At the recent SCO (Shanghai Cooperation Organisation) summit in Uzbekistan, Prime Minister Narendra Modi surprised Western media by taking a strongly neutral position in the Russia-Ukraine war.
Modi told Putin that “Today’s era is not an era of war,” prompting the Western media to read this as a stunning rebuke of Vladimir Putin, earlier seen as very close to India and Modi.
This contrasts with the earlier Western stance of repeatedly threatening India for its special relationship with Russia and failing to condemn Russian aggression.
For good measure, Modi thanked both Russia and Ukraine for helping India move its students studying in the latter country to safety — another signal of neutrality.
While close ties to Russia will remain, especially with India ramping up its purchases of cheaper Russian oil and gas, this nuanced position has been read as India moving away from Russia.
In reality, the Modi message on war can be seen as a silent rebuke of Chinese war-mongering, too, but the West chose to see what it did.
What this shows is a larger reality: when the war began, China was seen as the biggest beneficiary, but now it is possible to claim that India may well be the biggest beneficiary over the medium term, as it now gets more policy leeway in geopolitics and economics.
We don’t really have to choose between the Sino-Russian axis and the US-led grouping.
We have ample space to manoeuvre, and also a chance to grow bigger on the world stage.
One, India has become the tilting factor in east-west Asian and Indo-Pacific geopolitics, with both the US and the Russia-China axis now realising that we need to be wooed.
As far as we are concerned, as long as we build trade and military ties to the US, we can retain our military relationship with Russia on our own terms.
We can’t tilt away from Russia, for the last thing we need is a China-Russia-Pakistan alliance ranged against us.
Russia would need us for the simple reason that it, too, cannot afford to become wholly subservient to China in the global power game. Putin would then lose all leverage.
Two, China’s global standing has, in fact, weakened, as its embrace of Russia has strengthened the US’s commitment to providing Taiwan with more military and diplomatic backing.
President Joe Biden has said, not once but twice, that the US will back Taiwan in case of a conflict.
Just a day ago, he even said that US troops would fight in Taiwan, if China attacked it. And for the last two months, senior US politicians, including Speaker Nancy Pelosi, have visited Taiwan in a show of support.
For India, this means two things: (a) China now has to worry about Taiwan more than its border dispute with us, and (b) given a weakening economy, it cannot lightly think of launching an offensive anywhere, least of all against India.
They know we can give them a bloody nose. Russia’s failure to march to a quick victory in Ukraine also gives it cause for pause on Taiwan.
India’s counter-punch in Ladakh after China’s 2020 provocation will prevent the Dragon from doing anything more than breathe fire.
The remaining frenemies of China in the Indo-Pacific (Vietnam, Indonesia, Japan, etc) would not have failed to note that China has not managed any military success despite threatening talk.
Three, as long as we manage the Russian relationship well, our access to military hardware and cheap fuel is a useful counterweight to US pressure and West Asian oil dependence.
With Iran now leaning towards Russia, importing Russian oil and gas through Iranian ports would become an added option in due course.
Four, the new world order that will rise from the current disorder will be to India’s advantage.
After the US-led sanctions on Russia, Europe is paying the biggest economic price for it, with Russian gas gone and inflation going through the roof.
The net result of this winter’s European discontent will be a new security policy in Europe that will be less US-dependent.
France is already a nuclear power, and Germany will be spending a large amount on defence.
At some point, when the Ukraine war ends, Europe will have to mend fences with Russia too, for it is a nuclear power.
As German military power grows, western Europe would want Russia as a counter-weight to Germany too.
Europeans will realise that they need to create a European security architecture, and Russia has to be a part of it, as long as it does not threaten others.
That may take a while, but the security architecture will focus on Eurasia and not just western Europe, and this is good for India, for it will counter-balance the Chinese threat in central Asia which is land-linked to Pakistan.
Five, thanks particularly to India’s effective Covid management, especially the macroeconomy, Modi has put India in a sweet spot.
Both geopolitically and economically, India is a rising midi-power and it has options that are looking better every day.
At some point, if it, with support from France, Germany and Japan, can broker a deal to end the Ukraine war in return for Western support to rebuild the devastated country, India will be the flavour of the decade.
And yes, the G20 Summit next year, which will be presided over by India, will mark the beginning of this shift in how the world sees India.
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