New shifts: Moving from an alliance model to strategic partnership

Andrei Volodin

Andrei Volodin

Relations between the Soviet Union and India began to transform into a strategic alliance after the Sino-Indian Border Conflict in 1962. The USSR, which at that time was at ideological odds with China, quickly came forward with military assistance for India at the critical moment when the West chose to stay above the fray. In the 1960-70s, our ties with India acquired all the characteristics of strategic rapport and cooperation: similar or consonant positions on fundamental issues of international politics; close coordination in international organisations; well-established interactions between government institutions; and trusting relations between heads of state.

In the 1970s, Soviet foreign policy regarded India as an effective counterpoint to China, especially in the light of the budding Sino-American rapprochement.

After the tragic death of Indira Gandhi in 1984, the new Indian government led by Rajiv Gandhi took subtle steps towards a more diversified foreign policy (including improved relations with the United States and China) that did not, however, affect the level and quality of Soviet-Indian relations.

The diplomatic deterioration made itself felt later at the end of the 1980s when systemic defects began to take their toll on the rusting Soviet economy and, as a consequence, on the efficacy of the USSR’s foreign policy. On the one hand, the Soviet leadership declaimed firm resolution to advance and add new dimensions to Soviet-Indian relations. On the other hand, these relations were effectively stagnating, revealing the inability of the ailing Soviet state to stimulate and diversify its foreign trade.

Russia’s geopolitical, economic, cultural and ideological withdrawal from India in the early 1990s left the Indian elite with a rather negatively stereotyped perception of Russia. To make things worse, the diverging paths of economic transformation in the two countries narrowed the ground for bilateral ties, confining them to arms sales and cooperation in nuclear power.

Concern regarding China’s geopolitical intentions has always been ingrained in the historical memory and political conscience of Indian society. Having lost Russian support in the 1990s, India started looking for a counterbalance against the growing influence of China on the global scene and secured political backing from the Clinton administration.

At the beginning of the new century, India’s ruling elite came to regard Russia with a more favourable eye. With Putin at the helm, Russia unearthed the idea of “returning” to Asia and, in this new strategic thinking, India was recognised as a key player in the club of emerging locomotives behind the global economic growth.

In the early years of the third millennium, the now more powerful and confident India continues to seek its place in the post-bipolar world. There are two global trends that define its course: first, the remaining economic and military supremacy of the United States, and, second, the rapid ascendance of ‘the Celestial Empire’ to the position of a new world power.

Political forces pursuing strategic convergence with the United States are well orginised and skillfully leverage mass media for their cause. They may, however, be overestimating India’s significance in the Asian strategy of the United States. Besides, the global recession underscored America’s shrinking role as the single centre of international politics. Another factor they seem to ignore is that Russia has already begun its comeback to the international arena.

Apparently, Indian leadership realises that they were too rash in downgrading the status of Russian-Indian relations. At the same time, Delhi has serious and justified concerns regarding Russia’s approach to economic collaboration and the lack of a focused dialogue on current and future issues of bilateral relations.

French political scientists describe the transition from a unipolar to a multipolar system in terms of a “loose geometry” politics. The concept implies de-ideologisation and potential co-existence of several models or formats of international relations. In other words, concurrent engagement in different political and economic blocs becomes a flexible and effective way of pursuing national interests.

In my view, it would be reasonable to consider the relations between Russia and India from this loose-geometry perspective.

In his recent annual address to the Russian Parliament, President Medvedev has for the first time talked about the equal significance of the Western and Eastern components of Russian foreign policy. No less important was the inclusion of India, along with China, Japan and South Korea, on the list of Russia’s “privileged” strategic partners. Now it is critical to find the right place for India in the prioritised agenda and make sure that India reciprocates.

The ten years of strategic partnership have clearly demonstrated that Russia wants to see India as one of the pillars in the post-American global framework. In all fairness, we expect India to respond in kind by reaffirming “Nehru's course" as its long-term foreign policy. Then it would be easier to allay fears of China’s runway growth on the one hand and pursue a meaningfully diversified foreign policy, on the other.

What makes the strategic approach to bilateral relations even more important is the increasing dependence of the global economy on the recovery and growth potential of China, India, Brazil, Russia, Indonesia, and other major players, and development of economic links between them.

In world politics, interactions between states are conventionally categorised into three levels: strategic alliance, strategic partnership, and good neighbours. As an expert in Indian studies, I would definitely welcome the “Soviet” alliance-level relationship between Russia and India. But since such exclusive arrangement is highly unlikely in the modern loose geometry of international linkage, it is the strategic partnership that will best serve Russian long-term interests, thus validating the historic choice made a decade ago.

Andrei Volodin is a political scientist, PhD (Hystory), professor.

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