Some experts and analysts have sounded the alarm, but pragmatic policies will prevail
Last week's meeting between Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping topped the headlines at the time, ending in a joint statement reaffirming mutual friendship.
Predictably, the images of Putin and Xi - two of the most powerful personalities in global politics, who are linked by common goals and their mutual distrust for the US and its Western allies - have raised the alarm in India.
India is anxious to get a sense of its standing in a changing world order, as global geopolitical battle lines have been drawn both in word and deed since the start of Russia's military operation in Ukraine last February. Concerns abound in New Delhi as to whether India is getting caught between a rock and a hard place in the ongoing proxy war between the West and the Russia-China axis. Several Indian foreign policy watchers believe Russia, India's "all-weather friend," is veering closer towards China against the backdrop of protracted border disputes between the two Asian powerhouses.
New Delhi has taken note of the carefully-worded joint statement that spelled the growing bonhomie in Sino-Russian ties. The statement emphatically described the "special nature" of Russian-Chinese relations, "which are at the highest level in all our history, offering a model of a genuine comprehensive partnership and strategic cooperation," giving fresh impetus to a partnership first unveile ahead of the Ukraine operation.
Dr Subramanian Swamy, a member of Modi's right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and a federal minister, was quick to react to the Sino-Russian diplomatic pow-wow, saying it has Beijing's dominance over Moscow written all over it. He described it as Russia "prostrating" before China and hinted that the cordiality could be detrimental for India.
Dr Swamy's statement stemmed from his long-standing association with China - he is one of the few Indian politicians who shared a rapport with former Chinese Communist leader Deng Xiaoping with whom he had a historic meeting in Beijing in 1981. In 2020, he published the book 'Himalayan Challenge: India, China and the Quest for Peace', offering pragmatic resolutions to Sino-Indian border disputes and resultant military standoffs.
India's leading strategic affairs analyst, Brahma Chellaney also saw a discernible pattern in the Putin-Xi meeting that may create a hitherto never-seen world order, where an anxious India wants to get a sense about its seat at the global high table.
India's Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MEA) has been tight-lipped about the summit, but sources in the ministry said they were keeping a close watch on the developments and how the alignment would augur in the coming days.
Meanwhile, border disputes between India and China remain as acute as ever. Despite the hopeful picture of New Delhi's dialogue with Beijing in the MEA's latest annual foreign affairs report, India's foreign minister Dr Subrahmanyam Jaishankar unequivocally spelled out his country's stance a couple of days before the Russia-China joint statement was issued. He did not mince his words regarding the friction points, describing the border situation as "fragile" and "dangerous." He squarely put the ball in Beijing's court to resolve the decades-old dispute, saying, "China has to deliver. China will have to resolve the border situation to move forward," but steered clear of referring to Moscow's elevated ties with Beijing.
India's worries appear misplaced at this stage. New Delhi's legacy relationship with Moscow can't be held hostage to new diplomatic ties between two powerful sovereign nations pursuing independent foreign policies.
Russia remains India's largest defense supplier and, unlike Western nations, is willing to include nuclear submarines in the ongoing deals. Moscow is also supplying New Delhi with S-400 anti-missile defense systems. To date, Rosneft's $13 billion investment in Essar in 2016 remains the single-largest direct foreign investment in India, amid an uptick in bilateral trade. India is also benefiting from buying Russian crude at a discounted rate after Moscow redirected supplies from the EU, which has been cutting off trade with Russia after the start of the Ukraine conflict.
New Delhi is also banking on Moscow's support for its Central Asian trade ambitions, as they are both fully-fledged members of the Beijing-headquartered nine-country regional Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). India took over the chairmanship of the SCO last September and will host the annual summit meeting in Goa, on May 4 and 5.
The strengthening ties between Russia and China could even come in handy for India to deal with Beijing on a more equal footing. Moscow had helped New Delhi to de-escalate the diplomatic crisis following the border incursions in Galwan in eastern Ladakh in 2020 that left 20 Indian Army personnel dead.
A breakup between India and Russia would play into the hands of Western nations, which are eyeing India's middle-class boom, purchasing power and growing consumerism to peddle their wares in the world's most populous nation. They have also been dropping subtle hints to New Delhi to disengage with Moscow. To date, India has managed to walk this diplomatic tightrope with aplomb. If it lets go of Russia now, Moscow would naturally veer even further towards Beijing, and a sharp divide is the last thing New Delhi wants or needs. It would mean losing the Russia card, which India could otherwise use to stump both China and the US and its Western allies.
Is the US an alternative?
Let's suspend disbelief for a moment and entertain the following scenario: India abandons Russia and throws itself fully into the waiting embrace of the US. Washington has been wooing New Delhi for a long time, and the reasons are not hard to deduce. The US sees India as a staging ground in its strategic confrontation against China, as well as a lucrative alternative market and potential production base to diversify from Beijing.
But can India trust the US? The history of global politics is replete with examples of US one-upmanship at the expense of ostensible friends and partners, as well as simply botched foreign policy outreach attempts. For more than a decade, the US has been trying to build a strategic partnership with India on the basis of the two nations' democratic political systems and their shared concern over China's military might and expansionist zeal under President Xi, who was nominated for an unprecedented third term just days ahead of his Russia visit. US-India ties, at best, are shallow because of divergent worldviews and Washington is seen to be unreliable.
India is acutely aware of the mess that the US has created in its neighborhood, notably Pakistan and Afghanistan. And look no further than US policies in the former, whose hearts and minds Washington failed to win over despite showering the world's second-largest Islamic nation with billions of dollars of aid. With these examples next door, New Delhi under PM Modi is better off erring on the side of caution rather than becoming beholden to Washington's preachy rhetoric about democratic values, free speech and liberty. India is not yet ready to switch sides to make a cogent diplomatic point and encourage a unilateral world under the patronage of the West.
Russia's ambassador to India Denis Alipov has stepped in to allay any misconceptions and swirling speculations in New Delhi's corridors of powers and academia that bilateral ties would take a beating because of Moscow's close relations with Beijing. His succinct tweet called out the fearmongering among Indian analysts and claimed the idea of an India-Russia breakup was "wishful thinking."
The envoy also weighed in on the raging debate in a section of the Indian media about the likely outcome of President Xi's three-day visit to Russia that concluded on Wednesday.
To be sure, the bilateral ties may not be under any immediate threat, but the Sino-Russian joint statement made a reference to hot-button global diplomatic debates such as politicization of multilateral fora and geo-political "blocs." The latter is veiled criticism of statements from the G-20 summit and the Quad group, of which India is an integral part along with the US, Japan and Australia.
The way forward
New Delhi has fashioned and practices an "India First" foreign policy - as does every other country, including Russia and China. It's axiomatic that there are no permanent friends or enemies in diplomacy, where the fine lines are blurred ever so quickly. Every nation defends its own pragmatic interests on the global stage, even as their leaders are photographed embracing in hearty bear hugs or candidly clasping hands. Public diplomacy is often couched in grandstanding, projection, and playing to the gallery.
Conversely, there will always be doomsayers engaging in "wishful thinking" about their own leaders' diplomatic failures, as ambassador Alipov has described it. But in the end, the pragmatic truth is that Russia and India need each other in today's changing world order - and as long as they do, they will make every effort to stick to each other's side.