As the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) summit in the Chinese coastal city of Qingdao gets underway on June 9, Prime Minister Narendra Modi will face a piquant situation. Following his informal summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Sochi last month, Indo-Russian ties, which had been fraying for years as Moscow pirouettes ever closer to Pakistan, seem to be on the mend. Moscow has been upset with India’s deepening strategic partnership with the US which imposed harsh sanctions on Russia following its annexation of Crimea and invasion of east Ukraine.
To Washington’s dismay, India is planning to buy the advanced S-400 air defence system from Russia. Washington has been trying to dissuade New Delhi from acquiring sophisticated defence equipment from Moscow which would complicate America’s plan to integrate its weapons systems with India’s. America’s patience is now wearing thin. The Indo-US 2+2 dialogue, featuring the defence and foreign ministers of the two countries, is scheduled for early July in Washington. India’s proposed S-400 deal with Russia will weigh heavily on the dialogue. An advance team of US officials will arrive in Delhi next week, soon after Modi returns from the SCO summit, to discuss America’s Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement. Washington wants India to adhere to this protocol. The aim: better interoperability between the armed forces of the two countries, easing the way for the transfer of sensitive defence technology to India.
India’s defence ties with Russia pose a dilemma. The US knows that those ties go back decades but have loosened in recent years as India turns increasingly to Western defence technology. While US Congressional leaders are inclined to give India special concessions despite Washington’s otherwise fierce opposition to allies buying advanced Russian military equipment like the S-400, attitudes in the Pentagon have hardened. If India wants the US to be its principal defence partner, Washington has in effect warned New Delhi to stop buying advanced Russian defence technology.
The US says if sophisticated Russian equipment is operated alongside US defence platforms, sharing the latest US technology with India may not be possible. The pressure so far has been subtle but back-to-back meetings planned between US and Indian teams in Delhi next week and in Washington in July will clearly see a ratcheting up of the us-or-them ultimatum. In a rare gesture to India, the US last week renamed its Pacific Command (which comprises 3,75,000 military and civilian personnel) the US Indo-Pacific Command.
The move towards forging a closer defence partnership with the US began under Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in 2005 following talks over a US-India civilian nuclear deal. Russia, immersed in its domestic political problems as Putin consolidated power, initially paid little attention to the growing India-US relationship. However, once it had re-established itself as a global power after its strong intervention in the Syrian conflict, Russia has grown increasingly assertive. In a snub to India, it has begun to develop closer military ties with Pakistan.
The US-Russia dilemma is not the only diplomatic challenge for India. At the SCO summit, several geopolitical strands will need to be strung together. The first is Beijing’s continued support to Pakistan. Islamabad’s recent move to notify Gilgit-Baltistan, a part of Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK), as Pakistan’s fifth province has drawn a strong protest from India. Forced to react, China has merely said that because the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor passes through Gilgit-Baltistan, it does not alter Beijing’s position that the dispute over J&K should be settled bilaterally between India and Pakistan.
India’s best strategy to counter complex regional challenges is to develop concentric, overlapping partnerships. The Quad alliance with the US, Japan and Australia is one. Another is the proposal to work with Japan to build a series of ports in the Indo-Pacific region. Japan is financing a $1.83 billion port in Dawei with participation from Thailand, Myanmar and India. China had earlier bid for the Dawei port but its high-cost loans led to the project being aborted. Japan offers far better credit terms. India’s partnership with Tokyo is essential to New Delhi’s Indo-Pacific strategy. Japan and India are also expanding an existing port in Trincomalee in Sri Lanka. Meanwhile, India and Indonesia are developing a naval port in Sabang at the entrance of the critical Malacca strait.
Pakistan will be a glowering presence at the SCO summit. It will shortly learn of its fate at the June meeting of the Financial Action Taken Force (FATF). Blacklisting looms. At the February plenary in Paris, the FATF had voted to greylist Pakistan for terror financing. It gave Islamabad four months to reform. That clearly has not happened. Hafiz Saeed remains free and spews terror venom openly. If blacklisted, Pakistan will join Iran and North Korea in a basket of just three countries denied international financing. Pakistan’s foreign exchange reserves have fallen below $10 billion and an IMF bailout is imminent. Blacklisting will block that bailout.
Will China and Saudi Arabia, which voted with other FATF members to greylist Pakistan in February, back Islamabad later this month? At the SCO summit, India has to play its cards forcefully with host Chinese President Xi Jinping. The message must be clear: those who back countries engaged in terror financing are complicit. That does not befit a nation aspiring to be a global superpower.
Russia is increasingly becoming a swing state in the SCO. It needs China to buy its oil and gas as Western Europe reduces dependence on Russian energy supplies. Heavily sanctioned by the West, Moscow needs as many powerful friends at it can get. The Modi-Putin summit last month might have been informal with no fixed agenda. But for Modi the agenda is clear: make India geopolitically indispensable to both Moscow and Washington.
The author is an editor and publisher