It’s clear where the Modi administration’s interests lie
The last two months have seen Indian politicians and geo-strategists creating their own national geo-strategic paradigm at a time when different political factors have been evolving the functional matrix within its neighbourhood. Regional priorities have brought forth their own approach consistent with India’s perception of its own national security.
Last month we witnessed the talks in New Delhi between US and Indian foreign and defense ministers, loosely described as two-plus-two dialogue. This constituted another significant step in the game driven by its two major players. This denoted that these two countries trust each other to a certain degree and have managed to establish bilateral ties of excellent quality.
Since Modi’s assumption of power, India’s outreach to the US has been more pronounced. Defense analysts have noted that, in the last few years, India and the US have signed agreements for sourcing military transport planes. They also agreed after the talks to sign an agreement for exchange of sensitive military communication and have also announced plans for military exercises to be carried out in 2019. This changing situation has seen the US rising to become India’s second largest arms supplier.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has not forgotten one important facet that continues to guide that country’s perception of friendship: India knows that, deep down, there is great respect and friendship among the common Indian population, not only for the historic role played by the Soviet Union till 1991 towards India, but also for the support given since then to India on all aspects by Russia.
Consequently, national priorities featured strongly during President Putin’s recent visit to India. On October 5, after discussions between Modi and Putin, the two states signed a pact to build six more nuclear reactors at a new site in India. Russian state-owned reactor manufacturer Rosatom has stated that the two countries also want to boost nuclear and share new nuclear technologies.
The day-long official visit of Putin to New Delhi also saw both countries inking a $5 billion agreement for Russia to supply the formidable S-400 air defense system. It has also come to light that in October 2016, the two countries apparently concluded inter-governmental agreements for S-400 systems and the four stealth frigates. This has now led to a full commercial contract.
Defense analysts have indicated that India needs the sophisticated S-400 to fill critical gaps in its defence capabilities, in view of China’s rise and perceived threats from Pakistan. Some have also pointed out that last year India and China had a military stand-off over a Himalayan plateau claimed by both China and Bhutan (a close ally of India). China has also perturbed India by loaning vast amounts of money to Sri Lanka and creating a special rapport with the new government in Nepal.
Another significant factor has also generated interest among space scientists. Both Russia and India have agreed to cooperate with regards to India’s plan for a manned space mission.
The US has been monitoring India-Russia developments carefully. They have also warned that these deals could attract sanctions under the Countering America’s Adversaries through Sanctions Act. This legal regime restricts defense purchases from Russia, Iran, and North Korea. India has apparently already started negotiations with the US administration for a “sanctions waiver” but American officials till now have given no clear signal that they will provide one.
This Russia-India initiative has also drawn special attention because during the two-plus-two dialogue in September, the US and India signed the third foundational in addition to announcing several measures to operationalize the Major Defense Partner Status.
Media has also reported that the Russian and Indian leaders discussed the many challenges existing in Afghanistan and the need to overcome them. Apparently, this included Moscow’s push for talks with the Taliban.
India, in this context, is understood to have pointed out Pakistan’s lack of cooperation in resolving the sensitive situation in Afghanistan and also Pakistan’s lack of interest in controlling terrorism in its bordering region.
After the Putin visit, the US is finding itself in an awkward position when it comes to India. This dimension is becoming complicated as the US wants to bolster ties with New Delhi to counter China’s growing assertiveness.
The strategic autonomy in India’s foreign policy and putting national interests first have also been reflected in Indian industry sources revealing that India has decided to buy nine million barrels of Iranian oil.
This indicates that the world’s third biggest oil importer will continue to purchase crude oil from Iran despite US sanctions.
For India, it is no longer a question of keeping the US, Russia, or China happy. It has now become an issue where national security has to be maintained, not only through maintaining a delicate balance, but also through India upholding the ideological approach of “India First.”
Muhammad Zamir, a former Ambassador is an analyst specialized in foreign affairs, right to information and good governance. He can be reached at [email protected]