Many political leaders or top bureaucratic personnel from globally influential countries have either visited Delhi or have held intense conversations through virtual mode with their Indian counterparts in recent days.
The main focus of all these conversations have been the ongoing war in Ukraine, India’s political stand on the Russian invasion or wide ranging Western sanctions against Russia and to some extent its impact on the peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific region.
What is significant is that leaders from both sides of the strategic divide have been trying hard to impress upon the Indian government their views and policies on the Ukrainian issue. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov have landed in Delhi to discuss their approaches. And, on the other hand, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida visited Delhi and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison held summit level interactions with the Indian Prime Minister. American Deputy National Security Advisor Daleep Singh, German Foreign Policy and Security Advisor Jens Plotner and British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss are other top officials who have visited Delhi and have held intense discussions with Indian leaders and high officials.
On the surface, such deep diplomatic exchanges make it appear as if the Government of India is in possession of the magic wand that can end the war in Ukraine, make the Russian troops return to their country, bridge the widening gap between the United States and Russia, make Europe more peaceful and restore the territorial integrity of sovereignty of Ukraine.
Nothing of the sort is actually going to materialise in the foreseeable future. The reality is the new Cold Warriors have been attempting to keep India on their sides in the very complex new Cold War that has been taking shape resulting from the Russian military invasion of Ukraine and a united Western front consisting of NATO member countries, Japan and Australia seeking to politically isolate Russia and economically inflict massive damage to the Russian economy.
Russia and China desire to keep alive Russia-China-India triangular diplomatic arrangement, Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) and BRICS (Brazil, Russia, China and South Africa) Forum and keep India engaged. The US, Japan and Australia, on the other hand, want India to be very much on board the Quad security dialogue forum.
Despite the deep divide between China and India due to clash of interests along the long Line of Actual Control, China does not want to take steps that would entirely thrust India into the Western camp. In the long-term geopolitical calculations, Beijing does not think it would serve China’s interest to see a country like India getting too near to the United States. Chinese behaviour would have been certainly different, had there been no economic confrontations in Sino-US ties since the Trump era.
Russia’s strategic computation is downright clear. India is not only a major defence market but also one of a few prominent countries that have good and uncomplicated relations with it. Russian frustration over the growing size of the Indian market for US military sales has been palpable and if India is not kept as a strategic partner, it will be a huge political, diplomatic and economic loss to Moscow.
It is this rationale that explains Russian praise for India when the Indian representative abstained from voting on anti-Russian resolutions in the United Nations and Moscow’s studied silence when India also abstained from Moscow-sponsored resolution in the United Nations. Russia’s offer of cheap energy is neither out of desperation nor bribing India for its positions on the Ukrainian issues. It has more complex dimensions and long-term interest estimates.
The reason why the United States, Japan, Australia, UK and Germany have hectic diplomatic parleys with India is also not difficult to decipher. Significantly, Russia and China have dissimilar motives to cultivate India now, but the US and its allies are on the same page. While the UK and Germany are NATO members, Japan and Australia have signed bilateral alliance treaties with the United States. The major motivation of all these powers is to prevent a recent strategic partner like India to take a position distinctly divergent to their approach to punish Russia for what it has done to a partner country of NATO.
Hard analysis of facts would reveal that Indian support to Western-sponsored resolutions in the UN condemning Russian invasion of Ukraine would not have altered the ground realities in that country or impacted decision-making in Moscow. President Vladimir Putin may have prior to intervening in Ukraine consulted Chinese President Xi Jinping about his plan, when he attended the Beijing Olympics in the face of Western diplomatic boycott of it. He certainly did not confide with Prime Minister Narendra Modi. He would have been advised to refrain from such an action, if he had done so. And Western powers know this. It is also well-known that Indian purchase of Russian energy would not punch holes in the Western sanctions against Russia.
Why then is there so much diplomatic density and political pressure on India to distance itself from Russia and be fully on board Western sanctions policy? After considerable fissures and difficulties, the Western bloc has reunited and the US has found the Ukraine war as an opportunity to reassert US power and influence in the world. The same is true of keeping the strategic partners like India in the liberal world order that the US seeks to rebuild after recent holes in it and yet again lead in world affairs. Political symbolism and not the need for Indian cooperation in punishing Russia economically that informs the Western motive of soliciting India to change its diplomatic course.
The message that India has been radiating is quite transparent. It would like to stay off Cold War politics. It would not abandon strategic partnership with either Russia or the United States. India’s policy neither obstructs the US policy on Ukraine nor assists Russia in withstanding the Western economic war. India’s policy thus cannot be characterised as neutrality or non-alignment. It is a pure and simple display of strategic autonomy in consideration of the country’s national interest.
The writer is a professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University. Views expressed are personal.