Russia-India partnership has the potential to shape geopolitics of the Eurasian region
Sanjaya Baru is an economist, a former newspaper editor, a best-selling author, and former adviser to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. He also happens to be one of the thinkers who most keenly understands the complexities of the contemporary world order. Baru proposed the concept of what he calls bi-multipolarity in his article titled ‘The Geo-economics of Multipolarity’. It was published in the book ‘Asia between Multipolarism and Multipolarity’ that was released last year by Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analysis (IDSA). Baru is also a distinguished fellow at IDSA.
Bi-multipolarity, as he defines it, is an evolution of the late Samuel P. Huntington’s concept of uni-multipolarity. Baru’s article acknowledges the existence of three primary civilisations in Asia–the Chinese, Indian, and Islamic –which he notes have ‘existed alongside each other for centuries.’ In the present geopolitical context, ‘the US and China are the two dominant powers but their power is constrained by the presence of several “major powers”–namely India, Iran, Japan, Russia, Turkey, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and the ASEAN.’ These countries actively work to balance the influence of that dominant pair in Asia.
The Indian expert elaborates that ‘While each of the major Asian powers would individually like the US to balance China within Asia, they would not join the US in an anti-China containment strategy. They would all prefer a multipolar Asia but recognise, like Huntington, that it will take time before Asia becomes truly multipolar.’ His concept is intriguing even if his assessment that India and Japan aren’t joining the US in an anti-China containment strategy is challenged by their participation in the Quad. Japan is solidly on the US’ side though India is still practicing a regularly recalibrated policy of multi-alignment between the US and Russia.
These details aside, which aren’t by any means insignificant, Baru’s bi-multipolarity concept deserves to be more widely discussed because it keenly identifies the trend of the major Asian powers balancing between the dominant American and Chinese ones through geo-economic and geopolitical means. He was given the opportunity to raise greater awareness of his strategic observations during his latest interview with the publicly financed Russian international media outlet Sputnik. His views were published alongside other experts in the article titled ‘An Unpredictable Ally: Does The AUKUS Pact Undermine The Quad’s Significance?’
Russia’s Balancing Act
It was actually this piece which brought Baru’s bi-multipolarity concept to my attention and inspired me to research more about it. I discovered that it very closely aligns with my own views that I elaborated upon in two pieces earlier this year. The first was for Pakistan’s Express Tribune and was a rebuttal to the globally renowned structural realism theorist John Mearsheimer published under the title ‘Why Structural Realists Are Wrong To Predict That Russia Will Help The US Against China’. I drew attention to what Baru might describe as Russia’s bi-multipolar policy to balance China’s rise in a gentle way through its strategic partnership with India.
The second piece was for the Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC), a prestigious think tank in which Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov serves as the Chairman of the Board of Trustees. Titled ‘Towards Increasingly Complex Multipolarity: Scenario For The Future’, my analysis forecasts a future in which Asia’s major powers engage in complex balancing acts with one another with an aim to accelerate the emerging Multipolar World Order. Both pieces cited the academic article that I co-authored last year for Vestnik, the official journal of the Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO).
MGIMO is run by the Russian foreign ministry and trains the country’s diplomatic cadre. My co-authored article for them was titled ‘The Prospects Of Russia And India Jointly Leading A New Non-Aligned Movement’. It builds upon two articles published the year prior in 2019 by Russian experts for the Valdai Club, another prestigious Russian thinktank, proposing that these special and privileged strategic partners jointly lead a more modern form of the Non-Aligned Movement in order to improve their and their partners’ balancing capabilities between China and the US. I argued that this neo-NAM, as I termed it, has promising prospects.
What my work and Baru’s have in common is that they acknowledge the leading role of China and the US in shaping the emerging world order, one in which major powers like India and Russia are actively balancing between those two countries as well as intensifying relations with one another in order to sustain the multipolar trends that grant them and their similarly positioned partners greater strategic autonomy within this system. Baru focuses more on the conceptual framework in which all these players are operating whereas I devote more attention to the Russian-Indian axis within it. Our respective works are therefore complementary.
The Russia-US-China Triangle
The bi-multipolar order that Baru describes and which I endorse is extremely complex due to the multitude of players involved and the risks of various axes’ moves inadvertently provoking security dilemmas with others such as the one that I warn about between Russia and India on one hand and China on the other. The US’ grand strategic goal is to divide and rule Asia through its manipulation of the Russia-US-China and India-US-China triangles. This dual triangulation policy is extremely crafty since it aims to exploit Russia and India’s pre-existing concerns vis-a-vis China in order to create scenarios for further complicating matters for the People’s Republic.
To explain, Russia fears becoming disproportionately dependent on China, which was recently expressed by its influential scholar Sergey Karaganov in an interview in August. I analysed his views in my piece at the time for the OneWorld online information outlet titled ‘Russian Scholar Karaganov Articulated Russia’s Balancing Act With China’. In order to preempt this, Russia is exploring the possibility of a rapprochement with the EU so as to counterbalance China’s growing influence over its economy. It’s also pioneering what I described as its ‘Ummah Pivot’ with the majority-Muslim countries beyond its southern frontier.
I elaborated more on this concept in my two-part analytical series for RIAC earlier this summer published under the titles ‘The Geostrategic Challenges Of Russia’s Ummah Pivot’ and ‘Russia’s Ummah Pivot: Opportunities & Narrative Engagement’. It can be summarised as Russia’s creative application of bi-multipolar policies in North Africa, West Asia, the South Caucasus, Central Asia, and South Asia aimed at increasing its overall role in the affairs of those concerned countries. In the context of this present analysis, the ‘Ummah Pivot’ reduces Russia’s post-Crimean dependence on China and complements its diplomatic engagements with the EU.
These two vectors pair perfectly with its special and privileged strategic partnership with India to create a three-pronged approach to gently balancing China’s rise in Asia, which is an observation that hasn’t escaped American policymakers’ attention. Although there’s still some debate within the American establishment about whether Russia or China constitutes their country’s greatest strategic challenge, the latest trend has been to comparatively reduce pressure on Russia through attempts to regulate the US’ competition with it in order for Washington to focus more on containing China.
This is evidenced through the Biden Administration’s decision to waive most Nord Stream II sanctions, the American President’s meeting with his Russian counterpart in Geneva, and low-level but nevertheless pragmatic cooperation in Afghanistan and Syria. These moves aim to encourage the trends of a Russian-EU rapprochement and the ‘Ummah Pivot’ within manageable limits for America in order to indirectly reduce Russia’s dependence on China for the purpose of bolstering Moscow’s multipolar balancing capabilities against it. The less dependent Russia becomes on China, the thinking goes, the less China can benefit from it.
The India-US-China Triangle
The Indian dimension of the US’ dual triangulation policy is more explicitly aimed against Chinese interests and relates to relying on the South Asian state as a key partner in their shared desire to contain the People’s Republic in much more direct ways than Russia’s balancing act does. America hopes to take advantage of pre-existing tensions between these Asian powers on a range of issues from their disputed frontier to supply chains, tech, and trade in order to provoke a more pronounced security dilemma that can then be exploited even further. The US’ ideal goal is to turn India and China into irreconcilable enemies through the Quad.
The American challenge as of late however, is that the Indian leadership doesn’t seem to be as gung-ho about this as before after last year’s border conflict with China. One might have predicted that this would have made that scenario all the more probable when in reality it seems to have influenced India to reconsider whether it should turn China into an irreconcilable enemy. This observation is validated by the improvement of Russian-Indian relations from that point onward after they had unexpectedly been characterised by rising mistrust over the year prior due to India’s comparatively more enthusiastic desire to ally with America against China.
The US is against that trend since it fears that Russia could influence India to moderate its anti-Chinese grand strategy out of pragmatism and thus enable Moscow to manage its two strategic partners’ security dilemma with a reduced risk of it being exploited by external forces to divide and rule them. That’s the main reason why it’s threatened to sanction New Delhi for its commitment to go through with its deal to purchase S-400 air defence systems from Moscow. This was counterproductive though and actually served to accelerate the improvement of Russian-Indian relations.
Washington wrongly thought that it could sabotage their special and privileged strategic partnership through sanctions and threats, but it backfired badly. India wisely came to fear that the US wanted to coerce it into a relationship of disproportionate dependence similar to the one that Russia fears falling into with China. Had New Delhi pulled out of the S-400 deal, it would have ruined relations with Moscow, prompted a crisis within the South Asian state’s military-industrial complex that’s still closely integrated with the Eurasian Great Power; and essentially would have turned India into the US’ ‘junior partner’ in perpetuity.
The Russian-Indian Axis
In the face of this grand strategic threat to its sovereignty, India once again recalibrated its multi-alignment policy to bestow a greater role for Russia with the intent of relying on it to gently counterbalance the US’ attempt to coerce India to a dangerous relationship of disproportionate dependence. While the US can indirectly encourage the European and ‘Ummah Pivot’ vectors of Russia’s balancing act and directly support India against China through the Quad so as to ultimately create more complicated scenarios for the People’s Republic, it’s totally failed to influence the pivotal Russia-India axis within this bi-multipolar system.
Russia and India are aware of their similar positions within the US’ dual triangulation policy for dividing and ruling Asia, and the trust-based relations between them explain why they’ve restored the significance of their special and privileged strategic partnership in order to coordinate their moves within this framework in advance of their shared multipolar interests. Nevertheless, they must still be very careful in order to not make any moves that could inadvertently play into the US’ grand strategic plans by provoking a security dilemma with China, hence the need to proceed very carefully in the coming future lest their ambitious aims be for naught.
It’s here that my proposal for the neo-NAM can be most pertinent in the context of Baru’s bi-multipolarity concept. Russia and India want to strengthen their strategic autonomy vis-a-vis China while avoiding the pitfall of inadvertently provoking a strategic dilemma with China by pivoting too much towards the EU and the ‘Ummah’ and/ or the US respectively. The Great Powers’ grand strategic goals and sensitivities regarding China make them natural partners and should serve to inspire them to rely more on one another. There are two means through which this can be achieved at differing risks of provoking China.
Russia’s ‘Ummah Pivot’ can see Moscow leveraging its newfound influence in this transregional space in order to facilitate India’s geo-economic connectivity with these countries and beyond. This can be achieved through reviving the stalled North-South Transport Corridor (NSTC) and supporting the prospective Arab-Mediterranean Corridor (AMC). The first relates to opening the doors for India in Central Asia, Russia, and the Black Sea via Iran while the second involves the South Asian state pioneering a corridor with Europe via the West Asian countries of the GCC and Israel, both of which are Russia’s partners, with the latter being an exceptionally close one.
Much is already known about the NSTC but very little has been said about the AMC. Professor Michaël Tanchum, who is a senior fellow at the Austrian Institute for European and Security Policy as well as a non-resident fellow at the Middle East Institute among his many other professional distinctions, published a detailed report about the AMC at the National University of Singapore’s Institute of South Asian Studies in August titled ‘India’s Arab-Mediterranean Corridor: A Paradigm Shift In Strategic Connectivity To Europe’. It should be read in full by those who are interested in learning more about this corridor.
If successful, then this vector of India’s geo-economic multi-alignment policy would result in strengthening its strategic autonomy without provoking China or increasing disproportionate dependence on the US. Regarding what India can do for Russia, it can invest more in its partner’s resource-rich Far East region and open economic doors for it in ASEAN through which their newly created Vladivostok-Chennai Maritime Corridor (VCMC) traverses since 2019, and in which New Delhi already commands a lot of influence. India can also position itself to become the centrepiece of Russia’s future Indo-Pacific policy, which has yet to be officially formulated.
These complementary proposals create the geo-economic basis upon which neo-NAM can be built for coordinating similarly positioned major countries’ balancing acts vis-a-vis China and the US in the contemporary bi-multipolar system. Smaller countries across Asia, as well as Africa too could gravitate towards this jointly led Russian-Indian network if it eventually becomes influential enough to function as a de facto third pole. Their overlapping strategic interests in this complexly evolving international system could also inspire them to create a powerful voting bloc within the UN for politically balancing Chinese and US influence there.
Another element to keep in mind is the neo-NAM’s ‘military diplomacy’ dimension. This concept refers to the use of military means short of kinetic action in order to achieve strategic ends. The Russian way has Moscow selling arms to rival pairs of countries such as Armenia & Azerbaijan, China & India, China & Vietnam, Iran & Saudi Arabia, and Syria & Turkey in order to maintain the military balance between them so as to encourage political solutions to their disputes. The American way, meanwhile, is aimed at disrupting that balance by privileging one country in a dispute in order to encourage it to take unilateral military action.
Russia and India have the chance to practice a pragmatic form of ‘military diplomacy’ through their plans to export the jointly produced BRAHMOS supersonic cruise missiles to the Philippines and perhaps also to other countries like Vietnam that are engaged in territorial disputes with China. The purpose in doing so is to compete with America’s destabilising form of ‘military diplomacy’ there in order to retain the balance of power and encourage all parties to peacefully settle their disputes. In theory, this policy could be replicated among all countries that participate in the jointly led neo-NAM, with preferential deals for each other.
Nevertheless, it is this possibility of bi-multipolar policies that runs the greatest risk of provoking China, if it is not properly managed, which is why Russia and India should proceed with the utmost caution if they decide to practice it. I have elaborated more on these concerns in the article I wrote for Express Tribune in late 2020, titled ‘Why It’s Risky For Russia To Export BrahMos Missiles To The South China Sea’. Even if the decision is made to limit the practice of their joint ‘military diplomacy’ in this region, it can still be pursued in other parts of Afro-Eurasia to give partnered countries a much-needed choice between the Chinese and the US arms.
An Appeal For More Academic Literature
While the specific dynamics of the potentially expanded Russia-India strategic partnership have yet to be determined, particularly in the context of the proposed neo-NAM, it should be clear to their decision makers that comprehensively expanding their relationship is mutually beneficial in the bi-multipolar context since it bolsters their respective strategic autonomy vis-a-vis China and the US. Neither Russia nor India wants to become disproportionately dependent on China, though they also don’t want to provoke it either or strategically submit themselves to the West (the EU and the US respectively).
Their individual efforts to balance China to differing extents (Russia’s being much gentler than India’s) are understandable considering their shared interests relative to that country, but they mustn’t be indirectly or directly exploited by the US respectively for the purpose of provoking a security dilemma between them and the People’s Republic like America aims to do through its dual triangulation policy. It thus makes sense for them to coordinate their balancing acts more closely, especially since it is their axis that the US wanted so desperately to sabotage.
The Russia-India axis can therefore be described as the most pivotal one within Baru’s bi-multipolarity concept. No other pair of major powers has anywhere near the same potential to shape the strategic situation in Asia as they do. More academic work should be done to explore the means through which they can jointly balance Chinese and the US influence on the continent without inadvertently provoking a security dilemma with either of them while also influencing other similarly positioned countries to follow their lead. Russia and India, more so than anyone else, can therefore do the most to advance the shared cause of Asian multipolarity.