By Lou Chunhao
In its latest national security strategy released recently, Russia listed its relations with members of the former Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), China and India as primary diplomatic targets, which immediately captured attention to Russia’s bilateral relations with India in its strategic eastward shift.
Indian Foreign Minister S Jaishankar’s visit to Russia early this month is a major diplomatic event between the two countries after Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov visited India in April this year. In his speech titled “India-Russia ties in achangingworld” at the Primakov Institute of World Economy and International Relations, Jaishankar underscored “geo-political compatibility, leadership trust and popular sentiment” as the key drivers of bilateral ties, and the “relations between Russia and India have been among the steadiest of the major relationships in the world after the Second World War”.
It’s clear that both the Russian and Indian governments place great importance and expectations on bilateral relations. But are the relations, as the Indian Foreign Minister put it, “enduring”, or are the two governments just making a high-profile statement to cover their widening divergences? This is a question worth in-depth observation and discussion.
First of all, Moscow and New Delhi won’t part their ways completely. For one thing, compared with their relations with China and the US, the two countries have never posed a security threat to each other or broken into any military conflict ever since the Cold War period, and they have seen eye to eye on many strategic issues, having no historical burden on their back.
In recent years, India has tried hard to develop its relations with the US, but New Delhi is fully aware that Russia is far more supportive of its “major country dream” than the US and other countries. For example, the Cold War witnessed the tangling of the US-Soviet confrontation and India-Pakistan conflicts, but in South Asia, the US sided with Pakistan whereas India stood with the Soviet Union. After India conducted a nuclear test in 1998, Russia didn’t sanction it either as the US did.
For another, Russia-India cooperation suits the interests of both countries. Despite severe challenges, the two countries’ cooperation foundation and potential in such fields as military, nuclear energy, counter-terrorism and economic development should not be underestimated. For instance, Russian weapons are still dominant among foreign weaponry and equipment in Indian troops, and India has insisted on buying its S-400 air defense missiles against pressure from the US. More importantly, both Moscow and New Delhi view each other as a key partner in building a multi-polar world, in which they will each be a pole.
Therefore, India still hopes for Russia’s support for it to become a permanent member of the UN Security Council, and Russia needs India’s help to hedge the strategic squeezing by US-led western countries. The cooperation key tone of their relations is hard to shake and the two countries won’t turn against each other either.
Second, Moscow and New Delhi won’t be as close as before. Bilateral relations between major countries are going through drastic adjustments as the world is seeing profound changes never seen in a century. The China-US relations have plummeted as Washington views Beijing as a strategic rival and has imposed all-round suppression; the China-Russia strategic coordination is at its best in history as the two countries establish the comprehensive strategic partnership of coordination for a new era; the China-India relations are mainly characterized by competition and fluctuation, with the Galwan Valley conflict plunging them to a record low; and the US-Russia relations have been running on a low level with sanctions and anti-sanctions, containment and counter-containment being the keynote.
Under such circumstances, the Russia-India relationship is bound to be affected by their adjustment of foreign strategy and the China-US strategic competition. Especially, New Delhi’s obvious inclination to stand by the US against China lately is challenging its relationship with Moscow.
The two sides’ different stances and policies on the strategic competition between Washington and Beijing are an important reason for their growing divergences. In Moscow’s opinion, America’s strategic suppression of China or its dual suppression policy toward China and Russia is to maintain its own hegemony, which is no good for building a multi-polar world. But New Delhi sees an opportunity in the aggravated strategic competition between the world’s two largest economies to prevent and check China’s development leveraging on the US.
Their divergence is also reflected in their different views on the “Indo-Pacific”. Russia is critical of America’s “Indo-Pacific Strategy” and has warned India about it on many public occasions; yet India is actively aligning with and embracing the strategy, not only explaining its stance to Moscow many times but also putting the Far East’s development under the “Indo-Pacific” framework in the effort to secure Russia’s support for the strategy.
In sum, Russia and India’s policy divergences on the China-US relations and the “Indo-Pacific” strategy won’t easily go away in the short term but will radiate to bilateral relations and other areas, leading to more areas of disagreement between the two countries.
At last, the Russia-India relations won’t be a one-way, linear deal. As important forces on the international political stage, both countries hope to make a difference in an era of profound changes never seen in a century and have adjusted their foreign strategies to varying degrees. Besides, the bilateral or multilateral interactions among China, America, Russia and India, regional hotspot issues, and the discussion of global governance are all putting their weight on the Russia-India relationship.
As China’s important neighbors, Russia and India are both key partners for China to better protect the developing countries’ rights and interests on the global stage, and they both have sound cooperation with China either in the BRICS mechanism or the trilateral cooperation platform. Therefore, the development of the relation between Moscow and New Delhi will naturally affect the trilateral cooperation of China, Russia and India. As China’s State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi pointed out, “there are always some doubts about the prospects of China-Russia-India cooperation. But the fact is that the three countries have extensive and entrenched common interest and concept”; “as long as we keep working together in solidarity, we will be able to provide more positive energy and stability to the world”.
(The author is Deputy Director of the Institute of South Asian Studies, China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations)