India, Russia join hands to strengthen multi-polarity

Amidst the months-long India-US war of nerves over our S-400 missile defence deal with Russia, the joint statement issued after the 19th India-Russia annual summit in New Delhi on Friday largely passed unnoticed. Yet, the salience of the document becomes important. After all, what endures is the final document – not photo-ops, not gossips. And chancelleries as far apart as Washington ad Beijing will scan the joint statement for any new markers in the progress and evolution of the Special and Privileged Strategic Partnership between India and Russia.

The point is, India-Russia bilateral ties are entering a new phase. On the one hand, the defence cooperation is taking a big leap forward. The S-400 deal alone signifies that a new platform of advanced weaponry is being created that will run for decades. If the history of the relationship is anything to go by, Russians will innovate on this technology and forever will India remain interested.

Equally, the Achilles’ heel of the relationship – lack of economic content – is becoming a thing of the past. Trade and investment are expanding impressively. Energy sector cooperation becomes a match made in heaven – Russia an energy superpower and India a guzzler of energy. Prospects of upstream and downstream cooperation are seamless. (This is over and above the massive expansion in nuclear commerce that is expected.)

However, the salience of the joint statement lies somewhere else. India is shedding its strategic ambivalence vis-à-vis the unipolar world order and stressing its congruence with Russia over regional issues of vital importance. Above all, consultations have commenced over a regional security architecture for the Asia-Pacific region, which is a log journey of momentous significance to India’s foreign policy.

Modi remarked at the joint press conference with Russian President Putin on Friday that India and Russia believe that it is necessary to consolidate the multipolar world in the current conditions. “India and Russia believe that it is necessary to consolidate the multipolar world and multipolar relations,” Modi said. The joint statement flags that the Informal summit in Sochi in May was a turning point insofar as the two countries manifested their “interaction and cooperation… in building a multi-polar world order.”

To be sure, India categorically rejects Washington’s thesis of Russia being a “revisionist power” that needs to be countered. The joint statement says:

“The Sides reaffirmed their commitment to the Special and Privileged Strategic Partnership between India and Russia. They declared that this relationship is an important factor for global peace and stability and appreciated each other’s respective roles as major powers with common responsibilities for maintaining global peace and stability…Both Sides agreed that their relationship is mature and confident, covering all areas and is marked by deep trust, mutual respect and close understanding of each other’s position… Together, they contribute to creating a more interconnected and diverse world.”

On current hot spots too – Syria, Afghanistan and the 2015 Iran nuclear pact – Delhi is on the same page as Moscow. Thus, on Syria, India welcomes the Astana process (which US boycotts); supports an inclusive settlement (whereas, US demands that Assad must be excluded); and, calls for humanitarian assistance to help stabilize Syria (which Washington links with Assad’s ouster.)

Similarly, on Afghanistan, India identifies with the Moscow Format (which US rejects) and flags its intention to work with Russia (despite US agenda to keep Russia “out” of Afghanistan at any cost.) Indeed, as regards the 2015 Iran nuclear pact, India completely disagrees with the Trump administration’s approach.

The joint statement also affirms similar commonality between India and Russia on global and international issues – rejection of the West’s politicization of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical weapons and acknowledgment of Russia’s “early completion” of full destruction of chemical weapons (shades of Skripal case); opposition to placement of weapons in outer space (against the backdrop of US move to create a Space Command in the Pentagon); condemnation of “imposition by some States… of unilateral coercive measures not based on international law” (read sanctions); robust support of Paris Agreement on climate change (which US has jettisoned); BRICS initiative on reaching an agreement on the “rules, norms and principles of responsible behavior of States” on ICTs and so on.

To my mind, the icing on the cake must be the joint statement’s disclosure that “constructive consultations” have been held in August between Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale and his Russian counterpart Igor Morgulov regarding “the idea of the establishment of Regional Security Architecture, that provides equal and indivisible security to all countries in Asia and in the regions of Pacific and Indian Oceans.”

India and Russia have “emphasized the importance of the continuation of the multilateral dialogue on this theme within the framework of the East Asia Summits and other regional fora” and they’ve underscored that “all new initiatives aimed at strengthening of the regional order are to be based on multilateralism, principles of transparency, inclusiveness, mutual respect and unity in the common pursuit of progress and prosperity and not directed against any country.”

No doubt, this is a major step forward by India on the diplomatic track to flesh out with Russia the widely noticed policy speech by Modi at the Shangri La Dialogue in June in Singapore outlining his vision for the security and stability and prosperity of the Asia-Pacific region. Clearly, Modi meant precisely what he said in June – namely, that “Indo-Pacific” does not constitute a strategy and that India seeks an inclusive approach to regional security.

We seem to have flushed down the drain the Trump administration’s idea of the “Quad”, which of course was a barely-disguised attempt to create a US-led alliance system in the Asia-Pacific to isolate China in its region. India is marking its distance from that enterprise. Indeed, the “Wuhan spirit” permeates the Indian thinking. Looking ahead, how far Russia – Putin, in particular – can help burnish the Wuhan spirit will be keenly watched.