In today’s multipolar world, G. Parthasarathy examines Moscow and New Delhi’s enduring interest in developing a stable balance of power in Asia
Shortly after India attained independence, the normally reclusive Soviet leader Josef Stalin asked India’s then ambassador to Moscow, Dr S. Radhakrishnan – an academician who was elected Vice President and then President of India after his tenure in Moscow – to meet him at the Kremlin in December 1949.
At the meeting, Stalin’s questions were very pointed. He raised questions about why India’s then Head of State, Lord Mountbatten, was still in officefollowing independence. Put bluntly, Stalin wanted to know precisely how independent the Indian Government, led by Jawaharlal Nehru, was and whether it could overrule actions proposed by the British Head of State.
Stalin was also suspicious about India’s interest in joining the Commonwealth. Interestingly,he sought the meeting with Dr Radhakrishnan at a time when China’s Mao Zedong had been waiting for months to meet the Soviet leader, and Stalin’s comments about Mao to India’s envoy indicated that he just could not understand the Chinese leader’s thinking.
Nikita Khrushchev’s path-breaking visit to India in 1954 thereafter set the stage for growing economic and military cooperation between Moscow and New Delhi. Moscow’s quest for close ties with Delhi was due to its need to balance Chinese power in Asia and not, as many presume, simply to undermine western influence in India.
Two decades after Stalin’s encounter with Dr S. Radhakrishnan, when I arrived in Moscowin 1969 as a young Second Secretary to our Embassy,China and the Soviet Union had just fought a bitter battle in Damansky Island, located astride the banks of the Ussuri River, in which hundreds of soldiers perished on both sides. Russian strategic objectives have not changed substantially since then;even today, Russia has concerns about China wanting to gain control of its mineral resources in the eastern provinces.
Russia and India have a continuing interest in developing a stable balance of power in Asia, with both seeking increased connectivity in the Eurasian landmass beyond their land borders. The major difference today from a few decades ago is that China has now emerged as a world economic power with growing militaryclout, while the Russian economy lacks China’s global competitiveness and dynamism.
Today, China and Russia cooperate to balance American power, even as each keeps a close eye on what the other is doing. Russia hedges its bets in Asia by working for close military and economic ties with India and Vietnam, both countries that face security challenges from China across their maritime and land borders.
While Moscow is comfortable with India’s policies in its Indian Ocean neighbourhood, itrecently challenged China over growing differences between Pakistan and India. Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi spoke to his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov on August 14, asking Russia to join China and Pakistan in moving a Resolution in the Security Council on the issue of Jammu and Kashmir. Lavrov ‘emphasised the need for de-escalation of tensions’, adding: ‘There is no alternative to resolving differences between Pakistan and India, except bilaterally through political and diplomatic means. Representatives of Russia to the UN adhere to this consistent position’.
India recognises that, given American policies aimed at ‘containing’ Moscow, a cash-strapped Russia has naturally moved towards a closer relationship with China. Russia has also been concerned by what it feels is New Delhi’s increasingly close embrace of Washington, with which India has worked closely after the US intervention in Afghanistan, post 9/11.
The Sino-Russian global entente today primarily aims at containing American unilateralism. While Putin has opened the door for arms purchases by Pakistan, Islamabad does not have the hard cash to pay for Russian weapons. Russia has, however, joined China to cooperate with Pakistan in attempts to broker peace as the Americans withdraw from Afghanistan.But Putin has consistently held that the issue of Jammu and Kashmir should be resolved bilaterally between India and Pakistan, just as Russia’s position on its own border disputes with Ukraine is that such contentious issues should be settled bilaterally.
Moscow’s concerns about the growing India-US relationship were substantially assuaged when, disregarding threats of American sanctions on arms purchases from Russia, India announced that it was going ahead with a $5.43 billion deal to purchase S400 Surface to Air Missiles from Moscow. It is clear, especially after Mr Modi’s recent visit to Eastern Russia, that India is not going to bow to threats of US sanctions on its arms acquisitions from Russia, which includeindigenous production of AK 203 rifles, the lease of nuclear submarines, the purchase of TU 22 Bombers and the modernisation/upgrading of current Russian equipment. Mr Modi’s visit to Russia’s resource-rich Far East has given a new ‘Look East’ dimension to Indo-Russian relations, though this has not inhibited India’s close cooperation with the US on arms purchases and in joint military exercises across the Indo-Pacific Region. Defence ties and cooperation with the Pentagon are steadily increasing and the US remains India’s largest trading partner.
While India has been an investment partner in the production of natural gas in Russia for nearly two decades now, Mr Modi’s allocation of $1 billion for Indian investment in Russia’s Far East has set the stage for expanding cooperation in areas like imports of LNG and coal from Russia. Trade in such items is set to get a boost with the establishment of an energy corridor between Vladivostok and Chennai. India also has a continuing interest in imports of Russian diamonds. Moreover, Russia played a helpful role in ending global nuclear sanctions against India and now leads the world in building nuclear power plants there.
In its quest for strategic autonomy, India has avoided over-dependence on any single power, joining any military alliance or being taken for granted. Despite serious concerns about the growth of Chinese power across the Indian Ocean Region, India seems set to stick to this position.