- Mar 05 2018
In an interesting development of some import, the joint declaration issued at the end of the first-ever six-nation Speakers’ Conference in Islamabad held at the end of December supported Pakistan’s line on Kashmir. This declaration, signed by Afghanistan, China, Iran, Pakistan, Russia and Turkey, underscored that “for ensuring global and regional peace and stability, the issue of Jammu & Kashmir needs peaceful resolution by Pakistan and India in accordance with UN Security Council resolutions.”
The conference was hosted by Pakistan’s National Assembly, ostensibly to discuss the challenges of terrorism and inter-regional connectivity. At a time when Pakistan is getting globally isolated on the issue of terrorism and is widely viewed as the epicentre from which a lot of global terror emanates, this was an attempt to gain some credibility in its regional and global outreach. The idea was to engage in discussion in order to explore common means of combating terrorism, maintaining peace and enhancing connectivity of people and nations. The heads of parliament from six regional countries agreed on the need to establish a joint mechanism to cope with the challenges of terrorism and security, besides promoting the inter-regional connectivity.
But Pakistan’s single-minded focus on Kashmir meant that it forced other interlocutors to bring the issue to the declaration. Initially, Russia, Iran and Afghanistan resisted but then they gave in. For India, what should be of concern is Russia’s increasing tilt towards Pakistan as it seeks to curry favour with China. Moscow had historically supported New Delhi at the United Nations security council by repeatedly vetoing resolutions on Kashmir. Now, however, there is a change in how Moscow views its regional priorities in South Asia.
During his visit to New Delhi in December, the Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, publicly called on India to join China’s Belt and Road Initiative and hoped that New Delhi would find a way to benefit from the mega connectivity project without sacrificing its position on important issues associated with it. Referring to India’s opposition to the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor on the grounds of sovereignty, he underlined that “the specific problem in this regard should not make everything else conditional for resolving political differences.” Lavrov also made clear his displeasure over New Delhi’s warming up to the idea of a quadrilateral engagement with the United States of America, Japan and Australia in the Indo-Pacific region. He suggested that “sustainable security architecture in the Asia Pacific region cannot be achieved through bloc arrangement and is only possible through an open ended collective basis.”
Despite the best efforts of the top leadership in India and Russia, divergences are growing in this bilateral relationship as the underlying structural changes in the international environment are pulling the two nations apart. For Russia, the US-led Western world presents its biggest challenge and its foreign policy priorities increasingly revolve around pushing back against the West at every level. From the UN security council to the western European periphery, this is what Russia is doing. The West views Russia as one of the most disruptive forces in global politics, even more than China in many ways. The initial optimism of a US-Russia rapprochement after Donald Trump’s presidental victory has died down, with domestic politics in the US becoming more and more contentious.
For India, the prism is different, as it has to manage the negative external factors emerging from the rise of China in its vicinity. Chinese power is now encroaching upon India’s traditional sphere of influence in South Asia and the Indian Ocean region. The growing power disparity between India and China is making the border situation more unstable. The China-Pakistan nexus is proving difficult to contain as India gets ready to face a two-front challenge. China refuses to recognize India’s global power aspirations and has not yielded on key Indian security demands. As a result, while Russia may find cooperation with China as a perfectly legitimate response to its problems with the West, India does not have that luxury. New Delhi has to find like-minded countries to build alternative platforms and narratives with, so as to preclude Chinese hegemony in the wider Indo-Pacific region.
Russia’s growing collusion with China and Pakistan will continue to test the Indo-Russian partnership in the coming years. For a relationship that largely relies on defence and where the economic underpinnings are lagging, a candid conversation about the current status of the relationship is the need of the hour. Just relying on the sentimentalism of the past will not work anymore, as new challenges confront both India and Russia and the global geostrategic environment undergoes a profound reordering.
This commentary originally appeared in The Telegraph.