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Mainstream, Vol XLVIII, No 1, December 26, 2009 - Annual Number 2009

Indo-US and India-Russia: Strategic Partners All?

Saturday 26 December 2009, by Ash Narain Roy


India’s growing flirtations with the United States and its continuing romance with Russia no longer surprises anyone. Such is the cold logic of the 21st century global politics that wearing several hats comes easily to many countries including India. Both the US and Russia consider India to be their natural ally. In an address at the James Baker Institute for Public Policy on the eve of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s visit to the US, Ambassador Meera Shankar described Indo-US ties as a “truly comprehensive partner-ship of mutual trust and confidence”. She further added: “I cannot think of a field of human endeavour where we are not breaking new grounds and re-defining the paradigm of our engagement.”

The media hype about Prime Minister Manmohan Singh being President Obama’s first state guest at the White House was unprecedented, to say the least. If the American media covered the flair and panache of the first state dinner hosted by Obama for Singh, the Indian mediapersons were equally obsessed with the dinner menu, the guests’ list and the decorations as also the glittering gala provided by the First Lady. That the American press showed limited interest in the issues on the dialogue table spoke eloquently of the absence of substantive agreements between the two countries. Manmohan Singh almost returned empty-handed from Washington. And yet, for the Indian media, it was a mission accomplished!

It is true that over the past few years, Indo-US relations have seen intensified political dialogue and there has also been a deepening of strategic understanding. In global forums like
G-8 and G-20, India and the US have joined in debates on some of the most difficult and contentious issues with a degree of candour, and without rancour. Defence ties too have gathered fresh momentum. Nevertheless, the worldviews of the two countries are vastly different. The US is a status quo power, with a privileged position in the UN and international financial institutions. India, by contrast, is an aspiring great power. It may have kept the banner of democracy aloft in a neighbourhood surrounded by half-autocracies and failing states, but it has little influence in the region with its position being constantly challenged by China and Pakistan. India has done well to spurn the US props to engage in “democracy promotion” which is often seen as a cover for regime change.

Indo-US alliance, if it can at all be described so, can at best be compared to a love affair where jealousy is greater than love. India seems to enjoy American flirtations, but feels embarrassed by the fat boy going to town making protestations of love. The current convergence of broad strategic interests between India and the US on Afghanistan, terrorism and other regional and global issues may not be long lasting. Indo-US ties are a coalition of the unwilling.

The US claims to be a strategic ally of India but Obama did not bat an eyelid while asking President Hu Jintao of China to join hands with him in managing tensions in South Asia, a move which may have surprised Beijing. Ambassador Timothy Roemer went to town assuring Indians that the Obama Administration will work “shoulder-to-shoulder, hand-in-hand and hour-by-hour” to cooperate on combating terror. He also said on the eve of Singh’s visit to the US that the two leaders would be unveiling a new strategic relationship with global overtones.

Yet, for all practical purposes, on Afghanistan, the Obama Administration has downgraded India into a sub-regional power. As The Indian Express editorial rightly said: Obama “has tended to use Pakistan as the fulcrum of South Asia, and sees India as one knotty strand in the Afghanistan tangle”. Some of Obama’s close advisers still maintain that the US cannot win the war in Afghanistan unless a solution to the Kashmir problem is reached and that the problem of a failing state in Pakistan cannot be adequately addressed unless New Delhi and Islamabad are nudged towards reconciliation.

The Indo-US nuclear deal promised to transform a “significant bilateral irritant into a real strategic opportunity” and the Obama Administration continues to maintain that it is “fully committed to the civil nuclear partnership”. But it was this very Administration that got the G-8 to endorse a proposed Nuclear Suppliers Group ban on the sale of enrichment and reprocessing technology to India. The US demand for intrusive access to the reprocessing facilities India will be building seems to come in the way of an agreement for reprocessing spent nuclear fuel with the US. On NPT, India is feeling the heat from the Obama Administration. One such indication came recently when Hillary Clinton said, while delivering the Dean Acheson Memorial lecture, that her Administration was working with India to come up with a 21st century version of the NPT. What that version is, nobody knows.


Where does one place Indo-Russian relations? To say that the two countries are time-tested friends has become clichéd. Given the unique geopolitical position that Russia occupies, Moscow is critical to India’s overall military and energy security and its quest for great power status. The pomp and splendour of Washington was missing in Moscow when Prime Minister visited Russia. But Singh discovered in the Russian capital how “the road to a friend’s house is never long”, as a Danish proverb puts it.

In contrast with Washington, Russia accepts India’s pre-eminence in the region. It does not interfere in India’s relationship with its neighbours, much less it makes China responsible for keeping peace in South Asia. The invitation to China to meddle in India’s backyard is by no means a friendly act by Washington. Moscow has no record of doing anything that can create problems for India with its neighbours.

Prime Minister’s visit to Russia saw the two countries sign as many as six agreements, the most important being a civilian nuclear energy agreement under which Russia will set up more nuclear reactors in India, transfer the entire range of nuclear energy technologies and supply nuclear fuel even after the deal is called off. This deal is far better than the much-hyped one with the US. Russians have also promised India enrichment and reprocessing rights.

In the Indian scheme of things, Russia will remain a crucial ally. There are compelling reasons why India will require to forge even closer ties with Moscow. The first and foremost is Russia’s underlying strength. The exceptional endowment of natural resources, including strategic ones, scientific knowledge, military capability, particularly in the strategic weapons domain, make it a natural world power. To these is added its unique geographical position as a Eurasian power which makes it possible to influence multiple theatres of action.

It would be simplistic to explain India’s traditional special ties with the former Soviet Union merely through the prism of East-West confrontation. These were based primarily on a broad range of convergence of interests. An important element that has gained salience in recent years is Russia’s rise as the world’s first energy superpower. A country which is the world’s largest gas producer and the second largest oil producer is bound to matter to India for its energy security interests.

Analysts in the US may argue that the US is cultivating democratic India as a natural counterweight to a rising China, but the Obama Administration should know that India will not play such a surrogate role. Given the geopolitical realities of Asia and the phenomenal rise of China at its epicentre, India will require to build even stronger strategic relationship with Russia both for purposes of strategic insurance and greater stability of the region. This is not to say, India will not need to cultivate the US or China.

All said, the contrast between Indo-US ties and India-Russian relations is there for all to see. Technology denial, sanctions and arm-twisting continue to haunt India as far as the US is concerned. Russia, on the other hand, has been keen to walk an extra mile to accommodate India’s requirements. But Russia too is changing. Energy and defence are the lynchpin of Indo-Russian ties. But there is no big political idea that now binds India and Russia together. Economic ties are a vital part for any two countries. This is where a lot of attention is required.

The author is an Associate Director, Institute of Social Sciences, New Delhi

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