In These New Times

A new paradigm for a post-imperial world

India displays multi-vector diplomacy

Posted by seumasach on December 8, 2009


Asia Times

9th December, 2009

The annual India-Russia summits have had in recent years a worn look. The two countries have gone their separate ways in terms of priorities, though they have kept in touch. Cliches aside, they realize that the hearth remains warm.

However, the United States’ decline as the lone superpower is adding impetus to a strengthening of the India-Russia relationship.
The Barack Obama administration’s new thinking on South Asia has impacted on US-India ties. The US shift has included a more balanced approach to ties with India and Pakistan; a soft-pedaling on the rapid “militarization” of the US-India strategic partnership that started during the George W Bush presidency; and divergent US-Indian perceptions over the Afghan crisis, among others.

But what has most shaken New Delhi is the emerging US-China partnership. US officials underplay the surge in ties with Beijing, saying that as two countries with “shared values”, America will forever have more in common with democratic India than with communist China. But there are no serious takers in New Delhi for such diplomatese.

Indian officials can see very well that the balance of global economic power is shifting and the prospects of a near-term US economic recovery seem uncertain. As Niall Ferguson, the well-known economic historian, wrote last week in Newsweek, “This is how empires decline. It begins with a debt explosion. It ends with an inexorable reduction in the resources available for the army, navy and air force.”

These cataclysmic changes put India in a great predicament as until recently it had near-implicit faith in the infallibility of US power and India’s place in America’s scheme of things as an Asian “balancer” and “counterweight” to China. No doubt, the US will continue to be by far the number one “strategic partner” for India. But Indian aspirations need to be curtailed – given the “fatal arithmetic of imperial decline” of the US, to quote Ferguson – and the resultant shortfalls in expectations need to be bridged.

New Delhi has sobered up to the true import of Obama’s “smart power”. A serious effort has begun to deepen the US-India partnership by taking it in new directions. India estimates that it holds a trump card insofar as the economy has recovered from the impact of the global downturn and is growing at an annual rate of more than 6% annual rate, which may accelerate toward a 9% growth rate in the next two-year period. Meanwhile, New Delhi is watching warily a “demilitarization” of the US’s partnership with India under Obama’s watch. India’s longstanding desire to source “dual-use technology” from the US continues to run up against obstacles.

Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s visit to Moscow on December 6-8 has been thoughtfully scheduled in sequence after his trip to Washington. Therefore, the joint declaration issued in Moscow on Monday following the Russian-Indian summit needs to be put in perspective.

New Delhi received Moscow’s “solidarity and support” for its line that Pakistan is yet to bring the perpetrators of last year’s terrorist attack in Mumbai to justice, while New Delhi reciprocated with support for Russia’s “efforts to maintain peace and stability in the Caucasus”. But there was no broader reference to India’s security concerns vis-a-vis Pakistan. In comparison, the US-Indian joint statement was far more forthcoming.

The Russian and Indian leaderships took a common position on Afghanistan – support for President Hamid Karzai’s government; emphasis on the imperative of a robust counter-terrorist campaign against al-Qaeda and the Taliban; rejection of any attempt to differentiate between “good” and “bad” Taliban; the need for “strict observance” of the United Nations Security Council sanctions against the Taliban leaders; and a commitment to a “democratic, pluralistic and stable” Afghanistan.

Quite obviously, this amounts to substantial common ground. Both countries suffer “collateral damage” to their national security if the Afghan situation worsens and radical Islam gains ground. So, will they moot a common initiative on an Afghan settlement? Unlikely.

For Russia, the Afghan problem is much more than the sum total of shared concerns with India. It is a factor in Russia’s “reset” of ties with the US; it is linked to the eastward expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), and it also has profound implications for Moscow’s leadership role in the security of Central Asia.

On the other hand, no matter what the twists and turns of Obama’s Afghan strategy, the US-India partnership will remain unaffected. Equally, Pakistani support of the Taliban and the need to effectively curb Islamabad’s alleged use of terrorism as an instrument of state policy – which is a core theme for India – doesn’t seem to bother Russia. The joint declaration falls short of the Indian stance that the Taliban are a creation of Pakistan.

Being a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, Russia has far more leverage than India in influencing the course of developments in Afghanistan. Russia has an assured role in conflict resolution and unlike the case with India, Islamabad does not resent the Russian role.

The joint declaration’s reiteration of Moscow’s support of Indian candidacy in an expanded UN Security Council is not a new development and both countries know that reform of the UN will be a long haul. But interestingly, the “Russian side supports India’s full membership in the SCO [Shanghai Cooperation Organization]”. Would Moscow have sounded out Beijing, howsoever informally? Is there a change of thinking in Beijing? According to Indian officials, China has so far blocked India’s path to full SCO membership.

The SCO, of course, will be an extremely useful forum for deepening the Sino-Indian normalization. Significantly, the Moscow declaration also singles out the Russia-India-China trilateral format by underscoring the need of “intensified exchanges of information and ideas on the important issues of … peace and stability in the region”.

China would have figured in the Russian-Indian summit. A sort of imbalance crept in with recent hiccups in the Sino-Indian normalization running contrary to the positive trajectory of Sino-Russian relations. Broadly speaking, India and Russia have a similar approach towards the Asia-Pacific region. Both want to partake of the regional processes in economic cooperation and security.

While India faces exclusion by China in the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum, Russia is a member. The joint declaration makes a pointed reference to the “growing efficacy” of regional cooperation in the Asia-Pacific and underlines the Russian and Indian “interest in strengthening bilateral and multilateral interaction in different related fields”.

The dynamics and verve of the Russian-Indian bilateral relationship will depend heavily on plans in the period ahead for a big expansion in defense and nuclear cooperation. India will continue to depend on Russia for advanced military technology, which its cannot source anywhere else. New Delhi harbored unrealistically high expectations of sourcing US technology but now realizes that Russia is irreplaceable for the foreseeable future.

For Russia, India is an assured market for its arms exports. The two countries are engaged in sophisticated forms of cooperation such as the joint design, development and production of highly advanced weapon systems, which the US is hesitant to do with India.

On the nuclear side, the clearance provided by the Nuclear Suppliers’ Group to allow nuclear trade with India opened a huge vista of Russian-Indian cooperation. Given the “close, friendly and historic Russia-India bilateral relationship”, Moscow is politically willing to explore the frontiers of cooperation permissible with a non-Non-Proliferation Treaty state like India. Ironically, what the US-India nuclear deal was meant to provide in the nature of transfer of reprocessing technology to India, Russia may end up providing, according to media reports.

The joint declaration says that the two countries are “developing and intensifying broad-based cooperation” that includes joint scientific research, implementation of nuclear power projects and “setting up of fuel supply arrangements”. A framework agreement on nuclear cooperation has been finalized, while “specific instruments” need to be negotiated.

However, Washington will have a say in the Russian-Indian nuclear cooperation. And Russia will not enter into any cooperation with India that is contradictory to the new architecture on nuclear non-proliferation that Moscow and Washington are designing together.

India also views the US as its main partner in nuclear plans. Out of the 28 light-water reactors that India is planning, 12 will be sourced from the US, 10 will be from Russia and six from France.

Nothing sums up Indian priorities better than the fact that on the very same day that Russia and India signed their framework agreement in Moscow, New Delhi rolled out the red carpet for a delegation of top nuclear power companies from the US including Babcock & Wilcox, Bechtel, CH2MHill, Curtiss-Wright, Cameco, Converdyn and USEC.

If this display of “multi-vector” diplomacy is not impressive enough, the Indian prime minister has decided to proceed to Copenhagen next week for the summit on climate change where his tango will be with Obama. New Delhi has begun harmonizing its stance on climate change with Obama’s, with the expectation that an embrace of diplomacy is just what is needed to push the US-India strategic partnership onto the center stage of the 21st century world order.

Ambassador M K Bhadrakumar was a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service. His assignments included the Soviet Union, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Germany, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Kuwait and Turkey.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: