Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s back to back visits to Russia and China from October 20 to 24 reflect the evolution of India’s external relations in a world with shifting power balances and the challenges faced in consolidating relations with tried and trusted friends with declining power and forging understanding with adversaries with rising influence who seek to advance their interests through tactical overtures of friendship.
Russia remains a vital strategic partner of India. The long term geopolitical interests of both are compatible. Russia is not interfering in sub-continental affairs where it recognises India’s primacy. On principles that should govern international relations such as respect for sovereignty and non-interference in the internal affairs of countries, combating international terrorism without double standards and opposition to regime change policies, India and Russia have shared views.
Russia is India’s principal defence partner, offering over the years platforms and technologies that have fortified our defence capabilites, whether it is the aircraft carrier Vikramaditya, the leased nuclear propelled submarine Chakra, technical assistance for Arihant, licensed manufacture of front-line combat equipment such as the Sukhoi 30 MKI aircraft and T90 tanks, the joint development of the potent supersonic missile Brahmos, besides participation in co-developing the fifth generation fighter aircraft as well as a multi-role transport aircraft.
Russia’s politically significant role in India’s civilan nuclear sector is epitomised by the construction of two 1000 MW nuclear power plants at Kudankulam, honouring a commitment made prior to its Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) membership. The techno-commercial negotiations for building two additional reactors at Kudankulam have been completed, but the contract’s finalisation awaits resolution of issues raised by India’s nuclear liability legislation.
With China our territorial disputes endure. China has strenghtened its military infrastructure on our frontiers, forcing India to belatedly raise additional forces and allocate enhanced infrastructure expenditure on its side. China seeks substantial territorial concessions by India, not simply an agreement on border adjustment, which makes settlement a distant prospect. The confidence building border measures that China backs are intended to prevent military incidents that would distract it from dealing with far bigger challenges in the east presented by US and Japan constraining China’s regional dominance and its naval power expansion.
China interferes actively in our region, feeding fears of Indian hegemony amongst our smaller neighbours and preventing India from raising its global profile by consolidating its regional base. Pakistan, which has been fully complicit in this, receives Chinese political and military backing for pursuing its confrontational policies towards India. China is Pakistan’s principal defence partner. By transferring nuclear weapon and missile technology to Pakistan, China has profoundly damaged India’s security.
In the civilian nuclear field, as a counter to India-Russia nuclear ties, before joining the NSG, China “grandfathered” its supposed commitment to supply two nuclear reactors to Pakistan. It then decided to supply two additional reactors on the same pretext, this time as a riposte to the India-US nuclear deal. China is aiding in the construction of plutonium reactors in Pakistan to enable it to build smaller warheads for tactical nuclear weapons.
Despite political closeness, India’s economic relationship with Russia remains modest, with two-way bilateral trade at only $11 billion plus last year. The target of $20 billion by 2015 seems unachievable. Several business promotion efforts have failed to boost economic exchanges. India is proposing Russian investments in the Delhi-Mumbai industrial corridor, while the expanded energy partnership with Russia that India has long sought remains unrealised.
In contrast, despite serious political differences, India-China trade relations have flourished, expanding to nearly $ 70 billion in 2012, making China India’s largest trading partner in goods despite the damage done to our manufacturing sector in the process and security concerns emanating from China’s huge penetration of our power and telecom sectors. However, the $100 billion target set for 2015 is unlikely to be achieved because the trade deficit- likely to reach $40 billion this year- is becoming unsustainable.
Improved India-US ties impact our relations with both Russia and China. Russia’s primary concern would be the erosion of its dominant position as our defence partner as we increase our acquisitions of US defence equipment, as this affects political equations. India will need to continually re-assure Russia concretely that its expanded strategic ties with the US would not be at Russia’s expense.
China closely monitors US arms sales to India, viewing them as integral to the American strategy to create a security ring around China. With China under an arms embargo by the West, Russia has been China’s principal arms supplier, with the potential sale of Russia’s Su 35 combat aircraft to China under discussion. Russia’s concerns about Chinese reverse engineering are pitted against its need to export to sustain its domestic defence industry, besides solidifying strategic understandings with China as a consequence of western geopolitical and economic pressures on it. Russia has also supplied RD-93 engines to power the JF-17 fighter aircraft, a China-Pakistan joint venture. Our triple challenge is to avoid entanglement in Russia-US tensions, manage to our advantage US-China strategic competition and attenuate the negatives for us of increased Russia-China collaboration.
PM’s Moscow visit for the 14th summit meeting would be successful if it delivers the Kudankulam 3 and 4 contract. The deliverable from the China visit would be the Border Defence Cooperation Agreement, valuable for avoiding incidents, not solving their cause.
Our challenge then is to build a larger edifice of relations with Russia on existing strong political and security foundations, whereas with China it is ensuring the safety of the impressive edifice that is rising on foundations that are not only weak but can shift.