With US sanctions tightening on Tehran and Moscow, G Parthasarathy considers the implications of Narendra Modi’s recent visits to China and Russia

The disintegration of the Soviet Union and end of the Cold War necessitated a comprehensive reorientation of foreign and security policies in Moscow, Beijing and New Delhi.  In the nearly 30 years that have since elapsed, all three have adjusted realistically to the changed global environment. Russia dismantled its centralised and state-run economic and political structures and accepted its reduced influence in global affairs. India embarked on a path of economic liberalisation and fashioned a new architecture for conduct of its foreign policy. China, thanks to Deng Xiaoping’s foresight, moved ahead on its chosen path of rapid economic growth, shedding pretensions of being guided by the anachronistic thoughts of Karl Marx and Mao Tse-tung.

The three powers had concerns about American propensities forunilateralism and exceptionalism as it sought a unipolar world. Now, three decades later,the stage has changed. China has emerged as a challenger to American power globally,while Russia has strengthened its military muscle and is an important player in the UN Security Council and the energy sector.As for India, it is regarded as a regional power, determined to combine sustained high economic growth rates with an interest in stability and a viable balance of power across its Indian Ocean neighbourhood, from Aden to Malacca,and beyond to the western Pacific.  This shared quest for a multipolar world order led to India joining China and Russia in strategic initiatives like BRICS, the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, the ASEAN Regional Forum and the Asian Infrastructure Development Bank.

Beijing has shielded Pakistan from charges of sponsoring terrorism

The United States, however, still plays the most crucial role in shaping the perspectives of all three countries. The US has alternately cosied up to and confronted a rising, assertive and territorially ambitious China. Meanwhile,Washington has sought to suppress historical Russian ambitions and aspirations, while alsoendeavouring to co-opt India as a strategic partner in the Indo-Pacific region, primarily to balance growing Chinese power. India, in turn, has found China not only expanding its territorial frontiers across the South China Sea, but also seeking to undermine its relations with its immediate neighbours in the subcontinent, and across the Indian Ocean region. India has responded to these Chinese policies by stepping upeconomic, military and regional cooperation with Asian countries such as Japan, Vietnam, the Philippines and Indonesia, which are facing Chinese maritime boundary claims.

Beijing has equipped Pakistan’s conventional armed forces and strengthened that country’s nuclear and missile arsenal. It has, meanwhile acquired a naval base in Gwadar, straddling India’s maritime access to the oil-rich Persian Gulf. Beijing has also shielded Pakistan from charges of sponsoring terrorism, while opposing Indian ambitions for securing permanent membership of the Security Council and joining international forums like the Nuclear Suppliers Group.

What has caused most serious concern, though, have been the periodic intrusions by Chinese forcesinto what India believes is its territory, across as yet un-demarcated and disputed land borders.  The last such military stand-off occurred in 2017 in Doklam, located astride the India-Bhutan-Tibet tri-junction. The intrusion evoked fears of an escalating border conflict, and it took weeks of sustained diplomacy before the Chinese pulled back. The crisis led to a two-day summit in late April between Narendra Modi and Xi Jinping in Xi’s hometown, Wuhan, to discuss the entire spectrum of relations between India and China.

The Wuhan Summit has set the stage for the armed forces of China and India to devise measures that will includemutual pullback, rather than confrontation, across disputed borders. India has been keen that differences over the demarcation of the border should be settled in accordance with guiding principlesagreed to in 2005 by the prime ministers of India and China. While China has agreed to some limited market access for Indian pharmaceuticals, India has sought greater and more transparent market access in areas like information technology.India remains seriously concerned over an adverse balance of trade with China of over $50 billion. However, there appears to be some progress in fostering greater Chinese investment in Indian industry. Significantly, for the first time,China agreed in Wuhan to undertake joint development projects with India in Afghanistan.

While Russia and India have regular annual summit meetings, Prime Minister Modi undertook a special one-day visit on May 21 to meet President Putin in Sochi.Although bilateral trade of around $8 billion has been modest, Russia is a key partner in the development of nuclear power in India. The exchange of views in Sochi sought to fashion acohesive strategy to deal with challenges posed by American sanctions on Iran and on Russian military exports worldwide. Despite the European Union’s vow to challenge the sanctions on Iran,European companies including French oil exploration major Total, which have large investments in the US, together with most European banks, with their large dollar holdings and transactions, appear unlikely todefy the US. India did not accept earlier American sanctions on Iranian oil exports, but found that banks across the world were not prepared to contest the might of the US.

Modi’s Sochi meeting with Putin (r) aimed at a cohesive strategy to deal with challenges posed by US sanctions
Modi’s Sochi meeting with Putin (r) aimed at a cohesive strategy to deal with challenges posed by US sanctions

China appears to have got around these sanctions by barter trade to balance payments.Iran, however, chose not to import products offered from India and huge cash balances in an Indian bank were transferred only when international sanctions ended. Iran now plays a relatively small role in oil exports to India, whichcurrently gets the bulk of itsoil from Iraq, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Venezuela, The Chahbahar Port in Iran, now being built with Indian assistance, acts as a crucial centre for relief and other supplies to Afghanistan and can be subjected to American sanctions.  But there is some pressure from within the Trump administration to exempt India’s Chahbahar Port assistancefrom sanctions, as the port’s location is set to play a crucial role in Afghanistan’s trade.

The American sanctions imposed on the purchase of Russian arms are now being reviewed in Washington,because of imports of Russian arms byIndia, Indonesia and Vietnam – countries which are vital to American strategies across the Indo-Pacific region. Pentagon officials, led by US Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, have strongly opposed these sanctions on Asian partners and sought a review. Crucial Russian equipment like S-400 air defence systems, stealth frigates and helicopters required by India are in the pipeline, apart from spares and ammunition for existing equipment. The US, Israel and France are also major suppliers of defence equipment, with their role in Indian defence acquisitions steadily increasing.

India currently gets the bulk of its oil from Iraq, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Venezuela

There are lessons to be learned here. Policy makers in Washington cannotexpect successful partnerships in joint strategic plans in the Indo-Pacific if American actions undermine the national security of partners like India, Indonesia and Vietnam.

G Parthasarathy is a career Foreign Service Officer. He has served as Ambassador of India to Myanmar, High Commissioner of India to Australia, Pakistan and Cyprus, and Spokesman of the Prime Minister’s Office.. He is currently Visiting Professor at the Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi


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