Why India is not joining the new cold war
By Dr Kadira Pethiyagoda, Non-resident Expert
Published in the Australian Financial Review
In his meeting with Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Monday, Scott Morrison was mindful that India refused to vote against Russia at the UN, refrained from condemning Moscow and recently defied Washington’s sanctions to buy Russian oil.
While this was met with shock and awe in the Western media echo chamber, India’s behaviour reflects a long-term posture that will characterise its strategy in the emerging “new cold war”. India may act with the West, but only when its interests require it. New Delhi cannot be taken for granted.
Ukraine has demonstrated that the contest between the existing Western-led geopolitical order and a new multipolar one will be the primary shaper of international relations. As India returns to its historic position near the top of the global hierarchy, its role in this power balance could be pivotal.
Much Western media commentary has focused on India’s burgeoning ties with the US and its allies, including Australia, in ideological terms, for example “an alliance of democracies”. The schism over Ukraine, however, has revealed that India, its government, media and public do not view the global moral landscape in the same way as their Western counterparts. And, importantly, that hard strategic and economic interests also underpin any Indian co-operation with the West against China.
These interests include, among other things: regional stability to allow economic growth; balancing against an expansionist neighbour; rising resource competition, including for energy and water; territorial disputes; Beijing’s diplomatic backing of rival Pakistan; and China’s burgeoning relations with south Asian states intruding on India’s sphere of influence. Beijing’s rise presents an unpredictable new factor in India’s region.
All this contributes to Delhi seeing Beijing as its largest strategic threat, reflected perhaps most clearly in India’s nuclear weapons program being aimed more at China than Pakistan.
Nevertheless, as Lord Palmerston (1784-1865) and Henry Kissinger both said, and Hindu scriptures understood thousands of years earlier, there are no permanent friends or perennial enemies. This underlying truth of international relations hasn’t been forgotten by India’s foreign policymakers.
For its part, China sees India more as a conditional threat – an opponent only to the extent that Delhi co-operates with US anti-China efforts. India is to be diplomatically won over, strategically pressured and economically enticed – not a rusted-on enemy.
China’s newly proclaimed strategic alignment with Russia highlights an avenue for Beijing to try to woo India.
Russian strategists would have been buoyed by India’s neutrality and reluctance to condemn Moscow’s actions by name. Their Chinese counterparts probably view an India that is at least neutral in any conflict with the West as an achievable strategic victory. Indeed, several factors suggest India’s position cannot be taken for granted by the West.
First, China and India share certain perennial interests as large developing countries, manifested in initiatives such as the New Development Bank and groupings such as the five BRICS countries – Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa – notwithstanding Delhi’s opposition to China’s Belt and Road policy. Despite tensions, bilateral trade grew 44.3 per cent from 2020 to 2021 to $US125.7 billion, and China was overtaken by the US as India’s largest trading partner only last year.
China’s newly proclaimed strategic alignment with Russia highlights an avenue for Beijing to try to woo India. Delhi’s Russia-friendly neutrality on Ukraine is, as argued vociferously by Indian media pundits and citizens across social media, rooted in a long-history.
Moscow as peacemaker?
Russia has been India’s largest military supplier since independence, including from 2010-2019. The former USSR was a traditional arms supplier to Delhi, including during the Bangladesh liberation war with Pakistan in which Washington backed Islamabad.
Although Delhi has recently increased diversification of the import sources of its military equipment, the servicing requirements of arms mean an importer often maintains some long-term dependence on its supplier.
As seen in the Russia-India-China (RIC) grouping, Moscow may play the role of peacemaker between Delhi and Beijing.
Furthermore, historically, conflict between India and China has been rare. The Chinese philosopher and diplomat Hu Shih (1891-1962) stated that India conquered China culturally for 20 centuries without sending a single soldier across its border. This is perhaps most clearly reflected in Buddhism’s spread.
Culturally, India has long maintained values of tolerance and pluralism. Domestically, these contribute to the country’s democratic tradition, creating natural affinity with other liberal democracies. Internationally, however, India’s tolerance extends to multiple approaches to internal governance and non-interference.
This is something China also espouses, its joint statement with Russia highlighting its opposition to foreign interference in internal affairs. Both countries’ prioritisation of sovereignty in international law as post-colonial states was key, though to varying degrees, in preventing them providing more overt support to their mutual strategic partner Russia regarding Ukraine.
This brings us to probably the most powerful card in China’s pocket if it wishes to influence India. Like China and Russia, India ultimately seeks a multipolar world order. China and India were the world’s largest economies half a millennia ago, and both have national psyches which remember this position being toppled under colonialism – something Indian social media has reminded the Western press of since the Ukraine-fallout. India’s strategic objective in countering China isn’t simply the perpetuation of a Western-dominated order.
The “new cold war” is the defining foreign policy challenge of our time. As the world enters an era of “great power” rivalry unseen for decades, India’s position is increasingly important, particularly for countries such as Australia.
In pursuing the country’s security and economic interests, Canberra needs to fully grasp the multiple contours of Delhi’s position. India, and its interests, cannot be taken for granted.