Indian foreign policy leaders are in between two presidential visits. President Putin recently concluded a successful 15th summit, building of strategic relations between Russia and India. India is now waiting for the super VIP from the USA, president Obama. Can India be the hyphen between these two powers whose relations are deteriorating by the day? Even more important, can India balance between the two and maintain its independence, especially since both would like India to tilt towards them since great powers always look for satellites for their own ambition and interests.
India’s position vis-à-vis Russia in this last summit was significant, coming as it did when the US and West is isolating Russia. India, in contrast, stated that the strategic partnership with Russia was “incomparable” and made clear that India will not be party to any sanctions against Russia by Western nations over the annexation of Crimea. PM Modi said the two countries “have a friendship of unmatched mutual confidence, trust and goodwill” and that despite transition in the international system this relation would not change. Decisions were taken for the joint manufacture of advanced military helicopters in India, bilateral cooperation in atomic energy for the next two decades including a dozen new reactors in next 20 years, additional site for nuclear power units, and joint nuclear research. All of these are in continuity with the Indian elite’s interest for nuclear power, regardless of its costs and safety.
Modi added that the two sides should remain sensitive to each other, obliquely referring to the Russia-Pakistan defence deal. This summit indicated that India is willing and has the strength to pursue an independent foreign policy. But, the real test lies in the what India gives to the US and de facto to Israel in the coming days.
The US has a clear wish list for India. The US state department disapproved of Indian support to Russia and violations of sanctions. But if India complies with other things in the US list the latter might turn a blind eye to India-Russia linkages for the short term, while tying it up with its own strategic intentions. This list would first and foremost include India having a greater role in US intervention strategies, especially in areas where its wars are failing, like Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya.
The Indian response will be a “no” to intervention but “yes” to giving other kinds of support like aid and reconstruction, joint intelligence sharing, supporting the resistance to Islamic terrorism like the IS and Taliban, etc. But the issue is—will India be tough enough to negotiate better behaviour from Pakistan, to which the US holds the key? Unlikely, because the US remains more indebted to Pakistan and has not asked for sufficient accountability when Pakistan uses terror as a strategic instrument to hurt India.
The US will want India to open up its markets further for US companies and sign up to conform to many clauses in the World Trade Organisation and climate change agreements. The US wants India to dilute its nuclear liability Act to suit American companies. Because, it feels that while it helped India ride over the International Atomic Energy Agency, US companies haven’t benefitted like the French and Russians. With Europe still in economic depression, Japan in stagnation and the US facing jobless growth, the US needs India more than vice versa.
The US will be more than happy if India bends to Israeli pressure and stops supporting the cause of the Palestinian people, a feature that gave Indian foreign policy moral legitimacy, something which the US and the European Union lack. The US would like India to move away from the third world and also from the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) grouping.
President Obama’s advisers desperately want India to join the US-led strategic pivot with Japan, Australia and Singapore to make a quadrilateral alliance structure to isolate Chinese ambitions in the Asia Pacific region. China has beaten the US as the world’s largest economy and is taking more assertive positions in international relations. The Chinese state that theirs is and will continue to be a “peaceful rise” as a great power. They also want to corner the US in a position to accept the concept of “G2” and accommodate Chinese versions of a new Asian century. If the American economy continues to weaken, the US will accept this proposition.
This US plan has been echoed by its strategic discourse as part of the country’s need for India to “counterbalance China”. Former secretary of state Condoleeza Rice had said that it was US policy to “help” India become a world power, but New Delhi would have to abandon “old ways of thinking and old ways of acting”. And that non-alignment in foreign policy “…has lost its meaning”. She had asked India to instead join “the coalition of democracies” led by the US.
US foreign policy analyst Strobe Talbott called the multipolar concept “a pretty stupid proposition”. This combination led to the acceptance of India’s nuclear strategies, the Indo-US Defence Framework of 2005 and the Indo-US 123 Agreement of 2007. There was pressure for greater “convergence” with US policies, a position contested by both the Left and the “traditional nationalists”.
Is India going to play along with the US wish list? If it accedes to any US demand, it would risk independence and autonomy of choice in foreign policy as well as its own internal cohesion. At the same time, the Indian strategic community wants US support to manage Pakistan and balance China. However, there are many ways this can be done, as opposed to just linking up fully with the US and its satellite state, Israel.
The more creative ways for India would be to see each issue as a separate case, maintain continuity of history and use its lessons, retain its autonomy of choice and independence. This way India can be the pivot between the US and Russia, not just symbolically between presidential visits but in a new reality. This would serve both Indian internal as well as external interests.
The writer is professor at the School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University.