Russian President Vladimir Putin will begin his two-day visit to India today, with agreements on defence, trade, and space technology on the agenda, along with discussions over the military transition in Afghanistan. But the most significant outcome of the summit is expected to be India’s purchase of the S-400 Triumf missile system from Russia.
In 2016, the countries signed an agreement allowing India to purchase five S-400 systems for US$5.8 billion. The deal has raised eyebrows in the United States, which has urged India not to make the purchase.
America believes the S-400 could access sensitive military technology. Last July, the US Congress passed the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act, which empowers the president to impose sanctions on countries that procure defence equipment from certain companies in Russia, Iran and North Korea. Among them is the Almaz-Antey Air and Space Defence Corporation – the Russian manufacturer of the S-400.
However, a later amendment to the act allows the president to grant waivers on a case-by-case basis. India argued for a waiver in July and again in September on three planks: that it would not use weapons against the US, that the absence of the S-400 would adversely affect its military abilities, and that it was significantly reducing its dependence on Russian military hardware, according to a report in The Hindu newspaper.
“The S-400 missile deal is a message from India to the United States that the COMCASA and other military agreements do not mean it will abandon Russia – one of its oldest allies,” said Suhasini Haidar, The Hindu’s diplomatic affairs editor, referring to the Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement the US and India signed last month, which allows the transfer of sensitive encrypted defence technology between them.
Putin’s visit to India will be watched closely not just by Washington, but probably also by Beijing. His trip comes at a time when Russia and China are strengthening ties with each other. In September, Russia conducted Vostok 18, its largest military exercise since the end of the cold war, on its eastern border. It also invited China and Mongolia to participate in the war games.
In the first quarter of 2018, trade volume between India and China increased by 30 per cent. The relationship between the two countries rests on a common agenda – to reduce America’s influence as a global power. The US recognises this and, to cement its position in the global arena, is boosting ties with India.
“India then becomes a bit of collateral damage because one of the main planks of the Indo-Russian relationship was a mutual distrust of China,” said Nandan Unnikrishnan, a distinguished fellow at The Observer Research Foundation, a New-Delhi based think tank. “There will be an impact on the Indo-Russian relationship not only because of the growing closeness between Russia and China but also because of the Indo-US relationship.”
In March, the US formally changed the name of its Pacific Command to the Indo-Pacific Command, with defence secretary James Mattis stressing that this was in keeping with the country’s strategic focus spanning both the Pacific and Indian Oceans – “from Hollywood to Bollywood”.
“China isn’t particularly excited at the change of nomenclature because it gives greater prominence to India,” said Ashok Sajjanhar, president of the Institute of Global Studies and a former Indian diplomat.
Russia too has favoured the use of the term Asia-Pacific over a moniker that Unnikrishnan calls a “young concept” and “an attempt to manage China’s rise in the Indo-Pacific seas” at the geopolitical level.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s recent statements on the Indo-Pacific region, however, seem to indicate India would not like to be seen as strategically aligned with a particular group or country. “The 10 countries of Southeast Asia connect the two great oceans in both the geographical and civilisational sense,” he said at the Shangri-La Dialogue defence summit in June this year. “Inclusiveness, openness and Asean centrality and unity, therefore, lie at the heart of the new Indo-Pacific.”
This policy of equidistance isn’t just limited to China and Russia. “In West Asia, we have good relations with Israel and Saudi Arabia, UAE and Iran,” Sajjanhar added. “So in a multipolar world, we have to follow a policy of multi-alignment rather than a policy of non-alignment.”
Modi’s meetings with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Wuhan, with Putin in Sochi, India’s participation in the 2+2 dialogue with the US, and its S-400 defence systems deal with Russia are emblematic of this multipolarity.
India, however, is relying on the depth of its relationship with Russia to give it the strategic space to negotiate with other world powers in the long run. Military ties between the two countries date back to the mid-1960s, when the erstwhile Soviet Union supplied MiG 21 helicopters to India, soon after the 1962 Sino-Indian war.
“India is in favour of a multipolar world and does not want a hegemon. Russia is also on the same page. So if both countries can build on that, they’ll be able to help each other better,” added The Observer Research Foundation’s Unnikrishnan.