Is It All Up to India?

In the global tug of war between a US led unipolar world and a Russia-China nurtured multipolar world, whichever side India throws its massive size behind will likely prevail, or at least not be defeated.

On the one side of the rope is the US with all its political, economic and military muscle. On the other is Russia and its massive and growing strategic partner, China. In the middle is India, the second largest country in the world and a growing power.

India maintains a friendly foot in both worlds. Long a partner of the US in containing China, India long played that same role for Russia, with whom it has long been a key friend. India is a member of the US led QUAD, whose purpose is to contain and deflate China while asserting US leadership over the management of Asia. There have been times in the twenty-first century when the US plan for pressing China back down has included nurturing India’s ascent to a major world power so it could be deputized as a reliable hegemon in the region. Today, still, the key to the QUAD is bringing India over to the US side.

But India is also a long and very close partner of Russia, and its relations with China have been improving for decades. It is a member of the QUAD but has restrained that organization. It has participated in it and supported it but maintained, unlike its American, Japanese and Australian partners, that the QUAD is “not against somebody.” Though India has regional concerns about China over which it opposes it, it lacks America’s global concerns about China and may not be "against" it. India has its own concerns about its giant neighbor but does not share American concerns of containing it.

Instead, India is also a member of important international organizations in which it joins Russia and China in containing, or balancing, US hegemony. India is an important and enthusiastic member of both the BRICS and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), 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. 

India is not only a member of BRICS, which includes Brazil and South Africa, it is also a member of the core RIC group along with Russia and China. In a recent landmark Joint Statement, Russia and China announced that they "intend to develop cooperation within the ‘Russia-India-China’ format." India, too, has said that they would join Russia and China in discussing "further strengthening of RIC trilateral cooperation.” Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov has noted that part of the role of RIC is “in promoting trust and confidence between India and China.” That role is the antithesis of the US goal of exploiting divisions between India and China to bring India over to the US side.

The current template the US has imposed on the world no longer allows for neutrality. As in the Cold War, when nonaligned nations were no longer tolerated, neutrality, or having a friendly foot in both camps, is not a permitted option. Washington has repeatedly demanded that India "take a clear position" in the new cold war. Whichever "clear position" India takes will likely acquire the weight to prevail in the tug of war.

But India may not take a clear position. It may continue on the path of an independent foreign policy of a country too big to feel bound to follow either power but able to pursue relations with all global powers. But that "cooperative pluralism," as India has called the approach, may, in American eyes, line it up with the multipolar world pursued by Russia and China. That unclear position may become a clear position that lets down the US side in the tug of war.

Though India is an important strategic partner of the US, it has also reminded the US that it is also a strategic partner of Russia. In 2009, India and Russia signed the Joint Russian-Indian Declaration of Deepening and Strategic Partnership. In 2015, Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited Russia, and the two sides agreed on a number of steps to enhance that partnership.

In recent UN decisions that drew the line between Russia and the US over Ukraine, India has twice abstained. As a non-permanent member of the Security Council, India did not vote with the American side on a Security Resolution, effectively supporting Russia over the US, and they called for a resolution that takes into account “the legitimate security interests of all countries.”

At the recent June meeting of the BRICS nations, Indian Prime Minister Modi attended, making him one of the few major world leaders who has met with Putin since the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Modi called for "strengthening of the BRICS Identity." He "noted that as BRICS members we should understand security concerns of each other" and, perhaps most importantly, called for reform of an international system in which "large parts of Asia and all of Africa and Latin America have no voice in global decision-making." India reiterated the role of BRICS in balancing the US unipolar world and promoting a multipolar world.

As important as the diplomatic support India has provided Russia at the UN is the economic support it has offered when the West has sanctioned Russia and severed it from the financial system. Though the West has tried to put the lid on Russian oil exports, The New York Times reports that China and India have negated the desired effect by increasing purchases by "roughly the same volume of Russian oil that would have gone to the West." The Times says that "India, which once purchased little Russian oil, is now bringing in more than 760,000 barrels a day." That level of important, which has increased to 819,000 barrels a day, now makes Russia the second largest supplier of crude oil to India, overtaking Saudi Arabia.

India has stood firm in its position of not being pulled from a multipolar world into the US led unipolar world. If the US cannot use divisions with China to pull India from Russia onto its side, it may face a large and muscular competitor in the global tug of war.

Ted Snider has a graduate degree in philosophy and writes on analyzing patterns in US foreign policy and history.