Indian Foreign Policy: The Cold War Lingers

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Indian Foreign Policy: The Cold War Lingers

India’s support for Russia during the Crimea crisis should be a wake-up call for Washington.

Indian Foreign Policy: The Cold War Lingers
Credit: REUTERS/Grigory Dukor

In the wake of Vladimir Putin’s incursion into Crimea, almost every member of the international community voiced concern over Russia’s actions. While the U.S. and European Union were the most forceful in their criticism, non-Western states such as China and even Iran also made clear their support for the principles of non-intervention, state sovereignty and territorial integrity – oblique criticisms of Moscow’s disregard for cornerstone Westphalian norms. For the most part, support for Russia has been confined to the predictable incendiaries: Cuba, Venezuela and Syria, for example. Yet there is one unusual suspect among those lining up behind Putin that requires further investigation: India.

On its face, New Delhi’s enunciation of respect for Russia’s “legitimate interests” in Crimea is a surprising blow to the prevailing U.S. policy of reaching out to India. As the largest democracy in the world, a burgeoning capitalist economy and an increasingly important military power, India has been viewed as a counterweight to China’s rise and an anchor of the U.S.-led international order. India’s support for Russia’s revisionism in Crimea, then, is something that should trouble U.S. policymakers. In the long run, India’s response to the Crimean crisis might even be remembered as one of the more important implications of the whole episode. For how India aligns in the coming multipolar world will have enormous ramifications.

India’s support for Putin is a reminder that the West should not take India’s friendship for granted. To be sure, India made a necessary shift in tone towards the West following the collapse of the Soviet Union. India has liberalized its economy and become a strategic partner in several key areas. But the past two decades of broad cooperation should not be taken as an inexorable trend towards a complete harmonization of interests between India and the West. Amid all the talk of a renewed Cold War in Europe it has been forgotten that, for India, Cold War international relations never truly ended. In particular, the Indo-Russian relationship remains an important mainstay of Indian grand strategy – a hangover from that bygone era.

The years following the collapse of the Soviet empire saw the U.S. mainly concerned with a failed attempt to curb India’s nuclear program. After 9/11, America’s attention was focused on partnership with India while still maintaining the confidence and cooperation of Pakistan. Both periods of engagement, however, left the Indo-U.S. relationship well short of the kind of deep cooperation that marked Indo-Soviet relations during the Cold War. The result has been that Moscow still enjoys a thoroughly positive relationship with New Delhi.

India and Russia maintain deep cooperation on political, military and economic dimensions. Russian trade with India rivals the latter’s trade with the United States, and Indian companies have made huge investments in Russian energy firms and energy projects in the Bay of Bengal. In addition, the two nations are developing a southern route from Russia to the Arabian Sea that will increase Russian trade in the whole of the Indian Ocean region.

Russia still provides India’s military with more than 70 percent of its weapons systems and armaments and the two are currently cooperating in the development of cruise missile systems, strike fighters and transport aircraft. Russia is one of only two countries in the world that have annual ministerial-level defense reviews with India. The two cooperate on the advancement of a space program and they have bilateral nuclear agreement worth potentially tens of billions of dollars. Such deep and expansive ties with Russia complicate India’s multifarious importance from the perspective of Washington (as a cog in the U.S. “pivot” to Asia, an indispensable ally in the War on Terror and a bustling hub of the global economy).

After the Bush administration left office, India was heralded as one of the foreign policy success stories of his presidency. Economic relations had been deepened, diplomatic ties strengthened, a nuclear agreement signed. All indications were that India would be a stalwart American ally at a strategic nexus between the Middle East and the new focus on Asia. Historically poor relations with China would keep India safely out of the Chinese orbit. India could be relied upon to help encircle China, a vital link in a twenty-first century cordon sanitaire around the muscular Middle Kingdom.

But India never lost sight of its historic Cold War ally and the Indian people have never fully lost their suspicion of Western powers and creeping colonialism. American policymakers may have been overly naïve in thinking that economic growth, increased trade and a nuclear deal could move India safely into the American camp. Perhaps it is true that India will never cement itself on China’s side, but the fact is that nothing has been done to erase the deep Indo-Russian ties that formed during decades of Cold War.

Putin’s stratagem in Crimea has reminded the world that China is not the only rising or resurgent Great Power deserving of attention. As such, officials need to reconsider India’s place in American grand strategy. There is no doubt that India (itself a rising state with the potential to become a geopolitical pole in its own right) will remain a prominent player in the decades ahead. India occupies a crucial geostrategic location between a rising China, the energy producing regions of the Middle East and a newly vigorous African economy. An expanding Indian navy featuring 150 ships and multiple aircraft carriers will possess the capability to exercise veto power over key shipping choke points in the Persian Gulf, Strait of Malacca, and Suez region. Economic forecasts suggest India will surpass the GDP of the United States somewhere in the middle of the century.

It should greatly concern the American foreign policy establishment that, at a moment when international norms are under assault by Moscow, India has chosen to (at least partially) throw its lot in with Russia. How strong can a norm of territorial integrity be without the world’s largest nation and the world’s largest democracy? How stable can the American-led global order be with such a prominent repudiation of American foreign policy preferences? The answer to both of these questions is, unfortunately, “not very.”

What should be done? The past decade has seen a consistent focus by Washington to integrate and contain a rising China, but not enough has been done to integrate and build ties with a rising India. Simply because India is a democracy does not mean that it will automatically align itself to American preferences, and the United States must make a concerted effort to win India’s favor and goodwill in a lasting way. Until now, closeness with India has been compromised by competing demands to remain faithful to Pakistan, America’s own Cold War-era ally. Indeed, Russia’s historic support for Indian claims over Kashmir (sometimes explicit, sometimes implicit) has been no small part of Moscow’s appeal to New Delhi. Sooner or later, a new balance must be struck between U.S. commitments to these two nations. While Pakistan is integral to regional security, India’s cooperation will be essential to sustain the American vision of global governance.

The Obama administration can lay the groundwork for a more intimate relationship with India by doing three things. First, and easiest, the United States must clear up the detention and mistreatment of Devyani Khobragade. Far greater crimes have been excused for much less than would be gained in terms of Indian public opinion if the U.S. were to show flexibility towards Khobragade. Whether charges truly are warranted or not, Washington must at least apologize for her treatment in order to mitigate the blow that has been dealt to Indian impressions of the United States.

Second, the U.S. needs to commit itself to the establishment of a free trade agreement with India. India presents an enormous opportunity for American investment, with its stable system of property rights, consolidated democracy, and English-speaking population. An agreement will benefit both the Indian and American peoples, and intertwine the two nations to the high degree that their statures in the global economy mandate.

Third, the United States should seriously reconsider its support for a permanent Indian seat on the United Nations Security Council. If time is running out on the post-WWII international order, it makes sense for the U.S. to exploit its waning preponderant influence and play a major role in fashioning the future of the multipolar order. By seizing the agenda and winning the friendship and trust of rising countries (especially India and Brazil) that generally abide by an American-friendly set of global rules, the United States can promote the existence of a favorable global environment of peace and prosperity for generations to come.

Washington has been warned: India’s expression of sympathy for Russian interests in Crimea should serve as an alarm bell for American officials that a crucial player in world affairs has gone neglected. India’s enlistment as a card-carrying supporter of the existing international order simply cannot be counted upon going forward. If the U.S. wants India to serve as a bulwark of the international status quo, some form of policy change will be required. By shifting India to the front and center of American foreign policy, the United States can help to assure for itself – and the wider world – a future based on prevailing global norms rather than the designs of revisionist, illiberal and undemocratic states like Russia.

Andrew J. Stravers is a PhD student at the University of Texas at Austin, where he studies the global role of the American military. He is also an Aiddata Center for Development Policy Fellow and a researcher on the Department of Defense Minerva Initiative’s project on natural resource and armed conflict. Peter Harris is a doctoral candidate in Government at the University of Texas at Austin, where he is also a graduate fellow of the Clements Center for History, Strategy and Statecraft.