You are here

PM’s Visit to Russia and China: Need for Smart Diplomacy

Dr. Arvind Gupta was Director General at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile
  • Share
  • Tweet
  • Email
  • Whatsapp
  • Linkedin
  • Print
  • October 21, 2013

    It is for the first time in living memory that an Indian prime minister will visit Russia and China during the same trip, beginning 21 October. The prime minister’s visit to the two countries comes in the back drop of his recent visits to the US, Japan, Indonesia and Thailand. Taken together these visits signal a transformation of Indian foreign policy through greater engagement with countries across the world.

    Undoubtedly, Russia and China occupy a special place in India’s foreign policy. With Russia, India has a long standing and time tested friendship. The “privileged partnership” between the two countries has slowly but steadily expanded despite some hiccups. The future of bilateral ties is bright provided both sides carefully invest in it.

    China is India’s neighbour. The bilateral ties have expanded considerably but this has not reduced the deep mistrust between the two. The long standing, unresolved border dispute, Indian suspicions about Sino-Pak nexus and China’s growing assertiveness are a matter of concern for India. The two sides, to their credit, have successfully managed their complex and difficult relations and not allowed their differences to escalate. But, in the long run, India needs to tread with caution as Chinese continue to surprise India with actions which undermine India’s security.

    Russia’s importance for India’s security and energy needs cannot be overestimated. It remains the main supplier of defence equipment to India. Later this year the Russian made aircraft carrier, christened Vikrmaditya, will join the Indian navy after years of delays. INS Trikand, a Russian made frigate, has already been inducted. The two sides are now co-producing high-tech equipment like the Brahmos supersonic cruise missiles. India-Russia cooperation in nuclear energy and hydrocarbons is proceeding well and will expand in the future. Presently, the trade is a mere $11 billion per annum, much below the Sino-Indian trade of over $70 billion. Russian investments in India are minuscule. The low level of trade and economic ties remains a matter of concern but in the forthcoming visit some innovative ideas like the co-production of a passenger aircraft may help break the shackles.

    The summit will be the fourteenth in thirteen years of unbroken summitry. This indicates continuing high level commitment to India-Russia relations. This is not surprising considering that both the countries share congruence of views on many issues. But, the relative decline in the people-to-people contacts between the Russians and Indians is a matter of concern. The visa regime needs to be overhauled. In contrast, people to people contacts between India and China are increasing despite difficult relations. Over 10,000 Indian students are studying in China. Over half a million Indians visit China every year. China is also trying to increase its investments in India despite reservations on the Indian side.

    This summit between the two countries leaders takes place in the backdrop of the revised foreign policy concept which Russia came out with in February this year.
    Russia is for a polycentric world, a world in which regime change is not a norm and intervention for humanitarian reasons should be in accordance with UN decisions. The Russian and the Western world views are poles apart on this issue. Russia has repeatedly proposed a Euro-Atlantic common security and humanitarian space. But, Russia’s relations with the west are fraught. Russia will be assessing how far India can go in supporting its views. The summit will give an opportunity to see whether Russian and Indian world views and prescriptions for a new order coincide.

    The West is reconfiguring itself against a resurgent Russia, buoyant from its recent positive role in hammering out a joint US-Russia initiative on the decommissioning of Syria’s chemical weapons and diffusing the high tension. Russia has also been working hard for convening the Geneva-2 conference on Syria which will now take place on 22 November. However, its larger relationship with the West is still problematic. The positioning of a segment of the US global missile defence systems in Europe is seen by Russia as a move that undermines its security. The NATO-Russian Council decisions, two years ago, have achieved little. The US-Russia reset has fizzled out.

    The new leadership in China has also been formulating its position on the changing world order. The message coming out of China is that it will not compromise over its core interests which include South China Sea, Tibet and the East China Sea. The Depsang border incident in April this year has cast a shadow over China’s intentions. Although the Chinese premier visited India in May and unleashed a charm offensive, he failed to impress the Indian public opinion which remains concerned at China’s territorial ambitions vis-a vis India, including in Arunanchal Pradesh. There is also a degree of scepticism as to what the new border agreement will achieve if the Chinese continue to undermine Indian positions by issuing stapled to the residents of Arunachal Pradesh.

    Although the Indian and Chinese leaders have time and again said they would not allow difficult issues to come in the way of development of over all relationship, irritants keep cropping up with disturbing regularity. During the current visit of the Prime Minister, one should expect some candid discussions of the problematic aspects of the relationship. Yet, he will have to ensure that potential crisis points are contained.

    India has been overhauling its relationship with the Western countries. The India-US civil nuclear deal was the high point of this transformation. The US regards India as a partner in its rebalancing strategy, which China dislikes intensely. Russia is also becoming active in Asia-Pacific through the medium of East Asia Summit. Russia and China are both watching the evolution of India’s ties with the US. The West wants India to play a ‘responsible role” in international affairs by supporting its known positions on issues such as humanitarian intervention. On this issue, the Indian position is closer to the Russian and Chinese positions. But, on other issues, such as climate change the Indian position is not the same as that of Russia but is similar to that of China. On Afghanistan, India and Russia may have similar positions but Russian position of Pakistan is changing and needs to be watched. China, of course, has a very different stance on Pakistan, being its all weather friend.

    India has to reflect at its national interests while forging new relationships. India-US relationship is important and has developed enormously in the recent years. Russian academics and analysts have often lamented that India is overlooking Russia. They view with suspicions that India’s growing closeness to the West may be at the expense of Russia-India relations. The award of the MMRCA aircraft contract to a French company shocked the Russians. They also see India sourcing more and more of its defence needs from non-Russian sources. India needs to reassure Russia that it enjoys high priority in its foreign policy.

    Sino-Indian relations fall in a category different from that of India-Russia relations. Mutual distrust has not gone away entirely despite some positive developments. PM Manmohan Singh needs to discuss frankly the troubling aspects of relations with the Chinese leadership.

    Prime Minister’s move to combine visits to Russia and China in a single trip is a smart move. But he will also need to indulge in smart diplomacy to deal with a number of ticklish issues. He will have to convince his counterparts that Indian foreign policy is independent and follows Indian national interests. Russians will need to be reassured of India’s continuing commitment while the unpredictable Chinese will have to be managed. That will need some doing.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.