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In this era of new bipolarity in international relations, both India and Russia are being forced to gravitate toward one of the poles: the United States and China. It looks like the paths of these two once-close partners are set to diverge, along with their visions of the future.
India is being pushed closer to the West—above all, the United States—by its difficult relations with China, not least the ongoing conflict between Indian and Chinese troops in the Himalayas. At the same time, India is trying to keep some distance from the West, and one of the reasons for that is its reluctance to damage relations with Russia.
Today, Indian-U.S. relations are at the peak of their development. In the last year, India has started actively cooperating with the Quad platform, which brings together the United States, India, Australia, and Japan; held joint naval exercises with the Quad in the Bay of Bengal in the Arabian Sea; and taken part in the expanded G7 summit.
Similar views on China are one of the driving forces behind this rapprochement. India is following in the footsteps of Western countries by excluding Chinese tech giants from its 5G network trials and banning Chinese apps on its territory, while U.S. tech giants freely compete for a slice of the Indian digital payments pie. New Delhi and Washington have also been cooperating more closely in the military sphere, with India allowing U.S. P-8 Poseidon patrol aircraft to refuel at its base in Port Blair in September 2020.
China isn’t the only reason for the Indian-U.S. rapprochement, of course, and cooperation between the two countries has been growing for about twenty years. Relations first began to noticeably improve after Washington reviewed its policy in the region with a particular focus on India: it recognized India’s nuclear status, restarted delivery of military technology which had been stopped after India’s 1998 nuclear tests, and began holding joint military exercises with it. Washington now has an individual policy on India in its own right, separate from Pakistan.
India, for its part, has been set on a course of increased cooperation with the United States since Prime Minister Narendra Modi came to power in 2014, having signed a series of defense and security agreements since then. Economic ties between the two countries have also improved, and for several years now, the United States has been India’s biggest trading partner, with bilateral trade worth $80 billion (nearly $150 billion when services are taken into account as well as goods).
There are limits, however, on the rapprochement between India and the United States that Modi cannot overcome. Indian society views America with suspicion, and for Indian politicians, cooperation with the United States has always been a toxic issue. For this reason, India tries to stay within these limits. There is no talk, for example, of opening up Indian military bases to the Americans or allowing them to regularly refuel or repair their ships at Indian ports.
Nor are Indian and U.S. approaches in the region always fully aligned. Still, India views the U.S. military presence in Asia—and even in its own sphere of influence, the Indian Ocean region—far more favorably than it did before on the basis that the smaller the U.S. role in the region, the more opportunities there are for China to expand its influence there.
India lags so far behind China’s economic and military capabilities now that New Delhi cannot possibly manage the Chinese presence in the region all on its own. It’s getting more and more difficult for India to offer South Asia’s smaller countries an alternative to Chinese aid for economic development, which has an increasingly political dimension. New Delhi therefore needs Washington to have an active presence in order to counterbalance China’s military and economic might.
At the same time, India does not want to allow a hegemony of one power in Asia, even if that power is the United States. And so, despite its complex relationship with China, there is a consensus in India that it is not in its interests to join either side in the U.S.-Chinese standoff.
For this reason, India is unlikely to enter into a military alliance with the United States, as this would reduce its room for maneuver in its relations with developing countries, and damage its ties with Russia. Even New Delhi’s current relationship with Washington has prompted criticism from Moscow that India is moving “under the American military umbrella.”
There are two fundamental problems in Indo-Russian relations right now. The first is that Moscow is incapable of expanding its relationship with New Delhi beyond the confines of cooperation in the military and energy sectors. Economic ties are not developing as expected: despite calls to increase the trade turnover to $30 billion by 2025, the indicator has hovered around $10 billion for the last few years. The second problem is that Russia’s confrontation with the United States is forcing its Asia policy to tilt toward China, which cannot fail to impact its relations with India.
Another source of annoyance for New Delhi is Moscow’s relations with Islamabad. In 2015, Russia announced it would be supplying Pakistan with four Mi-35 attack helicopters, thereby ending its unspoken embargo on exporting military technology to that country. And since 2016, Russia and Pakistan have regularly held joint anti-terror drills dubbed “Friendship.” Russia has also expressed interest in helping to build a gas pipeline from Karachi to Lahore, and is cooperating with Pakistan on the issue of Afghanistan, bypassing India.
Moscow started becoming more friendly with Islamabad at around the same time that relations improved between New Delhi and Washington, so it was likely a response to that on Russia’s part. After all, Russian military experts argue, Russia has lost its position as India’s exclusive supplier, so why not sell to Pakistan what the Indians are no longer buying? Yet this approach is more emotional than rational. India remains the biggest importer of Russian arms, and Pakistan, with its one-off orders and unstable economy, cannot possibly replace it.
For India, too, the burgeoning friendship between Russia and Pakistan is more of an emotional issue than anything else. The growing partnership between Russia and China has far more serious consequences. Russia’s help building China’s missile attack early warning system, their cooperation on technology and energy, the growth of trade and investment, and speculation about a military alliance between the two countries is all of great concern for India.
During the Cold War, India was one of the initiators of the Non-Aligned Movement in response to the polarized world of that era. Today, Russia and India are moving ever closer to the two global centers of power: China and the United States. This divergence is gradually burning the bridges of Russian-Indian friendship. Their partnership resembles a marriage that is falling apart, in which the only thing stopping the couple from getting a divorce is their many years of interdependence. There is still room for pragmatic dialogue between Russia and India, but they no longer share a similar vision of the future.
This article was published as part of the “Relaunching U.S.-Russia Dialogue on Global Challenges: The Role of the Next Generation” project, implemented in cooperation with the U.S. Embassy to Russia. The opinions, findings, and conclusions stated herein are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Embassy to Russia.
Carnegie does not take institutional positions on public policy issues; the views represented herein are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of Carnegie, its staff, or its trustees.
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