Nobody talks about India. India is the second largest country by population in the world, and yet hardly anything is written about it in Western discussions of foreign policy and international relations.
In the emerging new cold war, what side is India on? Surely, for a country that large, that is not an insignificant question. But India occupies a quite unique position. It is the second largest country in Asia but the largest democracy in the world. It is hostile to China but a good friend of Russia. It is a member of the US led QUAD but a member of the Russian and Chinese led BRICS and Shanghai Cooperation Organization. So whose side is India on?
The short answer is neither. As a giant of a country and the world’s largest democracy, India does not feel bound to follow the West. Indian foreign policy emphasizes its neutrality. India has a long tradition of nonalignment going all the way back to its being a founding member of the non-aligned movement during the cold war. According to Alexander Lukin, Head of the International Relations Department of HSE University in Moscow, India "pursues an independent foreign policy and tries to maintain constructive relations with all major global actors." He quotes India’s Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in 2004 describing India’s foreign policy as "cooperative pluralism" or as "unity in diversity." Singh insisted that cooperative pluralism "must be the basis of global governance." In this insistence, India is more at home with Russia and China’s multipolar world view, in which all countries get a voice in a global democracy, than with the US autocratic unipolar world view.
At the end of the cold war, when the Soviet Union dissolved, other emerging world powers, like India, did not. But as the US left Russia behind, these countries too were not offered an equal place in the new unipolar US world. Like Russia and China, they were left out; like Russia and China, India believes in global cooperative pluralism, which may just be their name for what Russia and China describe as a multipolar world.
So, like Russia and China, India is reluctant to join alliances and sides. Lukin points out that it follows from India’s world view that it "refuses to put pressure on other countries," and, intriguingly, while being a major contributor to UN peace keeping forces, India "never joins any military actions initiated by the West or the world community in general."
Not pressuring other countries to change to suit it and not using force clearly differs from the foreign policy of the US; stressing the primacy of the UN in actions in other countries harmonizes with the foreign policy views of Russia, China and their UN led international law based multipolar world. Given these shared world views, Lukin argues that India is likely to become less oriented to the US – while still cooperating with it – and "pay more attention to other centers of power" like Russia and China. India has long enjoyed close relations with Russia. And despite territorial disputes and rough bilateral relations, Lukin says that India is trying hard to improve relations with China.
Relations with Russia and China have always been a top priority for India. In 2009, India and Russia signed the Joint Russian-Indian Declaration of Deepening and Strategic Partnership. And they deepened them further in 2015 when, Lukin reports, Russia took a number of steps to enhance cooperation with India during Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Russia.
Prying India Away
The US is well aware of India’s position with a friendly foot in both camps. And it appreciates the weight of India’s immensity and its potential to affect the balance. So, the US has tried to leverage India’s animosity toward China to pry it away from the Russia-China pole.
Pulling India into the US sphere is a priority of the US foreign policy strategy. As early as 2012, then Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta called India the "load-bearing axis" of the US strategy. According to Sarang Shidore, the Biden administration continues to count heavily on India to tip the balance toward the US. In November 2021, Kurt Campbell, the National Security Council’s coordinator for the Indo-Pacific, reportedly called India "a key fulcrum" and identified the border disputes and animosity between India and China as an opportunity to induce India over.
The key is the QUAD. Made up of the US, Japan, Australia and India, the QUAD is the key to US strategy and hopes in Asia. In a 2021 article called "Russia, China, and the concept of Indo-Pacific," Igor Denisov, et al, say that "the United States has based its entire plan on the so-called ‘QUAD’." And, as Campbell says, "we all recognize that the critical, crucial member in the Quad is India." In their 2021 article, Andrey Dikarev and Alexander Lukin say that Russia and China are well aware that the QUAD is intended to take over management of Asian affairs under US leadership. They add that "It is clear from this structure [of the QUAD] that crucial significance is attached to the task of bringing India over to the United States’ side. . . ." But that plan may not be going quite as intended.
India may not be behaving quite as America hoped.
The animosity toward China that the US is counting on to leverage is real. Denisov, et al, note in their article that India fears the so-called "China threat." China is big, influential, economically powerful and growing. That is a challenge to India, who also aspires to be a leading force in the region. They add that there is an increasing rivalry between India and China as naval powers. Dikarev and Lukin explain that India wants to maintain its freedom of navigation and trade routes and does not like China’s attempt to claim sovereignty over much of the South China Sea. They add that there is also competition with China for energy resources in the South China Sea. All of these regional competitions are real and make membership in the QUAD attractive and important to India.
But these are regional concerns. India may have a separate set of global concerns. Denisov, et al, say that "Even though relations between Beijing and New Delhi are weighed down by territorial disputes and the struggle for regional leadership, Chinese scholars are not convinced that India will be all in when it comes to containing China." Dikarev and Lukin agree: "For all these reasons, India has joined the QUAD. . . . At the same time, it does not support the policy of active containment pursued by Washington." But containing China is the key goal in the region in the US battle to maintain leadership of a unipolar world. India, though seemingly joining the US side through its membership in the QUAD, may not be behaving in the predictable manner the US was counting on.
India’s reluctance to subscribe to the full QUAD mission statement and enthusiastically contain China may have kept the QUAD from becoming a full alliance capable of carrying out its US purpose of confronting and containing China. After a meeting of the QUAD on February 11, India’s Minister of External Affairs told a reporter who was asking about concern over the Russia-China partnership that the QUAD is "not against somebody." Rather than being the key to the QUAD, India may be its moderator.
Balancing the QUAD
With one foot in America’s unipolar world maintaining QUAD, India keeps its other foot in the major Russian and Chinese led international bodies bent on balancing that unipolar world. Consistent with its policy of "convergence with many but congruence with none," India is a member of both the BRICS and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). Both BRICS and the SCO are high foreign policy priorities for Russia and China whose purpose is to act as an economic and foreign policy counterweight to the US in an attempt to re-balance the US led unipolar world into a multipolar one. And India is an enthusiastic member of both.
In a recent landmark Joint Statement issued by Russia and China, the two commit to deepening strategic partnership within BRICS and to "comprehensively strengthen the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and further enhance its role in shaping a polycentric world order."
That is neither new nor surprising. But Russia and China save the shock for the US for the final paragraph. They "intend," they say, "to develop cooperation within the ‘Russia-India-China’ format. RIC is the core of BRICS. It genesis goes back to the beginning of Russia and China’s stress on multipolarity. It grew into BRICS, but Richard Sakwa, Professor of Russian and European Politics at the University of Kent, told me in a personal correspondence that with Brazil’s election of Jair Bolsonaro and tribulations in South Africa, the emphasis has gone back to the core RIC countries. And that means India. So, while the US tries to leverage India’s animosity toward China to pry it away from the Russia-China pole, RIC, Sakwa says, "is designed to prevent the west playing on and exploiting divisions." American plans for India seem not to be working. In the RIC, Sakwa explains, Russia "tries to act as a mediator and peacemaker in Sino-Indian relations." The Russia-India-China organization works against US designs for India and for a unipolar world and is "one of the emerging informal pillars of international politics today."
At the end of November 2021, just before the issuance of the Joint Statement by Russia and China, the three powers met virtually for RIC talks. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi praised the meeting as "an example of genuine multilateralism and democracy promotion in international relations." In the announcement of the meeting, India joined Russia and China in the statement they were soon to make so public, declaring that they would "discuss further strengthening of RIC trilateral cooperation."
Sergei Lavrov, Russia’s Foreign Minister, reiterated the RIC’s role "in promoting trust and confidence between India and China." He added that Russia "value[s] our relationship with India" and that "If Russia-India-China grouping can strengthen trust, this is something we are going to support." Strengthening the relationship between India and China is the antithesis of the US’s intended role for India and the QUAD.
India has restrained the QUAD from confronting and containing China, and it has renewed its membership in the RIC. But those were not the only surprises India had for the US. Three recent moves have underscored India’s firm other foot in the multipolar Russian-Chinese camp. When the US, UK and Australia recently announced the formation of the military AUKUS group whose design, again, is the containment of China, Shidore reports that India "sharply distanced itself" from the anti-China organization.
India also recently defied the US and the US sanction regime and sided with Russia in acquiring a missile defense system from Russia. India defended its actions by calling itself a strategic partner of both the US and Russia: not the words the US wants to hear. The US has struck back by warning its less faithful than expected partner that it could become the target of US sanctions over the acquisition. Dikarev and Lukin report that "Russia is one of the main suppliers of weapons to India."
The third recent surprise India had for US aspirations of pulling India from the Russia-China pole and solely into the US led unipolar world is India’s behavior as a non-permanent member of the Security Council. In a key test in the new cold war, on the border between Russia and Ukraine where Russia has drawn a red line for US hegemony and NATO expansion, India did not vote with the American side on a Security Resolution, effectively supporting Russia over the US. India abstained. Since the US needed nine votes, the abstention was subtle support for Russia. India went so far as to call for a resolution that takes into account "the legitimate security interests of all countries." Russia thanked the Security Council members who abstained from the US called vote.
So, whose side is India on? The question is more complex than the American plan. As hard as the US pulls, India still seems to have one foot immovably on the Russian-Chinese side.
Ted Snider has a graduate degree in philosophy and writes on analyzing patterns in US foreign policy and history.