Relations between India and US have been warming up over the last few years. This trend stayed its course when the administration changed hands from President Obama to President Trump, and hence is likely to continue even during the Biden presidency. One of the outcomes of this closeness is India’s involvement in the resurrected Quad — an informal forum for cooperation between India, US and two of its allies Japan and Australia. Two years ago this four-nation initiative was elevated to foreign minister level, which was widely seen as sending out a message to China, whose expansionist policies are making all four countries uncomfortable and hence seeking closer coordination.
While the Quad is clearly aimed at containing China, it has had the unintended consequence of irking Russia. Russia has not hidden its displeasure at what it sees as the development of an “Asian NATO”, with India at its center. US-Russia relations were never great to begin with, but they have materially deteriorated since the takeover of the White House by President Biden, who has called President Putin a “killer”. Many analysts believe that the US-Russia relations are now worse than they were during the Cold War days. In this context India’s growing closeness with the US is not taken well in Moscow. Creeping coolness in Indo-Russia relations was visible when Russia kept India out at the recent conference in Moscow to discuss the future of Afghanistan or last month when the Russian foreign minister made a stop in Islamabad right after visiting New Delhi. Few days later the Russian ambassador to India alerted India to the “dangers” emerging from USA’s Indo-Pacific strategy.
And it is not only Russia that is forcing India to choose. In 2017 US Congress had passed the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAASTA), under which US would impose sanctions against any country that makes significant purchases from a US adversary such as Russia. This has complicated things for India, which has traditionally relied on Russia for most of its military needs. While India has lately diversified its defence imports to a broader set of countries including the US, Israel and France, Russia still accounts for over half of the total hardware purchase. The dominance of Russia in our defence purchases is unlikely to change anytime soon. While there are several good reasons for this, two important ones being the incompatibility of our existing weaponry and hardware with that from a new supplier and Russia being the only supplier willing to share with us their latest technology. It is worth noting that India’s flagship BrahMo (the fastest supersonic cruise missiles in the world) have been jointly developed with Russia and India’s only nuclear-attack submarine INS Chakra has been leased from Russia. Unsurprisingly, despite all protestations from the US, India has decided to go ahead with the purchase of the S-400 Russian air defence system, worth $5.5 Billion and supposed to be the best in the world. The purchase of the same last year resulted in US sanctions on Turkey, which is unlike India a formal ally of the US. “India seeks to keep its options open and purchase from any country. But there are also limitations that imposes and choices that might ultimately need to be made (by India)” were the words of the outgoing US ambassador earlier this year.
Ultimately it may not be wise for India to align itself with either of them at the expense of the other. While US values India as a sizeable counterweight to China, the two disagree on a range of important matters including trade, human rights, etc. Further US-China rivalry is not a permanent feature and it could change. Similarly, Russia has been a reliable partner to India for decades, but it is now also a close partner of India’s main rival China and is getting closer with India’s main adversary Pakistan.
India is walking a tight rope. It is seeking greater closeness with US in order to counter Chinese aggression, while at the same time trying to retain its long term friendship with Russia, on which it still depends to a large extent for its defence needs. But as US and Russia become more antagonistic towards each other, neither seems willing to accommodate India’s need for strategic autonomy.
Will India manage to navigate the shifting dynamics between the three great powers?