04.07.2022 Author: Vladimir Terehov

India’s Fine Balance in the International Arena

MOD423

India is increasingly making its presence felt in the international political arena. And as India’s influence grows in the current stage of the Great World Game, so the major world powers are competing to bring New Delhi into their own camp.

India itself is no passive onlooker in this process – with considerable skill it is managing to play off against each other the opposing forces exercised by those leading global players. As it does so, India is demonstrating its willingness to realign its foreign policy at any moment, even though it may appear to be irreversibly steering on a fixed course towards this or that world power.

Although in fact, anyone observing the various events that have impacted India’s relations with its huge neighbor China over the last two or three years might have got the impression that such a change in course was no longer possible. During that period India’s relations with China, which have always been very changeable, took a marked turn for the worse and at times a war between the two Asian giants has seemed almost inevitable. The same period also saw an unmistakable improvement in relations between New Delhi and Washington.

This negative trend in relations between China and India has now been reversed – an achievement to which the governments of both countries have contributed. Russia also made a significant contribution to this process, in particular by organizing an “unplanned” meeting between the two nations’ foreign ministers in Moscow in autumn 2020. The improvement in relations that was already evident at the time of that meeting was reinforced in June 2021, in another “unplanned” meeting between the two ministers in Dushanbe. The rapprochement between India and China was further confirmed earlier this year, when Wang Yi, the Chinese Foreign Minister, visited New Delhi.

One of the main questions decided during these meetings related to the fact that China was supposed to be the host of the then forthcoming (XIV) BRICS Summit, of which both China and India are members. That question was far from simple, given the heightened tensions between the two countries following their border clash in June 2020. The fact that the BRICS-2022 summit was held by video-conference, as is now normal for such events, did a great deal to resolve the issue of precedence, and the summit, held from 23-24 June, was a success. That success was, in itself, a major event in the global political arena.

Upon the conclusion of the forum, the leaders of all five countries in the BRICS group agreed and signed a general statement, the Beijing Declaration. It is important to remember, as we have commented in the past, that in such documents every word is significant. All 75 points in the Declaration are of great importance, and just a year and a half ago the present author could hardly have imagined both Xi Jinping and Narendra Modi putting their signatures to all of them.

That fact is a clear indication, as already noted, that the two countries have managed to bridge what was, just a short time ago, a dangerous chasm that jeopardized their relationship. It also demonstrates that, despite a number of steps aimed at achieving a closer relationship with Washington, Beijing’s (and Moscow’s) main geopolitical opponent, India’s government now clearly sees that under certain circumstances, India may stop enjoying its non-aligned status in the international community.

Significantly, India’s refusal to join Washington’s sanctions imposed against Russia in response to the crisis in Ukraine demonstrates clearly that it has not abandoned its position of neutrality. Moreover, India’s decision to increase its purchase of Russian oil has largely undermined the effectiveness of those US sanctions.

However, that last factor, along with India’s participation in the BRICS summit and signing of the Beijing Declaration, should not be seen as indicating that India has definitively turned away from Washington and its allies. After all, Narendra Modi accepted an invitation to come to Munich to participate in the latest G7 summit, held two days after the BRICS summit. Along with a number of other guests, the Indian premier participated in the plenary session and had a number of informal meetings with heads of G7 states.

It is worth remembering that Narendra Modi had been on a previous trip to Europe just two months before the G7 summit. On the new trip he made another visit to Germany – but even though, officially, that visit was “unplanned” the fact that it occurred at all shows that there is a specifically European element in New Delhi’s relations with what is still commonly referred to as the “collective West”. A number of leading Indian experts have recently highlighted the importance of viewing that European element separately from other factors.

As for Europe, it has been stepping up its presence in the Indo-Pacific Region – a presence which takes a number of different forms. This trend serves as a further demonstration that the focus of global power play is shifting towards the Indo-Pacific Region.

In addition to its declared aim of “opposing Russian aggression in Ukraine”, the most recent G7 summit focused on the issue of supporting infrastructure projects in developing countries. In many of those countries projects forming part of China’s international Belt and Road Initiative are being successfully implemented. This subject of infrastructure support was initially raised in the last G7 summit, which was hosted by Britain a year ago.

As yet there is no sign that India plans to take any part in the (clearly anti-Chinese) infrastructure initiatives being discussed by the G7 nations. In fact, there have long been signs that New Delhi is competing with Beijing for influence both in the Indo-Pacific region and in Africa. This factor is one of the main reasons why India is seeking to establish constructive relations with China’s opponents, which, in addition to the US, include such significant regional powers as Japan and Australia.

Along with those three countries, India is a member of the Quad dialogue, which had its most recent summit, the fourth such event since the establishment of the alliance last spring, in Tokyo at the end of May. The Joint Leaders’ Statement adopted at the end of that summit was noteworthy for its reference to “challenges to the maritime rules-based order, including in the East and South China Seas” -wording that has become something of a set phrase. No mention was made of the source of those “challenges”, but of course the intended meaning is clear.

Without being a member of any binding political or military alliances, India maintains contact with the above foreign partners at a military level, and periodically takes part in military exercises with them. Against that background, it is worth noting the trip to India by Richard Marles, the Australian Minister for Defence, from June 23-26 this year – that is, under Australia’s new Labor government. During his meetings with his Indian counterparts and with the media he spoke about Australia’s “concerns”, using similar language to that used in the Joint Leaders’ Statement. Naturally, China was not slow to respond to his statements.

Ships from the Indian Navy are taking take part in the RIMPAC (Rim of the Pacific) exercises from July 29 to August 3 this year. Led by the US Indo-Pacific Command, the exercises take place every two years, and this year they will include 26 countries. In the past, China and Russia sent vessels to participate in the exercises. But that was a long time ago, and now it is difficult to believe that it ever happened. We can only hope that in the future such cooperation may become possible again.

To conclude, we can return to the point at which this article began – the BRICS summit, which is perhaps the most significant of the various events in which India has participated. Following the end of the summit, there were discussions on the possibility of extending the BRICS format by bringing in new participants. A number of likely candidates were mentioned. But Pakistan is not on the list.

In fact, according to leaks to the media, during the BRICS meeting the Chinese leader Xi Jinping did raise the issue of inviting Pakistan to join the talks. However, according to the report Narendra Modi blocked this proposal.

Which serves as further confirmation that the situation both within the BRICS group and in the Indo-Pacific Region as a whole, is, despite the clear signs of improvement, still far from ideal. And “ideal” is anyway a highly subjective concept.

Vladimir Terekhov, expert on the issues of the Asia-Pacific region, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.

 


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