India is going its own way in the new Cold War
As the United States rushed to impose sanctions on Moscow, many countries in the South found themselves caught in the crosshairs of a realignment against Russia. Among the uncommitted, India is the biggest democracy to chart its own course.
Russia has been one of India’s staunchest diplomatic and defense partners and a weakened Russia would nullify India’s preference for a multipolar world order in which it would be an independent and influential pole.
Washington’s tendency to coalesce China and Russia into an âauthoritarian axisâ that threatens the world order is not something India subscribes to. India regards Russia as a close friend and China as an adversary, while the United States is hostile to both countries.
Since the invasion of Ukraine, the contradiction between India and the United States has been openly played out. India and China are more aligned on Voting at the UNIndia having abstained in 11 UN votes to condemn Russia, despite intense pressure of its closest Western partners as well as unflattering international media and public opinion.
India could not be persuaded to join the US-led economic sanctions against Russia, as it is generally against unilateral sanctions imposed outside the United Nations.
New Delhi’s decision to accept Russia’s steeply reduced oil offer is not entirely surprising, although Western officials and commentators have accused India of accepting “good deals” from a Russian otherwise diplomatically isolated and indirectly funding Putin’s war machine.
Western pressure on India has shifted from pure money to values ââby labeling the conflict as authoritarianism and democracy.
In a much-watched interaction between visiting British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss and Indian External Affairs Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, Truss took a blow to India’s neutral stance, stating that “it is of vital importance for freedom and democracy in Europe, that we challenge Putin and ensure that he loses in Ukraine”.
India’s strategic ties to the United States and its membership in the Quad once suggested growing acceptance of the US-dominated liberal order and weakening commitment to a multipolar world. The growing adversarial relationship between India and China has also exposed the limits of their cooperation in global governance and reform.
But Ukraine shows that India’s desire for multipolarity remains. India continues to be a dissatisfied member of the liberal world order despite having made gains from that order. At the Bratislava Forum in June 2022, Jaishankar argued that “Europe needs to get out of the mentality that its problems are the world’s problems, but the world’s problems are not Europe’s problems.”
India is the only major power to be a member of organizations generally perceived by the West as competitive, even antagonistic. Along with the BRICS, it is part of the East Asia Summit, the ASEAN Regional Forum, the Quad and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization.
This broad membership illustrates India’s decision to represent and protect its autonomy in foreign policy and to pursue greater global power-sharing. The Russian-Chinese statement – issued after the Beijing Winter Olympics in 2022 – recognizes India’s autonomy and prioritizes relations between the three major powers within the BRICS.
In a telling final paragraph, he said that Russia and China “intend to develop cooperation within the ‘Russia-India-China format.'”
India’s decision to take part in Russia’s week-long military exercise in September 2022 was not sitting well with its Quad partners. The United States has expressed dissatisfaction with India’s participation in the exercises, saying it fears a country “trains with Russia while Russia is waging a brutal and unprovoked war against Ukraine”.
But US press secretary Karine Jean Pierre added that “each participating country will make its own decisions”, hinting that the United States would not interfere.
Japan has strongly opposed the exercises in the Sea of ââOkhotsk and the Sea of ââJapan, calling them “unacceptable.â In deference to Japan’s sensitivities, India opted to stay away from the maritime component of the Vostok exercises and did not send its warships.
The balance between Russia and the West seems to be bearing fruit. There was a flurry of high-level visitors to New Delhi in March and April 2022, including the Prime Ministers of Japan and the United Kingdom, the Foreign Ministers of China and Russia and a virtual summit with the Prime Minister Australian.
But India’s foreign policy decisions are test these partnerships and these expectations. India and its partners face political minefields.
NATO-Russia tensions will surely increase when membership applications from Sweden and Finland are accepted. An escalation of the Russian-Ukrainian war could force India to choose between its Quad partners and Russia.
India’s earlier intention to achieve multipolarity through the BRICS will be even less tenable if Russian-Chinese relations become rock solid. The notion of a more distributed power system will clash with the reality that closer ties with the United States may seem like a better option for India.
At the start of the Russo-Ukrainian war, India feared that China would gain a weakened and dependent Russia as a junior partner. New Delhi risked losing Russia as a solid and reliable geopolitical partner.
Economically, the sanctions against Russia are triggering a process of dedollarization that benefits China. The Ukrainian conflict could offer China advantages that it could not have obtained otherwise.
Indian policymakers are betting that Russia will not want to put all its eggs in one basket and will continue to respect India’s independence. A weakened Russia will still have the power of veto in the UN Security Council, of which India has always been a beneficiary.
India is betting that the level of convergence with Quad members on China’s aggression in the Indo-Pacific is strong enough that they tolerate dissonance elsewhere. He relies on his friends to find out pressure taking sides is unlikely to produce results and can backfire.
India has consolidated its strategic autonomy without economic or strategic costs. Its Quad partners seem willing to tolerate differences – after all, there is no “Indo-Pacific” without “India”.
New Delhi has been able to set the terms of global engagement in the current geopolitical constellation. But depending on the outcome of the war in Ukraine, India’s conception of the kind of world order that protects its strategic autonomy may need to be reluctantly refined.
Deepa M Ollapally is a research professor of international affairs and director of the Rising Powers Initiative at the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University.
This article was first published by East Asia Forum, which is based on the Crawford School of Public Policy within the College of Asia and the Pacific to Australian National University. It is republished under a Creative Commons license.