The Opportunity Cost of Great Power Relations

Monish Tourangbam
March 31, 2019


The strategic congruence between India and the United States has been the focus of India’s foreign policy discourse in recent times. A pertinent question is: has this relationship come at the cost of other vital relationships? Great power relationships come with both opportunities and challenges. Opportunities have come manifold in the form of a burgeoning defence partnership between India and the United States and greater diplomatic synergies in the bilateral as well as multilateral sense. However, challenges come mostly in the form of the tight balancing act that India finds itself in, while engaging with India’s traditional friends and America’s traditional enemies.

Sustaining the robust India-Russia defence partnership has, of late, become a task cut out for Indian policymakers, in the midst of changing geopolitical environment that seems to be bringing India and the US closer, taking US-Russia relations to nadir, and in the process taking Russia closer to China. Given adversarial relations between India and China plus the competitive-confrontational dynamics between the US and China, a close embrace between Russia and China does not augur well for India or the United States.  The changing international landscape is certainly showing signs of an emerging multipolar world order with a more diverse distribution of power. How would India navigate this landscape while maintaining its narrative and practice of strategic autonomy in foreign policy?

Multi-alignment, and not non-alignment, is being seen as, the new lodestar of Indian foreign policy in the multipolar world order. In terms of foreign and security policy priorities, managing the promotion and protection of India’s interest amid the rise of China in the Indo-Pacific maritime realm and Eurasian continental landmass attains centre-stage. So, how does India align interest with other major powers to diplomatically prevent China’s unilateral intransigence? How does India improve its military capabilities to reduce the gap with China? How should India choose its defence partners and suppliers, under what terms and conditions?

The strategic and commercial aspects of defence trade is an intriguing one. While a country’s lucrative defence market is a critical factor in a robust defence trade, a defence partnership is built on more than the commerce. Strategy also drives defence trade and co-production. A common strategic perception of the emerging security environment and alignment of means to address common concerns play an important role in defence partnership. So, the pertinent question is: Do weapon purchases necessarily mean alignment of strategic interest between the buyer and the seller?

Looking at the current geopolitical realities, a strategic congruence between India and the United States cannot be denied in terms of managing the rise of an aggressive China, particularly in the Indo-Pacific. India has been designated a major defence partner of the United States which translates to both quantitative and qualitative increase in defence supplies and prospects of fruitful co-production. The terms of engagement in military equipment and technology transfers between India and the United States continues to be negotiated under the Defence Trade and Technology Initiative (DTTI).

However, the formerly Soviet Union and later Russia has been the most important defence supplier for India, with a massive proportion of India’s defence material being of Russian origin. In terms of technology sharing and transfer, the Russians have been more forthcoming compared to the Americans and as such, Russia will continue to be a major supplier of India’s defence needs in the foreseeable future. Given the trajectory of India-US relations in recent times, major defence deals between both the sides have received prominent attention. However, India’s reliance on Russia for defence products has been evident from the recent negotiations between the two countries despite the threat of American sanctions under the Countering America’s Adversaries through Sanctions Act (CAATSA).

Besides the big ticket deal of buying the Russian made S-400 missile defence system, recent negotiations have included the ones on manufacture of AK-103 assault rifles and the Akula class submarine. India’s national security requirement of developing an effective deterrence would require it to procure systems and technologies from diverse sources. Moreover, Russia has been a traditional defence supplier to India and this trend seems to be continuing.

India’s relations with the United States has seen a marked shift in the last two decades or so, and has climbed to heights hitherto not envisioned. The utility of India’s relations with the United States has been seen largely in the context of India’s own global aspirations and national security, both closely linked to managing ties with a rising China. However, the upswing in India-US relations will bring along its sets of constraints, dependent on America’s engagement with China and Russia. Moreover, Russia’s close embrace with China, palpable in political, economic and military aspects is something that India should carefully watch. India’s ability to navigate the multipolar order through multi-alignment will be determined by how India will craft its own trajectory of relationship with Russia amid its burgeoning ties with the United States and closer Russia-China relations. Given the constantly changing geopolitical environment and India’s own aspirations to promote and protect its interests in the Indo-Pacific maritime realm and the Eurasian landmass, allowing a strategic drift in India-Russia relations will not be in India’s interests.

*** The author is Senior Assistant Professor at the Department of Geopolitics and International Relations, Manipal Academy of Higher Education (MAHE) ***