Think Tank
Time to Learn Neutrality

Neither India nor Russia are interested in the US-China confrontation: the winner would be too strong, and a war between the two nuclear powers is likely to escalate into a conflict involving the use of nuclear weapons, the escalation of which could get out of control, writes Valdai Club expert Alexei Kupriyanov. Thus, the only reasonable option is flexible neutrality  friendly or hostile, depending on the successes of one or another side in the confrontation that has begun.

In a few months, the world will enter a new, post-COVID era. How this will happen  whether the majority acquires stable immunity, a reliable medicine is found, or if society simply gets used to the fact that there is another potentially dangerous disease that will always be with us from now on, is not so important. It is important that the pandemic ends. In its wake, a new balance of forces in international relations will not be formed, as would inevitably occur as a result of a war; but already-initiated processes will accelerate and gain strength.

The rivalry between the USA and China will become one such process that will determine the development of the situation in the world at least a decade in advance, and other countries will have to decide how to live and with whom to make friends in this new world. The outcome of this confrontation may well depend on this decision.

Russia and India are exactly the countries whose position will inevitably have a direct impact on how the battle between the United States and China ends. Both of them have a long border with China, both possess nuclear weapons, and both in one way or another, due to their geographical position, control China’s access to energy resources. If Moscow and New Delhi decide to join the United States, Washington will win: the lion’s share of the resources that China now spends on internal development, maintaining stability in the country and strengthening its defences at sea, Beijing will have to use to ensure the safety of its land borders. In the event that Russia and India support China, it will gain a decisive advantage, due to access to the unlimited resources of Africa, which requires the favourable attitudes of New Delhi and Russia. Thus, if India and Russia participate in this confrontation, the opposing side will have a choice: either the gradual depletion of the economy and military forces, surrender, or a transition from a cold war to a hot one.

Neither India nor Russia are interested in any of these scenarios: the winner will be too strong, and a war between the two nuclear powers is likely to escalate into a conflict involving the use of nuclear weapons, the escalation of which could get out of control. Being adjacent to one side or another as a junior ally is also not a good idea, fraught with loss of sovereignty and the risk of being on the losing side. Thus, the only reasonable option is flexible neutrality – friendly or hostile, depending on the successes of one or another side in the confrontation that has begun.

India has extensive experience in maintaining such neutrality. During the Cold War, it collaborated with Britain, the United States, and the USSR at different times, drawing closer to one or another side, depending on its own interests. The correctness of this strategy was proved in 1991: despite the fact that India at that time generally supported the USSR in the Cold War, it managed to avoid the consequences of defeat by not turning into a vassal of the winner and not entering a political and economic crisis, instead becoming one of the centres of the new world order. Russia has no such experience: in all of the major wars of the last centuries – the Napoleonic wars, two world wars and the Cold War – it was an active participant rather than an outside observer. In addition to the ability to be neutral, India also has experience in leading a “coalition of the willing” – the Non-Aligned Movement, and here Russia has something to learn from it.

However, the current processes pose a dilemma for India; overcoming it will depend on the ability of its political circles to overcome the prevailing decades-long negative attitude towards the PRC. Since India’s defeat in the 1962 Sino-Indian War, China has been perceived by the Indian political and military elites as a dangerous and unpredictable neighbour who seeks to surround India with a chain of military bases, turn it into an economic satellite or isolate it. This feeling of constant danger compels the Indian ruling circles to cooperate with any anti-Chinese-minded force (at one time from the USSR, now from the USA).

Moreover, in order to ensure the accelerated development of India and its transformation into one of the universally recognised great powers, large investments are necessary, and only China can act as such an investor in this situation. As a result, India is forced to strike a balance, trying, on the one hand, not to become dependent on the PRC and not quarrel with the United States, which will deprive it of manoeuvre, and on the other hand, not to slow down the growth rate of bilateral trade and the Chinese investments necessary for further development. These trends are particularly aggravated by the spread of COVID-19: the growing economic and political influence of the PRC, the first to emerge from the pandemic, in South and Southeast Asia frightens India, which until recently has benefited from the US-Chinese trade war.

The logic of the US-Chinese confrontation that has already begun, coupled with Trump’s tough actions, is pushing Moscow (which traditionally maintains good relations with China and India) and New Delhi towards political and economic rapprochement. And if the political positions of Russia and India on most issues traditionally coincide, then the economic ties that once developed rapidly (the Soviet Union was one of the key trade partners of India) now look rather modest. Russia is accustomed to the fact that a country’s weight in the international arena is not necessarily determined by its economic power, and bilateral relations can be extremely warm without economic support, but for Indian politicians this serves as a source of frustration: India has traditionally sought to strengthen its position in the world community through economic development and by gaining a leading position among countries in terms of GDP. In this regard, the lack of large-scale trade between Russia and India is perceived by the Indian side as an abnormal situation, requiring correction.

It seems, however, that one should not try to reanimate high trading figures at any cost; it is better to focus on implementing joint projects in areas where, firstly, a clash of interests between Russia and India seems impossible or unlikely, and secondly, cooperation will lead to greater benefits for Russia and India compared to a situation in which they operate separately.

These areas can include Africa, where Russia is gradually regaining the position lost after its defeat in the Cold War; the Middle East, primarily Syria and Iraq, both traditional partners of India; the Southeast Asian countries that were previously in the Soviet sphere of influence, primarily Vietnam; ocean open spaces, the resources of which have not yet been developed – primarily the Indian Ocean and the South Pacific; and finally, the regions of the “new frontier” – cyberspace, deep-sea and space exploration. A number of pilot projects in this area are already being implemented – for example, Russia and India are building the Rooppur nuclear power plant in Bangladesh together; such projects should become widespread.

Russia’s industrial base, resources and traditionally high level of training, coupled with India’s young population and rapidly developing tech sector, can ensure the success of joint work on new technologies and their practical implementation – and in the end give the impetus that the economic side lacks so much in Indian-Russian relations.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.