Prime Minister Narendra Modi and US President Joe Biden at the G20 Summit in Indonesia, November 15, 2022 (Photo: AP)
THE WORLD WAR I-STYLE trench warfare along the Ukraine-Russia battlelines through much of the winter has taken a heavy toll on troops on both sides. Ukrainian soldiers have dug deep, fighting fatigue and a deeply uncertain future but have repulsed probing attacks of Russian patrols testing their defences. After months of bitter fighting, both sides are counting the costs but neither feels it is losing the war. The Ukrainians are set to launch a spring offensive that will spark fresh hostilities. It was then hardly surprising that tempers flared during G20 meetings in New Delhi in early March. Some Western delegates castigated Russian officials for being accomplices of the Kremlin whom they have accused of war crimes. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov hit back at the Raisina Dialogue, making it evident that Russia considers NATO and the US as the real adversaries in a war fought on Ukrainian soil.
Several high-profile events in Delhi in March, which included the visit of German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, G20 deliberations, the Raisina Dialogue, and Prime Minister Narendra Modi hosting his Australian counterpart Anthony Albanese at a cricket match in Ahmedabad and on board India’s indigenous aircraft carrier INS Vikrant, kept politics on the boil. The rising heat over Ukraine highlighted not just the diplomatic and political challenge posed by sharpening polarisation but also the possibility of more severe geo-economic disruptions with implications for India. The question whether heightened confrontation will crimp India’s elbow room, testing its success so far in resisting pressures to join the Western condemnation of Russia, gained a sharper salience. The evidence points to a need to sift public statements and the bellicose exchanges between the developed world and Russia and grasp the real significance of emerging alliances and multilateral linkages.
The venue for the ministerial meeting of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) in Delhi immediately after discussions among G20 foreign ministers might have been influenced by the convenience of participants but it underlines a strong convergence of the US, Australia, Japan and India on a key priority—resisting China’s bid to turn the Indo-Pacific into a captive pond. A lengthy statement released by the US Department of State sums up the range of deliberations and the real concerns engaging the Quad. The US iterated “unwavering support” for ASEAN centrality and unity, promised to cooperate in opposing “unilateral” efforts to “subvert” the United Nations (UN) and international system, condemned North Korea’s “destabilizing” missile tests and expressed support for India’s role in the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA). It called for adherence to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), to “meet challenges to the maritime rules-based order, including in the South and East China Seas.” For good measure, the statement re-emphasised Washington’s serious concern at “militarization of disputed features, the dangerous use of coast guard vessels and maritime militia.” It is no coincidence that Quad nations bilaterally and multilaterally conduct military exercises that are as much a political signal as they are about improving inter-operability between their armed forces. “The G20 meetings and discussions are important but it is not the chair’s fault if there is no consensus on issues. The meeting of the Quad is a reminder of the real concerns that bind its members,” said Dilip Sinha, who has served as India’s permanent representative at the UN in Geneva. Sinha agrees that India has sought to give its chairmanship of G20 a certain profile but points out that it is essentially a deliberative forum that may help find common ground. The Delhi meetings did provide US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Lavrov an opportunity to meet and while the contact was important, the anticipated escalation in hostilities is not conducive to peace talks.
The venue for the Quad ministerial meeting in Delhi might have been influenced by convenience but it underlines a strong convergence of the US, Australia, Japan and India on a key priority—resisting China’s bid to turn the Indo-Pacific into a captive pond
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India’s pursuit of its interests in a divided world is far removed from the non-alignment that once marked its foreign policy and ideological moorings. The truth is that the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) was never really non-aligned. Its leading members, including India, titled towards the Soviet Union, and a very disparate set of interests made any real unity or common goal-setting impractical. Rather, NAM imposed a policy straitjacket that prevented India from seeking relevant partnerships that would help secure its interests in the neighbourhood and beyond. Decades of adversarial relations with successive US administrations meant India was constantly fighting trade, scientific and technology barriers while becoming more and more dependent on Soviet military supplies. The Malabar exercise in November 2022 saw the navies of all four Quad nations participate in manoeuvres that, as the Indian government said in Parliament, signalled a convergence of the participating countries on “maritime issues and their shared commitment to an open, inclusive Indo-Pacific and a rules-based international order.” Indiaalsoholdsregularbilateral militaryexerciseswiththese and other nations and its engagements have deepened with Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s increasingly belligerent actions intended to assert China’s claim to being a “pre-eminent” power.
In aligning its policies with the ebb and flow of global tensions, India has looked to retain its ‘strategic autonomy’ that includes alliances and partnerships that incorporate elements of security cooperation while not being overtly labelled as military pacts. India is not part of a military alliance like NATO or AUKUS and this helps maintain its relations with Russia. In return, while Russia is hardly approving of the Quad, it does not make this a sticking point. Though India remains one of the few countries whose leader is on talking terms with Vladimir Putin, its leverage is limited. The real influence in Moscow is wielded by China which is its mainstay in economic and diplomatic terms. Putin’s aggression against Ukraine has created problems for China although, unlike its partner, it remains more dependent on Western finance and multilateral institutions. Its 12-point charter for a ‘political settlement’ of the Ukraine war does call for the observance of international law and respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity but fails to clarify how a ceasefire it proposes will achieve this. A cessation of hostilities will leave Russia in control of substantial territory gained after the war began on February 24, 2022. India has not voted against Russia at the UN but it has made it clear that it cannot condone violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty and this is a line New Delhi will not step away from. As things stand, the mood in Ukraine does not favour concessions to Russia despite the immense pain borne by its citizens. The possibility of India initiating a peace effort is remote although important economies like Brazil, South Africa and even Türkiye (despite its stance on Kashmir) have strong reasons to support mediation.
The Chinese initiative to broker an Iran-Saudi Arabia reconciliation that bore fruit on March 10 marks a new phase in its diplomacy in contrast to its preference for being a passive actor in such situations. In the past, China has elevated non-interference to the level of a political principle, stating it would not meddle in any nation’s “internal situation”. It has stayed away from any interventionist role in crises in nations like Syria and Libya. The high praise for China and acknowledgement of Xi’s role in the rapprochement is significant though the issues in the Ukraine situation are quite different. In the evolving situation, while the US is determined to deal a decisive blow to Putin, it has not lost sight of its competition with China. India’s task remains cut out, revolving around strengthening partnerships and developing its deterrence in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR). A demonstrable capacity to prevent adverse situations in the IOR is key to convincing neighbours about India’s reliability as a security provider and check Chinese ambitions in the region. The focus on developing the Andaman island chain as a military command along with promoting its economic integration with the mainland is not lost to China. Despite the economic and military imbalance between India and China, the communist regime is not oblivious to India’s military capabilities and, more importantly, a change in political mindset as seen during the 2020 Galwan crisis and thereafter. Though India has stepped softly on Taiwan, China cannot be sure about India’s responses in the event of military action against the island. Some observers feel China would look at using its role in the Iran-Saudi détente to secure overland energy supplies to reduce its critical dependence on the Malacca Strait that is right under India’s gaze.
A MORE COMPREHENSIVE DEFINITION of deterrence includes elements of the entire DIME (diplomatic, informational, military, economic) gamut of statecraft where at least three—diplomatic, economic and military—are composed of hard as well as soft power. Strategic autonomy for India implies manoeuvring room across the DIME spectrum to safeguard and further its interests. Instead of being thought about in the framework of non-alignment in any of its avatars, this leverages friendships, partnerships and opportunities while staying grounded in deeper fundamentals, feels Rear Admiral (retd) Sudarshan Shrikhande. “Deterrence can be said to work till it fails in a major way or is tested in smaller ways by adversaries. Since it ought to work on the mind of an adversary, it needs the power of strong statecraft for which India needs to develop its military readiness, leverage deft diplomacy and economic strength. There are hard as well as soft elements in making deterrence work,” he says. The developments in Ukraine are fraught with uncertainty and after Putin’s decision to suspend Russia’s participation in the New START treaty that limits nuclear arsenals, concerns that he might expand the conflict need careful evaluation. Though Russia holds a chunk of Ukrainian territory, the war has not gone the way it had planned, and the Kremlin will have to consider the consequences of picking a fight with countries backing Kyiv. There is speculation about Russia’s actions should the war go badly in the coming months, with some scenarios including an attack on Poland (a key supporter of Ukraine). Others are not so sure, pointing out that Russia is not well placed to expand hostilities. While all these considerations have a bearing on India, it will continue to protect its relations with Russia, including the purchase of oil. The view in Delhi is that there are important reasons for Western nations to work with India—as evident from growing economic and security linkages (including initiatives to develop trusted supply chains)—and India will not have to accept zero-sum games.
Western delegates castigated Russian officials for being accomplices of the Kremlin. Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov hit back at the Raisina dialogue, making it evident that Russia considers NATO and the US as the real adversaries in a war fought on Ukrainian soil
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G20 could see sharper articulation of differences as the Russia- China partnership becomes more assertive in opposing references to Ukraine. But with P5 and the UN Security Council reduced to a comatose state, it is the only forum representing a substantial number of emerging economies where discussions, both formal and informal, can take place. In their public statements, some leaders may well call on India to do more to isolate Russia as Scholz did when he was here. But he also simultaneously agreed to push the India-EU trade deal, so that talks don’t drag. This was the German leader’s fourth meeting with Modi since assuming office in 2021, indicating the growing importance of the ties. In a separate statement, the German ambassador said it was India’s decision to buy oil from Russia and he would not blame the Indian government. In 1999, G20 became a platform for wider confabulations to find pathways to economic stability after the Asian financial crisis. It was raised to summit level in 2008 to help respond to the economic convulsions caused by the sub-prime crisis, its dinner-table format allowing common ground to emerge. The hard political confrontation precipitated by the Ukraine war is a different kettle of fish. There was a fairly wide and shared interest in stabilising the global economy but as of now, combatants in the Eurasian war are determined to crush each other. The US feels it might have an opportunity to permanently weaken or even unseat Putin. The Russian leader recognises the existential threat to his control and has so far not faced any serious dissent at home. In this new version of great-power competition, India has a few aces up its sleeve to help it sail the choppy seas.
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