23.05.2019 Author: Vladimir Terehov

India’s “Perestroika” Times


The word “perestroika” (rejigging) is at the core of a recent story, published by the popular media outlet The Indian Express, on India’s foreign policy strategy in relation to its ties with leading world powers.  In addition, this newspaper article is worthy of note because its author, C. Raja Mohan, is one of the most influential experts on India.

It is worth pointing out that the previously mentioned word, which has the worst possible connotations for a vast majority of Russians, in reality, is neutral in meaning, just as all the other words for labelling certain real events.

The author of this article prefers to use other terms, such as “radical changes”, when describing transformations similar to perestroika. Still both of these expressions equally accurately reflect the ongoing processes within the global political landscape, in which C. Raja Mohan is trying to find an optimal (from his point of view) course of action for his country to follow.

As a rule, any events referred to with expressions such as “perestroika” and “radical changes” have a fast-paced aspect to them. Any processes accompanying them occur “quickly” (from a historical perspective). Having taken this into account, the author of the article in The Indian Express highlights that India only has a “narrow window of opportunity” if it chooses to take advantage of it.

Naturally, all the changes occurring in the global political landscape have not been considered in the story, instead the focus is on the key ones, which is a sound approach (from the methodological perspective). When studying any complex system, it is essential to “edit out” some relatively secondary elements. But this needs to be done in such a manner that the simplified model is not very different (to an extent) from the actual system.

Raja Mohan focuses on assessing dynamics within the “USA-China-Russia” triangle. Hence, a commentary of this model is apt at this point. Firstly, arranging actual global political processes in a scheme composed of “state-squares” that are somehow linked together does not take into account (often vital) processes that are taking place within each of the nations. As a result, it is hard to answer, for example, the questions “What does the ‘key square’, i.e. the USA, represent at present? What is driving its maneuvers within the global political landscape?”. Admittedly, the Indian expert does touch upon the issue of the internal political struggle taking place within the United States.

Secondly, the modern nation of India is not simply an outside observer or a maneuverable piece in the “global political game”, instead it is becoming a more and more active and influential participant of it. In other words, India ought to be included among the leading world players, each of whom is responsible for its own actions within the previously mentioned “narrow window of opportunity”.

One should also take into account Japan and Germany, which, (in an illustration of history’s ironic nature) without firing a single shot or making any unnecessary military expenditures, have, by and large, achieved the position on the world arena, which they were unable to reach at the expense of enormous losses (their own and those of others) during the Second World War.

It is worth noting that Japan increasingly views India as one of its main strategic partners. As for Germany, its presence in Asia is discernible via its bilateral relations with the key nations on the continent as well as via EU institutions.

Perhaps, in order to get a very general idea of what is happening in the global political landscape it may suffice to look at the relationships that are being established among the six previously mentioned leading players. But if we were to talk about what is happening in various regions in detail, we would, of course, need to consider elements such as Great Britain, France, both Koreas, Taiwan, Australia, Vietnam, Indonesia, Pakistan, Iran, Turkey, Israel and Brazil.

However, the expert on India ties the outlook for his nation, its problems and opportunities to the fact that the country currently faces a difficult choice of picking a side, with the options including two simple “bundles” formed by the United States, the PRC and the Russian Federation. The first includes two of the world’s biggest economies (the USA and China), which together account for approximately 40% of the Gross World Product (GWP), and the second, the key nuclear powers (the United States and the Russia). For an accurate assessment of the current situation within each of these “bundles” and the “triangle” as a whole, the author suggests that the Indian government take advantage of the upcoming summits of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) in Bishkek in the middle of June, and of G-20 in Osaka at the end of June.

In his comments about the unsuccessful outcome of the latest round of Sino-American negotiations to bridge their differences in bilateral trade, C. Raja Mohan opines the United States has, seemingly, come to a conclusion that the issues plaguing its relationship with China are systemic in nature, and are not limited to the sphere of trade and economics. And the author of this article fully shares this opinion. This view may find support in the current situation in Taiwan, which the New Eastern Outlook has reported on regularly, and which C. Raja Mohan also refers to.

The expert on India also focuses on a recent (fairly provocative) statement made by Kiron Skinner, the Director of Policy Planning at the U.S. Department of State. She said that unlike the period of confrontation between the United States and the USSR (which in one way or another was dominated by the West), at present, there is an entire civilizational divide between the USA and China.

As C. Raja Mohan expounds on these “intricacies” of civilization, he again cites some American sources in support of his opinion that Donald Trump has an opportunity and willingness to quickly improve relations with Russia, but the “deep state” within Washington is impeding this process in every way.

From the author’s point of view, the “picture” painted by the Indian expert is overly simplified. The course of action that this country follows cannot remain unaffected (in a meaningful way) by the nature of India’s relations with neighbors such as Pakistan and Iran. These two nations are independent and influential players with their own foreign policy preferences. Based on recent developments in the region where Kashmir is divided into two parts (without, we would like to emphasize, a recognized border), we can see that increased tensions with Pakistan would have a detrimental effect on India.

As for Iran, it would be difficult to overestimate the importance of the issue for India of how it should respond to U.S. demands on it to completely stop buying Iranian oil. This issue, among others associated with the fate of the so-called Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA, signed by Iran and its partners), was discussed during the visit of Mohammad Javad Zarif, Iran’s Foreign Minister, to New Delhi on 15 May. During the meeting, his counterpart Sushma Swaraj stated that the aforementioned problem would be solved at the end of India’s general elections, i.e. after 23 May.

Finally, it seems apt to touch upon, in this article, the topic (that media outlets have once again turned their spotlight to) of India’s largest, in a number of years, purchase of a batch of various types of weaponry, produced by Russia (first and foremost, the S-400 missile systems). We would like to remind our readers that over a number of decades, collaboration in the sphere of arms manufacture and trade has been a key component of the cooperation between Russia (formerly, the Soviet Union) and India.

It is also worth highlighting that during the cataclysms of the second half of the 1980s and 1990s, partial survival of Russia’s military industrial complex was, to a great extent, ensured by increased orders placed by defense departments of India, and (in part) of the PRC. This factor played its role during a critically important period of the second half of the 1990s and the beginning of 2000s.

At present, India has an opportunity to buy modern products, at affordable prices, manufactured by Russia’s military industrial complex, which it had a “direct hand” in saving. The military and technical cooperation between the two nations is not developing seamlessly, but any issues plaguing it are “work-related” in nature and stem from increasing competition on the arms market.

Some “leaks from reliable sources” about this rivalry mention the USA has suggested that India replace Russia’s S-400 missile systems with American THAADs.

Even if such offers do actually exist, it is highly unlikely that they will have any effect on the previously mentioned deal between India and Russia. The agreement was confirmed at the end of December 2018, during a meeting between Ministers of Defence Sergey Shoygu and Nirmala Sitharaman. We would especially like to highlight the fact that this happened after Nirmala Sitharaman’s visit to the United States and the meeting with her counterpart at the time, James N. Mattis.

It is without a doubt that, regardless of the way bilateral relationships develop on the whole (including cooperation in the defense sphere) and of any re-arrangements in the strategic triangle “USA-China-Russia”, Moscow will remain one of the key “chess pieces” in the game, which New Delhi is currently playing.

Vladimir Terehov, expert on issues in the Asia-Pacific Region has written this article exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.

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