INDIA’s vote at the UN General Assembly on October 11 against Russia’s demand for a secret ballot on a draft resolution to condemn its annexation of four regions of Ukraine is merely one indication of the challenges Russia’s assault on Ukraine has created for Indian diplomacy.
Earlier, justifying India’s decision to abstain from condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine at the Globsec 2022 forum in Slovakia in June, External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar asserted that “Europe has to grow out of the mindset that Europe’s problems are the world’s problems, but the world’s problems are not Europe’s problems.”
This reflects scant concern for the resounding impact — extending far beyond Europe — of Russia’s decision to conquer a country whose independence it recognised after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991.
One result of that invasion has been a global food crisis, which has affected developing countries adversely. Another is that India’s partners in the Quad fear that China, the superior economic partner in the Sino-Russian relationship, could follow Russia’s example and embark on expansionist adventures in the Indo-Pacific.
Additionally, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s perception of himself as a 21st-century ‘Peter the Great’ trying to win back Russian lands through war and his contempt for international law and the rules-based order (RBO) suggest that his ideal world lies somewhere between the 18th and 20th century. Evidently, he is determined to remake the international order by conquest, which was outlawed by the UN Charter after the Second World War.
As a member state of the Quad, which believes that the RBO can advance security and progress in the Indo-Pacific, India should, together with the US, Japan and Australia, find this contempt unacceptable. India says it is on the side that respects the UN Charter and its founding principles. However, it has condemned neither Russia’s invasion nor the annexation of some Ukrainian territories through illegal referenda. Russia’s recent threat to wage nuclear war also goes against India’s commitment to nuclear disarmament and strengthening the non-proliferation order. But what is India’s reaction to this threat?
“Where was Europe when China was expanding in Asia?” asked Jaishankar. Well, the EU was strengthening its trading ties with China. So was India. The difference is that no EU country’s sovereignty is menaced by China, while India and most of China’s Asian neighbours face its threats to their territorial integrity. True, the EU has no defence policy and lacks military clout in Asia or even in Europe. But whatever its deficiencies, the EU is not as narrow-minded as New Delhi alleges. Actually, the EU has invested heavily in Asia and in developing countries generally, to counter China’s economic clout.
Between 2013 and 2018, the EU provided €410 billion in official development aid worldwide, and China only €34 billion. It gave ASEAN €800 million to fight the Covid-19 pandemic — more than any other partner of the regional organisation. And India itself could benefit from the EU’s €300 billion Global Gateway fund, which aims to expand connectivity, including in the Indo-Pacific. In 2019, EU investment in ASEAN amounted to €313.6 billion (over $300 billion). Indian investment into ASEAN from April 2019 to March 2022 was $55.5 billion.
At another level, as a military power, India’s horizons extend to the defence of its own borders with China and Pakistan. But India faces strong Chinese military and economic competition, even in its immediate South Asian neighbourhood. Militarily, India cannot defend ‘Asia’ against Chinese expansionism any more than the EU.
Why has India abstained from voting against Russia? The main reason is that Russia has been India’s major arms supplier for more than half a century. In the UN Security Council, India regretted that “the path of diplomacy was given up” in Ukraine. That sounds weak since India did not say by which country. By abstaining and by dismissing Ukraine as a European problem, India may have lost the chance to reach out to Moscow and Kyiv to find the middle ground through dialogue and diplomacy. Significantly, Russia and China welcome India’s abstention as being against the US. Their applause may not work to India’s advantage in Washington.
New Delhi’s claim that developing countries have turned to India in the wake of the food crisis caused by the Ukraine war needs substantiation. In fact, head of the African Union President Macky Sall of Senegal and President Joko Widodo of Indonesia, heading the G20, met Putin in June to discuss the food, fertiliser and fuel crises caused by Russia’s blockade of Ukrainian ports.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi met Putin for the first time since Russia’s invasion began last February at the China-led Shanghai Cooperation meeting in September. Meanwhile, G7 countries, which include Japan, will contribute over $4.5 billion to address the global food security. Over half of this amount will come from the US, which will give $2.76 billion in additional funding to help mitigate the impact of the Ukraine war on growing food insecurity and malnutrition.
In order to enhance its regional status vis-a-vis China, India takes its role in the Quad very seriously. And yet, New Delhi’s refusal to slam Russia’s aggression risks generating tensions within the group. Firstly, this is because both China and Russia oppose the Quad. Secondly, Japan, the US and Australia have imposed some of the harshest sanctions on Moscow. India has been a party to Quad’s joint statements that support ‘democratic values’ and ‘democratic resilience’. If Russia continues and escalates its war in Ukraine, and if India maintains its current position, it could raise embarrassing questions about the Quad’s commitment to maintaining the RBO and become a political burden for its Quad partners.
On another plane, India — like its territorial contestant China — is entitled to buy Russian oil in the wake of Russia’s aggression in Ukraine, just as EU countries were purchasing far greater quantities of energy from Moscow since 2014, when it invaded Ukraine after 1991 and annexed Crimea. But India can learn something from the EU’s experience — reliance on territorial spoilers for energy or trade, whether the spoiler is Russia in Europe or China against India, can be self-defeating in the long run.
The legal, political and economic repercussions of Russia’s war in Ukraine extend far beyond Europe — to the Indo-Pacific and Africa. Perceiving itself as a leader of the developing world, India should carve out a bigger international role for itself to end the conflict and reduce its unfortunate impact on developing societies.
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