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Russia could upset India’s US-China balancing act

Screenshot 2021-03-29 080858

US Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin, left, meets with his Indian counterpart Rajnath Singh on March 20. Photo: Bloomberg

US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin’s visit to New Delhi last week was the latest symbol of Washington’s desire for the two sides to close ranks against China’s increasing assertiveness, observers say.

Yet in drawing closer to the United States, India could risk alienating its long-time defence ally and largest arms supplier Russia, with whom Delhi enjoys a “special and privileged strategic partnership”.

Since 2016, the US has designated India a “major defence partner”, with the two going on to sign three wide-ranging agreements that allow for greater defence interoperability, as well as Delhi’s procurement of high-end American weapons technology.

The US and India also form half of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or Quad, a grouping that includes Australia and Japan, and is widely seen as a counter to China. Austin’s visit to Delhi took place within a week of the Quad’s first summit meeting, which was held virtually in early March because of the pandemic.

During his visit, the US defence chief spoke of working together with “like-minded” nations to ensure a “free, open and inclusive Indo-Pacific” – a key part of the Quad’s stated aims – and described “our commitment to a comprehensive forward-looking defence partnership with India as a central pillar of our approach” to the region.

Pradeep Kaushiva, a retired vice-admiral of the Indian navy, said Washington’s decision to send Austin as the Biden administration’s “introductory” cabinet-level contact was also important symbolically, as “this indicates the restoration of the primacy and heft of defence cooperation in the [bilateral] relationship.” 

Kanwal Sibal, a former foreign secretary of India, echoed this point, saying the visit symbolised Joe Biden’s “personal commitment” to the US-India relationship and showed that “defence has become a solid pillar of our bilateral ties”.

But the two nation’s growing closeness has raised eyebrows in Russia, which expects India “not to become a vassal of the US”, according to Alexey Kupriyanov of the Institute of World Economy and International Relations in Moscow.

“Great powers do not allow themselves to be dictated to [and told] from where to buy weapons and with whom to be friends,” he said, a veiled reference to 2017’s Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act and other pieces of US legislation targeting Russia, among others, for sanctions.

Russia has not offered an official response to Austin’s Delhi visit, but Kupriyanov said Moscow was confident that India would not bow to pressure from outside forces and instead pursue its own national interests.

Moscow’s defence ties with Delhi date back decades, and by some estimates Russian imports now account for more than 65 per cent of India’s military hardware and supplies. In 2018, the two signed a US$5.5 billion deal for five Russian S-400 Triumf air defence systems, the first of which is scheduled to arrive in India later this year.

Yet in recent years the US has also gained a widening foothold in India’s defence market – the third-largest in the world – supplying Delhi with some US$18 billion worth of military equipment since 2001.

Sibal, who served as India’s ambassador to Russia from 2004 to 2007 in addition to being a former foreign secretary, said it was “crucial” for Delhi to maintain ties with Moscow “so as not to become more and more vulnerable to US demands and pressure”.

Washington would “be doing disservice to itself” if it sanctioned Delhi for maintaining those ties, he said, as “India will become more reticent about US [arms] purchases” in future.

“We don’t have to balance Moscow and Washington as our ties with the US are far wider in scope and our future growth can be fuelled more by the US than Russia,” Sibal said.

Relations with Beijing, meanwhile, are on a separate trajectory. China remains India’s largest trading partner – bilateral trade reached US$77.7 billion last year, according to Indian commerce ministry data – but diplomatic ties have deteriorated rapidly lately amid renewed tensions in the wake of deadly clashes at their disputed border last summer.

In the months since, India banned dozens of Chinese apps and tightened curbs on visas for Chinese businessmen, academics, industry experts, and advocacy groups in a bid to limit Beijing’s influence in the country.

“Through its military aggression, China has clearly conveyed to us the kind of relationship it desires with India,” said Gautam Bambawale, who served as India’s ambassador to China from 2017 to 2018.

“China clearly believes it is more powerful than India and can undertake military coercion on the border, while the rest of the relationship – particularly in the economic field – should stay the same.”

India is set to host a meeting of the BRICS nations, an association of five major emerging economies that includes China, later this year – a gathering that Sibal expects to be “awkward” if Chinese President Xi Jinping attends “without disengagement, de-escalation and restoration of the status quo ante in Ladakh” – the region of India bordering China where recent clashes have taken place.

“He will have to be given a cold reception,” Sibal said. “A show of BRICS solidarity will seem artificial as our relations with China has nosedived.”

For Bambawale, “if the border is not peaceful, the rest of the relationship will be negatively affected”. “The India-China relationship is set to deteriorate, become even more competitive,” he said, adding that a “complete re-set” in ties was already under way.

Meanwhile, preparations are being made to extend trilateral engagement with Australia and France – the three held talks on the Indo-Pacific for the first time in September last year – as well as an India-Australia-Indonesia grouping that officials in Delhi say is aimed at keeping the 

Association of the Southeast Asian Nations in the loop with the Quad’s efforts aimed at countering China’s assertiveness.

France is also set to lead a naval exercise involving all four members of the Quad in early April – something Kaushiva, the former vice-admiral, described as an important strategic development “as it seamlessly covers the Indo-Pacific region end to-end” and provides the Indian navy with a “much broader scope of operational choices”.