Ukraine war exposes limit of India’s strategic independence

Ukraine war exposes limit of India’s strategic independence

Ukraine war exposes limit of India’s strategic independence

Russia’s surprise invasion of Ukraine has shocked the world, including Asia, a region far from where the war is unfolding. “Although we are far away and a small country, international issues such as this are very concerning,” said Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen on Feb. 24, when Russian troops invaded Ukraine. Hun Sen made the remark during a meeting with Malaysian Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob in Phnom Penh.

Most members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations have done little more than voice concern about the crisis. Myanmar’s army even defended Moscow’s invasion as justified. Indonesia, Singapore and Brunei are the only ASEAN countries that have openly criticized Russia.

ASEAN foreign ministers issued a tepid joint statement on the matter saying, “We call on all relevant parties to exercise maximum restraint and make utmost efforts to pursue dialogues through all channels.”

Russia serves as a buffer for ASEAN, which finds itself in the middle of the U.S.-China rivalry. Moscow was the largest supplier of arms to Southeast Asia from 2000 to 2019, selling $10.7 billion worth of weapons to the region, according to the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore. The ASEAN members have good reason to avoid antagonizing Russia, a member of the East Asia Summit multilateral forum.

While stopping short of calling Russia’s military operation against Ukraine an invasion, China has not supported the action. In phone talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Chinese President Xi Jinping called for a negotiated solution.

In early February, Xi and Putin held a summit on the opening day of the Beijing Winter Olympics and issued a joint statement opposing any NATO expansion. The document also said, “Friendship between the two states has no limits, there are no ‘forbidden’ areas of cooperation.” Still, Beijing has not openly backed Putin’s military adventure.

Their joint statement shows how China misread Putin’s intent, according to Yun Sun, a senior fellow at the Stimson Center. “Had Beijing expected Putin to invade Ukraine, it would have been more careful about its close alignment and commitment that tie Beijing to Putin’s chariot,” she says.

The reactions of both ASEAN and China to the conflict reflect current geopolitics in Asia, which has been reshaped by fierce competition between the U.S. and China. While ASEAN is doing its usual diplomatic balancing act, Beijing is trying to prevent further deterioration of already strained relations with the U.S. and Europe.

But there is one Asian country that seems confused about how to respond to the crisis: India.

An emergency meeting of the U.N. Security Council on Feb. 25 voted on a draft resolution that “deplores in the strongest terms” Russian “aggression” against Ukraine as violating the U.N. Charter.

In his speech at the Security Council meeting, T.S. Tirumurti, Indian Ambassador to the U.N., called for “the immediate cessation of violence and hostilities,” respect for the U.N. Charter, and a resolution of the conflict through dialogue. When concluding his speech, however, Tirumurti said, “For all these reasons, India has chosen to abstain on this resolution” — a jarringly inconsistent closing to the main thrust of his speech.

India also abstained when the U.N. General Assembly on March 2 overwhelmingly adopted a resolution to reprimand Russia for invading Ukraine.

Several hours after the Feb. 25 Security Council meeting, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy called Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and asked for India’s support after briefing Modi on the situation. According to local media, Modi called for an immediate cessation of violence, as he did during earlier phone talks with Putin.

India is striving to remain neutral, but its strategy has favored Russia, which has repeatedly thanked New Delhi for adopting an “independent position” on the crisis.

India depends on Russia for 60% to 70% of its weapons. This explains New Delhi’s reluctance to criticize Russian aggression. But there is also a historical background to India’s equivocation.

The warm relationship between the two countries dates back to the early years of the Cold War. For a while, India and China cooperated as leaders of nonaligned nations due to the personal relationship between Jawaharlal Nehru, the first prime minister of independent India, and Zhou Enlai, the first premier of communist China. But a 1962 border war between the two countries dampened relations.

As China moved closer to Pakistan, India signed a treaty of friendship and cooperation with the Soviet Union in 1971. Although it did not abandon its official policy of nonalignment, India agreed with the Soviet Union to hold talks if either party comes under attack or is threatened by other countries, effectively making them allies.

The Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 was a clear violation of sovereignty that should have prompted India — the self-appointed champion of the nonalignment movement — to denounce the act. But India continually abstained from voting on U.N. resolutions to condemn the invasion because of its desire to cooperate with the Soviet Union.

India’s ambivalence toward Russia’s invasion of Ukraine exposes two contradictions.

First, the stance is inconsistent with its own criticism of China’s threats about a disputed border in the Himalayan region. The dispute erupted into a deadly military clash between Indian and Chinese soldiers in 2020, with New Delhi denouncing Beijing for threatening its “territorial integrity and sovereignty.”

This clearly shows India’s double standards as long as it refuses to condemn Russia’s actions in Ukraine.

Second, India’s stance toward Russian aggression contradicts its own security strategy. While increasing its involvement in the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue — or Quad, a security framework comprising Japan, the U.S., Australia and India — India has also expanded military cooperation with Russia. In their meeting in December 2021, Modi and Putin agreed to jointly develop and produce military technologies and weapons over the next decade.

India’s move to bolster defense ties with Russia while remaining a Quad member made strategic sense within the context of the rivalry between the U.S. and China, which Washington views as “the only competitor” capable of mounting a challenge to a stable and open international system. But Russia’s invasion has completely changed the dynamic.

Washington can impose sanctions on countries purchasing weapons from Russia under the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act of 2017. In 2020, the U.S. slapped sanctions on Turkey after it deployed Russian S-400 surface-to-air systems in 2019, but refrained from doing the same against India when New Delhi deployed the system in 2021.

U.S. President Joe Biden was visibly irritated when asked whether India is fully on board with the U.S. regarding Ukraine. “We’re going to be, we’re in consultation, with India today. We haven’t resolved that completely,” he said. Hence, there is no ruling out the possibility of the Biden administration threatening sanctions on India.

In 2007, then-Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh adopted the policy of “strategic independence” to describe its nonalignment diplomacy. It was aimed at making clear India intended to maintain fully “independent” diplomacy despite its nuclear cooperation agreement with the U.S., which was formally signed in 2008.

Modi, who came to power in 2014, continues this policy.

While the Biden administration has stepped up efforts to counter China and framed its competition with Beijing as a fight between democracy and autocracy, India — a notable member of the democracy camp — has been actively courted by both the U.S. and Europe.

India’s response to the Ukrainian crisis, however, could reduce its strategic value for the West, according to Hiroshi Sugaya, director of the Institute for Indian Economic Studies. “India’s status would fall in the eyes of the U.S.,” he said. “Washington will try not to make an enemy of India, but that’s about it. Its role in the Quad could also gradually diminish.”

Unlike ASEAN, a bloc of comparatively small countries, India is a nation of nearly 1.4 billion people and the world’s sixth-largest economy. India’s opportunistic foreign policy opens it to criticism for failing to act as a responsible major power.

The Ukrainian crisis is forcing India to choose between upholding universal values or pursuing national interests. India’s choice could have a large impact on Washington’s Indo-Pacific strategy.



  • Pazdin Dalal

    A marketing expert from Mumbai takes interest in covering defence and geopolitical issues. He has also been active in covering growth of private defence sector in India.

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