Modi’s Juggling Act

On December 11, 2014, India’s newly inaugurated Prime Minister Narendra Modi met with Russian President Vladamir Putin for the 15th annual summit between the countries. In a joint statement that followed, these two nations expressed their excitement for “a broad-basing of bilateral cooperation to carry the friendship between the countries to a qualitatively new level,”  greatly strengthening ties between India and Russia. It was agreed that the two countries will increase defense cooperation, that one of Russia’s state owned companies will supply 12 nuclear reactors to India over the next two decades, that the Essar Group, an Indian multinational, will import $10,000,000,000 in oil from Russia over 10 years, and that the Russian state will increase direct diamond sales to India, among other initiatives.
Modi is simultaneously making efforts to develop relations with President Barack Obama and the United States, as Obama and Modi have agreed that their relationship is embodied through the mantra “Chalein Saath Saath: Forward Together We Go”. Obama and Modi have increased cooperative maritime security efforts in response to China’s aggressive actions in the Asia-Pacific and have agreed that they will renew a military cooperation framework that was set to expire. Modi also looks forward to welcoming President Obama as the chief guest of honor for India’s Republic Day celebrations being held at the end January.
Although Russia and the United States currently have a tenuous relationship with one another, India is an extremely valuable trading partner to both. India has successfully juggled relations with these countries in the past and will continue to do so, as Modi continues to show an interest in active foreign policy and Russia becomes more desperate for allies. Ultimately, Modi’s juggling act is indeed sustainable and is not of major concern to the United States.
A Thawing Cold War Context
Modi’s assertiveness in foreign relations comes in context of a complicated history. India and the USSR were once aligned during the Cold War, a time at which the United States turned to other allies such as Pakistan. Because India was sympathetic to the Soviet forces during this time, the United States provided more support to Pakistan, leaving India’s relationship with the United States rather weak.
After the Cold War, however, Russia and India continued to be friendly while the United States simultaneously improved its relations with the South Asian nation. The government of India opened its economy and India and the United States found a mutually beneficial relationship.
India’s juggling act is well established, as Dr. Gary Samore, former White House Coordinator for Arms Control and Weapons of Mass Destruction under President Obama, explained in an interview with the HPR: “The Indians have been doing this balancing act for many years, back [since the end of the] Cold War. […] India [has been] such a desirable partner for both the United States and Russia, and neither the Americans or the Russians [have been] in a position to dictate to India that it should sever or limit relations with one in favor of the other”.
Relations Today
Putin’s recent annexation of Crimea and the continuing crisis in Ukraine has generated anger between Russia and the Western world. NATO countries have stiffened sanctions, and Russia has been harmed economically by falling oil prices. As a result, Putin and the Russian leadership have been forced to seek other sources of support. In this position, Putin has increasingly turned to India.
The situation creates a wonderful opportunity for Modi to gain favorable terms of trade and secure deals that India might otherwise struggle to make, especially in light of the fact that India is the fourth largest oil importer in the world and would benefit from a dependable energy source.
“It is reasonably clear that Modi is basing the success of his administration on building some sustainable economic bridges, and that starts with his neighbors” explained retired General Tad Oelstrom, Director of the National Security Program at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, to the HPR. Oelstrom anticipates that these actions will also allow India to “reach out on an international scale and regain some momentum.” According to this view, Modi is acting dutifully as an advocate for his constituents who hope to strengthen India’s economy.
In reference to Indian-Russian relations, Modi tweeted that “times have changed, [the] friendship has not. Now [India wants] to take this relationship to the next level”. Modi balances this claim with statements that pledge his support for “a shared commitment to human values” with the United States. He views the “United States as a vital partner for [India’s] national development” and that the United States and India will jointly “bridge the many divisions of our times and contribute to building a more peaceful, stable, secure, sustainable, and prosperous world.” Although Modi’s foreign policy seems somewhat inconsistent, his actions are defendable. General Oelstrom asserted that “the entire concept of country to country relationships is a juggling act to start with.” Modi is not acting differently than anyone else in his position might.
When asked whether the United States should view India’s relationship with Russia as morally irresponsible or political destabilizing in light of recent annexations, Dr. Samore acknowledged that the United States is accustomed to this type of behavior. “When I was in the White House”, he explained, “I recognized there were some real limits as to what we can expect India to do. On a lot of big geopolitical issues, we should not expect India to do too much.” If the United States is indeed used noncompliance, it is unlikely to react strongly to India’s deals with Russia.
Oelstrom believes that interference would actually be dangerous. He stated that “it is not smart for us to be cutting Russia out of the world economic trade; the last thing we want is for Russia to be isolated.” According to this view, the United States may begrudge a strong Russia-India relationship, but it would be unwise to thwart the links.
A Beneficial Strategy
The most interesting part about this juggling act is that it can occur openly and without reservation. In a conversation with the HPR, Professor Graham Allison, Director of the Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center, explains that India’s relations with Russia and the United States are analogous to a single person’s relations with two great suitors. India, as the bachelor, will “continue to buy the best deals that they can” while reassuring Russia and the United States that they are both special.
Allison predicts that, ultimately, “neither the United States nor Russia is going to shoot India for being duplicitous.” As long as India continues to appeal to both Russia and the United States, there is no need for covert associations or the appearance of loyalty to only one country.
India is in a truly opportune position and is capitalizing on it quite well. In the future, Modi is likely to maintain relations with the United States and further develop relations with a fragile Russia. Ultimately, neither the United States nor Russia is likely become embittered by the trade deals as both recognize power dynamics and continue to benefit from their relation with India.
Image credit: Wikimedia Commons, World Economic Forum 

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