Why India is ‘shaky’ on Ukraine

Associated Press

Somewhat shaky.”

That’s President Joe Biden last Monday, describing India’s position on Ukraine.

Biden was being diplomatic. New Delhi, for reasons both historical and current, is closer to Moscow than Washington on the invasion.

And don’t expect India to come around to America’s side anytime soon. Indian Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla said Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison “expressed understanding of India’s position on the issue of Ukraine, which he felt definitely reflected our own situation, our own considerations,” after Morrison participated in a virtual summit with Indian counterpart Narendra Modi.

What exactly are India’s “situation” and “considerations”?

As an initial point, there is the unhappy matter of history. American presidents for decades sided with Pakistan and China against India. During the Cold War, Washington correctly believed formally neutral New Delhi was essentially on Moscow’s side. Yet after the Soviet Union collapsed, American policy failed to adjust.

“India has two existential threats, extremism and China,” Cleo Paskal of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies told me. American policymakers, by continually trying to work with Islamabad and Beijing, fueled both dangerous threats to India.

Even today, when both America and India face a militant China, American policymakers still are putting the Indian state at risk. 

“A good percentage of the billions in weapons the U.S. left behind for the Taliban, a terrorist organization, will be re-aimed at India,” said Paskal, also a correspondent for New Delhi’s Sunday Guardian newspaper. “At this very moment, Taliban militants are going house to house looking for people who worked with the U.S. and allies and killing them. Once they ‘clean house,’ they will be even more focused on India.” India was one of the staunchest supporters of the American-backed Afghan government.

Biden’s chaotic withdrawal effectively delegitimized America’s supporters in the Indian security establishment. New Delhi’s sudden tilt to Russia, evident late last year, was the inevitable result of horrible American policy. No wonder India today is, as Biden indicated, not especially friendly to Washington.

There are more fundamental reasons for India’s reluctance to impose costs on Russia, however. “India is clearly disadvantaged by the Russian move into Ukraine, largely because the subsequent isolation of Russia forces Moscow into a more concrete alliance with the People’s Republic of China,” Gregory Copley, president of the International Strategic Studies Association, told me. “This growing alliance means Russia would not welcome an Indian military move to constrain the PRC on the Tibetan border or cutting off PRC access to Pakistan and the Indian Ocean by breaking the Karakoram link.” China maintains this link through Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, giving Beijing a route to the sea.

Indian foreign policy, therefore, is focused on making sure Russia does not end up forced to side with China against India. So far, New Delhi has benefitted from Russian help. Moscow, Paskal notes, was “sending planeloads of weapons and parts daily to support the Indian effort” to defend itself during the Chinese incursions in Galwan. In May 2020, Beijing sent troops deep into Indian-controlled territory in the Himalayas. India’s rapid military buildup there depended on Moscow’s willingness to side with its traditional Cold War friend.

Copley, also editor-in-chief of the Defense & Foreign Affairs Strategic Policy journal, pointed out that as Russia and China move closer to each other, “the creation of the PRC-Russia-Iran bloc also helps to restore Russia’s domination over Central Asia, where India had hoped to play a key role to counterbalance Moscow and Beijing.”

Rightly or wrongly, New Delhi believes Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is merely a local European matter. With that view, India sees no problem in purchasing Russian oil vital to keeping its economy going, even if that helps Vladimir Putin prosecute his ugly war.

As Paskal pointed out, Indian leaders believe economic growth is “essential if India is not to avoid massive youth unemployment and therefore radicalized youth.” New Delhi policymakers also believe that ending oil purchases will only push Moscow closer to Beijing, something India cannot afford.

In the meantime, continued Washington attempts to recruit Beijing’s help on Ukraine are making Indian policymakers nervous. Delhi has seen American efforts to entice Chinese leaders before and wonder what concessions Washington is now making. India knows such U.S. initiatives have rarely worked out but have generally ended up with America letting New Delhi fend for itself.

Therefore, talking with China has a price for America, and the price could be long-term alienation of the world’s most populous democracy.

If America wants India to commit on Ukraine, therefore, America will have to ditch China and commit to India.

Washington, unfortunately, has rarely been able to see the world from the viewpoint of New Delhi.

Gordon G. Chang is the author of “The Coming Collapse of China.” Follow him on Twitter @GordonGChang.

Tags China–Pakistan relations foreign relations Foreign relations of India Harsh Vardhan Shringla India and the Commonwealth of Nations India–United States relations Joe Biden New Delhi Presidents of Russia Vladimir Putin Vladimir Putin

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