“Russia is losing India!”—I have been hearing such lamentations in Moscow for as long as I have followed world politics. Pessimism and alarmism are not a rare phenomenon among intellectuals and experts in any country, Russia included.
Manifestations of Russian-Indian relations losing their past dynamics are plenty. The bilateral trade is negligible. Today, Russia trades with India about 10 times less than it does with China. The military technical cooperation between Moscow and New Delhi experiences many complications and even setbacks due to the growing Western presence in the Indian defense market and with the current Prime Minister Modi’s “Make in India” industrial strategy. There are significant areas of disagreement between the two countries on many international matters including QUAD, Afghanistan, the China-proposed Belt and Road Initiative and others. In 2020, for the first time in 20 years, Moscow and New Delhi failed to conduct their regular annual summit meeting.
Of course, neither of these symptoms suggests that the overall relationship is going down the drain. The history of productive cooperation between Moscow and New Delhi is too long to be seriously challenged by a few economic or geopolitical nuisances. The Russian-Indian “privileged strategic partnership” continues to serve as a model great power relationship in many ways, even when the two sides “agree to disagree” on various specific matters.
Still, there should be no room for complacency from either side in the bilateral relationship. It is not only red tape, bureaucratic inertia, communication failures, personal ambitions, or situational omissions that warrant closer scrutiny. The overall trends in global politics also call for a thoughtful reassessment of the Russian-Indian partnership.
The world moves, albeit slowly and reluctantly, to a new geopolitical and geoeconomic bipolarity. Year after year, Moscow is moving east, enhancing its ties to China. Year after year, New Delhi is moving west, building stronger links to the US. If this trend continues into the mid-term future, the two friendly countries might ultimately find themselves in the opposite geopolitical and economic blocks, and the Eurasian space will split into two pieces. Over time, Moscow and New Delhi will find it more challenging to maintain their bilateral cooperation even at the current levels, not to mention it is further deepening and broadening.
Neither Moscow nor New Delhi have capacities to change the trajectory of the international system unilaterally or even in a consorted effort. However, neither Moscow nor New Delhi should limit themselves to a position of mere observers of the approaching global bipolarity. Russia and India (as well as the EU and many other international actors) are going to lose a lot if they have to take sides in this forthcoming US-China rivalry. On the contrary, it is in their best interests to confront this bipolarity and to mitigate it to the extent possible with a new emphasis on multilateralism.
India, China and Russia are all members of BRICS and of SCO; Moscow could work harder making these institutions more efficient in reaching common denominators for even highly sensitive security and development issues. There is also a separate mechanism of the Russia-India-China trilateral consultations, which deserves more attention than it gets today.
The future of Eurasia at the end of the day depends largely on the future of the China-India relationship. No outside players, Russia including, can “fix” this relationship for Beijing and New Delhi. However, outside players, Russia included, can assist in turning this relationship around by offering positive incentives for both sides to work together in trilateral or other multilateral formats. The alternative approach—trying to balance Beijing and New Delhi against the other—might give Moscow certain situational advantages, but it will not serve Russia’s long-term interests.
Moscow could offer India and Beijing new opportunities for trilateral development projects in the Arctic region, in Central Asia or even in the Russian Far East. Agriculture and food processing might represent another area for trilateral cooperation. The three countries could consider working together in pharma and health sector, where they also complement each other.
In sum, decision-makers in Moscow should not regard China and India as two parallel foreign policy priorities that Russia has to choose between and/or keep separate from each other. They should rather approach Beijing and New Delhi as partners, which will become more valuable for Russia if they find ways to work more actively with each other.
From our partner RIAC