At the end of the Cold War, India had a choice either to remain isolated and strengthen the nonalignment movement or join hands with the United States to ultimately balance the growing influence of China. India opted for the latter in light of its own geopolitics.
As part of its strategy to keep South Asia clear of Chinese interference and extend its own influence into the greater part of the Asia-Pacific region, India began courting allies in Southeast Asia with a “Look East” policy. Now, if India has to be reckoned as a great power, it needs to look westward. It needs to spread its influence into Central Asia.
If that’s to happen, India has to find a stable and reliable partner to the north. Russia, an old friend of India’s from the days of the Cold War, will welcome India’s presence in Central Asia to counter China’s ambitions in the region. India’s booming economy moreover can act as a major attraction to Russian industry. Defense contracts serve India’s ambition to continue and improve relations with the Russian Bear.
For quite some time, India and Russia have been moving in that direction. For instance, the two powers have been conducting annual discussions on defense cooperation. This year’s talks centered on Russia’s fifth-generation fighter aircraft, a deal worth some $25 billion, and the leasing of the Akula submarine. India plans to get 250 of the fighter jets for its air force while the nuclear submarine will be leased by the Indian Navy for ten years to train personnel before the INS Arihant, the first submarine developed and built in India, joins the fleet. India and Russia have already had developed the BrahMos supersonic cruise missile together.
There has been something of a seesaw in the relation recently, at least when it comes to the procurement of arms with India actively turning to Uncle Sam for weapons. India’s defense spending is set to mount considerably over the next twenty to 25 years as the Indian military is modernizing its systems. New Delhi expects to spend nearly $120 billion over a period of five years starting in 2012. This represents a golden opportunity for Russia’s weakened economy to recover.
India would curse itself for allowing a golden opportunity to be missed. China has previously taken advantage of Russian experience and expertise when it recruited former Soviet defense specialist after the Wall came down. India has to make up for this Chinese advantage and speed up the process of cooperating with the Russians.
There are also important geostrategic reasons for improving relations with Russia from the Indian perspective. With the United States preparing to pull out of Afghanistan, there is already talk in the Moscow of expanding Russia’s role in Afghanistan. It’s likely that India will also get on board. India and Shia Iran used to be the main supporters of Afghanistan’s Northern Alliance against the largely Sunni and Pashtun Taliban before the American led coalition toppled the regime in 2001.
Russia, which last year allowed the United States to ship weapons across its territory to Afghanistan, has been wary of the Taliban insurgency destabilizing Central Asian republics and spilling over into its Caucasus region. At the same time, Russia doesn’t believe in the doctrine of former foreign minister Yevgeny Maksimovich Primakov anymore who once championed the forging of a strategic partnership among Beijing, Moscow and New Delhi to counter Washington’s presence in Eurasia. Instead, Moscow and Delhi are more likely to team up with the Americans to try to counter the extension of the Chinese sphere of interest.
It is against this background that Russian president Dmitri Medvedev is expected visit New Delhi in December for the annual India-Russia summit. Russia shares India’s concern over China’s rise. The last thing it wants is to have a Chinese hegemony spread around the Caucasus and Central Asia once American troops are out. Medvedev’s visit to New Delhi will be preceded by President Barack Obama’s own trip to India in November and there is no prize for guessing that there could be a revision of Primakov’s doctrine aimed at Beijing.
In conclusion, the wheel has come full circle from the time when India in its infancy as a nation newly independent after 1947 used to court the Soviet Union by following a socialist economy with national planning very much in line with the Stalinist model to Russia courting India for economic purposes today and in order to regain international influence and prestige.