The Russian invasion of Ukraine is leaving some undesirable implications for close strategic partners US and India. New Delhi has found itself at a bit of a pickle for sticking up to the Republic’s oldest foreign policy principle- neutrality in the face of a global power struggle. Non-alliance and neutrality have been the central tenets of Indian Foreign Policy since the country’s inception. These principles were theorized, practiced, and institutionalized by the country’s first Prime Minister and Minister for External Affairs, Jawaharlal Nehru. The Nehruvian foreign policy prioritizes neutrality in international affairs rather than siding up with a pole in a hegemonic competition.
Since the beginning of India’s life as a republic, the non-alignment and neutrality served the country’s reputation and prestige quite well. New Delhi, through its Non-Alignment Movement and campaigns for the decolonization of Asia and Africa, managed to build spectacular soft power. Its status as a pluralistic and biggest democratic nation further improved its image. Undoubtedly, India was and remained the most important state in South Asia owing to its population, resources, and strategic location.
India’s diplomatic policies
Owing to these reasons, the US, from the very beginning, desired India to join the capitalist bloc against the USSR. India, however, remained true to Nehruvian foreign policy and avoided taking a position in the great power struggle. Despite having economic, strategic, and military ties with the USSR, Indian leadership successfully maneuvered between the two superpowers. The US, for all its resentment, could not pressure New Delhi into joining the capitalist bloc or punish India for cozying up with its foe. Managing ties between two hegemons without giving either one and the world community even the slightest impression of partiality shows the genius of Indian diplomacy and the success of its foreign policy.
The end of the Cold War ushered in the era of liberalization and opening up of the Indian economy and its emergence as a viable consumer market for the leading world powers. The warmth in the Indo US relations in the post 9/11 world was driven by the growing economic relations. A landmark Civil Nuclear Deal was signed between the two nations. The relations with Russia remained on the same trajectory as during the Cold War i.e., amicable and friendly. During this period, India continued its balancing act, building and maintaining economic ties and procuring massive military equipment from both Russia and US.
In the last ten years, India emerged as a major US partner where regional geopolitical calculations played as much a crucial role as did economics and trade. This balancing act continued throughout the decade until China began to assert itself in the neighborhood. In lieu of China’s changed posture, the US unveiled the Pivot to Asia Policy. The rise of a strategic threat in the form of Beijing further pushed New Delhi into Washington’s willing embrace. The Indo Pacific was to be the next theater of a great power competition with China on one side and the US on the other with India as a strategically.
China’s growing assertiveness worried the policymakers in New Delhi, who considered India as a major economic and regional power somewhat in par with its East Asian neighbor. Owing to regional power politics, Beijing became an important factor in US Indo bilateral relations. In June 2010, US India Strategic Dialogue was inaugurated, signaling the era of enhanced partnership; China was the unspoken unmentioned factor that led to this milestone in bilateral relations. The Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement in 2018 and the Second US-India Defense Framework Agreement in 2015 further strengthened the strategic and security dimension of this relationship.
The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QUAD) became relevant once again in 2021
Propelled by the heating US-China competition and growing concerns among the important actors in the Indo-Pacific region. The China factor, in a way, transitioned Indo US relations towards an all-encompassing multi-dimensional partnership. This relationship aided India a lot in terms of its equation with both China and Pakistan. The discourse on Western media and academics, as well as Washington’s policies, placed India as a major strategic partner in its broader Indo-Pacific strategy. New Delhi was, for all intents and purposes, a reliable and dependable US ally until Russia’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine. The Americans, in their pursuit of national interests, have always exhibited the ideals of “with us or against us”. The middle ground or neutrality at the time of conflict does not exist for US allies. A close partner has to side with the American interests.
India, which for its entire history has stayed true to the principles of neutrality in conflicts that do not directly concern it. India’s continued its balancing act throughout the Cold War even though it had much greater ties with the Soviets. Now that New Delhi is a crucial economic and military partner of both Russia and the US picking a side is just not an option. The sole reason India deviated in principle from the ideals of non-alliance and allowed itself the position of an important US partner against China is that, unlike the previous Cold War, this new competition affects India’s core geostrategic and geopolitical interests.
Despite the deadly LAC clashes between the Indian forces and the PLA in 2020, India has been insistent on shedding the perception of QUAD being an anti-China alliance and Beijing being an important factor in US-Indo bilateral ties. Russia is too important for Indian national interests. India is unwilling to condemn Russia not only because of the principles of neutrality but also because of its overdependence on Russia. The ground realities do not allow India to jeopardize relations with one of its most steady bilateral partners. Besides the staggering trade ties worth $11billion, Russia has always lent military and political support to India vis a vis its conflict with Pakistan.
Russia refused to sell military hardware to Islamabad in apprehension that it might upset the Indians. In UNSC, Moscow has consistently vetoed any resolutions regarding the Indian Occupied Kashmir. Russian military hardware is crucial in managing the Sino-Indian border. Sixty percent of India’s military equipment is Russian. Without a secure supply of defense equipment, New Delhi will be in an even worst position vis a vis China. The notion that it should take a position against Russia is just an unacceptable prospect for policymakers in New Delhi. This puts India’s largest independent foreign policy at odds with the US, which for most parts, is prone to forcing its allies to choose sides. Washington expects complete support from its allies, Pakistan during the Cold War and then the War on Terror is an example of such an ally.
Read more: Timeline of Ukraine War
From India’s point of view, Russia and US are both major world powers and crucial allies; picking a side over the Ukraine issue would sabotage valuable bilateral relations with either one of the two allies. Russians staying true to their equation with India during the Cold War allowed the country freedom to engage with the US without any conditions or concerns from their side. India perhaps expected the same freedom from Washington, where India’s own interests would reign supreme. Since the onset of the Russian invasion, New Delhi has fended off pressure from Washington to join its condemnation of the Kremlin.
India seems determined to maintain its neutrality in this conflict
On March 2nd, India abstained from voting on a US-sponsored UNSC Resolution condemning Russia’s aggression on Ukraine. New Delhi abstained from voting from a UN General Assembly Resolution condemning Russia as well; this action was criticized by US Lawmakers as well. From the US point of view, India is an important factor in the Indo-Pacific policy. Being the largest democracy and an emerging regional power, India ought to condemn the Russian aggression. Neutrality in this scenario is equivalent to un-reliability and sponsoring the Russian actions.
Both the EU and US have doubled the pressure on India to take a position in the Ukraine conflict. There are even reports that the US might consider sanctioning India over its purchase of the Russian-built S-400 under the Countering America’s Adversaries through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) which requires the administration to sanction buyers of Russian military hardware. However, no clear picture has yet emerged in this regard.
There are unconfirmed reports that Moscow has offered India its crude oil at a discounted price, and both countries may trade in rupee-ruble to bypass US sanctions. This move will irk the already disgruntled US and EU. Though the US is unlikely to punish India, owing to the latter’s central position in dealing with Beijing, the entire episode may be a humbling experience for the former. The perception that India is an unreliable partner and not willing to do the necessary for its allies is likely to make an impression on the US. Future policies and strategies may be designed in Washington, keeping this perception of New Delhi in view.
India, on the other hand, will also seek to diversify its options and fully contemplate what it truly means to be a US ally. Both parties are currently witnessing the unsavory side of the other, the “undependability” of India and “arm twisting” of the US is likely to stick with both countries, though will it transform into a grand policy or alliance change seems highly unlikely with the China factor in play.
The writer is a Political Scientist and Assistant Professor at the Department of Political Science in Abdul Wali Khan University Mardan. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.