In the past month, two multilateral processes, the SAARC and the current BRICS summit, have been overshadowed by the quagmire of India’s troubled relationship with Pakistan. A day before the BRICS summit in Goa, India sought greater clarity from China and Russia on their relationship with Pakistan. New Delhi accuses Pakistan of harbouring terror elements responsible for a spate of terror attacks on Indian soil.
While Moscow has decided to toe New Delhi’s line without antagonising Islamabad, Beijing remains unmoved. On Saturday, Russian President Vladimir Putin's backed India's "post-Uri" actions against Pakistan-sponsored cross-border terrorism. Prime Minister Narendra Modi hailed India-Russia ties saying, "An old friend is better than two new friends." Both Prime Minister Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping agreed that trans-national terror was a major scourge and sought to boost partnership between the countries and strengthen relations concerning security. But once again Xi provided no assurances of dropping its resistance to UN sanctions against Pakistan-based terror mastermind Maulana Masood Azhar, who India holds responsible for the attacks in Pathankot and Uri.
While the JeM had been listed as a terrorist organisation since 2001, the group’s chief and motivator has suffered no sanctions. China also continued to stall on India’s application for membership of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG). Several countries, led by China, had blocked India’s entry to the body earlier this year, saying it was not a party to the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT) and thus ineligible. It means that either India signs the NPT or stays out of the NSG. Although Beijing's argument based on procedural reasons is valid, it is no secret that their actions come from a desire to support Pakistan, which has also applied for membership. China’s decision to club the membership of both countries to the export control regime is an apparent attempt to scuttle India’s chances. The international community will never let Pakistan become a member of NSG, owing to its poor record on nuclear proliferation. China is well-aware that Pakistan’s nuclear program is India-centric.
There is a reason why the response of Russia to Pakistan-sponsored terror differed from China. On Russia, India does hold a certain amount of leverage. Moscow’s relationship with the United States and the European Union has recently taken a nosedive following events in Syria. German Chancellor Angela Merkel wants to get other European Union member countries to agree to step up sanctions against Russia because of its role in the war in Syria.
Successive Western-backed economic sanctions placed against Russia over its annexation of Crimea are still hitting Moscow hard. Russian energy companies, which primarily deal in oil and natural gas, have been hit especially hard. Energy and defence contracts have become central to Indo-Russia ties, as witnessed on Saturday. In nuclear power, there is the Kudankulam nuclear plant that India built with Russia’s help. Moscow hopes to enhance technological cooperation in the field of uranium enrichment further. Following the successful completion of the purchase of stakes in two oil and gas fields in Russia, Indian oil companies are eyeing more fields in Siberia. On Saturday, both India and Russia sought to boost bilateral trade and investment across a whole host of sectors, while committing to improve ease of doing business, including liberalising travel regime.
Meanwhile, in a big-ticket arms acquisition, India announced that it would buy the S-400 "Triumf" air defence systems from Russia, worth over $5 billion, and collaborate to set up a joint production facility for making Kamov helicopters. In a column for Scroll.in, MK Bhadrakumar, a former diplomat with the Indian Foreign Service writes: “Sensing how much crucial the income from arms exports is to the Russian economy, which is seriously damaged due to western sanctions, India simply fast-tracked at breakneck speed certain multi-billion dollar arms deals that would have involved decision-making at glacial pace in the Indian bureaucracy normally.”
Russia’s decision to accommodate India’s regional interests stems from a strong desire to protect its economy while reducing the spotlight on its growing ties with Pakistan. Despite the bonhomie on display, it isn’t hard to gauge why Russia has chosen to abandon its anti-Pakistan policy. Scholars on the subject contend that the reason is two-fold—fears about the spread trans-national terror (ISIS), and Moscow’s growing belief that India has drawn too close to the US.
“Russia’s rising hostility with the United States and Europe is the zero-sum prism through which it sees the rest of the world – and its moves in South Asia can be viewed as a sub-set of Moscow’s wider global behaviour,” according to a recent column in The Wire.in, “While closer defence ties with Cold War rival Pakistan is partly a way of signalling its pique at India’s slow dance with the US, Russia is also motivated by the belief that the rise of ISIS in West Asia and Afghanistan may be part of a conspiracy to ‘pin down’ Moscow.” Similar to China, Russia has also decided to use Pakistan as a buffer against the spread of militant Islam and its ideology to the Caucasus and Central Asia.
Meanwhile, in the past year, Modi government has made a firm bid to strengthen the “defining partnership of the 21st century” with the United States. Invitation to US President Barack Obama as the Republic Day chief guest, the recent military logistics agreement, and growing trade-strategic commitments have projected the image of India as an all-weather friend of the US. With Pakistan’s relationship with the US deteriorating, Russia has only thought it wise to fill that vacuum, alongside China. But as America’s tryst with Pakistan has shown, this strategy is fraught with risk in the age of transnational terror. There is a delicate, yet shaky balance to Moscow’s economic and strategic objectives. In the case of China, however, India holds little or no leverage.