India’s foreign policy for the next 5 years: Chumming up to US sure is beneficial for New Delhi but it can’t ignore robustness of ties with Russia

Editor’s note: Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s tour of the Maldives was his first international visit after having taken oath for the second time. His 2014 swearing-in ceremony featured leaders from SAARC nations as special invitees, while in 2019, it was the BIMSTEC leaders and those from Kyrgyzstan and Mauritius who were in attendance, underlining the importance the prime minister places on international relations. This is the third in a series of articles that looks at key foreign policy targets for the Modi government as it looks to the next five years.

As the Modi colossus gets into gear for a new term, it’s going to get its act together rather quickly if it has to make new friends and retain old ones in the foreign policy sphere. In the latter category is a really old friend, the Russian Federation, who in its earlier avatar has stood steadfast in the support of Indian leaders. Today matters are slightly different. Take a look at the top ten economies of the world. The US still retains top dog position, with China a somewhat distant second. India is in the fifth position, while Russia is way down on the list at number eleven. That seems to be that, in terms of who India needs to chummy up with. But the needs of national security are not that simple.

The Russian Federation is still a good friend to have in our corner. Many will disagree and point to the fact that Russia is now China’s largest arms supplier, a position that has been slowly increasing after 2015 when the Russian arms industry got its act together under President Vladimir Putin. Russian engines now power Chinese fighter aircraft, with the deal for Su-35’s and S-400 air defence system powering up the relationship. The upside to this — for Russia — is that India is still its largest arms importer, accounting for some 62 percent of total sales. But New Delhi is obviously uncomfortable with Beijing buying up systems that it wants for itself, with the S-400 being the obvious example. The fear is not only that both will be operating the same systems. Russian buys are also rapidly increasing China’s own defence industrial capability.

Russian president Vladimir Putin with Prime Minister Narendra Modi. PTI

Into that comes a US offer for ‘partners and allies’. Called the European Recapitalization Incentive Program, it aims to offer cash to countries to replace Russia/Soviet equipment. So far been limited to six East European countries it is likely to be expanded further to parts of Asia. That could hurt the Russian arms industry further, and make it more determined to sell anything to anyone. In India, the US is making a tough sales pitch for fighter aircraft, backed by the increasing need for interoperability between the two Armed Forces. That’s all very well.

But India still needs spares to keep its old inventory going – which typically forms the bulk of any armed forces. That’s not going to go away for at least another two decades. Another advantage that Russia offers is important for this government. Moscow has been more amenable to ‘Make in India’ with the top of the line Brahmos weapons systems being made here.

The US is likely to dig its feet in on this issue. Recently, India signalled its intention to stick to Moscow (for the present) with the S-400 buy going through despite threatened sanctions. So point one, is that India will remain dependant on Russia for the foreseeable future in terms of its arms requirements and what’s more seems to like it that way. It doesn’t look like the new Modi government is going to change that.
The second point raised by dissenters on the robustness of the India-Russia relationship is the political cosying up between Russia and China. Recently, China backed Russia’s apparent efforts to deescalate tensions between India and Pakistan following the Pulwama massacre. Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov is said to have ‘spoken’ to his Pakistani counterpart. What that conversation indicated is anyone’s guess. But Russia’s apparent friendship with Beijing has an underlying uneasiness. China is growing far too fast for Moscow’s liking. Its anyone’s guess when amity will turn to enmity.

There’s another complication. There are reports that Russia is offering a range of weapons systems. The same source reported Russian officials as saying “The potential Pakistani demand for purchases of Russian weapons and military equipment amounts to $8-9 billion (including) an extensive range of Russian weapons, including heavy and medium fighters, large, medium and short-range air defence systems, main tanks and surface ships”.

He pointedly added that Islamabad had no issues with offsets, technology transfer or local manufacture. Coming as this did, almost immediately after Pulwama, it would have infuriated Delhi. Just a week later came a denial. A ‘highly placed source was quoted as saying that Russia had informed Delhi that it would restrict its relationship with Islamabad to counter-terrorism cooperation, and would refrain from transfers of military hardware.

That seemed to point to some heavy Indian pressure on the face of it. In actual fact, however, Pakistan is hardly likely to commit such large sums, at a time when the International Monetary Fund is breathing down its neck. Besides, Delhi simply has the larger pocket and is holding out buys of more equipment including the formidable Su-27 fighter jets.

Finally, Russia still holds considerable political clout. It is a member of the UN Security Council and its vote remains valuable. Look back at the vote on Masood Azhar. Second, it still retains a huge nuclear arsenal, which is likely to grow under US prodding. That capability has a strong political message.

And finally, Russian backing still matters in Afghanistan, and Iran, where its position while shifting from the steadiness of earlier years, still counts in a conflicted region. For the new government, the cold war slogan of “the Russians are coming” is not a threat, but an opportunity, requiring a considerable balancing act, even while looking to the US. But then that’s what we’ve been doing for decades. As a French satirical author would say “ Plus ca change, plus c’est la mémé chose” . The more things change, the more they remain the same.
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