The Chinese factor in Modi's Moscow mission
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The Chinese factor in Modi's Moscow mission

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi's first visit to Russia in five years underscores the strategic importance India attaches to its relationship with Moscow. Indian leaders view that relationship as essential to a balanced foreign policy and to provide strategic leverage against China.

Russia and India started holding annual summits in 2000. After Russian President Vladimir Putin's 2021 trip to New Delhi, it was Mr Modi's turn to visit Moscow in 2022. But in the wake of Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine -- which spurred the US and its partners to impose sanctions on the country -- Mr Modi kept deferring his visit.

Today it is apparent that Russia has neither been isolated internationally nor hobbled economically, despite the West's best efforts. So, after narrowly winning a third term last month, Mr Modi announced that he would take his long-delayed trip to Moscow. The objective is not to take Russia's side; on the contrary, at last month's G7 meeting in Italy, Mr Modi embraced Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and engaged in bilateral discussions with him. Rather, Mr Modi seeks to affirm India's enduring foreign-policy independence, while reaping the strategic benefits of closer ties with Russia.

India's ties with Russia date back to 1971, when India was at its most vulnerable. The Pakistani military was attempting to crush the independence movement in then-East Pakistan -- now Bangladesh -- by any means necessary. Up to 3 million Bangladeshi civilians were slaughtered, some 200,000 women were coerced into rape camps, and about 10 million people fled to India.

Far from pushing back against Pakistan's military dictator, General Yahya Khan, US President Richard Nixon's administration maintained friendly relations with him, in order to advance US interests in Asia.

Faced with such hostility, India's then-prime minister, Indira Gandhi, concluded a friendship treaty with the Kremlin. The pact's security provisions helped to deter China from opening a front against India when Indian forces eventually intervened to help Bangladesh gain independence in a swift, 13-day operation. Nixon's dissatisfaction was obvious: in a show of force aimed at coercing India into limiting its involvement, the US deployed a nuclear-capable naval task force off the southern tip of India. This gunboat diplomacy led India to conduct its first underground nuclear test in 1974; the US responded by imposing technology sanctions on India that remained in place for almost three decades. Meanwhile, the US and China helped Pakistan to build its own nuclear bomb.

Today, India maintains deeper and broader ties with the US than with Russia, but Nixon's China opening still haunts the bilateral relationship. With its decades-long policy of aiding China's economic rise, the US not only created the greatest strategic adversary it has ever faced, but also saddled India with a formidable military foe that is aggressively striving for regional hegemony. One manifestation of this is the Sino-Indian military standoff in the Himalayas, which is now in its fifth year.

This is a key motivation behind India's efforts to strengthen its relationship with Russia, which India believes can counterbalance China. After all, Russia possesses huge reserves of natural resources, an enormous nuclear arsenal, increasing space prowess, and veto power at the United Nations Security Council. Moreover, Russia and China are natural competitors, with sharply diverging interests in Central Asia, Northeast Asia, and the Arctic, which each country regards as part of its strategic backyard.

Even so, Russia and China have been growing progressively closer in recent years -- and it is largely America's fault. This alliance of convenience threatens not only to accelerate an overstretched America's relative decline, but also to erode Indian security. Already, China has leveraged its position as an economic lifeline for Russia to gain access to advanced Russian military technologies, which were previously sold only to India. In fact, no country is profiting more from the Ukraine war than China.

Someone must drive a wedge between Russia and China. With the US unwilling to take the lead, it is up to India to convince Russia not to align itself too closely with the People's Republic. Fortunately, this is hardly an unrealistic proposition: though Russia's promise to provide North Korea with immediate military assistance in the case of war is not good news, its new defence pact with China's estranged client does suggest that Mr Putin is willing to chart his own course. The first step for India must be to try to mediate an end to the Ukraine war.

This would allow the US to focus on bolstering security in the Indo-Pacific, thereby improving Taiwan's chances of survival. ©2024 Project Syndicate

Brahma Chellaney, Professor Emeritus of Strategic Studies at the New Delhi-based Centre for Policy Research and Fellow at the Robert Bosch Academy in Berlin.

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