Serving self-interest or securing peace in the Indo-Pacific region?
Since the beginning of the Russian war against Ukraine on February 24th, 2022, a number of countries have condemned Russia’s actions. India, a country that shares and supports values such as democracy and sovereignty, has refrained from publicly criticizing these actions. This disappointed many Western leaders, who assumed that India, as a Western ally, would remain committed to its values (Barrow & van Hooft, 2022, p. 5). While disappointed, this should not be considered a surprise since Russia has historically proven to be a loyal friend to India, their friendship being of mutual benefit for more than half a century (Treaty of Peace, Friendship and Cooperation, 1971). However, the importance of this friendship is becoming increasingly evident as India feels increasingly threatened by China as border clashes erupted in mid-2020 which resumed a territorial dispute dating back to 1962 (Desai, 2022). As tensions rise between the two most powerful Asian nations, the question arises whether this strategic ambivalence is simply serving India’s self-interests or in fact, playing a significant role in securing peace in the Indo-pacific region.
The friendship between India and the former USSR began in the 1960s as they developed an arms sales partnership, which lead to the USSR becoming India’s primary arms provider (Barrow & van Hooft, p.8). This remains as Russian-origin weapons currently compose 85% of India’s military equipment, leaving India highly dependent on Russia’s arms export. Furthermore, India’s army would be severely obstructed if Russia denied the export of ammunition and spare parts, which would consequently compromise its existing stock of military equipment (Lalwani et al., 2021). India has shown efforts to diversify its arms sales, importing arms from the US, France, Israel, and the UK, in order to minimize the security risk that derives from this dependency on Russia. The difficulty of managing this presents itself in the integration of equipment with different origins due to different technical systems, one example being the Russian S-400 air defense missile systems (Barrow & van Hooft, p. 8-9). The purchase of these missile systems violates the 2017 US law CAATSA (Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act), for which India risks financial sanctions since Russia is considered an adversary alongside Iran and North Korea (Reuters, 2021). This shows how Russia has been a reliable source of arms over the past decades, while the US and other Western countries have occasionally denied the purchase of certain military equipment in the past (Lalwani et al.).
Russia (the former USSR) has, on top of being a reliable arms exporter, historically proven to be a reliable political ally as well. After the arms sales partnership had been established, both countries signed the Indo-Soviet Treaty of Peace, Friendship, and Cooperation in 1971. Since then, both countries have shared a history of “mutual backing”. For instance, the USSR backed India after being condemned by the US for performing nuclear tests in 1974, while India backed the USSR during its invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 (Lalwani et al.). Even after the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the USSR, this friendship was prolonged. On the one hand, Russia currently supports India’s interest in becoming a permanent member of the UN Security Council. On the other hand, India has refrained from publicly criticizing Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 and its fraudulent parliamentary elections (Lalwani et al.). Regarding the Ukraine war, India has abstained from condemning Russia’s illegal annexation of four Ukrainian territories during a UN Security Council meeting (The Times of India, 2022). However, India’s prime minister Narendra Modi has called for peace in Ukraine and publicly criticized the war, calling this time “not an era of war” (The Economist, 2022). This is an indicator that the Ukraine war marks a turning point for Russian-Indian relations, although their political alliance is still valuable as China is currently perceived as a substantial threat to India’s national security.
The ongoing territorial dispute between India and China began half a century ago and escalated during the Sino-Indian war of 1962. The war ended after a month with China’s victory and a ceasefire, but the tensions remain. Despite peace agreements, there have been several border incursions by Chinese soldiers and clashes at the Line of Actual Control (LAC, the de facto border) since then. In May 2020, the conflict resumed when 20 Indian soldiers died during another border clash with the Chinese army (Rajesh, 2021). India still perceives China as a threat, as there are currently 60,000 troops on each side of the LAC and Chinese fighter jets flying close to the border in order to obtain insights on India’s defense preparedness in case of another escalation (Rajagopalan, 2022).
Since the start of the Ukraine war, Russia has grown closer to China. A number of Western countries have reduced the import of Russian oil and gas as part of sanctions, which damaged the Russian economy severely. However, these sanctions have left Russia isolated from the Western world, which consequently expanded its trade with Asia. In particular, China benefits from low oil prices as its oil imports from Russia increased by 22% compared to a year ago (Aizhu, 2022). Besides the recent trade development, both countries share the belief in a multipolar world which will replace the long-standing US hegemony in the future. In addition, both countries oppose Western principles such as democracy and human rights, which encourages their alignment (Kirchberger et al., 2022, p. 47). Encircled by China and its closest ally Pakistan, India seeks to preserve its friendship with Russia to avoid a further strengthening of Russian-Chinese relations.
India’s strategic ambivalence regarding the Ukraine war is the result of a geopolitical dilemma. It views the prolongation of its friendship with Russia as the only solution to the Chinese threat, although the Ukraine war opposes its beliefs in territorial integrity and state sovereignty. Meanwhile, the pressure from Western allies is rising as its non-participation in anti-Russian sanctions prevents the Russian economy from further deteriorating. Especially the US wants India to drop its strategic ambivalence and fully align with the West in this matter, therefore preparing a $500 million military aid package in order to accelerate India’s arms diversification efforts (Sen & Martin, 2022). The importance of securing India as a key security partner derives from its position in the Indo-Pacific region as an economically liberal and democratic counterweight to China. Together with Australia and Japan, the four countries constitute the QUAD (Quadrilateral Security Dialogue), in which they collaborate on solving economic, health, and security issues. Their ties are strengthening due to their shared concern over China’s increasing expansionism in the Indo-Pacific region (Smith, 2021). India refuses to fully align with either the US or Russia, as it “does not wish to be steered into a bipolar world where it plays a subordinate role” (Lalwani et al.).
Securing peace in the Indo-Pacific region is technically a form of serving self-interest, as a Chinese attack on Indian territory would impact India the most. However, India is serving global interests with its Russian alignment as well, as a war between the two most populous countries in the world would have disastrous results. Although a Russian response can only be speculated, China would take a considerable risk since it shares a 4,200 km border with Russia. Only after its relationship with Russia improved in the 1990s, it was able to redeploy troops and prioritize coastal areas (the Taiwan Strait and the South China Sea) in terms of military defense (Kirchberger et al., p. 46-47). Ultimately, the Indian-Russian friendship is reducing the probability of a more severe escalation between India and China.