India remains a distinctive swing State for all three of its major interlocutors: Russia, US and China.
Russian President Vladimir Putin is scheduled to arrive in New Delhi on October 5 for the 19th India-Russia summit meeting with Prime Minister Narendra Modi and this comes against the backdrop of a complex dynamic that relates to the texture of their individual relations with the US.
On Thursday (September 20), the Trump administration imposed sanctions on China by invoking CAATSA (Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act) provisions since Beijing had engaged in “significant transactions” with Russia. These include the Su-35 combat aircraft and the S-400 surface-to-air missile system and it is instructive to note that these inventory items are also part of the acquisitions that are in the pipeline for India to obtain from Russia. Moscow has been a major supplier of military equipment to India for five decades and the agenda for the current Putin visit is likely to include some important G2G (government to government) agreements for the ‘Make-in-India’ initiative.
It is pertinent to note that India is among the world’s largest importers of military equipment, for it has no significant indigenous manufacturing and design/R&D capability in the defence sector as related to conventional weaponry. It is an anomalous characteristic, that while India has acquired a certain degree of self-sufficiency in relation to strategic capability (nuclear weapons, missiles and nuclear propulsion), it is also a country that has not been able to design and manufacture its own rifle or pistol with a performance index that is on par with the global benchmark.
This has been a major inadequacy in the higher defence management of India for years and this manufacturing-design void in conventional military capability dilutes India’s claim to “strategic autonomy” in the global arena. While Moscow, in its own transition from the former USSR to the current Russian Federation, has provided India invaluable support in certain niches — for instance nuclear submarine construction — this has not been the case in relation to conventional military equipment, however rudimentary. Consequently, the five decades of Indian engagement with the former Soviet Union and later Russia (after the end of the Cold War in December 1991) did not lead to any significant addition to India’s defence manufacturing sector.
Thus it is significant that the Putin visit in October may also include G2G protocols for the licenced-production of the AK-103 assault rifle in an Indian defence public sector unit and a joint venture between Rostec, a Russian helicopter entity, and HAL for the production of the Ka-226 light utility helicopters. Taken to their logical conclusion, this initiative will provide substantive content to the Make in India effort that has been prioritised by Prime Minister Modi, though the question lingers as to why such a step was not taken much earlier by New Delhi. It is understood that the Russian origin Talwar class frigates and IL-78 transport aircraft would also be considered for acquisition.
But all of this would be deemed to be a “significant” transaction with Russia by the White House and early signals coming from the Beltway are cautioning India that the CAASTA legislation could be invoked against New Delhi. It may be recalled that during the recently concluded ‘2+2’ talks that India had with the US, this issue had been flagged but no official position was articulated by both sides and prudently so.
The Trump administration has advised its allies and friends that it expects them to comply with the US line on both Russia and Iran and different domestic legislation such as CAASTA has been introduced. This is a demand that cannot easily be agreed to by many nations who have a long-standing military equipment relationship with Moscow and it is expected that the waiver route would be resorted to on a case-by-case basis.
For the US, the more immediate reaction has come from Beijing which responded to the September 19 CAASTA sanctions by summoning the US ambassador in Beijing and advising Washington to review its position or “bear the consequences.” The US-China tension that is already at play in the economic-trade domain has now spread to the military domain and has become a triangular issue involving Russia as well.
How India will deal with a Trump-led US diktat over CAASTA (and later Iran) will be a litmus test for the resilience of the India-US relationship, as also an indicator of the strategic import that Delhi accords to its ties with Moscow. There are many strands of tactical discord between India and Russia that have emerged in recent years — for instance Russian dismay at the Delhi-Washington partnership that had grown to a robust military sales relationship of $15 billion in a decade and the relative lack of enthusiasm from New Delhi to pursue any new big-ticket projects with Moscow.
On the Indian side, the more recent Russia-Pakistan military relationship and coordination over the Taliban issue in Afghanistan has stoked Indian anxiety. Furthermore, India has to accept the reality that there will be a greater degree of strategic engagement between Moscow and Beijing to deal with the current US orientation in global affairs led by an unpredictable Trump administration.
But the paradox is that while there are specific and complex tactical dissonances in the bilaterals, India remains a distinctive swing State for all three of its major interlocutors: Russia, US and China. While India is militarily dependent on both the US and Russia, they are aware that to realise their respective strategic objectives over the next 25 years, it would be desirable for them to have a stable and satisfactory relationship with India. In like fashion, the Indian swing index works differently for China, wherein pushing New Delhi into the Washington camp would introduce a brittleness in the China-US relationship that will not be favourable to Beijing. India has to distribute its military dependency astutely and Putin’s visit may enable a more nuanced dialogue with Washington over CAATSA and other prickly issues.