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India is weaning itself off Russia and countering China

By Baani Grewal and Justin Bassi

With the arrival on Sunday of India’s foreign minister, Dr Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, for his second trip to Australia this year, much of the commentary will no doubt focus on India’s supposed weakness towards Russia.

Indeed, the impression is that India is playing spoiler to Western efforts on Russia and was a latecomer to resisting Chinese regional hegemony via the Quad.

But this is a fundamental misunderstanding of India’s history, ambitions and present predicament. What needs to be understood, including in Canberra, is that the real game is India’s monumental shift from non-alignment to the role of strategic balancer and that this realignment is vital for Australia’s long-term security and wider Indo-Pacific stability.

In this context, Jaishankar’s visit – during which he will meet with Foreign Minister Penny Wong and Deputy Prime Minister and Defence Minister Richard Marles – will be the first time an Indian foreign minister has visited Australia twice in a year following a visit in February centred on the Quad foreign ministers’ meeting. This is a clear signal from New Delhi that it views its partnership with Australia as central to its national interests and its Indo-Pacific strategy.

The Australia-India relationship has come an enormous way over the past decade, both bilaterally and through the Quad. Wong and Jaishankar met multiple times in September alone. The relationship’s improvement has been its focus on security. No longer do we rely on cricket and cultural ties to maintain the friendship, but rather a joint understanding that it is our security and sovereignty that will bind us.

Delhi has already made progress in realigning and diversifying away from Russian defence dependence.

Because of India’s border skirmishes with China in 2020 and the Quad’s revitalisation from 2019, many observers have talked as if India has only recently discovered the risk of Chinese regional hegemony.

However, throughout the Cold War, India grew to see China as a far greater threat than the US and its allies did, including Australia. India’s relationship with the Soviet Union and then Russia was borne out of necessity as it sought essential defence technology that it was unable to get elsewhere. And while Australia felt that we were the first country to shift our thinking on Beijing’s aggression from 2017, it was no surprise to India which had been standing up for human rights by granting asylum to the Dalai Lama in 1959 and defending territorial integrity through the border war with China in 1962.

It can therefore be frustrating for India to be lectured on how it should uproot its Russia relationship in a matter of months while it tries to navigate rapidly evolving dynamics and deepen its strategic partnership with the West.

India does, even if quietly, recognise that its dependence on Russia is a problem, and is concerned about the growing Sino-Russian partnership. That is why it has taken steps to diversify away from Russian defence imports and has openly criticised President Vladimir Putin.

Delhi has already made progress in realigning and diversifying away from Russian defence dependence, but it will take years if not decades – such major shifts always do. No country frolicks around with a core need such as a viable defence capability.

Australia’s focus must continue to be on working with India to counter and deter Beijing’s malign actions while simultaneously increasing partnerships with South-East Asia. Having aligned through the Quad and having many areas of commonality, we can patiently work with India as it weans itself off Russia with help from friends.

The richest vein to tap right away is cyber and critical technologies, which are of direct relevance to both countries’ security and sovereignty. Australia has been rightly lauded for its leadership role in the area of 5G, making the decision to prohibit Chinese company involvement before the US and UK. India not only aligned on 5G but has also banned major Chinese platforms such as TikTok and WeChat.

Its role in countering Beijing’s disinformation about the purposes of the Quad, reassuring a nervous region that it is not an Asian NATO, should be instructive for us in relation to AUKUS. As Jaishankar said recently of the strategic realignment taking place in the Indo-Pacific: “Those who connect the dots would surely agree that we are really now at the cusp of something big.”

AUKUS, so vital to Australia’s future security, is viewed suspiciously by some in South-East Asia and the Pacific. Recent reports revealed that India played a key role in working with International Atomic Energy Agency member states to ensure that a draft Chinese resolution, which argued that the AUKUS initiative violated the responsibilities of Australia, the UK and the US under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), did not get majority support. This demonstrated the power that India wields in international affairs and institutions.

Differences in the relationship can be expected, including on issues such as human rights and visas. The improvement in the relationship is evident in the fact that these issues are now discussed openly. The two countries have become sufficiently close that tensions are raised and managed, not ignored to simmer and eventually boil over.

Jaishankar has been vital to India’s global outlook but there is a need to ensure the relationship and its focus is embedded and institutionalised so that it does not rely on him and lasts beyond him.

The relationship needs special attention involving simultaneous ambition and patience. India is a country of a billion people, whose weight will help determine the fate of our region. It is becoming ever more apparent that we need this huge, democratic Indo-Pacific player by our side.

Originally published by: The Australian Financial Review on 09 Oct 2022