This article is part of the series—Raisina Edit 2022.
US President Joe Biden’s Indo-Pacific strategy document gives a clear indication of the value the US places on its strategic partnership with India and its vision for New Delhi to play a central role in this vital region that is increasingly subject to Chinese aggression and coercion.Just as the Trump administration’s Indo-Pacific Strategic Framework singled out India for an important role, so too does Biden’s strategy highlight the US-India bilateral relationship as a major component of its overall Indo-Pacific strategy. Former US President Donald Trump’s framework was more explicit about the US goal to accelerate India’s rise, while Biden’s strategy recognises India as a “leader in South Asia and the Indian Ocean, active in and connected to Southeast Asia, a driving force of the Quad and other regional fora, and an engine for regional growth and development.” Biden’s Indo-Pacific strategy also spotlights the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) as a “premier regional grouping” that will take collective action on issues like vaccines, critical and emerging technologies, climate change, infrastructure, cyber security, and space. The third Quad summit in less than a year was held on 3 March 2022, providing an opportunity for India to explain its position on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine to the other members (US, Australia and Japan), and for the four leaders to demonstrate the continued importance they place on the grouping, despite differences over Russia.
Biden’s Indo-Pacific strategy also spotlights the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) as a “premier regional grouping” that will take collective action on issues like vaccines, critical and emerging technologies, climate change, infrastructure, cyber security, and space.While India rightly argues that Europe also continues to buy Russian oil and India purchases only about one percent of its total energy needs from Russia, any Indian effort to help Russia escape the impact of sanctions will irk US officials. It will also make it increasingly difficult to argue in favour of a Countering America’s Adversaries through Sanctions Act waiver for India over its purchase of the Russian S-400 air defense system, for which New Delhi began taking deliveries last December. Nevertheless, the 2+2 dialogue between the Indian external affairs and defence ministers and the US secretaries of state and defence that was held on 11 April in Washington reaffirmed the two countries’ strong ties, despite differences over Russia. An unexpected virtual meeting between Biden and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the top of the 2+2 meetings as well as the lengthy and comprehensive joint statement released following the dialogue demonstrated both countries’ determination to not allow their divergent positions on Russia to disrupt their strategic ties.
The manifesto, the strongest statement on Russia-China relations in over 70 years, says the world is entering “a new era of rapid development and profound transformation” with trends toward a new “redistribution of power in the world”.While this public document serves both countries’ interests in seeking to undercut US global influence, there are also questions about how the Moscow-Beijing partnership will work out in practical terms, especially given the strong and unified western opposition to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. China relishes seeing the US bogged down in Europe and expending resources and diplomatic attention there, rather than in the Indo-Pacific. However, China also prioritises its own domestic stability and economic growth and thus wants to avoid secondary sanctions, which will fall on it were it to bail Russia out economically. In addition, the longer the Ukraine crisis prolongs, the more cohesive US-Europe ties become, and the more receptive European nations will be to US warnings about China’s own hegemonic goals. Still, the Russia-China pact almost certainly has worried Indian officials who carefully strive to keep a wedge between the two global powers to meet New Delhi’s own strategic compulsions. Having faced off against Chinese forces along their disputed boundary in June 2020 and with the prospect of continued border tensions for the foreseeable future, New Delhi needs to keep Moscow on friendly terms in case of another India-China border flare-up. Now that Russia is facing crushing western sanctions, Indian officials will have to consider the fact that Russia’s dependence on China is likely to grow, allowing Beijing to increasingly call the shots. Moscow will have a declining ability to persuade China on much of anything, including border tensions with India. If India is counting on its lack of criticism of Russia over its invasion of Ukraine to buy it Russian support vis a vis its border disputes with China, it may be disappointed. India will also likely face direct negative consequences on its own defence industry as western sanctions against Russia kick in, given its continued reliance on Russian military equipment. According to estimates, Russian equipment accounted for around 50 percent of Indian arms imports from 2016-2020.
China also prioritises its own domestic stability and economic growth and thus wants to avoid secondary sanctions, which will fall on it were it to bail Russia out economically.India’s refusal to condemn Russian aggression and willingness to provide Russia an economic lifeline is straining Washington’s ties to New Delhi and has raised questions about the future of the Quad and whether it can truly provide a credible counterweight to Chinese hegemony in the Indo-Pacific when its members are divided over developments in Europe. The US is counting on India to play a significant role in the Indo-Pacific and to increasingly contribute to balancing Chinese power in the region. However, continued Indian dependence on Russian military gear could weaken India’s ability to play an effective role in the Indo-Pacific, not to mention impact the Quad’s ability to cooperate on important issues like maritime domain awareness. India has important strategic decisions to make in 2022 that will have consequences not only for bilateral ties with the US but also for its broader national security interests vis a vis China and the Indo-Pacific. Russia’s war in Ukraine is making it increasingly difficult—perhaps impossible— for India to be able to straddle the US-Russia divide for much longer.
The views expressed above belong to the author(s). ORF research and analyses now available on Telegram! Click here to access our curated content — blogs, longforms and interviews.