Geostrategic Chess: An Array Of Indo-Russia-China-US Interests

In the deepening Indo-Russia relations, India has been reluctant to criticize Russia in the Ukraine conflict. The US also suspects that India will not go to war with China.

Geostrategic Chess: An Array Of Indo-Russia-China-US Interests

Geopolitical dynamics in the 21st century have emerged as a fascinating example of complex alliances and interdependence. Indian foreign policy towards the United States, Russia and China emerges as an interesting case study. Through its non-aligned external balancing, it benefited from US-Russia rivalry in the past, while attaining a favored position among both blocs. Indian relations with Russia and the US helped it utilize the benefits of its global power ambitions but, there is also a sense of possible ‘erosion of Indian strategic autonomy vis-à-vis the US’ coupled with its further tilt towards Russia.

India depends more on the US which is considered a demanding partner as it wants to be India's ‘partner of choice’ in all areas of interest. However, despite depending on the US, Indian policymakers project India as a country which cannot be compelled. 

Recent remarks by Indian Minister of External Affairs Jaishankar show that Western criticism of Indian bonhomie with Russia met with, ‘I am looking at it from an Indian perspective. A country which has maximum friends and minimum adversaries is obviously one with smart diplomacy. 

Why would a country restrict its friends? Why would it choose to unless the interest compelled it. It is the mind games that others play that as a democracy you should do this and that. Please look in the mirror and tell me how you were behaving as a democracy. Every country has its values and interests, and it finds its balance.’

The high arc of American ‘exceptionalism’ moved from the nuclear waiver in the 2000s to technology transfer in 2023. While the Clinton-Vajpayee-era gave a push to summit-level diplomacy, the Manmohan-Bush and Manmohan-Obama relationships highlighted nuclear diplomacy, while Modi-Obama and Modi-Trump periods worked on trade and military diplomacy. 

Currently, India-US relationship under Biden-Modi era, has worked on significant deals to further elevate their strategic technology partnerships, especially with regards to emerging technologies and space. It is yet to be seen how the upcoming elections in the US and India will impact their strategic partnership as well as, other common initiatives, such as the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue between Australia, India, Japan and the US, commonly known as the Quad. 

The US has made notable exceptions for India to make it a partner in the Indo-Pacific strategy. Washington gave a CAATSA waiver to India for the purchase of Russian S400 Air Defence System. This decision has two immediate consequences. On the one hand, it agitated Turkey which faced sanctions for importing the same system, while on the other, it jeopardized Pakistan’s security. 

When deployed at India’s Western border, this system can intercept cruise and some ballistic missiles used to counter targets in a range of at least 60 kilometers. This gives India a false sense of security and to opt for counterforce first strikes vis-à-vis Pakistan. This decision has also initiated the domino effect as other states, such as those in the Middle East, are eyeing Russian S-400. Saudi Arabia is discussing S400 supplies with Russia, whereas Qatar is interested in its procurement as well.

So what will be the impact of these India-Russia defense deals on India-US interoperability agreements, including the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA), Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA) and Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA)? 

The US defense equipment and military officers will be more prone to possible Russian espionage. A similar arrangement can be valid for possible US espionage operations vis-à-vis Russia. This Cold War 2.0 between US and Russia in South Asia will make regional security more complex. It will also enhance the security dilemma between the US and Russia. 

Hence, the camaraderie between India and Russia is a bottleneck for the US. In 2023, Indo-Russian trade increased to $50 billion. In the wake of deepening Indo-Russia relations, India has also been reluctant to criticize or isolate Russia in the Ukraine conflict. 

There is already a rising suspicion in the US that India will not go to war with China or provide active military support to the US, if needed. Although China and India had border skirmishes and territorial crises, India’s economic interdependence with China will act as a deterrent in preventing a major war when the relations between India and China ease. The US containment strategy for India as a counterweight to China is poised to be significantly affected. 

In the future, if China, India, and Russia come closer in any trilateral relationship, the US ambition to counter both competitors will not succeed. Such US national strategy vis-à-vis China will thus push China into the South Asian security calculus. Through this, the US gives India a cover to continue an unchecked nuclear and military modernization. India has already tested Agni-IV having 4500 kilometers range, which has the capability of targeting the entire China. The US and Russia need to be cautious about India’s further development of missiles like Agni VI, anticipated to have a 12,000 to 16000 km range. With missiles, even if they are portrayed as balancers vis-à-vis one state, they can still act as deterrents vis-à-vis others within the range as there are no friends and foes in international politics.

The disclosures from DRDO chief Dr S Christopher in 2018  provide a bold insight into the operations within New Delhi’s most advanced weapons laboratories when he said, ‘Technology-wise, we are continuously growing; there is no doubt about it. You cannot stagnate in that position. I am honest to say that the growth is so tremendous we are almost on par with many other countries.’ 

In view Western exceptionalism vis-à-vis India, there exists a perception that India will also resume its nuclear testing. Indian analysts and policymakers are advising the US that when India resumes nuclear testing, it is in the US interests not to penalize it. 

Involvement of both US and Russia with India through defense and nuclear deals will pose grave challenges to strategic stability between India and Pakistan. Such deals are helping India with increase in military and nuclear modernization. This is making the South Asian region more vulnerable and unstable. 

For instance, Indian nuclear modernization includes acquisition of Ballistic Missile Defence (BMD), canisterization and MIRVing of missiles, testing of ASAT weapons and nuclearization of Indian Ocean Region. India has, thus, opted for vertical proliferation without taking on any obligations. This has not only bolstered Indian situational awareness, military readiness and proficiency in executing precision strikes, but also fueled Indian historically persistent drive of regional domination. 

Furthermore, India has opted for proactive doctrines like Cold Start Doctrine, moving towards counterforce targeting coupled with the possibility of shift from No First Use to First Use nuclear policy. India is also constructing a dangerous narrative where the notion of surgical strikes and limited war can become a new normal under a nuclear overhang. These capabilities and Indian nuclear policies also provide India with false sense of security, thereby, tempting India to go for a disarming first strike against Pakistan in the future. This puts the onus of stabilizing deterrence on Pakistan.

History shows that in exercise of its so-called strategic autonomy, India will continue to play on its leverages to achieve its national interests and grand designs to be a global power. Hence, it is imperative for the United States and Russia to evaluate their foreign policies which support conflict resolution and inclusionism rather than exceptionalism. This alone will create balance between US and Russia and will help restore deterrence in South Asia.