India displays multi-vector diplomacy
By M K Bhadrakumar
The annual India-Russia summits have had in recent years a worn look. The two
countries have gone their separate ways in terms of priorities, though they
have kept in touch. Cliches aside, they realize that the hearth remains warm.
However, the United States' decline as the lone superpower is adding impetus to
a strengthening of the India-Russia relationship.
The Barack Obama administration's new thinking on South Asia has impacted on
US-India ties. The US shift has included a more balanced approach to ties with
India and Pakistan; a soft-pedaling on the rapid "militarization" of the
US-India strategic partnership that started during the George W Bush
presidency; and divergent US-Indian perceptions over the Afghan crisis, among
But what has most shaken New Delhi is the emerging US-China
partnership. US officials underplay the surge in ties with Beijing, saying that
as two countries with "shared values", America will forever have more in common
with democratic India than with communist China. But there are no serious
takers in New Delhi for such diplomatese.
Indian officials can see very well that the balance of global economic power is
shifting and the prospects of a near-term US economic recovery seem uncertain.
As Niall Ferguson, the well-known economic historian, wrote last week in
Newsweek, "This is how empires decline. It begins with a debt explosion. It
ends with an inexorable reduction in the resources available for the army, navy
and air force."
These cataclysmic changes put India in a great predicament as until recently it
had near-implicit faith in the infallibility of US power and India's place in
America's scheme of things as an Asian "balancer" and "counterweight" to China.
No doubt, the US will continue to be by far the number one "strategic partner"
for India. But Indian aspirations need to be curtailed - given the "fatal
arithmetic of imperial decline" of the US, to quote Ferguson - and the
resultant shortfalls in expectations need to be bridged.
New Delhi has sobered up to the true import of Obama's "smart power". A serious
effort has begun to deepen the US-India partnership by taking it in new
directions. India estimates that it holds a trump card insofar as the economy
has recovered from the impact of the global downturn and is growing at an
annual rate of more than 6% annual rate, which may accelerate toward a 9%
growth rate in the next two-year period. Meanwhile, New Delhi is watching
warily a "demilitarization" of the US's partnership with India under Obama's
watch. India's longstanding desire to source "dual-use technology" from the US
continues to run up against obstacles.
Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's visit to Moscow on December 6-8 has been
thoughtfully scheduled in sequence after his trip to Washington. Therefore, the
joint declaration issued in Moscow on Monday following the Russian-Indian
summit needs to be put in perspective.
New Delhi received Moscow's "solidarity and support" for its line that Pakistan
is yet to bring the perpetrators of last year's terrorist attack in Mumbai to
justice, while New Delhi reciprocated with support for Russia's "efforts to
maintain peace and stability in the Caucasus". But there was no broader
reference to India's security concerns vis-a-vis Pakistan. In comparison, the
US-Indian joint statement was far more forthcoming.
The Russian and Indian leaderships took a common position on Afghanistan -
support for President Hamid Karzai's government; emphasis on the imperative of
a robust counter-terrorist campaign against al-Qaeda and the Taliban; rejection
of any attempt to differentiate between "good" and "bad" Taliban; the need for
"strict observance" of the United Nations Security Council sanctions against
the Taliban leaders; and a commitment to a "democratic, pluralistic and stable"
Quite obviously, this amounts to substantial common ground. Both countries
suffer "collateral damage" to their national security if the Afghan situation
worsens and radical Islam gains ground. So, will they moot a common initiative
on an Afghan settlement? Unlikely.
For Russia, the Afghan problem is much more than the sum total of shared
concerns with India. It is a factor in Russia's "reset" of ties with the US; it
is linked to the eastward expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization
(NATO), and it also has profound implications for Moscow's leadership role in
the security of Central Asia.
On the other hand, no matter what the twists and turns of Obama's Afghan
strategy, the US-India partnership will remain unaffected. Equally, Pakistani
support of the Taliban and the need to effectively curb Islamabad's alleged use
of terrorism as an instrument of state policy - which is a core theme for India
- doesn't seem to bother Russia. The joint declaration falls short of the
Indian stance that the Taliban are a creation of Pakistan.
Being a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, Russia has far
more leverage than India in influencing the course of developments in
Afghanistan. Russia has an assured role in conflict resolution and unlike the
case with India, Islamabad does not resent the Russian role.
The joint declaration's reiteration of Moscow's support of Indian candidacy in
an expanded UN Security Council is not a new development and both countries
know that reform of the UN will be a long haul. But interestingly, the "Russian
side supports India's full membership in the SCO [Shanghai Cooperation
Organization]". Would Moscow have sounded out Beijing, howsoever informally? Is
there a change of thinking in Beijing? According to Indian officials, China has
so far blocked India's path to full SCO membership.
The SCO, of course, will be an extremely useful forum for deepening the
Sino-Indian normalization. Significantly, the Moscow declaration also singles
out the Russia-India-China trilateral format by underscoring the need of
"intensified exchanges of information and ideas on the important issues of ...
peace and stability in the region".
China would have figured in the Russian-Indian summit. A sort of imbalance
crept in with recent hiccups in the Sino-Indian normalization running contrary
to the positive trajectory of Sino-Russian relations. Broadly speaking, India
and Russia have a similar approach towards the Asia-Pacific region. Both want
to partake of the regional processes in economic cooperation and security.
While India faces exclusion by China in the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation
forum, Russia is a member. The joint declaration makes a pointed reference to
the "growing efficacy" of regional cooperation in the Asia-Pacific and
underlines the Russian and Indian "interest in strengthening bilateral and
multilateral interaction in different related fields".
The dynamics and verve of the Russian-Indian bilateral relationship will depend
heavily on plans in the period ahead for a big expansion in defense and nuclear
cooperation. India will continue to depend on Russia for advanced military
technology, which its cannot source anywhere else. New Delhi harbored
unrealistically high expectations of sourcing US technology but now realizes
that Russia is irreplaceable for the foreseeable future.
For Russia, India is an assured market for its arms exports. The two countries
are engaged in sophisticated forms of cooperation such as the joint design,
development and production of highly advanced weapon systems, which the US is
hesitant to do with India.
On the nuclear side, the clearance provided by the Nuclear Suppliers' Group to
allow nuclear trade with India opened a huge vista of Russian-Indian
cooperation. Given the "close, friendly and historic Russia-India bilateral
relationship", Moscow is politically willing to explore the frontiers of
cooperation permissible with a non-Non-Proliferation Treaty state like India.
Ironically, what the US-India nuclear deal was meant to provide in the nature
of transfer of reprocessing technology to India, Russia may end up providing,
according to media reports.
The joint declaration says that the two countries are "developing and
intensifying broad-based cooperation" that includes joint scientific research,
implementation of nuclear power projects and "setting up of fuel supply
arrangements". A framework agreement on nuclear cooperation has been finalized,
while "specific instruments" need to be negotiated.
However, Washington will have a say in the Russian-Indian nuclear cooperation.
And Russia will not enter into any cooperation with India that is contradictory
to the new architecture on nuclear non-proliferation that Moscow and Washington
are designing together.
India also views the US as its main partner in nuclear plans. Out of the 28
light-water reactors that India is planning, 12 will be sourced from the US, 10
will be from Russia and six from France.
Nothing sums up Indian priorities better than the fact that on the very same
day that Russia and India signed their framework agreement in Moscow, New Delhi
rolled out the red carpet for a delegation of top nuclear power companies from
the US including Babcock & Wilcox, Bechtel, CH2MHill, Curtiss-Wright,
Cameco, Converdyn and USEC.
If this display of "multi-vector" diplomacy is not impressive enough, the
Indian prime minister has decided to proceed to Copenhagen next week for the
summit on climate change where his tango will be with Obama. New Delhi has
begun harmonizing its stance on climate change with Obama's, with the
expectation that an embrace of diplomacy is just what is needed to push the
US-India strategic partnership onto the center stage of the 21st century world
Ambassador M K Bhadrakumar was a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign
Service. His assignments included the Soviet Union, South Korea, Sri Lanka,
Germany, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Kuwait and Turkey.