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Commentary: West needs to accept India’s neutrality on Ukraine war

HIROYUKI AKITA, Nikkei Commentator


TOKYO — The leaders of the U.S., Japan, Australia and India are slated to meet in Tokyo in late May for a summit under the Quad security cooperation framework.


The four countries have been building a platform for coordinated responses to security threats posed by China, but Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has thrown a wrench into the works.


Leading democracies, including the U.S., Japan and Australia, have denounced Russia’s aggression and stepped up economic sanctions against Moscow. But while it has called for a cease-fire, India has refused to join the effort to punish Russia and remained neutral on the conflict in Ukraine.


India has even moved to buy Russian oil at a discount, according to Reuters. The U.S., Japan and Australia plan to urge India to change its stance and join in the sanctions at the summit.


New Delhi’s refusal to sanction Russia over its brutal aggression against Ukraine is bitterly disappointing. But it would be unwise for the other three Quad nations to impose excessive pressure on India to drop its neutrality. Such pressure would not only be futile but could harm the strategic interests of Washington, Tokyo and Canberra.


India and Russia have a long history of friendly ties, dating back to the Cold War era. Indian policymakers assert that the country has no choice but to stay close to Russia to defend itself against an increasingly assertive China.


India’s biggest worry is its border dispute with China in the Himalayas, which triggered a war between the two countries in 1962 and has flared up in armed clashes and skirmishes from time to time.


Tensions over the border remain high. In 2020, Chinese and Indian troops fought in a remote valley along the border in their first deadly clash in 45 years. The two countries are still locked in a tense faceoff, according to a former senior Indian military officer.


The nightmare scenario for India would be Russia siding with China in the conflict. Even if Moscow is not directly involved, any move to help China by providing intelligence or diplomatic support would seriously threaten New Delhi’s security.


Russia has so far remained neutral in the dispute. But if India takes any hostile action against Russia, it would probably begin siding with Beijing. Moscow has also been secretly warning India not to get too involved in the Quad talks, which the Kremlin regards as a tool for U.S. hegemony, according to Indian diplomatic observers.


Antagonizing Russia would deliver a heavy blow to India’s military capabilities, which are heavily dependent on Russian weapons. Around 70% of the weapons used by India’s armed forces are made in Russia, according to one estimate. India was forced to rely on Russian arms as it has been in effect denied access to state-of-the-art U.S. weapons since the start of the Cold War. In recent years India has purchased more arms from France and Israel to reduce its reliance on Russian weapons.


Russia’s share of India’s arms imports fell to 35% in 2019 from 80% in 2000, according to Shivshankar Menon, India’s former national security adviser. But it will take India more than a decade to wean itself off Russian weapons entirely, he says. If Russia stops arms shipments to India during that time, India’s ability to conduct military operations would be seriously hampered.


“Unlike Japan and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization members, which are protected by the U.S. security umbrella, India must deal with conflicts with China and others on its own and protect its territory,” Menon pointed out. “Of course, India is concerned about the situation in Ukraine. However, the West should also understand that India cannot afford to alienate Russia due to its tough security situation.”


In a deeper sense, the rift between Western democracies and India over Russia’s aggression reflects their differing worldviews. The U.S. and its allies believe their strategic interests are best served by safeguarding the U.S.-led world order, which has underpinned global prosperity since the end of World War II. From this point of view, Russia is an outlaw trying to destroy that order.


India, on the other hand, desires a multipolar world where leading powers compete against each other, according to an Indian strategist. For traditionally nonaligned India, the world would be a safer place if it is not dominated by a single superpower.


In particular, India is seeking to prevent China from becoming the dominant power. New Delhi wants both the U.S. and Russia to remain counterweights against China.


Further complicating India’s position is its deep-seated distrust of the West.


India believes the U.S. and Europe have taken only a cursory interest in conflicts and refugee crises in such places as Afghanistan, the Middle East and Africa. But the moment hostilities broke out in Europe, they started asking countries around the world to stand together against the aggressor. In the eyes of New Delhi, this is a double standard.


How, then, should the U.S. and its Western allies deal with India?


If India successfully builds up its military power to deter Chinese expansion, preventing an escalation of the border conflict, that serves Western interests as well. In this sense, the West should let India hold back on sanctions against Russia and maintain its friendly ties, at least for the time being.


In addition, the U.S. and Europe should swiftly expand their military cooperation with India to lessen its dependence on Russian weapons.


To maintain strategic cooperation with India, the U.S. and its allies should not expect too much from New Delhi. They would be wise to focus the Quad’s efforts on keeping China’s geopolitical and military ambitions in check and avoid placing Russia high on the agenda.


It is not wrong at all for the other Quad members to seek India’s help in dealing with Russia, but they should be careful not to undermine the group’s unity. A weaker Quad would only serve the interests of Beijing and Moscow.

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