India straddles competing global concepts

May 8, 2023
The Indian Prime Minister, Shri Narendra Modi.

India as the Chair of Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) hosted the SCO Defence Ministers’ Meeting on 28 April. Largely unreported in Western media, the meeting underlined important divergences in the narrative promoted by US-centric media that suggests India and China have irreconcilable differences.

The first striking illustration of this spirit of cooperation between India and China is the 2022 photo of the SCO meeting in Samarkand with Prime Minister Modi standing next to President Xi Jinping.

The SCO is the world’s largest regional organisation in terms of geographic scope and population. It covers approximately 60% of the area of Eurasia and 40% of the world population with a combined GDP of around 20% of global GDP. Its remit includes political, economic, international security and defence issues.

There are some areas of significant disagreement between India and China, including an ongoing armed stand-off on the border, the banning of selected Chinese web apps and other punitive measures. The Defence Ministers meeting illustrated that co-operation can stand along-side conflict. The meeting highlighted the way India’s global positioning is made up of a set of apparent contradictions that should concern its Western partners.

Prime Minister Modi is adept at managing those contradictions.

Western media is keen to promote India as one of the world’s largest democracies and with that comes the assumption that India only supports the policies pursued by Western democracies, including the United States and the UK. Australia places great significance on India’s inclusion in the QUAD military-style alliance. Like the other QUAD partners, the United States and Japan, Australia chooses to turn a blind eye to the broader sweep of Indian policy.

These QUAD partners are quick to scold China for refusing to condemn Russia in relation to the Ukraine. However, these same partners are remarkably silent when it comes to scolding India for its refusal to condemn Russia. India, as a QUAD member, gets a free pass.

This free pass also extends to India’s refusal to comply with the sanctions imposed by the United States and supported by the other QUAD partners, Australia and Japan.  India’s imports of crude oil from Russia soared to a record 1.6 million barrels per day in February and is now higher than combined imports from traditional suppliers Iraq and Saudi Arabia.  This increase comes despite Americas demand that the trade in Russian oil be stopped. Again this fails to attract public criticism from Western NATO partners who seem to want to believe that India is on their side.

Apparently it is also easy to ignore the Russian SU-57 fighter aircraft deployed by India because they are painted in Indian air force colours. To date India has shown little appetite for the purchase of US weaponry, despite encouragement from the United States. India’s nuclear submarine fleet is built around the Russian designed Kilo-class submarines, but QUAD partners expect they will operate alongside the Australian AUKUS nuclear submarines when they arrive sometime after the end of the next decade. They ignore the Indian Navy MiG-29Ks, which operate from India’s sole aircraft carrier, INS Vikramaditya, which is of Russian origin.

(There was some amusement to be had with Prime Minister Albanese’s photo opportunity with the Indian navy. He was photographed on board a Russian designed aircraft carrier, sitting in the cockpit of a Russian fighter jet, with Russian fighter jets in the background).

The United States, the United Kingdom with its lingering colonial nostalgia for the Raj and Australia, all want to believe that India is part of an anti-China and anti-Russian alliance. They want to believe that India is a reliable and steadfast defender of a US-led hegemony in the Indo-Pacific. They choose to ignore the fact that India’s participation in the SCO and other multilateral organisations reflects the changing global environment.

India’s chairmanship of the SCO and its hosting of the SCO annual conference in New Delhi later in 2023 are all clear signals that India, like China, favours a multi-lateral approach to the global future rather than a unit-polar hegemony. Although India shares a border with China, it also shares borders with the nations of central Asia. India appears to recognise that hegemonic domination is not a realistic aspiration after sitting on the edges of the ‘Great Game’ of the 19th century played by England and Russia for control of Persia, Afghanistan and Tibet.

India, like China, has no desire to forcefully expand its borders into foreign countries through aggression and conflict. India seeks to secure its borders through co-operative arrangements with its neighbours and partners. It is this desire that brings the flexibility to equip itself with Russian fighter jets, to conduct military exercises with the Western powers of the QUAD and then simultaneously Chair the SCO and stand proudly beside President Xi.

The SCO Defence Ministers meeting is a fine example of co-operation where participation is not limited by ideological agreement. It is an outstanding example of what can be achieved through cooperation rather than conflict. The SCO, and India’s participation in it, provides a model of cooperative development that is an inspiration for the Global South. This approach stands in stark contrast to that adopted by those who want to drag others into confrontation and conflict and who paint the world situation in black and white.

Prime Minister Modi straddles two competing world views. Reconciling these will be one of the most important of the challenges faced by India, and the West, in coming years.

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