There is a perception that India’s foreign policy is fast gravitating towards the United States as the primary actor for implementing political, economic and strategic agendas.
This notion is also reinforced by the fact that Prime Minister Narendra Modi is currently on his fourth visit to the United States in two years, and will be the fifth Prime Minister of India to be accorded the honor of addressing the joint session of the US Congress. It is also true that the United States sees India as a strategic partner to support its primacy in the global affairs, particularly in the Asia Pacific region. But is New Delhi keen to court and pursue the US agenda or would it prefer to rely on its traditional strategic partner, the Russian Federation? This raises ten important issues, which merit a discussion.
First, India and Russia have a time-tested relationship and in 2010 both sides decided to upgrade the relationship from ‘strategic partnership’ to ‘special and privileged strategic partnership’. New Delhi understands the depth of this relationship.
Second, India-Russia defense cooperation is nearly four decades old. In recent years, India has diversified its military acquisitions from other sources including the United States, but Russia is still its largest supplier of military hardware and constitutes nearly 70 percent of total imports. Perhaps the recent India-US initiatives to sign three ‘foundational’ defense agreements on logistics, interoperability and geo-spatial cooperation may have been perceived as an alliance and caused some concern in Moscow. However, India is averse to being part of any alliance; instead it prefers partnerships, such as the one with Russia.
Third, Russia has supported India’s nuclear energy program and several agreements have been signed to that effect including the construction of two more units of the Kudankulam Nuclear Power Plant. Further, Russia is not averse to India’s entry into the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) and President Vladimir Putin has offered unconditional support.
Fourth, India seeks Russia’s support for its membership of the Missile Technology Control regime (MTCR). It is useful to bear in mind that India has voluntarily agreed to adhere to The Hague Code of Conduct against Ballistic Missile Proliferation, which complements the binding MTCR regime.
Fifth, although bilateral trade has remained low, there is enormous scope for growth. Energy cooperation between the two countries has progressed steadily and Russia is an important destination for Indian oil companies. There are a number of opportunities for investments by Russian companies in two major Indian projects: ‘Make in India’ and ‘Digital India,’ which have ben launched under the new government. Several initiatives have been launched in India to make it a preferred destination for foreign direct investments.
Sixth, Russia is an important node in India’s connectivity programs. Although the India-Iran-Afghanistan agreement to develop and use Chabahar port is a significant initiative, it can be potentially expanded further to the Central Asian republics and Russia. Further, the International North-South Transport Corridor (INSTC), a multinational project involving India, Iran and Russia linking Bandar Abbas to St. Petersburg in Russia merits close consideration.
Seventh, at the multilateral level, BRICS, RIC and SCO are important platforms for India and Russia to engage on global issues. These have provided opportunities for political leaders to meet over and above the scheduled summits.
Eighth, India has an important role to play in global economic growth and supports the openness of APEC. It was heartening to observe that Russia welcomes India’s participation in APEC. India would also like to explore participation in the Eurasian Economic Union with Russia’s help.
Ninth, India and Russia hold a shared position on the simmering disputes in the South China Sea. Both partners are committed to maintaining legal order for the seas and oceans based on the principles of international law, as reflected in the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). Further, all disputes should be resolved through negotiations and agreements between the parties concerned. In this context, at the recent RIC meeting in Beijing, the ministers called for full respect of all provisions of UNCLOS, as well as the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC) and the Guidelines for the implementation of DOC.
Tenth, there is a constituency in India which believes that Russia has begun to court Pakistan and sell it military hardware in response to the growing closeness between India and the United States. These perceptions are exacerbated by the fact that both Russia and India are victims of terrorism and Pakistan has emerged as a ‘safe heaven’ for terrorist. That said, both countries would like to see Afghanistan free from any interference from Pakistan.
Finally, India and Russia have exhibited a high level of maturity in understanding each other’s concerns and have responded to situations in the spirit of their partnership. Both President Vladimir Putin and Prime Minister Narendra Modi are powerful leaders and are respected in the international community for their resoluteness. The forthcoming Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) Summit in June 2016 in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, will provide yet another opportunity for the two leaders to strengthen their friendship and explore newer agendas for building a robust and lasting partnership.