Then, one day, 9/11 happened. Chasing the perpetrators, the US invaded Afghanistan. It also invented the smokescreen of Iraq in a frenetic search for weapons of mass destruction. Neither was successful. Years later, the man responsible for 9/11 was found in the neighbourhood of Pakistan’s military academy. It may have read like a comic circus had it not been a tragic decade of delusion and deceit.

American foreign policy decisions typically have been driven by business and economic interests, while it is considered par for the course to expect others to forego existential concerns of national security and economic damage while choosing their future. In the aftermath of the Ukraine war, the US is on the front foot to make Russia a pariah state and set an example of inflicting the strongest sanctions. In between the need to chastise those that have forgotten to pay deference to the old virtue of disowning evil, the US did a swift rapprochement with oil-rich Venezuela, long discarded and discredited, breaking bread and supping with the devil incarnate to fulfil domestic needs and absorb the economic impact of soaring gas prices. For the superpower, it’s always the economy, stupid.

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India’s political and security vulnerabilities in the neighbourhood are well known. The irony of India’s situation is that a few decades after it abandoned its non-aligned stance, it has had to adopt it again — albeit this time to protect its own interests. Unlike Venezuela to the US, Russia is a long-term ally for India in the region. Therefore, weapons’ imports, loyalty and past guarantees of political mediation have served as force multipliers of India-Russia relations in the regional strategic calculus that involves China as India’s main adversary.

India has also battled a humanitarian crisis of its students stuck in the middle of war. With students caught up in Ukraine on one side and a traditional, historic Russian buffer, India had one foot in the evacuation of its citizens while it grappled with the prospect of walking the tightrope between condemnation and support for the aggression. As the war evolves and goes beyond the 14th day, Russia finds itself fighting a longer war than it expected. Its role as a support for India is likely to diminish — for want of political capacity and economic heft. This would mean that India would gradually shuffle into positions where it has a diversified range of dependence on other countries. To be precise, from a strategic standpoint, due to the sanctions on Russia, it’s India’s arms imports that are likely to be on a slippery slope. Let us examine.

According to Stockholm-based International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), Russia is the largest supplier of arms to India but its share of total Indian arms imports has fallen by 16 per cent. The US emerged as the second-largest arms supplier in the period between 2010-14 as security ties between the two became stronger. Research indicates that after 2015, India’s arms imports have diversified rapidly and American imports have been 51 per cent lower than in the previous five-year period. What does that indicate? Reducing American arms imports have resulted in hectic lobbying by companies to increase their market share. The war gives them the opportunity to push for the same. It is here that diversification since the past six years will help India avoid being bullied into a corner. Besides, better terms of technology transfers, which Russia provided, can be explored when there are more choices available. India has signed up acquisitions of military hardware from other countries, including Scanter-6000 radars from Denmark, sonar systems from Germany, naval guns from Italy and other weapons from South Korea.

Despite the above changes, India still imports over 50 per cent of military requirements from Russia. Over 90 per cent of the main battle tanks are T72s and T90s. Russian aircraft like Su-30MKI, aircraft carrier and submarines require periodic maintenance, spares, training and upgrade. India’s defence imports may face severe implications because of impending American sanctions. More importantly, India’s plans on inducting Russian S-400 missile systems — critical to counter Chinese threats are likely to be impacted. With the war likely to diminish Russia’s political, military and economic ability to mediate between India and China and Russian weapons imports likely to be impacted, greater diversification on imports alongside atmanirbharata or self-reliance in defence production is the logical way forward in the long run for India.

In the short run, will America take a dim view of India’s stand during the Ukraine war? In a world where countries take decisions based on the principle of self-preservation, America will know best why it supported Pakistan all these years despite the knowledge that Pakistan was a supporter and hotbed of terrorism. Its view that strategic security imperatives governed such support must then remain consistent with current dynamics where India takes its decisions based on its geopolitical interests. If one were to pick a shortcoming, it is that India could have expressed a greater active intent to play peacemaker: the message despite its little chance of execution could have enhanced India’s voice as an arbiter rather than a fence sitter.

India has deftly walked the tightrope of balance in the Ukraine war. American leaders will acknowledge that any other choice India exercised would have weakened their strongest ally in the region. The US needs a stronger and decisive partnership in Asia that can confront China. India is the bulwark that has shown that capability in recent times during its border standoff with China. The US cannot possibly hope to take on growing Chinese territorial ambitions without arming partners such as Taiwan and Japan through a nuclear sharing arrangement and actively supporting India in the region. America ought to weigh any likely economic sanctions or import ban against India, which may be a result of its arms supply arrangement with Russia, against the possibility of strengthening the Chinese hand and influence in Indo-Pacific where the tussle can be as serious as Europe but certainly longer, more pivotal and far more complex.

This article is Part 3 of the three-part series.

Click here to read Part 1 and Part 2 of the series.

The writer is the author of ‘Watershed 1967: India’s Forgotten Victory over China’, writes on military history and international affairs. Views expressed are personal. Tweets @iProbal

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