Over the past decades, Indian political elites have mastered the subtle art of balancing between several poles, learning to turn the differences of other great powers to their advantage. There is no doubt that they will succeed this time as well, writes Valdai Club expert Alexei Kupriyanov.
“As the United States and China become great power rivals, the direction in which India tilts could determine the course of geopolitics in Eurasia in the twenty-first century. India, in other words, looms as the ultimate pivot state. […] But even as the Indian political class understands at a very intimate level America’s own historical and geographical situation, the American political class has no such understanding of India’s. Yet, if Americans do not come to grasp India’s age-old, highly unstable geopolitics, especially as it concerns Pakistan, Afghanistan and China, they will badly mishandle the relationship. India’s history and geography since early antiquity constitute the genetic code for how the world looks from for New Delhi. I begin by placing the Indian Subcontinent in the context of Eurasia in general.”
These words were written by the well-known American journalist Robert Kaplan exactly ten years ago, in 2012. Since then, little has changed in the perception of the world within India itself, and in the perception of India in other countries. Contrary to Kaplan’s warnings, the three powers — the United States, China and Russia, to which many pages are devoted in Kaplan’s book — have been failing catch the rhythm in which New Delhi “swings”. Washington again and again tries to put pressure on the intractable partner, demanding that they break off relations with Russia; Beijing regularly tests the Line of Actual Control in the Himalayas, stubbornly trying to force claims of several square kilometres of territory where nothing grows and no one lives. Russia looks like the most civil player in this strange championship, but it also sometimes criticises its partners for participating in inappropriate formats and misunderstanding the current situation in the Asia-Pacific region.
Don’t Teach Me How to Live
The Indian elites and masses perceive attempts to moralise and lecture about life reproachfully, seeing in them an echo of the post-colonial arrogance characteristic of Western countries.
Every nation has its own generally-accepted narrative about the past, which helps unite people. Unlike groups and tribes, a nation consists of a huge number of citizens, most of whom do not know each other. They may belong to different ethnic groups and speak different languages, but they share a common history: that of the state in which they live. For Indians, with their diverse array of languages, religions, cultures, ethnic groups and castes, a single narrative is extremely important.
Within its framework, India is portrayed as a once-prosperous power, whose power and well-being was undermined by internal strife and foreign conquests — first Muslim, and later European. Many elements of this narrative will seem familiar to the Russian reader: the strife of the princes, because of which it was not possible to defend the country, the invasions of the occupants, the long struggle for liberation, the difficult victory and the beginning of the restoration of former greatness. For India, the last stage began in 1947 and continues to this day. The first prime minister of independent India, Jawaharlal Nehru, made no secret of his intention to restore his country’s status as a great power. There is only one way to do this — to convince other countries to recognise India as such. The Indians themselves already know that they live within a great power, and they do not need to be convinced.
When strangers nevertheless lecture a society convinced of its own great power status, it reacts accordingly. At the same time, the Indian political elites are distinguished by their enviable patience, realising that good relations with the United States, China and Russia are necessary for their country — but with each player in its own way.
From this list, the USA is the youngest and most powerful country. US-India relations have a long and turbulent history, ranging from Washington’s unconditional support for New Delhi during the 1962 war, and Kennedy’s promises to use nuclear weapons to defend India if the PRC attacked it, to Bill Clinton’s lectures on how to build a democracy, and sanctions in the late 1990s. The current Indian-American rapprochement began at the turn of the century: the United States, attacking Afghanistan, urgently needed an ally which would not like the Islamists in general and the Taliban in particular. Given the role played by Pakistan in shaping the Taliban movement, India’s candidacy was quite evident.
It was an offer that could not be refused: when the global hegemon offers his friendship and trade preferences for virtually nothing, who would reject the outstretched hand? Moreover, a new common enemy was soon found in the face of a rapidly developing China, which threatens American dominance in the Pacific and is increasingly active in the Indian Ocean.
Indian-American relations have been developing quite steadily since then, with each of the partners clearly aware of its own interests. From the US, Indians need money, technology, weapons, and all this is desirable gratis. The Americans want India to become a bulwark against China so that Beijing, when planning expansion to the east, always take into account that there is a potentially hostile power on its southern border. And the United States wants to achieve this goal with a minimal expenditure of funds and resources.
The Indian position looks much stronger in this scenario. India acts as a counterbalance to the PRC simply due to the fact of its existence; therefore, according to Indian politicians, the United States is objectively interested in the further strengthening of the country. New Delhi under these conditions can afford to pursue a passive policy without getting too involved in various alliances. For Americans, accustomed to the logic of “you scratch my back — I scratch yours”, this approach sometimes causes misunderstandings and indignation. American politicians regularly try to force India to pay for American moral and material support: to fully open the market to goods from the United States, to actively participate in anti-Chinese initiatives, and to transform their model of democracy to match American standards. But the more the US pushes, the more India resists.
New Delhi does not want to become an anti-Chinese bastion or an American vassal: the Indians expect to become a strong centre of power — first on the Asian level and then on the world level. If now India needs to be friends with the United States, well, it is ready: friendship is generally a good thing, especially when it promotes profitable trade (the United States is one of the few countries with which India has a trade surplus). But whenever the US attempts to lecture India, or worse, to force it to act in American interests when these interests conflict with India’s own, New Delhi gently but firmly refuses.
If India’s relationship with the United States is based on the clear logic of mutually beneficial cooperation, then the relationship between New Delhi and Beijing is much more complicated. For thousands of years, two civilisations — Chinese and Indian — lived side by side, while touching each other relatively weakly: the Himalayas separate them and the monsoon cycles in the Indian Ocean did not allow for large-scale trade. On the other hand, cultural exchange flourished: Chinese Buddhist pilgrims were frequent guests in India. Actually, one of the classic Chinese novels “Journey to the West” just tells about the travel of the monk Xuanzang with his companions to India for Buddhist sutras.
By 1950, all the conditions seemed to have arisen for a political rapprochement. India finally gained independence, and China, after a century of weakness and humiliation, united under the communists, which had won a civil war. The union of the two great powers of Asia, freed from the oppression of the imperialists, looked extremely promising. However, a decade later, the turbulent post-colonial romance came to an abrupt end: tactical problems prevented strategic rapprochement. India and China could not agree on the issue of the border line drawn at the time by the British. Their growing mutual distrust led to the 1962 border war, which India lost. Since then, the notion of China as a treacherous neighbour, always ready to stick a knife in India’s back (needless to say, the Chinese version of events is radically different) has taken root in India’s domestic political discourse. This idea has firmly entered the national narrative.
Over the past 60 years, the Indians and Chinese have not been able to resolve the border issue and get rid of the feeling of mutual distrust, but they have learned to trade successfully. In 2021, the volume of mutual trade between India and China reached a historic high, exceeding $100 billion, and neither the bloody conflict in Ladakh, nor restrictions on the import of a number of Chinese goods introduced by the Indian government prevented this. New Delhi is concerned about the deficit in trade with China and is trying to reduce the dependence of the Indian economy on China as much as possible, but so far without much success.
Contacts between India and China began more than three thousand years ago, and from this perspective, the current conflicts are perceived as a temporary and transient phenomenon: you need to understand that a neighbour beyond the Himalayas will not go anywhere, and you need to learn to live next to him so that no one feels disadvantaged. The main goal of India is not to defeat China and not even to return the territories lost after the 1962 war, but to get Beijing to recognise New Delhi as another centre of power in Asia. This, in turn, means recognising that India has a sphere of interests in the Indian Ocean, South and Southeast Asia, where one should not meddle without the consent of New Delhi. So far, it seems that Beijing is not paying enough attention to its southern neighbour, not taking its wishes seriously, and in vain: a hostile India can bring a lot of trouble to the PRC in the future.
India and Russia
Unlike the United States and China, Russia’s trade with India looks quite modest: despite all efforts, shortly before the pandemic, it barely exceeded $10 billion dollars, and the growth rate even lagged behind the rate of dollar inflation. At the same time, Russia remains one of India’s key partners. This is due to three factors: old friendship, cooperation in critical industries and hopes for the future.
The cultural-historical factor is perhaps invoked too often, but its importance cannot be underestimated. The Soviet Union at one time helped India carry out an industrialisation programme and build powerful heavy industry; power plants designed by Soviet and Indian engineers gave energy to this industry, people who studied from Soviet books became its personnel reserve, and weapons supplied by the USSR ensured its security. Soviet money, technology and resources helped India get on its feet, and the older and middle-aged generations of Indians remember this well. We, unfortunately, are accustomed to taking the friendly feelings of the Indians for granted; in order for them to be preserved, it is necessary to support educational, technical and humanitarian cooperation, to do this systematically and allocate the necessary resources for this. In the meantime, many Indian medical students go to study in countries of the post-Soviet space other than Russia, because it is cheaper there, and humanities students go to the West, because they see no alternative.
In the economic sphere, Russia holds positions in the nuclear energy sphere, but is gradually losing ground in the field of space research and military-technical cooperation. This is partly an objective process: the Indian elites are trying to diversify ties in sensitive areas so that the situation of the early nineties does not repeat itself, when after the collapse of the USSR, India suddenly lost a source of supplies of components for already-purchased equipment. However, it is partly due to Russia’s inability to offer India the technology and equipment it needs at the moment, and the growing backwardness of the Russian military-industrial complex in a number of areas. The situation can be reversed only with the help of investments in promising projects (UAVs, underwater vehicles, naval aviation) — possibly, together with the Indian side.
When it comes to the future, the Indians usually remember big politics. In the Indian picture of the ideal future, Russia occupies an important place as one of the friendly centres of power — just like India in the geopolitical constructions of the Russian leadership. Now that Russia has been cut off from European and American investment and markets, these geopolitical considerations should finally be filled with real content. India has every chance of becoming a trans-shipment point for investments and Western goods going to Russia, and a market for Russian goods, and Russian technology — a growth driver for the Indian economy.
Over the past decades, Indian political elites have mastered the subtle art of balancing between several poles, learning to turn the differences of other great powers to their advantage. There is no doubt that they will succeed this time as well.