Features Australia

Understanding India

How one of our most important allies is responding to Ukraine - and why

26 March 2022

9:00 AM

26 March 2022

9:00 AM

To the puzzlement and disappointment of many Westerners, India has abstained on several UN votes rather than join the vociferous chorus of condemnations of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. If the US, UK or France subordinate principles to geopolitical or economic interests, that’s understandable but if Asians and Africans do it, they must be shamed and punished? Right, got it.

The anti-US poison in the Indian people, bureaucracy and political system is real and deeply embedded. Russia is a very long way from approaching the level of mass atrocities in East Pakistan in 1971. Anyone who wishes to understand the deep-seated cynicism of many non-Westerners about the self-sustaining belief in an exceptional America and a virtuous West should read The Blood Telegram (2013) by Princeton University’s Gary Bass. Reacting with shock and revulsion to the unfolding genocide, US Consul General Archer Blood (hence the double entendre in the book’s title) and 19 colleagues in Dhaka sent a telegram to Washington warning that turning a blind eye to the tragedy served neither the US broad moral interests nor its narrow national interests. Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger were too busy detaching China from the Soviet Union on the global geopolitical chessboard to listen. So the cry from the heart proved career unfriendly to the signatories rather than prompting a course correction in American policy. Australian diplomats also reported candidly on the atrocities they witnessed and Canberra parted from the US in analysis and policy, something that was noted in New Delhi. The story has been well told by former diplomat and defence secretary Ric Smith in India, The United States, Australia and the Difficult Birth of Bangladesh (2019).

With direct stakes in the conflict, India intervened militarily while also coping with the humanitarian disaster of ten million refugees and was midwife to the birth of Bangladesh. Far from applauding India for its ‘humanitarian intervention’, because Pakistan had used its links with Beijing to broker the Sino–US rapprochement, the US came after India even to the extent of sailing the USS Enterprise into the Bay of Bengal in a show of gunboat diplomacy. Bass subsequently studied the tapes of White House conversations and, in an op-ed in the New York Times on 3 September 2020, documented Nixon’s vulgar racism and sexism in his views of Indians in general (‘unattractive’, ‘sexless’, ‘I don’t know how they reproduce’) and PM Indira Gandhi personally. Kissinger joined in (Indians ‘are a scavenging people’, ‘such bastards’, ‘the most aggressive goddamn people around there’). By contrast Moscow had India’s back in the Security Council. India is not ingrate enough to forget that.

Selective deployment of appeals to democratic values doesn’t impress all Asians. In the three-way China–India–Pakistan relations, the US has never prioritised shared democratic values above hard-headed national interest calculations. Following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the US turned a blind eye to China’s active material and technological assistance to Pakistan’s clandestine nuclear proliferation in the Eighties. India’s pleas to the US to help halt this were ignored and this paved the way for the 1998 nuclear tests by both India and Pakistan. Islamabad’s role in sponsoring terrorism in India was similarly ignored before 9/11. Finally, as I noted here on 5 March, Justin Trudeau has been hypocritical in criticising India’s handling of the agitation by farmers who parked their agricultural machinery and vehicles around Delhi and inconvenienced the Indian capital for a year, but dealing with his own protesting truckers far more autocratically. Not one Western leader criticised Trudeau’s authoritarianism.

India doesn’t outsource setting the moral compass of its foreign policy to foreigners. It’s a major actor with a broad and complex train of interests that must be balanced. Despite the history of prickly relations, there is a strong national consensus now that relations with the US are the most important. It will be easier for the West to destroy that goodwill with hamfisted diplomacy than to persuade India to change policy under pressure. How does India go about striking that balance? It will work to consolidate bilateral relations with the US and deepen engagement with the Quad as an informal navy-to-navy dialogue forum covering the vast Indo-Pacific maritime theatre. Unlike the unease in some Asian countries, India welcomed the Aukus announcement. Australia’s acquisition of nuclear-powered submarines will mean Aukus complements the Quad to give sharp military teeth to it. There was absolutely no complaint from the Modi government, despite some domestic criticism to that effect, that it had not been privy to the discussions nor invited to be part of Aukus. Scott Morrison got it right in insisting there’s no moral equivalence between India’s and China’s abstentions on UN votes on Ukraine, ‘not even remotely’.

India’s material interests in the Ukraine crisis prioritised welfare and safe evacuation of 18,000 Indian students there, mindful that this would be helped if it kept onside with all sides. Russia remains India’s most important defence supplier, accounting for almost half its arms imports over 2016–20, followed by Israel, France and the US. India has been diversifying arms imports and Russia’s share dropped by half from the previous five-year period while imports from France and Israel went up massively. The US has proven a more expensive yet less reliable supplier for India’s defence needs. India has also been subject both to direct and secondary US sanctions over the years but never to Russian sanctions. For many years Modi himself was banned from travel to the US despite being the elected head of an important state government.

A stronger Moscow–Beijing axis would be a security worry for India, especially if the two were to switch to backing Pakistan militarily, economically and diplomatically. At present India believes there are limits to Sino-Russian bilateral bonds based on different interests. Russia has not traditionally allowed closeness to China to determine its India policies. Like Australia but earlier, India has registered the new regional and global reality that China is a clear and present security threat as well as its most consequential diplomatic adversary across a surprisingly broad front.

Even so, former foreign secretary Shyam Saran notes, India’s public criticism of Russian actions are unusually strong by its standards in calling for an ‘immediate cessation’ of hostilities and respect for ‘the sovereignty and territorial integrity of states’ as the foundational norm of the international order. Furthermore, India, Israel and Turkey are among a handful of countries on good terms with all three conflict parties (Russia, Ukraine, the West). This gives them space to serve as interlocutors, mediators and conciliators to broker a peace deal if and when the opportunity should arise at the point of a mutually hurting stalemate. A window of opportunity may just have arisen with President Volodymyr Zelensky conceding that Ukraine can never join Nato.

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