Geopolitical ramifications of India's Shifting Alliances – Straddling Russia or the West?
The conspicuous absence of Russian President Vladimir Putin at the G20 Summit in 2023 spoke volumes about the evolving dynamics of global geopolitics and India's position within it. This event, among others, has brought into focus the complex dance of diplomacy and the choices that India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi must make.
As Russia's actions in Ukraine continue to reverberate, India finds itself at a crossroads, torn between historical ties with Russia and an increasingly strong alliance with the Western powers. By delving deep into an analysis of India's foreign policy choices and the implications of these decisions, the question arises: Is India poised to shift its position in the global order?
From a ground-level perspective, understanding the current state of affairs requires recognising the historical backdrop of India-Russia relations. These two states share a longstanding partnership that traces its origins back to the Cold War era when India relied on Soviet support for various aspects, including defence and diplomacy. This partnership continued even after the Cold War ended, with Russia remaining a significant supplier of arms and a diplomatic ally.
However, the winds of change have been blowing, and the landscape of global politics has transformed significantly. Russia's annexation of Crimea in 2014, followed by its military intervention in Syria, marked a shift in Russia's assertiveness on the international stage. These actions raised concerns among Western powers and began to strain India's delicate balancing act.
The turning point came in February 2022 when Russian tanks rolled into Ukraine, triggering Europe's largest conflict since World War II. This event forced countries worldwide to take sides. For India, this posed a significant dilemma. On one hand, there were longstanding ties with Russia, including arms deals and diplomatic support at the United Nations. On the other hand, Western powers led by the United States urged India to condemn Russia's actions and align with the pro-Western stance.
For over 18 months, India skilfully maintained a balancing act between these two opposing forces. It refrained from directly condemning Russia, thereby preserving its historical ties. India's stance was essential for multiple reasons. First, India relied heavily on Russian arms and technology for its defence needs. Second, it sought diplomatic cover from Russia at international forums like the UN Security Council. Third, India was one of the top buyers of Russian oil, alongside the European Union and China.
This nuanced approach enabled India to safeguard its interests while avoiding becoming entangled in the Russia-Ukraine conflict. However, this tightrope walk appears to be faltering, and the Modi government seems to be reconsidering its position on the global stage.
Modi Government’s Shifting Alliances—The G20 Summit of 2023, with Putin's absence, suggests that India's bonds with the West are strengthening while ties with Russia are weakening. This shift is notable as it signals a significant departure from India's traditionally non-aligned foreign policy. Prime Minister Modi, who once championed a multi-polar world order, seems to be recalibrating his strategy.
India's recent pivot towards Western powers can be attributed to a confluence of factors that have reshaped its foreign policy approach. One of the primary drivers behind this shift is India's burgeoning economy, which demands access to global markets and foreign investments. By aligning itself with Western nations, India seeks to unlock economic opportunities, leverage technological advancements, and foster innovation. The West, with its substantial consumer base, presents a lucrative market for Indian goods and services, making it a strategic choice for India's economic interests.
In addition to economic considerations, security concerns play a pivotal role in India's recalibration of alliances. The global landscape has become increasingly uncertain, characterised by the emergence of new and complex security challenges. In response, India seeks to tap into the security infrastructure, intelligence-sharing mechanisms, and advanced military technologies offered by Western powers. This move is expected to bolster India's defence capabilities and help it navigate the evolving security dynamics in the region.
Furthermore, India's alignment with Western nations has broader implications for its global influence. As a member of the Western alliance, India gains a more substantial voice on the global stage, enabling active participation in shaping international policies and norms. This proactive stance contrasts with its historical role of reacting to global developments, allowing India to assert itself as a key player in global affairs.
Significantly, public opinion has exerted influence in shaping India's foreign policy pivot. The nation's populace is becoming more interconnected with global events, and they actively voice their perspectives, frequently utilizing social media platforms as a means of expression. This heightened awareness and engagement with global issues have created a demand for the government to adopt a more ethical and principled position in its international relations.
However, India's shift towards Western powers carries several implications for the existing global order. One of the immediate consequences is the potential strain it places on India's historically close relationship with Russia. The evolving stance may impact ongoing defence contracts and diplomatic support from Russia on international forums, potentially introducing complexities in India's foreign relations.
Moreover, as India aligns more closely with Western values such as democracy and human rights, it may face mounting pressure to address internal issues, including freedom of speech and minority rights. Balancing these domestic concerns with its international commitments will require deft diplomacy and strategic decision-making.
Furthermore, deepening ties with the West may potentially heighten tensions with China, a nation that itself maintains a multifaceted relationship with Russia. India must tread carefully and skilfully navigate these intricate relationships to prevent any escalation of conflicts that could lead to regional instability.
Another favourable aspect of India's shift towards the West is the potential for it to take on a more significant global leadership role. India can play a bridging role between the East and West, facilitating dialogue and collaboration on urgent global challenges like climate change and global health. In this manner, India has the capacity to make valuable contributions to the advancement of a more equitable and cooperative global order.
All in all, India's evolving foreign policy dynamics, as exemplified by its shifting alliances at the G20 Summit in 2023, reflect the complex and multifaceted challenges facing the state on the global stage. The decision to align more closely with Western powers underscores India's pursuit of economic opportunities, security cooperation, and a more influential role in shaping global affairs. However, this shift is not without its consequences, particularly regarding its longstanding relationship with Russia and the need to balance international commitments with domestic concerns.
As India steers through these shifting currents of geopolitics, Prime Minister Narendra Modi's government confronts a nuanced balancing act that demands strategic finesse and diplomatic acumen. While embracing Western values and alliances may offer economic and security advantages, it also entails potential complications and challenges. The key for India lies in managing these complexities effectively, harnessing the opportunities presented by its new alliances, and contributing constructively to the development of a more balanced and cooperative global order. In this rapidly evolving landscape, India's choices will continue to shape the future of its foreign relations and its role in the international community.
Prem Singh Gill is an Adjunct Lecturer at the Faculty of Political Science, Chulalongkorn University and Thammasat University