There is no doubt that Russia’s military invasion of Ukraine will have ramifications far beyond their own borders or even Europe’s. Save for immediate economic shocks owing to Western sanctions on Russia, there is little sense of what medium-to-long term consequences President Vladimir Putin’s actions will have on various regional theatres. Yet, some preliminary assessments and forecasts may be made based on pre-existing patterns and networks of interest.
For India, the Russia-Ukraine crisis complicates an already-complex geopolitical environment. Most obviously, it puts New Delhi in an awkward midpoint position between Russia – a longstanding politico-military legacy partner – and the West – a rising partner in an increasingly multipolar context. It has also generated renewed interest in what India’s nonalignment policy, later repackaged as ‘strategic autonomy’, really means.
Beyond the broader normative debates, it is crucial to understand how the crisis can shape specific verticals of Indian foreign policy. Of these, India’s Indo-Pacific strategy is perhaps the most exposed to potential adversities. This is because of the dense convergence of various geopolitical interests in this region, which the crisis will inevitably mould in one way or another. For India, there is both trouble and opportunity in the Indo-Pacific horizon, depending on how agile or remiss its diplomacy is in the years to come.
Complications for India
So far, India’s Indo-Pacific push has been driven by a convergence of a host of favourable factors, including an appetite amongst Southeast and East Asian powers to strengthen relations with India and renewed pivoting by the US and EU into the region to balance a rapidly rising China.
But, as a “nonaligned” middle power that has warm relations with Russia and also an active border dispute with China, it does not have a geopolitical carte blanche in the Asia-Pacific. India’s Indo-Pacific push was always tempered by concerns of a Chinese counter-push; an unpredictable relationship with the West; and to a lesser degree, Russian apprehensions about a growing Western presence in the region. With rising concerns about a democratic backslide under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, India’s commitment to liberal international values – the cornerstone of its partnership with the transatlantic powers and their regional allies – is also coming under growing scrutiny.
The Russia-Ukraine crisis complicates these concerns.
First, Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, driven by a mix of geopolitical realism and political irredentism, could set an actionable precedent for aspirational big powers elsewhere. For instance, China could appropriate it to rationalise its own expansionism in the Indo-Pacific by framing it as a direct response to Western expansionism. This is even more so given that both Putin and Xi Jinping are leaders with strong revanchist-nationalist tendencies who want to leave behind a glowing legacy. Chatter around a possible replication of Russian aggression by the Chinese in Taiwan is already ringing loud in foreign policy and defence circles. Fears about China using the crisis to flex its muscles in the South China Sea (SCS) also loom large over concerned heads. The fact that following Russia’s invasion, Beijing announced an increase in its defence budget by 7.1%, announced military drills in the Gulf of Tonkin, and issued a navigational warning in an area overlapping with Vietnam’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), haven’t helped.
Earlier in March, the Chinese embassy in Manila dismissed speculations that Beijing would exploit the crisis to “bully smaller countries” in the SCS. However, Xi could definitely use this moment to shift the needle, even if marginally. Recently, Chinese Foreign Minister, Wang Yi, said that the “real goal of the Indo-Pacific strategy is to establish an Indo-Pacific version of NATO.” This wasn’t the first time Yi was comparing the Indo-Pacific initiative with the transatlantic security alliance. However, this time, the narrative is being pushed by Beijing with greater vigour – through both official statements and “unofficial” channels, such as state-controlled media and pro-Party academics.
In a recent interview with Global Times, Zheng Yongnian, Founding Director of the Advanced Institute of Global and Contemporary China Studies at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, Shenzhen, argued that “the prototype of an ‘Asian NATO’ has already taken shape” through the AUKUS, Quad, Five Eyes, and the US’ growing relations with Vietnam and Singapore.
Last year, India’s foreign minister, Dr S Jaishankar, had pushed back against the use of the term “Asian NATO.” But, Beijing has only doubled down on this under the shadow of the Russia-Ukraine crisis. For India, there is a deeper message in this – China may not put its neck out on supporting Russia, but it is closely watching the invasion and the West’s response, picking up critical hints and lessons on the way. These could ultimately help Beijing sharpen its own Asia-Pacific strategy. The Chinese are unlikely to undertake any major military action in the region in the near future – not even against Taiwan, as some scholars have convincingly argued. But, Putin’s Ukraine move sets a cautionary context for India and its Indo-Pacific partners.
Second, the Russia-Ukraine crisis throws up a normative challenge for India over the Indo-Pacific. When Prime Minister Narendra Modi laid out India’s vision for the Indo-Pacific at the Shangri-la Dialogue in 2018, he talked about forging a “free, open, inclusive region” built around a “rules-based order”, which upholds “sovereignty and territorial integrity, as well as equality of all nations, irrespective of size and strength.” The Quad has packaged itself on similar terms. However, when India refuses to explicitly condemn a large power unilaterally invading a much smaller neighbour, the irony of India’s liberal, normative persuasion in the Indo-Pacific becomes uncomfortably conspicuous. Add to this the dubious optics of a government that many in the West see as illiberal and authoritarian choosing to stay neutral on Putin’s belligerence.
Third, the raft of fresh Western sanctions on Russia is bound to hit its defence export markets, including in the IPR. As one Australian academic has argued, “with the war dragging on amid mounting human costs, Russia’s regional defence clients [in the Indo-Pacific], perhaps with the exception of Myanmar, may find it difficult to ignore Russia’s aggression — eventually forcing them to rethink their strategic engagement with Moscow.” A shrinking Russian presence as a prime arms supplier will most likely be replaced by a growing Chinese role in this domain, which would in turn strengthen Beijing’s geopolitical influence in the region. As per reports, China is already making its moves. Even in Myanmar’s case, as the recent meeting of the junta foreign minister with his Chinese counterpart in Huangshan shows, China is moving closer to the junta as Russian defence supply timelines hit a rough patch. A stronger China in the IPR, needless to say, isn’t good news for India – especially given that its own defence export capabilities remain in the bottom-tier.
Adapting to new realities
India is likely to weather the headwinds for now. There are two reasons behind this – the deliberate tweaking of its official narrative on the Russia-Ukraine crisis; and its growing weight as an Indo-Pacific power.
First, as Russia’s invasion progressed, New Delhi dropped the phrase “legitimate security interests of all parties” from its UN statements and began reiterating the importance of the UN Charter, sovereignty and territorial integrity. This was designed to anchor its relationship with the West to the shore, and there are early signs that the West and its regional allies are responding positively.
While US President Joe Biden recently talked about India’s “somewhat shaky” position on the crisis, a senior official from his administration, Victoria Nuland, later noted the “evolution” in the Indian position and the US’ willingness to work with New Delhi. This was followed by a highly-publicised 2+2 meeting between both sides, during which they mutually agreed to “promote a resilient, rules-based international order that safeguards sovereignty and territorial integrity, upholds democratic values, and promotes peace and prosperity for all.” Earlier, the Australian High Commissioner to India said, in very clear terms, that “the Quad countries have accepted India’s position.”
Second, the US, EU, Germany, France and Australia have all identified India as an indispensable bilateral and multilateral partner in their official Indo-Pacific strategy documents. For instance, the US strategy identifies India as a “like-minded partner and leader in South Asia and the Indian Ocean, active in and connected to Southeast Asia, a driving force of the Quad and other regional fora, and an engine for regional growth and development.” These were strongly reiterated in the recent India-US 2+2 meeting, following which the White House press secretary said that for President Biden, ties with India are “one of the most important in the world”.
The German “policy guidelines” predict that India “could become” the fourth largest economy after the US, Japan and China “in a few years from now”, and thus will continue to be a crucial Indo-Pacific power. The French strategy paper identifies a range of areas to work with India within the Indo-Pacific ambit – including defence, civil nuclear power, blue economy and HA/DR. The EU strategy identifies India as a primary Indo-Pacific partner for collaboration in the domains of trade and digital cooperation on emerging technologies, in addition to defence cooperation – all of which took priority during the recent visit of European Commission President, Ursula van der Leyen, to India.
In short, the West very much needs rising middle powers with direct stakes in the region, like India and Japan, to sustain its Indo-Pacific pivot. For New Delhi, this is an effective insurance against volatility triggered by moments of global crises such as the current one.
Avenues for progress
It would be a mistake to believe that the Russia-Ukraine crisis will have a linear effect on India’s Indo-Pacific push. It could both close and create avenues for India.
Russian actions are bound to stiffen the competition between the US, China and Russia in the Indo-Pacific. As its credibility and capacity to deliver weapons dwindle because of sanctions, Moscow will expand its attempt to earn the goodwill of ASEAN countries. China, as already explained, could posture more aggressively. In response, the US will double down on its outreach to the region, which would, in turn, sharpen the Chinese reaction. The net outcome would be a much fiercer big power jostle in the region. This is a situation that smaller ASEAN powers don’t want to get caught in.
Consequently, middle powers like India could now find greater space to mediate the geopolitical environment in the Indo-Pacific and provide alternative foreign policy pathways. While the return of big power politics might seem inevitable to many, the world is already too deep into its moment of multipolarity for that to happen anytime soon. Even the big powers themselves cannot ignore the importance of geopolitical decentralisation. Further, the recent security pact that China inked with the Solomon Islands, which permits Beijing to deploy boots on the island, shows that the West cannot ignore the diverse interests of small nations in the IPR if it wants to deepen its footprint and balance a rising China.
India needs to capitalise on this moment in a meaningful way. The best way to do that is to strengthen its horizontal partnerships with ASEAN and Pacific island countries in bilateral, minilateral and multilateral formats. For India, there really is no substitute for constructive engagement that is premised on facilitating people-centric, bottom-up development that targets social and economic sectors left out by large-scale Chinese projects. Expanding its existing Quick Impact Projects (QIPs) and High Impact Development Projects (HADPs) in Myanmar and other Mekong region countries into other countries in ASEAN and beyond is a good idea.
Further, deepening collaboration with other regional powers who already share regional complementarities with India, like Japan and Australia, could be a force multiplier in these initiatives. For instance, India needs to restart the Asia-Africa Growth Corridor (AAGC) initiative with Japan and potentially replicate the model in Southeast Asia. India also needs to internally encourage the Quad to expedite its supply chain resilience and COVID-19 vaccine initiatives.
Indian presence in the ASEAN region remains way less controversial and divisive than China’s. But, New Delhi is infamous for its lack of delivery capacity. This needs to change if India wants to position itself as an effective middle power in the region at a time of great geopolitical unpredictability. India, for now, would also need to resist the temptation to join security-centric collectives like the AUKUS. Doing so could strengthen the Chinese argument on the so-called ‘Asian NATO’ and also alienate ASEAN powers who remain wary of extra-regional security formations. That the Quad has slowly veered away from positioning itself as a security to a non-security arrangement is a positive development in this regard.
In all, India needs to keep its ears to the ground, as the Russia-Ukraine crisis unfolds. The Indo-Pacific is a high-stakes region and New Delhi has already made significant commitments to the concept. It cannot allow an invasion thousands of miles away to rock the boat at this crucial hour.