Of the four nations PM Narendra Modi is visiting this week, his trip to St Petersburg starting tomorrow has wider ramifications for India’s foreign policy as it seeks to recast the enduring Indo-Russian strategic partnership. India’s tone and tenor has become noticeably assertive as it tries to stop Moscow from cozying up to Beijing and wean it away from its growing bonhomie with Pakistan’s military following the lifting of its arms embargo in 2014.
India aims to expand its ties beyond defence and nuclear cooperation and fine-tune its understanding of Russian President Putin’s assertive posturing in world politics while adopting a softer approach on Afghan Taliban that treats India as its enemy. Even in bilateral trade, the two keep asserting that they want to take it to $30 billion by 2025, which is small. Yet it seems ambitious compared to the current sluggish trade hovering between $7-8 billion for the last few years with the balance of trade staying heavily stacked against New Delhi.
It is in this context that as part of the 18th annual India–Russia summit, Modi will be the guest of honour at the prestigious St Petersburg International Economic Forum where he is expected to pitch for foreign investments showcasing India’s economic reforms of the past three years, which have already made India the largest recipient of foreign direct investment overtaking China last year.
His speech is expected to outline India’s vision of an inclusive and rule-based world order amid the recent hype of infrastructure building and connectivity created by China’s Belt and Road Forum. The last two weeks have witnessed India launch several parallel initiatives like the Indo–Japanese Freedom Corridor connecting Asia to Africa. And India will play a significant role in two major projects the US has revived—its 2011 New Silk Route initiative connecting Afghanistan to neighbouring regions and the Indo–Pacific Economic Corridor linking South and Southeast Asia.
Modi and Putin will have a one-to-one dinner meeting following their delegation-level discussions. This is where pundits expect them to achieve breakthroughs on ticklish issues like finessing the framework agreement on two new reactors for units 5 and 6 of the Kudankulam nuclear plant, strengthening their initiatives on counter-terrorism, the situation in Afghanistan, energy and defence cooperation. Several agreements are expected to be signed.
Though the two leaders have not met since the Goa BRICS summit last September, several high-level visits have preceded this summit to address the growing trust deficit. These include two recent visits by national security advisor Ajit Doval, a visit by foreign secretary S Jaishankar in March followed by the visit of finance and defence minister Arun Jaitley last month. Moreover, Modi and Putin will meet again next week at Astana (Kazakhstan) for the 2017 Shanghai Cooperation Organisation summit (June 8-9) where Modi will also meet Chinese President Xi Jinping and Pakistani PM Nawaz Sharif.
It is important to underline that Putin’s high-profile endorsement of China’s OBOR summit earlier this month has badly rattled New Delhi. The diplomatic disruption has been especially deep in view of India’s growing anxieties about Russia’s gradual but decisive shift towards building closer defence cooperation with both Islamabad and Beijing. Last December, Moscow had called for trilateral talks on the future of peace in Afghanistan inviting China and Pakistan resulting in strong criticism from both Kabul and New Delhi.
And now, Putin’s endorsement of OBOR that brandishes the China–Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) as its ‘flagship’ project has been viewed by experts as the lowest point in the history of enduring Indo-Russian friendship. Optimists nevertheless expect the Modi–Putin summit to resuscitate the strategic partnership to life. The main takeaway for Russia would be the signing of an MoU for the Kudankulam reactor units. The MoU has become a bargaining chip in the hands of India which has asked Moscow to use its leverage to convince Beijing to support New Delhi’s membership of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG).
Indeed, Germany, Spain and France, the other countries Modi is visiting this week, are all members of the NSG, which will have its 2017 plenary meeting at Swiss capital Bern next month where India’s membership will be debated. China meanwhile continues to equate India to Pakistan and persists with its “two-step approach” of evolving a universal formula for all non-NPT (Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty) signatories and then taking up each country’s application separately.
India, on the other hand, highlights how China supported the 2008 NSG ‘waiver’ that treats India as a special case. It wants Beijing to explain why it has retraced its step and now treats India as a fresh case. India also wonders why China is equating India with Pakistan, a country caught running a widespread underground nuclear supply chain for rogue regimes.
Finally, as part of enhancing India’s contributions to the Indo-Russian strategic partnership, New Delhi has been exploring enhancing exports in sectors like textiles and automobile components. India also plans to set up pharmaceutical plants and lease agricultural land in Russia besides building collaborations in mining and metallurgy even as Indian IT firms expand their investments in Russia’s technology parks.
As part of cultivating Russia’s pro-India constituencies, Modi will visit the Piskarovskoye Cemetery to pay homage to those who perished in the historic siege of Leningrad as also visit the world famous State Hermitage Museum and the Institute of Oriental Manuscripts. This recalibration is expected to help contain the Russian drift triggered by India’s preoccupation with engaging the US, which has since become hostage to Trump’s tweets.
Professor, School of International Studies, JNU