VIVEK Y. KELKAR, MUMBAI
Something’s cooking in Asia and the Indo-Pacific. Central to any new geopolitical calculus in the region is India, whose strengths and weaknesses have never been in sharper focus.
India’s carefully calibrated stance on the Russia-Ukraine war has evoked global disparagement. India’s strengths and weaknesses have never been in sharper focus.
India abstained from voting against Russia at the United Nations, though it repeatedly called for respecting the sovereignty and the integrity of national borders and ending hostilities. Speaking to the Indian Parliament last week, Foreign Minister S. Jaishankar stopped short of using the word war. His laconic description: “A tense situation between Russia and Ukraine erupted into conflict on 24 February 2022.” India meanwhile bought substantial amounts of crude oil from Russia despite the rising global clamor to boycott Russian oil and gas.
On March 17, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida visited New Delhi for a meeting with Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Kishida took pains to emphasize that Japan had “strongly taken up Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.” The statements that followed the meetings were interesting for what they left unsaid. In a bland joint communiqué, India and Japan underlined the need to resolve disputes without the use of force or by unilaterally changing the status quo, in accordance with international law. The statement mentioned neither Russia nor Ukraine by name.
In a separate statement, Japan said that the two countries had agreed on the need for a peaceful solution to the Russia-Ukraine crisis; an immediate cessation of violence; and humanitarian assistance for Ukraine. Japan also committed to investing US$42 billion in technology and industry in India over the next five years.
On March 21, Modi and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison held a virtual summit. The tone of this meeting was less subtle. The day before, Australia’s High Commissioner to India, Barry O’Farrell, set the tone: Australia, he said, understood that India had its own relationship with Russia: “We know that Prime Minister Modi has called for an end to the conflict, and nobody should be unhappy with that.’’
Prime Minister Morrison then made things even more clear. “We are obviously distressed at the terrible situation in Europe,” he said, “though our focus is very much on Indo-Pacific.” He spoke not only about “Russia’s unlawful invasion of Ukraine,” but its “implications and consequences of that terrible event for our own region” and the “coercion and the issues that we face here.” Australia committed to more technology cooperation with India, especially in science and technology, defense, cyber, critical, and strategic materials, including minerals and natural gas. In doing so, Australia indicated that it understood India’s stance on the Russia-Ukraine war. India is concerned, above all, by the threat it faces in South Asia. Morrison deftly implied that Beijing, not Moscow, was Asia’s long-term concern—and indeed the long-term concern of the Quad and Australia.
Over the weekend, the United States made it clear that it would not reprimand India for its abstention at the United Nations or for purchasing Russian oil. A US government spokesperson quietly warned that India risked being “on the wrong side of history,” and US President Joe Biden called India’s position “somewhat shaky.” But these admonitions apart, the US visibly refrained from overreacting. Even more significantly, US Under Secretary for Political Affairs Victoria Nuland told an Indian television channel that Washington understood India’s needs and was willing to provide alternative sources for arms and Soviet-era spare parts.
INDIA IS A KEY PARTNER
The message, in toto, was that the Quad was fine-tuning its alliance to manage the implications of Putin’s catastrophic invasion of Ukraine. China’s shadow looms. No member of the Quad wished to risk alienating another. The ramifications of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine are key to the Quad’s future, and its members share the fear of China. In confronting China, India is a vital partner.
Recent US statements indicate that it is also unlikely India will face sanctions for its S-400 purchase, even though this was discussed in the US Congress late last year.
The signal from Prime Minister Morrison indicates that we shouldn’t expect further hitches in the US-India relationship or the Quad in the near future. All concerned grasp that if the other members of the Quad want India to be less dependent on Moscow, they have to step up and provide India with the advanced technologies and weapons systems it needs. Modi’s meetings with Kishida and Morrison and their simultaneous agreements on investment and technology were a tacit recognition of this reality—even though the readouts from the meeting don’t mention military technology.
Since it came to power eight years ago, the Modi government has sought to redefine India’s geopolitical strategy. India now weighs its strategic partnerships with the world’s major powers in terms of three variables: the political, the economic, and the military.
India’s statements on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine have emphasized the concepts of sovereignty and territorial integrity. The logic is obvious: India views its own territory as vulnerable to China.
India’s border dispute with China led to a major war in 1962 and furious clashes in 1967. Since then, armed skirmishes have been frequent; the most recent, in 2020, was fought over the Galwan river valley, which represents the Line of Actual Control and the de facto border between India’s Ladakh in the Kashmir region and China’s Xinjiang province.
As concerning to India as China’s bid for regional hegemony is China’s abiding commitment to Pakistan and its ability to use Pakistan’s port of Gwadar as a naval base, threatening India’s western seacoast. India has fought four wars with Pakistan, with the territorial dispute over Kashmir at the heart of the conflict. A larger conflict, India fears, could engulf South Asia—and it bears mentioning that India, Pakistan, and China are nuclear states.
India views China as a hostile actor and Russia as a legacy relationship that must be managed carefully. The US has gradually emerged as India’s favored partner. New Delhi’s efforts to nourish a military relationship with the Quad and Southeast Asia—as opposed to merely trading with them—should be seen from this perspective.
NEW DELHI’S MOSCOW PROBLEM
India’s relationship with Russia is based on its longstanding dependence on Russian military equipment and technology. The BrahMos, India’s crucial medium-range supersonic cruise missile, was developed and manufactured through a joint venture between Russia’s NPO Mashinostroyeniya and the India Defense Research and Development Organization—BrahMos Aerospace.
India recently procured its first batch of Russia’s S-400 Triumpf surface-to-air missile system, having signed the deal for them in 2018. Five S-400 systems are to be delivered to India over the next four years. Russia also sold the S-400 to China, in 2018, and China has deployed it at the Hotan airbase in Xinjiang and the Nyingchi airbase in Tibet, just across from Ladakh and Arunachal Pradesh, the two regions Beijing and Delhi have been fighting over since the 1960s. India is expected to deploy the S-400s on its Chinese border.
Moscow has endeared itself to New Delhi through its willingness to provide weapons and technologies no one else was willing to offer, or to sell them at a better price SIPRI data shows that between 2016 and 2020, nearly 23 percent of Russia’s total arms exports were to India, accounting for nearly 49 percent India’s total arms purchases.
Since 1953, India’s military has relied heavily on its Russian arsenal. India’s main battle tanks are the Russian T-72M1 and T-90S. Last year, India entered into a new contract to produce 464 T-90S tanks with technology transfers. India’s navy has one operational aircraft carrier, a refurbished Soviet-era ship, and its entire naval fighter fleet comprises 43 MiG-29Ks. Four of its ten missile carriers are Russian Kashin class; six of its 17 frigates are Russian Talwar class. India and Russia have signed deals for four new frigates, to be delivered beginning in 2023. A third nuclear submarine will be leased in 2025.
India’s air force flies mainly Russian-made Su-30s, MiG-21s, and MiG-29s, though it recently bought France’s Rafale and is negotiating with the US to buy the modified F-16, badged the F-21, from Lockheed. Its six air tankers are Russian-made Il-78s.
India calculates that Moscow will be the counterweight to Beijing if China tries to redraw its eastern and northern borders by force. The lure of Moscow is its military technology. But that relationship is also India’s vulnerability. In a somewhat belated admission of this exposure, India’s Defense Ministry recently asked teams to conduct a deep study of the short- and long-term consequences of its dependency on Russia. The report is expected in early June.
Worryingly for India, China has quietly emerged as a significant supplier of spares and munitions to Russia. Moscow’s recent requests for military aid from China could not have come at a worse time for India.
Moscow has provided China with Su-35 combat aircraft with advanced radar and avionics and multirole helicopters. It has conducted a series of lucrative transactions involving the transfer of technology for helicopters, submarines, and aircraft engines. China’s new homegrown Z-8G and Z-20 helicopters are also heavily reliant on advanced Russian turbofan technology.
In the past few years, Moscow and Beijing have kicked off several strategic weapons projects. They recently announced a joint early-warning missile defense system project and signed contracts to develop AI and space technologies with military applications. Putin surely knows that the benefits of these deals are short-term, but with Ukraine on the anvil, it’s a game worth playing.
Last year, the Center for Strategic and International Studies report warned that Russia’s technology will allow China to develop a new generation of advanced air defense systems, submarines, combat aircraft, and assault helicopters. “Collectively,” they wrote, “when coupled with existing Chinese capabilities, such systems will help China to further press its advantages in the western Pacific.”
The acquisition of Russian technology has been key to China’s strategy of combining home-grown innovation with access to advanced foreign dual-use technologies. China’s goal is to reduce its dependence on Russian military platforms. This worries India and the Quad alike. India has no choice but to seek urgent help from the West to wean itself off of its dependence on Russia. It needs a quick supply of replacements for its ageing weapons and new technologies that it can adapt to its needs.
Amid the crisis in Europe, India is making quiet overtures to France and the US for its most urgent requirements—from aircraft to drones to battlefield weapons. It has entered talks with the US for Predator drones.
India could not be watching the war in Ukraine unfold with anything but grave alarm. Modi subtly indicated India’s position when speaking to an internal audience at a rally to celebrate the party’s recent victory in the polls. For the first time, Modi described Russia’s actions in Ukraine as “yudh” and “jung,” which in Hindi and Urdu mean war.
India is well aware that Putin and his gang will face retribution for their war crimes and Russia will suffer dire economic consequences from the sanctions imposed by the West. If the war continues, Russia’s economy may well collapse, and military technology and equipment will be directed where it’s needed most—Ukraine—with scarcely anything for export.
India’s dependence upon Russia makes it unsuitable to play the role of a mediator. Russia may listen to Beijing, given its economic clout; New Delhi with its limited economic and military power, is less likely to hold sway.
It is not a good position to be in. But at least the quiet, positive signals from the US, Japan, and Australia are grounds for hope
Vivek Y. Kelkar is the co-founder and editor of the Cosmopolitan Globalist.