Amid the annual Valdai International Discussion Club meeting in Moscow, Russian President Vladimir Putin praised Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi for his strict pursuit of independent foreign policy by calling him "a true patriot". The last time, PM Modi met Putin in Uzbekistan on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) in September where he told Putin that today’s era was not an era of war. As is known, New Delhi has had subtle neutrality since the Russian aggression began toward Ukraine for almost ten months despite intense public pressure on India to side with them against Moscow by the West, particularly the United States.
New Delhi's foreign policy objectives
New Delhi has been trying to stake out an independent foreign policy, particularly being one of the countries (along with Russia and China) advocating multipolarity in the international system, which undercuts the US's global hegemony. But even if Washington is annoyed that the Indian government firmly preserves its room for maneuver, India will no doubt remain important to the United States. Early in October, a legislative amendment that urges the Biden administration to encourage New Delhi to accelerate its transition away from Russian weapons said that “A strong United States-India defense partnership rooted in shared democratic values is critical to advancing United States interests in the Indo-Pacific region”. Washington, for certain, cannot afford to alienate New Delhi, which is seen as a crucial partner against China and also for maintaining the balance of power in the Indo-Pacific. In the context of some Indian views, Washington needs New Delhi more than ever to prevail in its escalating rivalry with China and Russia.
On the other side of the coin, India not only views Russia as a time-tested partner but also believes that India and China have far more common interests than differences, thus willing to keep open all channels to be able to find some common grounds in today’s fluid world politics. However, this should not be interpreted in the manner of any absence of rivalry between New Delhi and Beijing and New Delhi has pure trust for Moscow. However, this can be clearly read in the manner that Moscow gives more confidence to New Delhi compared to Washington and that New Delhi cannot afford to display its power projection in world politics without calmly coexisting with Beijing.
The US strategy with India and Pakistan
Late in September, Washington imposed the first-ever sanction on Mumbai-based Indian firm Tibalaji Petrochem Pvt. Ltd., for carrying out the oil trade with Iran where the firm imported millions of dollars worth of petrochemical products from and exported them to China. In early October, the US Ambassador to Pakistan, Donald Blome, visited Pakistan-governed Kashmir and referred to "Azad (Free) Kashmir", instead of the UN term "Pakistan-administered Kashmir". Then the US approved the upgrade of Pakistan’s fleet of aging F-16s fighter jets at the cost of $450 million. That clearly raised India’s eyebrows. New Delhi has some concerns because F-16s gave Islamabad an advantage and were used against India amid the dogfight in 2019 which resulted in Indian Air Force fighter pilot Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman being captured by the Pakistani forces. Countering the US's argument that the upgrading would advance counterterrorism, Indian sharp reactions had been felt by the words of External Affairs Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar: “You are not fooling anybody by saying these things.” In response to Indian EAM’s comments, the US State Department spokesperson Ned Price asserted that Washington does not view its relations with New Delhi and Islamabad as affecting each other.
However, New Delhi does not think so. There is perhaps a concern in India that the US is back to balancing between New Delhi and Islamabad instead of only favoring India, or even preferring Islamabad over New Delhi as a regional security partner. Gearing up to balance military relations with Pakistan is no doubt a tactical response of Washington to India’s playing both American and Russian sides or hedging through. If anything, in the context of some views from Indian strategic circles, there may even be a convergence of interests on which India should not too much worry about Washington's re-engagement with Islamabad. The US outreach to Pakistan perhaps has the intention of an act to recreate a check path to Taliban’s Afghanistan to prevent it from becoming a failed state regarding terror outfits. Or the US perhaps intends to counter the possibility of Chinese geopolitical monopolization across the region over Islamabad. Even so, there are still some open-ended attitudes to be revised by India, that makes Washington an "unreliable partner" for New Delhi, such as the long absence of a US ambassador in New Delhi, since January 2021. Indeed, the United States has ambassadors in Myanmar and Pakistan, also in Nepal, Sri Lanka, and Bangladesh, but not in India.
Prospects for Indian-Chinese relations
That is safe to state a foregone conclusion that not only India but also world politics has a future in Asia. This cannot be denied. But as Jaishankar said, an Asian century cannot happen if India and China do not join hands. That New Delhi and Beijing manage their relationship is pivotal not just for them, but for Asia and the world. Well, is there a possibility for the two to find a common ground? Recall that Indian and Chinese troops were participating alongside each other at the Vostok 2022 military drills hosted by Russia. Even though their differences seem too sharp today, their historical experiences also prove their abilities to coexist successfully, and the advantages of focusing on other preoccupations and keeping the bilateral ties ice-cool and composed. Late in October, Jaishankar told Sun Weidong, the outgoing Chinese envoy to India, that “normalization of India-China relations is in the interest of both countries, of Asia and the world at large”. And as Sun Weidong said that it is only natural for India and China to have differences and they should not allow their relationship to be defined by disagreements, adding there is enough room in the world for both to develop together.
AA/Dr. Duygu Cagla Bayram