The question of how power is distributed in international relations is rife with complexities. At every point in history where power has coalesced around one pole – suggesting a unipolar world order, or two poles – suggesting a bipolar world order, other States have continued to gradually mobilize the influence and resources necessary to challenge them, making such a simplistic reading of geopolitics impossible. This is one of the most important reasons why conceptions of unipolarity or bipolarity have succeeded in the Global North and have encountered challenges in the Global South. The latter is populated with several States growing in power and wealth, with bustling populations, large markets and skilled workforces, and modernised militaries with maturing conventional, nuclear, space, and cyberspace capabilities. For scholars in these environments, therefore, it has proven conceptually difficult to prescribe to the view that the world is led by the unipolar actor – USA, when they have witnessed in their own regional geopolitics the emergence of powers that could contest it. For scholars in the West, however, these conceptions have been easier to believe not only because such a perspective is beneficial to their national politics and policies, but also because there is an inherent Eurocentrism that pervades their worldviews. Even conceptions of bipolarity – with the second pole led by China, have not earned the consensus of other States in their respective regions because such a conception would entail that power is only concentrated in the China-Russia-Iran-Pakistan-Turkey axis. For States rapidly growing in influence like South Korea, Singapore, Taiwan, Malaysia, and India – especially if they have participated actively in international intergovernmental associations and financial organizations – such a notion has proven unacceptable. For India especially, the alienation from the USA-led pole after the weakening of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, and from the China-led pole due to the inclusion of Pakistan and the deep differences in socio-political attitudes, has precipitated renewed efforts to establish its presence and influence in the international community – drawing from its historical engagement with international organizations, its generally uninterrupted record of democratic politics, and its participation in international movements and missions.
The purpose of this article is to analyse how India’s manoeuvres have complicated the bipolar division of power in global relations due to the development of the two poles. It will first study how India’s ideological history of non-alignment has problematised regional geopolitics. Second, viewing India as a middle power with a rising power mindset, it will summarise how the Modi government has dealt with emergence of opportunities and challenges in the evolving global geopolitics. Third, it will examine the increasing closeness in Indo-Russian ties that could complicate Russia’s participation in the China-led pole. Fourth, it will evaluate the role of the USA-Israel-UAE-India minilateral in rendering contemporary geopolitics more nuanced.
Non-alignment and India’s geostrategy
In 2020, India’s External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar emphasized upon the independence of action as a guiding principle of Indian foreign policy, which owes its roots to the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) that had evolved during the Cold War. Propelled by the leaders of recently decolonised, newly-independent developing countries – Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, Yugoslav President Josip Broz Tito, Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser, Ghanaian President Kwame Nkrumah, and Indonesian President Sukarno – this movement aimed to bring together a disparate group of States who intend to retain an autonomy of policy between the two politico-military blocs, led by the USA and the USSR respectively. After the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the conclusion of the Cold War, the Soviet bloc was disbanded. As the NAM countries began to expand their relationships across the Cold War divides, most scholars believed that the movement had lost its original basis for existence and thus its relevance in contemporary politics. Even Indian foreign policy makers have been hesitant to define India’s actions in international relations through the lens of non-alignment and have instead utilised terms like strategic autonomy or multi-alignment, which have found both favour and opposition in the domestic and global community. However, given India’s fundamental policy objective to independently seek strategic convergences to enhance prosperity and influence, it has become evident that Indian foreign policy cannot completely eschew non-alignment. This is especially because the current regional milieu – with the ascendence of China and its allies close to Indian borders and China’s aggressive incursions in Indian territorial and maritime space – demands that India displays foreign policy continuity in following non-alignment. Indeed, when a section of scholars suggested that India shed this perspective and decisively aligned with the USA to effectively counter China, there appeared more numerous and louder voices reiterating that India would under no circumstances join an alliance system. Even though these alliance systems are qualitatively different from those of the Cold War era due to ideological incongruencies and differing strategic interests, the convergence of geopolitical perspectives and interests have bolstered them enough to allow their functioning as opposing poles. Especially in the Indo-Pacific, alliance systems encounter the dilemma of maintaining a balance between competition and cooperation with China. For smaller littoral nations, their economic engagement and military asymmetry with China has ensured that they are unable to view it as an adversary even if its foreign policy objectives directly threaten their national integrity or security. Given these circumstances, India’s independence of foreign policy, resolute distance from ideological congruence, and balanced strategic economic relations, has benefitted the country by rendering regional geopolitics more complex and allowing India to pursue its own interests. India has also utilised this non-alignment to respond effectively to the strategic imperatives that have accompanied its geography. The Act East policy has evolved to respond to the differing economic and security interests in the contentious Indo-Pacific, through bilateral and multilateral engagements in East Asia, Southeast Asia, and the Pacific. Indeed, Indo-US relations have also deepened since the early 2000s to counter the maritime challenges posed by China, even though immediate-term American and Indian perspectives about the latter’s continental neighbourhood are incongruent – especially regarding US engagement with Russia and China to increase its presence in Central Asia and mitigate the threat of an unstable Afghanistan. Because India has refused to wholly align with either bloc, it has also been able to pursue the development of trade routes through Iran and Central Asia, as an alternative to the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). This has found it many supporters in the international arena, including the USA. Pursuing an independent foreign policy has allowed India to contribute to an international order founded on mutual respect, concern, and cooperation – especially after the deterioration of global healthcare and education infrastructure due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Thus, non-alignment as the guiding principle of Indian foreign policy has permitted it to approach its regional and international geopolitics in a nuanced way. This has not only allowed it to pursue its own ambitions with relative independence but has also sufficiently complicated the regional distribution of power enough to make true bipolarity impossible in the world order that Shivshankar Menon described as “militarily unipolar, economically multipolar and politically confused.”
Modi government and emerging opportunities and challenges
Most scholars concede that India is a middle power with a rising power mindset, ascending in the global power hierarchy. This is for a variety of reasons. India is not yet a Great Power, though it has been expanding its relative weight and influence over the last thirty years. It possesses both nuclear weapons and intermediate range ballistic missiles (IRBM) and yet has not developed global strike or extra-regional power capabilities. Though it has significantly modernised its maritime security and trade policies, it does not yet decisively dominate the Indo-Pacific. Its capacity to attain regional power status is also complicated. Though its size, area, population, GDP, and military do render it significantly powerful, it has not been able to influence the will of other States in the region to the degree that China has. India is constrained by various geostrategic factors, including a nuclear-armed, China-backed, and hostile Pakistan to its northwest and the vast Indian Ocean disallowing adequate development of effective power projection capabilities. Even so, India’s nuanced foreign policy outlook continues to complicate unipolarity or bipolarity and push international relations toward multipolarity. Such a system of power distribution has provided the country with several opportunities and challenges and has allowed it to pursue its national interests and global ambitions through global interdependence and global governance.
The Modi government has emphasised upon economic diplomacy to achieve its threefold objectives – attracting foreign direct investment (FDI), bettering engagement with the Indian diaspora residing across the globe, and enhancing participation in multilateral and regional fora. Indeed, the rationale behind the flagship programmes Make in India, Digital India, Skill India, and Startup India was to project the country as an ideal destination for investments and infrastructural collaboration. These policies have been generally successful because they have attracted over $209 billion in investments (2014-2018), have provided the operational framework for several bilateral or international agreements with the EU, ASEAN, Sri Lanka, Singapore, Thailand, and Malaysia, and have supported negotiations for greater market access for Indian products in the Doha Development Round in the WTO. However, concerns have been raised internationally due to the explicitly nationalist and mercantilist inclination that India’s economic policy has developed, accompanied by a centralisation of policy making in the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO). India has also been unable to effectively translate its economic imperatives – trade, investment, and technology – into foreign policy and to negotiate beneficial and longstanding agreements with the EU or USA, which are essential to contain China’s model of economic diplomacy in the region. It has also failed to assuage concerns about tax uncertainties, contract enforcement, and investment protection treaties.
Modi has also utilised India’s deeper relationships with the USA that materialised during the preceding UPA I and UPA II governments and manifested through the momentous Indo-US Civil Nuclear Deal (2005) to transform the conditions of bilateral engagement and to channel both US capital and technology towards national development. These policy decisions have been bolstered by the decisive majority that the government commands in the Lok Sabha. This is a significant evolution because the USA had imposed nuclear sanctions on India for many years, and India has now emerged as a natural US partner in the region. Currently, it has engaged in determined efforts to acquire advanced military, nuclear and dual-purpose technologies, has pursued admission into chief dual-purpose technology export control regimes, and has amended its domestic laws regarding civil nuclear liability to attract US investment in its civil nuclear power generation capacities. Both countries signed the Logistical Exchange Memorandum Agreement (LEMOA) in 2016 to form a base for the reciprocal and reimbursable exchange of supplies, services, and logistical support between their militaries. They also agreed to enable Indian access to US-origin platforms and advanced defence systems through the Communications Combability and Security Agreement (COMCASA) in 2018. In general, therefore, though both countries disagree on the global architectures for investment and climate change, they have pursued more integrated ties in recent years. India has also pursued a closer relationship with the EU, and especially with France. Due to the necessity of modernising its Indian Air Force fleet to replace the obsolete MIG-21s, Modi furthered the defence deal for 126 Medium Multirole Combat Aircrafts initiated under the UPA II through the purchasing of 36 Dassault Rafale Aircrafts.
China’s aggressive ambitions in the region, evidenced through its militarised island-building in the South China Sea, the BRI, and creation of financial institutions such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and the BRICS New Development Bank aimed at replacing the Bretton Woods system, have raised serious concerns in the international community and especially in the USA. The problem is more immediate for India because China is located on its borders, and its deepening nexus with Pakistan – through nuclear and missile technology transfers, the development of the Gwadar Port, and the development of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) – has had grave consequences for Indian territorial integrity, especially as China continues to unilaterally reformulate historical boundaries. Though Sino-Indian trade has increased exponentially over the years, security relations between the countries remain tense, illustrated through frequent incursions and casualties on the Line of Actual Control (LAC). Chinese plans to divert part of the Brahmaputra away from Tibet and Northeast India have also raised serious concerns though India has not yet responded adequately to them. Policy advisors believe that India must utilise its participation in the rapidly militarising Quad to facilitate greater engagement with ASEAN and the AUKUS, to form a regional balance against China. They do advise, however, that India must adopt a “flexible, non-adversarial approach” to effectually balance trade interdependencies with competition.
India’s neighbourhood is replete with diverse countries, each with varied identities, economic-military symmetry, and political organisation. Instead of developing relationships with them based on long-term objectives, India has proceeded to structure a comprehensive and ad-hoc bilateral engagement strategy through asymmetric diplomacy and offering more than reciprocally necessitated. Scholars believe that India has aimed to follow Chinese model of prosperity-sharing with its neighbours to enhance legitimacy. This was evidenced first through the long-awaited land boundary agreement signed with Bangladesh in June 2015 – through which enclaves under the control of either State since the 1974 pact were rightfully swapped, and other agreements regarding a fresh line of credit of $2 billion, cooperation on maritime affairs, and information-sharing agreements to curb drug trafficking and counterfeit Indian currency, were signed as well. India has also intended to create a common market in the region by creating a framework for Indian companies to sell electricity and construct goods manufacturing facilities in Bangladeshi Special Economic Zones (SEZs), augmenting the Bangladesh-Bhutan-India-Nepal (BBIN) electricity and transportation connectivity project. This has been reinforced by the numerous developmental projects undertaken in Bhutan as well. The goal was to signal to these States as well as Pakistan that there are benefits to engaging with India diplomatically. However, relations with Pakistan remain fraught. There has continued an impasse on counterterrorism since the 2008 Mumbai attacks, and though there have been efforts for lasting peace along the Line of Control (LoC), these have been harassed by the Pakistan’s military-bureaucratic deep State. Modi’s distinctly ‘Hindu nationalist politics’ have further deteriorated these relations and have depicted a shift from Indian self-imposed restraint to assertive approaches to combat terrorism, including moving evenly across the LoC. This was evidenced in the surgical strikes that occurred in the aftermath of the Uri attacks and the aggressive response to the attacks in Pulwama.
Modi has also tried to energise the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) through deeper regional and sub-regional cooperation, trade, and connectivity. The organisation had fallen to relative disrepair due to the Indo-Pakistan animosity, but the inclusion of important countries in the region, including Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh, Maldives, Sri Lanka, and Afghanistan, and of observers States like China, Japan, and USA, have necessitated that it be revitalised again through functional transregional institutions like the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC). The BIMSTEC attempts to link the eastern subcontinent with Southeast Asia, and with the BRI, to collaborate rather than compete with Chinese endeavours in the region. Former foreign secretary Shyam Saran also highlighted the need for regional integration through positive Indian unilateralism and suggested that tariff and non-tariff barriers in Indian markets could be reduced for goods produced by regional neighbours to operationalise trade facilitation. In his opinion, bilateral trade agreements on connectivity and overland transit could integrate a large part of the region. This has also been the rationale for the transformation of the Look East policy to the Act East policy, aimed at improving India’s relations in East and Southeast Asia, to bolster its strategic leverage, benefit the domestic economy, and deepen ties with Japan and Vietnam – both of which are committed to containing Chinese assertiveness – to challenge China’s threat to regional territorial and maritime power equilibrium. India has prioritised closer ties with Japan specifically, with the latter pledging an investment of $33.5 billion in the former’s infrastructure and Smart Cities through skill development, technology transfers, and local project ownership. Both also signed a defence and security partnership with the essential Memorandum of Cooperation, where both agreed on exchanges in defence and civil nuclear energy, especially in the “regulation of bilateral maritime exercise” aiming to bolster freedom of navigation and the RBO in the Indo-Pacific. Scholars believe that enhanced cooperation between India and Japan could transform the strategic, geopolitical, and development paradigms in a region with an increasingly influential China. Modi also visited Myanmar, Fiji, and Australia to expand India’s participation in the Asia-Pacific regional architecture, terming a relationship with Australia a “natural partnership.” The civil nuclear deal signed with Australia could signal wider ties in energy, services, education, and mining. Indeed, a reinforced India-Japan-Australia axis could not only counter China’s regional assertiveness but also disallow the hardening of strategic bipolarity.
India has focused on expanding its engagement with Central Asia – a region essential for its energy, trade, and security needs – especially because of China’s increasing presence in several Central Asian Republics (CARs), including Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan. Another pressing concern is the re-emergence of Islamic militancy in the aftermath of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, and India has attempted to heighten its engagement with the CARs through counterbalancing alliances that could potentially increase its influence in Eurasian regional geopolitics. The Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), led by China, and comprised of the CARs and Russia, could provide India with the opportunity to further its own strategic objectives in the region. Indeed, India’s active participation in the SCO serves to complicate the cohesiveness of the China-led pole and illustrates many veins of competing influences. Modi has also attempted to replicate the soft power tools of Buddhism diplomacy it had pursued in East Asia through Sufism diplomacy in Central Asia, emphasising the historical ties between the CARs and India. On 25th December 2021, Russia and India countries exchanged a non-paper – a document without a governmental seal but enunciating key features of the discussions between their leaders – on how to amplify engagement in the CARs. The paper underlined various areas of probable engagement, including defence as India aims to become a supplier of arms to the region and Indo-Russian joint economic commitment to balance against the China-led debt crisis.
Alongside the Act East policy and the energised emphasis on Central Asia, Modi has also iterated the Look West policy to focus on West Asia and the Gulf – a region which accounts for two-thirds of India’s oil requirements, is its largest trading partner, and is inhabited by more than 7 million Indian diasporas contributing crucially to India’s inward remittance income. India’s crucial stakes in the security and stability of the region were underscored during Modi’s visit to the UAE and Saudi Arabia, aimed at boosting credit and investment in infrastructure and energy development. Given the worsening security conditions in Pakistan and Afghanistan and close Pakistan-Gulf ties, deeper West Asian engagement would also allow India to improve counterterrorism cooperation with Iran, Israel, and Saudi Arabia and balance Pakistan’s influence in the region. The engagement with Iran specially, is vitally important for India, for imperatives of energy, domestic and regional security. The $500 million agreement to develop the Chabahar port illustrates India’s objectives to circumscribe Pakistan and counterbalance China through friendly relations with Iran and Afghanistan. Though Indo-Iran relations have been problematised by the new hardliner Ebrahim Raisi government, if the Chabahar port is successfully developed and integrated with the North-South Transport Corridor (INSTC), it would advance India’s strategic interests within and beyond Central Asia through enabling India-Afghanistan overland trade bypassing Pakistan and providing an alternative to the CPEC. The Modi government has also pursued a strongly pro-Israel policy, displaying a shift from the generally pro-Palestine outlook of previous administrations, and has negotiated cooperation agreements on supply of defence goods, military-to-military transfers, joint exercises, and industry cooperation.
Modi has also actively strived to build a long-term relationship with Africa, a region becoming increasingly important for oil and gas resources and one that is beyond the traditional arena of concern. The tour of southern and eastern Africa in 2018 was aimed at bolstering diplomatic and economic ties to counter Chinese presence on the continent. Though India has historically engaged culturally, educationally, and economically with Kenya, Tanzania, Mozambique, and South Africa, it is now particularly focused on building convergences between the interests of regional stakeholders in the IOR. Commitments of $10 billion line of credit additional to the existing $6.77 billion were agreed upon after the India-Africa Summit in October 2015, possibly designed to facilitate Indian access to African resources and energy supplies, and well as support in the UN General Assembly towards India’s visions of global governance. India has also focused on bettering relations with Eritrea and Somaliland to enhance its presence on its eastern seaboard.
Deepening Indo-Russian ties
The Modi government sought to augment the multi-dimensional ‘special strategic partnership’ with Russia that had been weakened due to the geopolitical and geo-economic shifts after the disintegration of the USSR and India’s consequent shift to USA, largely propelled by the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government. As Modi assumed power in 2014, Russia was embroiled in the Crimean and Ukrainian crises and was becoming increasingly economically dependent on China, and USA was gradually losing its influence in the region. In this environment, Indo-Russian relations began to develop (albeit slowly) across political, defence, economic and cultural arenas. Politically, both countries have maintained a generally cordial relationship, meeting at more than nineteen annual summits since 2000 and on the side-lines of various multilateral organisations like the BRICS, SCO, and G20. In fact, motivated by concerns about China’s dominance of the G20 and supported by the CARs, Russia facilitated India’s full-membership in 2017, which China conceded to on the condition that Pakistan also be included. The Strategic Vision for Strengthening Cooperation in Peaceful Uses of Atomic Energy (2014) and the Partnership for Global Peace and Stability (2016) was agreed upon, and Russia also bestowed the Order of St. Andrew the Apostle on Modi in 2019 in acknowledgment of his contributions to the “privileged strategic relationship” between the two countries. The defence ministers of both the countries also regularly meet as they co-chair the Inter-Governmental Commission on Military Technical Cooperation (IRIGCMTC), reviewing bilateral defence cooperation. India’s external affairs minister and Russia’s deputy prime minister also co-chair the Inter-Governmental Commission on Trade, Economic, Scientific, Technological and Cultural Cooperation (IRIGC-TEC). In the economic sphere, both countries released the Druzbha-Dosti joint statement in 2014 providing a framework for increased cooperation in energy, technology, and innovation through reciprocal participation in each other’s oil, gas, petrochemical, and power projects, and joint design and development of technology in space, defence, aviation, IT, new materials, and high-technology sectors; and aiming to attain $30 billion in bilateral trade by 2025. The last target was met sooner in 2017 and was recalibrated to $50 billion by 2025. Over Modi’s two terms in prime ministerial office, both countries have signed Memorandums of Understandings (MoUs) on exploration and production of hydrocarbons in Russia; construction of nuclear power plants through “localisation of manufacturing,” supply of crude oil, and helicopter engineering; acquisition of primary stakes in Vankorneft and Essar Oil by Oil India Limited for the Vankor and Rosneft oilfields, which accounted for $15 billion in cumulative investments; and the trade of long-term LNG imports with the first Russian cargo offloading at Dahej in Gujarat in June 2018. The proposed development of the Chennai-Vladivostok Maritime Corridor could enrich these relations further by bringing the Russian Far East closer to India and offering an alternative to the Chinese Maritime Silk Route. Russia has been the foremost supplier of arms to India since the Cold War, with military-technical ties forming the core of Indo-Russian relations. Though total exports of defence goods fell by 42% between 2014-18 and 2009-13, Russia still accounts for 58% of total arms imports by India, followed by Israel and USA. In 2016, decisive intergovernmental agreements were signed at the annual India-Russia Summit for the supply of S-400 Triumph Air Defence Missile System and four Admiral Grigorovich-class frigates, alongside a shareholder agreement regarding the manufacturing of Ka-226T helicopters in India. Both countries have also held tri-service exercises under the Indo-Russia (INDRA) format since 2017, with the most recent one conducted at Volgograd, Russia, in August 2021, aiming to coordinate counterterrorism operations under the mandate of the UN. Such joint military exercises not only facilitate a deeper understanding of each other’s drills, procedures, and equipment capabilities, they are also important for the coordination of activities on operations in peacetime like humanitarian aid, disaster relief, anti-piracy, and for strategic signalling. In the cultural sphere, more than eleven thousand Indian students are currently studying in Russian medical and technical courses, with twenty Russian institutions teaching Indian languages. In 2017, Russia was the eighth-largest source of foreign tourists to India, though these numbers have fallen due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The agreements reached in successive summits following the St Petersburg International Economic Forum (SPIEF) in 2017 – which focused on enhancing cultural exchanges, third-stage construction of the Kudankulam nuclear power plant and railways, trade in precious stones; academic exchanges, and investments – are instructive in comprehending the India-Russia reset as complicating the China-led pole. The 2018 Sochi informal summit was especially productive in formulating concrete norms for collaboration which was reflected in the joint statement entitled Enduring Partnership in a Changing World – containing the conclusion of a $5.2 billion contract for the supply for S-400s, negotiated despite the threat of CAATSA sanctions by the USA and instructive on how India would navigate its relationships with America alongside its deepening ties with Russia. The joint statement also contained provisions about a meeting between India’s NITI Aayog and Russia’s Ministry of Economic Development, negotiations on a free trade agreement (FTA) between Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) and India, inauguration of single-window service in Russia for Indian companies, induction of Russia Plus in India to assist Russian private investment in India, conclusion of the India-Russia Business Summit, institution of the Far East Agency in Mumbai, signing of the India-Russia Economic Cooperation: The Way Forward in March 2018, commencement of LNG supply from Gazprom through GAIL contracts, and the purchasing of four frigates—two to be purchased from Russia for $950 million and two to be made at Goa Shipyard Limited for $500 million. In 2019, more defence agreements were concluded, including a $3 billion deal for a nuclear submarine to replace INS Chakra, the approval for the purchase of 464 T-90 tanks for $2 billion, the launch of a joint-manufacturing project for AK-203/103 rifles in Amethi, Uttar Pradesh, and procurement of $1.47 billion Igla-S Very Short Range Air Defence Systems (VSHORAD) from Russia.
On 6th December 2021, Modi met with President Putin at the 21st Indo-Russian Summit in New Delhi, where the former emphasised that the “unique and reliable model of interstate friendship” between the two countries had remained strong through the COVID-19 pandemic and would continue to become more robust despite transformations in geopolitical equations in the region. This was reiterated by the latter as well, who also stressed upon the increasing mutual investments between both countries (currently at $38 billion) and on the military, technical, technological, and manufacturing cooperation. On 5th December 2021, defence minister Rajnath Singh met with his Russian counterpart Sergey Shogyu under the India-Russia Inter-Governmental Commission on Military and Military-Technical Cooperation (IRIGC-M&MTC), S. Jaishankar met with his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov, and the four held a 2+2 dialogue. They ultimately agreed upon the joint production of more than 6 lakh 7.63×39 mm AK-203 assault rifles at Amethi through the Indo-Russia Rifles Pvt Ltd and reinforcing another military cooperation pact entitled Agreement on Program of the Military-Technical Cooperation from 2021-2031 for the next decade. Both countries also released a joint statement entitled Partnership for Peace, Progress and Prosperity in the aftermath of the Summit, accentuating the completion of more than five decades of the 1971 Indo-Russian Treaty of Peace, Friendship and Cooperation and two decades of the Declaration on Strategic Partnership and reiterating the congruence of perspectives regarding international and regional issues. Though the Reciprocal Exchange of Logistical Support (RELOS) agreement was still not concluded, twenty-eight other agreements were signed across an array of sectors including defence, energy, science, space exploration, engineering, technology, trade, and investment, that displayed clear intent on both sides in terms of political messaging and substantive deliverables. Both sides also discussed the continuation of supplies under the S-400 “legacy contract” despite the threat of CAATSA sanctions, with India reiterating its resolve to follow an independent foreign policy and Russia highlighting its practical and symbolic importance. Lavrov also utilised this event to reiterate the Russian disapproval of American hegemony in the region, attempting to construct the Indo-Pacific to benefit itself and lauded India’s expression of sovereignty in the face of sanctions. Russia also formally criticised the AUKUS as “non-inclusive” and expressed concerns about whether the military-technical alliance to produce nuclear-powered submarines in Australia by UK and USA, would threaten regional peace and comply with IAEA and non-proliferation norms. Both sides also discussed the evolving regional security environment, including Chinese incursions in Ladakh, the Ukrainian crisis, and the instability in Afghanistan, and their implications on political stability, terrorism, radicalisation, and drug trafficking. S. Jaishankar especially stressed upon the imperative of mitigating the humanitarian and economic crisis in Afghanistan in the aftermath of the US withdrawal and the COVID-19 pandemic and bolstering a “peaceful, secure and stable Afghanistan” without interference in its territorial integrity and internal affairs. As India expressed its grave concerns about terror networks like the Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Taiba finding logistical, training, planning, and monetary support in Afghanistan, both sides resolved to take combat all forms of terrorism through the dismantling of extremist infrastructure and countering radicalisation.
Bipolarity in the international system with powers distributed between the two poles has also been complicated by the emergence of a new axis comprised of India, Israel, UAE, and USA. In what observers are terming “a new Quad,” the foreign ministers of these countries, in their maiden meeting, agreed to establish a joint economic forum for cooperation in transportation, technology, maritime security, economics, and trade. Though the chief focus is on joint economic projects, the countries also agreed to collaborate for maritime security in the western and southern Indian Ocean to mitigate China’s aggressive manoeuvres, and threats of piracy and seabound terrorism. They also agreed to bring “synergy among the four nations in the post-pandemic world” in the areas of climate change, renewable and non-renewable energy, disaster and infectious disease management, and digital infrastructure. The primary objective was to harness the unique capabilities, knowledge, and experience possessed by each participant to move from government-to-government cooperation to business-to-business synergy. They also agreed to appoint senior professionals to a joint working group which would delineate the blueprint for successful cooperation.
India joined the US-Israel-UAE trilateral a few days after their meeting was held in October 2021. The trilateral was initially aimed at discussing and further operationalising the Abraham Accords – signed in September 2020 between several UAE-led Arab States and Israel, marking the first public normalization of relations between the countries. The three countries also discussed the imperative of normalising relations after decades of instability and the Trump administration reneging on the Iran nuclear deal or the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). India’s inclusion in the grouping brings with it more diverse strategic and geo-economic interests, especially as the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) bloc is India’s largest trading partner. With Saudi Arabia and UAE moving towards a post-oil era along with the other Gulf States, the populous Indian market could serve as an attractive oil consumer and investment destination through comparatively risk-free economic opportunities. This minilateral could allow India more influence on regional and global platforms and could effectively transform the geopolitics of West Asia. The fact that its first meeting occurred during S. Jaishankar’s visit to Tel Aviv and that he also described India’s relations with the other three countries as “among the closest, if not the closest” was not coincidental. Modi has invested greatly in bettering India’s relationship with Israel and UAE, visiting both countries after thirty-four years, and inviting Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al Nahyan, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and the de-facto ruler of UAE, as the Chief Guest for the 2017 Republic Day celebrations. Before Modi was awarded UAE’s highest civilian honour – the Order of Zayed in 2019, both countries had signed a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership Agreement establishing a framework for cooperation in energy, investment, defence, and maritime security. Similarly, after President Pranab Mukherjee became the first Indian Head of State to visit Israel in 2015, Modi was the first Indian Prime Minister to visit Israel in 2018. The relationship evolved with urgency and dynamism into a strategic partnership with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s visit to India in 2018, with Israel swiftly becoming one of India’s top suppliers of defence equipment and critical technologies, as well as chief partner in the agriculture sector through the Centres of Excellence. Alongside the negotiations and finalisation of the Abraham Accords, the International Federation of Indo-Israel Chambers of Commerce (IFIICC) was initiated in December 2020, with ambassadors of both countries as well as of UAE participating virtually. As the American Jewish Committee held a webinar entitled India, Israel, and the Gulf: New Opportunities, in February 2021, the Consuls Generals of India and Israel also hosted an India-Israel-UAE business meeting at the India Pavilion at Dubai Expo on 25th October 2021. All these initiatives have formed the base for the new minilateral and have been underpinned by a significant economic rationale. Virtually all major Indian business groups have situated their MENA headquarters in Dubai and have a presence in the city, twenty-three leading Indian banks have offices at Dubai International Financial Centre, and direct frequent flights between Dubai and Tel Aviv would make Israel more accessible to these industries persons. Israel speedily instituted its consulate in Dubai and conducted outreach with Dubai-based Indian businesses that could harmonise the initiatives of the three countries. Indeed, tie-ups have already been announced between these businesses and their Israeli counterparts in healthcare, pharmaceuticals, and financial services, as well as in gold, diamonds, and jewellery through the Dubai Multi-Commodity Centre. Because the three countries also share a strong focus on technology and innovation – evidenced through Israel’s claim as “Start-up Nation”; India’s emergence as an attractive destination for venture capital and unicorns; and UAE’s mission to Mars, creation of Abu Dhabi’s Hub 71 and Dubai Future Foundation, and the appointment of the globe’s first Ministers for the Future and for Artificial Intelligence – this minilateral could offer the possibility of synergising leading technologies with UAE’s abundant capital resources (such as those in sovereign wealth funds like ADIA, ADQ, and Mubadala), and India’s large scale and populous market. For the USA, the defence capabilities of the other three countries would eventually suffuse the grouping with a security dimension seeking to contain China (like the Quad), though statements have been made affirming its non-military character. Though India may disagree with the other partners in their concerns about Iran’s increasing sphere of influence in Yemen, Lebanon, Iraq, and Syria, due to its extensive relations with the country, the advantage of an informal grouping such as this is that the members need not agree on all facets. The announcement of joint infrastructural projects could allow the development of a multi-modal India-Arab Med transport corridor, linking Indian ports like Mumbai with Piraeus in Greece through Jebel Ali in UAE, and installing railway networks from there via Saudi Arabia and Jordan to Israel’s Mediterranean port of Haifa. As India accelerates FTAs with UAE, Israel, and the EU, the seamless connectivity provided by such a linkage could improve India’s access to European markets and provide logistical support to reorganise supply chains and reduce the global trade interdependency with China.
Thus, India continues to effectively employ its ideologies of non-alignment and independent foreign policy to bring nuances to the environment of bipolarity led by the American and Chinese poles. It has explored deeper relationships with integral members of both these influence systems through both formal and informal, both structural and functional mechanisms, to walk its own path in seeking regional and global status and influence.
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