• 18 August, 2022
Foreign Affairs. Geopolitics. National Security.
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India is Only Aligned to its National Interest

Kanwal Sibal Fri, 01 Apr 2022   |  Reading Time: 5 minutes

Our abstentions in the UN on various resolutions on the Ukraine conflict have exposed us to political attacks in the West. We are expected to join it in condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Our resistance to do so is being decried by opinion making circles in US and Europe and is said to be causing us to lose goodwill.

The obsession in US circles to draw us away from Russia is pronounced. We are being told that Russia’s friendship with India is exaggerated and that the US has been a better friend of India than Russia in the last 10 or 15 years. It is true that ever since the India-US nuclear deal the relations between the two countries have burgeoned, whereas those with Russia have lacked real vibrancy. The scale and scope of our relations with the US is much vaster than it is with Russia. But this is no reason to sacrifice one relationship for the other, as each relationship fills a specific need of ours.

Our trade with US at $145 billion dwarfs that with Russia at $8.1 billion, which means that various sectors of our economy, our entrepreneurial class, our economic modernisation programmes etc., are far more tied to the US than to Russia. The people to people contacts at the diaspora, academic and cultural levels are those of a different order altogether in the two cases. We now have expanding defence ties too with the US, with military exercises of a range and quality that we don’t have with Russia.

But is that a good argument to diminish our ties with Russia? We have big and small ties with a whole host of countries. Should those be considered dispensable because we have such strong ties with the US and these can substitute for our relations with others?

We have traditional ties of friendship and good understanding with Russia. It remains our principal defence partner, even as our defence ties with countries such as France and Israel too are expanding. Russia gives us platforms and technologies that other countries, including the US, do not. Russia has never sanctioned us, or threatened to do so. The denial of cryogenic technology after the Soviet Union’s collapse was on account of intense US pressure on a Russia in complete disarray at that time.

With the challenge we face on our northern border we must ensure that our defence readiness does not suffer by way of flow of spare parts and services. To argue that US, unlike in the past, is today ready to respond to India’s defence needs is certainly reason enough for us to strengthen our defence ties with the US where needed, but it is definitely not reason enough for us to constrict our sovereign choices and dilute our defence ties with Russia under external pressure.

Where we judge that the US equipment is superior, with due weight given to the price factor, we would no doubt buy American. The US is already becoming a partner of choice in some areas of our defence requirements, and that trend will continue. It should not, however, become over demanding and seek a quasi-exclusive relationship. With Russia, India does not have to contend with laws like CAATSA and live with uncertainty about the potential of being subjected to sanctions.

The US wants India to move away from Russian equipment and offers to help us to make this transition without asking itself the question why we should move from one dependence to another. Let the US actively promote our plans to expand defence manufacturing in India through needed investments and transfer of technology, in which case the transition away from Russia will automatically happen. Just selling high end American defence platforms to India and generating more business for US defence firms is not the answer.

India is an Asian country and the dictates of geography are important. India must have a presence in neighbouring Central Asia, and this is facilitated by our good ties with Russia which had pushed for our SCO membership. Weakening our ties with Russia under US pressure or condemning Russia in the UN on Ukraine at US behest, will compromise our interests in the Central Asian region, both on the issues of security and economy, given the threat to this region from ascendant radical Islamic forces represented by the Pakistan linked Taliban in power in Afghanistan.

India also needs to maintain some equilibrium in the triangular Russia-India-China relationship, already disturbed against India’s interest by the deepening of strategic ties between Russia and China, elevated today to “no limits” partnership. Russia’s stakes in ties with India should not be squandered unnecessarily by our bandwagoning with the West on Ukraine. To the extent our close ties with Russia serve as a cushion to some degree against China by inducing Russia to remain neutral, it is helpful.

The US has no influence on China in this regard. Speculation in western journals like, The Economist that with Russia drawing closer to China, in a future India-China conflict, China may successfully persuade Russia not to sell arms to India is to visualize imaginary scenarios. If this is a potential problem for India, is the strengthening Russia-China strategic ties less of a problem for the West on a much larger strategic plane? And are they learning a lesson from their policies that have pushed Russia into the arms of China? The Times of London reportedly thinks India should be denied western aid for its refusal to condemn the Russian invasion of Ukraine, forgetting that the West gives no aid to India.

It is this mindset that requires us to stand our ground and do what is in our national interest and keep our options in all directions open. The collapse of Russia as a power will create a geopolitical void that China will fill. That is against Indias interests.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine for geopolitical ends is not unique as western democracies have taken military action in other geographies in pursuant of their national interest. Russia has done us no harm. We have no interest in regime change in Russia. We should be concerned, as others should be, that brinksmanship that could lead to a nuclear war must be avoided. For that the doors of a dialogue must be kept open. India’s refusal to take sides in the way the West wants shuts out one more door by polarising positions further.

Concerns are being expressed by well-wishers of India in the US about the growing anti-India sentiment in the US Congress because of India’s abstentions in the UN. Some doubts are being expressed even in business board rooms about expanding investments in India in view of India’s position. This raises the question about the inherent uncertainties in forging such close ties with the US. It can make India vulnerable to the vagaries of US politics in the future.

This is a challenge that India has to face going forward. In the immediate, we have to deal with US pressures on us, including in the Congress, on the Ukraine issue. More active diplomacy is required, reinforced by pro-India lobbies in the US, to blunt these pressures by explaining better the rationale of our position and removing any impression that this stems from any “nonalignment” syndrome. Some of our well-wishers in the US harbour this notion also.

We are increasingly aligned with the US on many fronts in our national interest, but not on all, and that too in our national interest.

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Author
Kanwal Sibal is a distinguished career diplomat who retired as Foreign Secretary to the Government of India. In 2017, the Government of India awarded him with the Padma Shri award for his distinguished services in the field of Public Affairs.

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POST COMMENTS (4)

Mayoor Tripathi

Apr 09, 2022
Situations are temporary and so is their effect. Relationships are built from position of strength. Weak Nations are extended territories of their sponsors and are used as playing fields and exploited. The above statements are self explanatory if we just take a glance at world map. Strength in current times is driven by sheer technology prowess a nation possesses. India has twinning problems of its own , unsettled Borders and under development of people and process. Unused demographic dividend given the economic imbalance we have been facing , 50% population engaged in Agriculture with contribution share of 16% in GDP. Modernization attemps were quashed tooth and nail at borders of New Delhi. Large population , poor nourishment levels , inequality among regions and people , corruption and it's a long list of challenges we face as a nation. Interestingly , Fareed Zakaria during his trip to India was right to mention that India is so engaged internally , It chooses to engage less to what's happening outside. He compared the nation to Ottoman Empire and warned about its consequences. One more take away from his engagement with media was about emphasis on technology. He talked about "OPEN DOOR POLICY" of US towards India. He blamed bureaucracy in New Delhi more than people for the current stance. He made sense when he talked about technology being the key driver of the future in every sphere. The energy crisis and increasing electronisation of wars , living rooms , habits and just about everything other than raw food we eat is the truth. China has outmastered us in building own capabilities towards technology in every sphere, be it defence or space or electronics. China has luxury of rare earth metals . We sadly don't or still unfound . China can stand upto US given it has developed alternatives to the systems US has hegemonised the world for long. It's a long road untravelled and future shall continously challenge us with dilemma and tight ropes until we have spine of our own, indigenous spine built with technology. A four eyed head and God speed.

Anisha Das

Apr 08, 2022
India's absentions at the UN in the context of recent Russia-Ukraine war has been a significant indicator to the independent approach of 'The Indian Way' that has now been termed for its balance among Russia's standoff with the US, Europe and other alliance.Lets not forget our vast NRI community and Indians in general, who are connected with a host of nations, cutting across geo-political areas today.India's neutral stand is a must on certain situations like this, where the Indian community is well spread out across both the nations involved. Regarding Sibal sir's apt title, it is true that a war in any region today affects every other sovereign nation in some aspect or the other.Nations are a testimony to the struggles of people towards their integral sovereignty with time.In such cases, a nation has to put its own interest forward or atleast remember that at its core, because thats its purpose as a nation.India today shares the same seat on Russia-China-India cooperation, and on the other hand is a member of the QUAD, not to forget Indian origin politicians, groups and citizens that today represent small but significant in numbers across other nations as well.Very few nations have the pluralism and plethora of options that India as a nation, represents in this new world order.Although it is likely worth mentioning, being made to choose between US or Russia, is not the matter of concern for India in today's day and age.And it is because of its diverse and independent foreign policy, that India even finds praiseworthy mentions for its strategy and diplomacy from the likes of nations that have been on its other side.Be it evacuations, humanitarian aids, call for dialogue, India has outperformed its commitment towards two nations that are at war.India stands strongly resolved to act at the right time, with its options and as far as the war is concerned India has been vocal about the loss of lives and pushed the call for mutual peace time and again. It will be interesting to see if and when India itself initiates global collaborations, efforts and initiatives like the International Solar Initiative, towards the domain of peace and security, the variety of nations that you can expect at the other ends of table as such is the history that India shares with the world.Its is a unifying nation in its own perspective and the world is starting to see the collaborative efforts of India across multi pronged approach towards new age geo-politics.

Rj

Apr 07, 2022
Tempted to reply after reading the above comment. To start off, I'm a big admirer of Padma Shree Kanwal Sibal sir - with whom I am again unsurprisingly in agreement with. India is in no position of envy by continuing to walk the diplomatic tightrope between 2 historical cold war rivals. It takes courage of conviction to stand by what we believe is right, in the wake of growing dissent from the West. It would've been very easy for India to say "Hey, look at our trade with the US, our diaspora, the aspirations of our middle-class. Let's join their corner and chime into their harangue." But no, we stuck by our beliefs - unlike a number of other countries who caved in. Lest we forget, our calls for just a short statement singling out Pakistan/China in the face of decades of unprovoked hostilities have fallen on deaf ears by the West. Just a few days back, the British Foreign Secretary continued this trend when asked by a journalist. Now, factor in the anchor role that Russia/USSR has played for us since our independence, especially, w.r.t. the UN and the fallout of the 1971 war. We are completely justified in our stance - even if we didn't rely on Russian arms to the extent that we do. This is the righteous thing to do - this is our Dharma. And for those who say we are sitting on the fence vis-a-vis the 'free world' and autocracies, I feel we have chosen a side - It is that of the democratic liberal world. The numbers attest to that. However, this need not come at the expense of our historical relationships. Further, the democratic world order needs reordering to allow voices other than just the West to be heard. Finally, w.r.t. the above comment - a number of things that you pointed out my friend are our legitimate shortcomings. No running away from them. Things that we and our future generations need to continue working on. But don't forget less than a couple of centuries back, the entire world's population was around ours today. So, the scale is enormous but we persevere. However, that also does not discount the fact that we are a significant power - of course, not to the scale of a US/USSR. The reason we are invited to the QUAD or any other substantial global forum - is to do with what we are on the path to becoming in a couple of decades even by conservative growth estimates. So, we have to think accordingly.

Kalidan Singh

Apr 02, 2022
If the only interest of India is our national interest, then we have some work cut out for us. It would require us to educate our women, invest in education (so our kids don't have to go to Ukraine to study medicine), open our markets to real competition, cut corruption and goonda raj, move away from communal politics to democracy, focus on raising per capita GDP, and rubbishing the entire cast system (which is a crime against humanity), stop indulging the fifth columnists and apologists who are intent on creating an Arabic-Sharia country in India, and manage our population growth? We could open our markets, reward innovators (and not people who plain copy), and focus on manufacturing world class products (today, no manufactured product in India commands a premium price anywhere in the world market, they are sold at cut rate prices only). There indeed are other countries who are as rich as we are (Laos, Timor, Bolivia), and they don't seem to think of themselves as global powers (as we do). Neither do Belize and Armenia - who are significantly richer than we are. Can we stop acting like unaware fools, stop with the pretenses, and get real about our importance in the world? Please? Of course we are invited to join the QUAD; we have very very brave soldiers who never retreat (something that cannot be said about other armies).

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