India is at a crossroads so far as redefining its relationships and balancing its strategic neutrality against its geo-economic interests
The reports emanating from Washington have it that India has not only made its independent stand on the Ukraine war known but also succeeded in justifying its actions thus far. It is moot whether a few million barrels of Russian crude are worth more than taking an unequivocal stand on the morality of invasions and war. There is a moral equivalence to India’s stand but it did condemn the atrocities in Bucha without naming the aggressor though calling for an independent probe meant the perpetrator had been named. This may have mollified the US after President Joe Biden had admonished India on its “shaky” stand earlier.
Significantly, the US seems to have been satisfied that strategic and trade ties, considered to be historically high currently, can be taken even further considering there are far bigger issues like the geopolitics of South Asia and the Indo-Pacific and India’s role in it as a member of Quad. The bonhomie at the highest level of interaction between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and US President Biden represents a victory for diplomacy and as well as an acknowledgement of India’s place in global affairs. Washington did, however, leave it to those just below the President to tell India off at least for its human rights violations and certain discriminatory practices.
The US message regarding the need to go easy on purchase of Russian oil may have been countered cheekily by the foreign minister’s comment on how much European countries are buying “in an afternoon” as their daily purchases were surpassing a billion euros a day even in April. But India must consider issues beyond energy security interests, primarily that the US and the West were far bigger trading partners with their markets representing vital geo-economic interests India cannot ignore. Nor can India get sucked as a minor player in a China-Russia axis in the name of resisting the sanctions of the West on a warmonger in Russia’s Vladimir Putin.
The worldview of all nations may be narrowly focused on the Ukraine situation now but the most positive outcome of the 2+2 ministerial dialogue held on the same day as the Modi-Biden virtual meeting was the promising offer of the US, conveyed by Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, to treat India as a valuable strategic partner with whom it shares democratic values. The key phrase may have been “times have changed” for the US seeking to be an able and willing partner across commerce, technology, education and security.
The strength of the bond of future ties may be determined by whether India recognises that times have indeed changed or keeps harping on its dependence on Russia for its security needs. Also, the economical values of Russian arms purchases cannot be the sole reason to compromise strategic autonomy. The question of the purchase of S-400 missiles getting a US waiver is still hanging and it may test the emerging strong ties.
The offers made in the 2+2 dialogue call for quicker evaluation and decisions more than the cleverness of a couple of days’ supply of cheap crude which entail higher cost in refining. India is at a crossroads so far as redefining its relationships and balancing its strategic neutrality against its geo-economic interests. Drawing conclusions from a study of the larger picture might serve the long-term objectives better. The criticism of Democrats on human rights should be taken in stride and not be allowed to cloud geostrategic judgement.