Balancing US and Russia: India’s Strategic Ambitions and South Asian Security Landscape

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Over the last two decades, India and the United States have grown increasingly aligned, with the US providing greater military assistance to India to enhance its military capabilities in response to China’s rise. The US seeks to support India’s emergence as a potential power to advance its own strategic interests. As part of this, the US is helping India modernize its military capabilities. Despite being a key ally of Washington, India is relying on Russia for its military buildups and also benefiting from the US considerable relaxation towards its conventional and nuclear modernization. Last month, India announced it would allocate 5.94 trillion rupees ($72.6 billion) for defense spending in the 2023–24 fiscal year, representing a 13% increase and making it the third-highest defense spender after the US and China. The increase in Indian government’s military spending is driven by its strategic objectives of shifting the strategic balance in its favor. This pose a destabilizing influence on the regional strategic environment, which could potentially threaten the strategic stability between Pakistan and India.

The granting of a waiver by the US to India for entry into the NSG, coupled with India’s acquisition of Ballistic Missile Defense (BMD) and Anti-Satellite (ASAT) capabilities, are reasonable destabilizing factors in the South Asian region. India has also developed Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBM) such as Agni-V with a range of over 5,000 km and capable of delivering nuclear warheads. For India, the US has been a major source of advanced military equipment with bilateral defense trade jumping from almost nothing in 2008 to $20 billion in 2020. In addition, India`s central position in the US Indo-Pacific Strategy and the QUAD alliance signifies the elevation of Indo-US bilateral ties to a “Comprehensive Global Strategic Partnership”.

Nonetheless, New Delhi’s special strategic ties with Washington, India is also relying on Russia for its military modernization. India continues to be Russia`s largest arms buyer with $13 billion in imports during the last five years despite the US and Western world sanctions on Russia and appeal to India not to buy Russian arms. India`s decision to purchase Russia’s S-400 defense missile system to boost capability against fighter jets, unmanned aerial vehicles, ballistic, and cruise missiles, could have provoked CAATSA sanction by the US as warned by the US State Department but did not happen and room for relaxation was left for New Delhi. The US is having difficulty getting India to take a strong stance against Russia. India wants to stay neutral because 85 percent of its weapons are Russian-made; hence, it believes that condemnation would lead to the suspension of spare parts supplies for its aircraft and missiles. Also, India does not want to be pushed into an intensifying crisis with China.  

Despite its special strategic ties with the US, India has refused to suspend ties with Russia and join the Western sanctions. India, which was already a limited strategic partner of the US, its role is being questioned by international observers as a reliable strategic ally of the US on grounds that India has adopted a muted public stance as support for Russia which New Delhi, for a long time, see a reliable country for arms import. India stands with the US in opposing the perceived Chinese aggressiveness while at the same time abstaining from condemning Russia`s invasion of Ukraine. The oddity of New Delhi is driven by its strategic ambitions in balancing the West and Russia in the emerging geopolitical environment after the ongoing Russia-Ukraine war. India depends on both Russia and the US to enhance its military capabilities and rebalance the strategic landscape in its favor.

The US once tried to maintain balance in its ties with Pakistan and India, but it is now clearly pursuing its foreign policy goals while ignoring the security concerns of Pakistan and viewing India as a reliable and strong military and economic power.  The US tolerance towards India and its increased cooperation are undermining the strategic environment in South Asia. The US generous support to India is also resulting in discrimination against Pakistan at global forums. It can impede negotiations to resolve disputes between Pakistan and India including the long-standing issue of Kashmir. Also, these developments undermine the cause of nuclear non-proliferation as well as threaten the strategic balance between Pakistan and India.

Preventing arms race and maintaining strategic balance are key to peace in the region and beyond. The Indo-US deepening defense cooperation is challenging the strategic stability of the region, thus creating nuclear risks with far-reaching consequences. The US reserves the greater responsibility in contributing towards prevention of regional arms races, greater instability, or crisis escalation. Recently, while the US has expressed willingness to work closely with both Pakistan and India, maintaining balance in Pakistan-India ties would not be possible until the US addresses Pakistan`s security concerns emanating from the US support to India in military build-ups which has also led to the biased and discriminatory role of the export controls and non-proliferation regimes.

Sher Ali Kakar
Sher Ali Kakar
Writer is working as Research Officer at Balochistan Think Tank Network (BTTN), Quetta.

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