x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Singh struggles to impose his will on Russia and China

As his term in office wanes, India's president finds himself losing influence, at home and abroad.

India’s close relationship with Russia is historically stable. Alexander Zemlianichenko /AP Photo
India’s close relationship with Russia is historically stable. Alexander Zemlianichenko /AP Photo

Spurned by sections of his own party, mocked by the opposition and hounded by parts of the media, Manmohan Singh, India’s prime minister, has recently sought refuge on foreign soil. After trips to the US and South-east Asia, it was the turn of Russia and China this week.

India’s close relationship with Russia is historically stable. Indeed, it was barely affected by the structural changes ushered in at the end of the Cold War in the early 1990s. More recently, however, this relationship has begun to push against its limits.

Mr Singh has suggested that relations should adapt to changing times, even as he also underlined that Russia will remain an “indispensable” partner for India’s defence needs.

But Indian defence priorities are also changing. Russia’s privileged position as India’s defence supplier of choice has come under pressure as India has shifted priorities to the purchase of smart weaponry, which Russia is ill-equipped to provide.

Already, India’s increasing defence ties with Israel and the gradual opening of the US arms market have diminished the appeal of Russian-made weapons systems.

The Indian military has also been criticised for relying too heavily on Russia for defence acquisition, especially in the light of the lengthy dispute over the Admiral Gorshkov aircraft carrier refit. The issues of inordinate delays in delivery and considerable cost escalation are both big irritants.

India is paying Russia $2.34 billion for the delivery of the Admiral Gorshkov later this year, compared to the original $974 million agreed upon in 2004. India was also supposed to receive an Akula II-class nuclear-powered submarine in 2009, but its delivery was postponed to 2011.

Separately, New Delhi was confident that contracts on the construction of the third and fourth nuclear reactors at Kudankulum would be finalised during Mr Singh’s recent visit, but an agreement could not be reached.

India and Russia will have to find common ground to bring stability in Afghanistan post-2014 and combat the challenge of extremism in Central Asia.

Both states have been keen to emphasise that Pakistan’s bid to rehabilitate the Taliban is not an acceptable outcome, but beyond that, they are yet to figure out a way to influence the rapidly evolving realities on the ground.

As Mr Singh moved on to China, there were even fewer expectations given Beijing’s recent posturing over the sale of two more nuclear reactors to Pakistan.

The signing of the much touted Border Defence Cooperation Agreement was, however, the most significant takeaway for the Indian prime minister.

For India, this pact is aimed at curbing incidents along its borders with China and will also be a means of signalling to Beijing that stable borders are essential for healthy bilateral ties. For China, this is also the last opportunity to work with Mr Singh to put a lid on border disputes.

Meanwhile, the trade imbalance with China is growing unsustainably but the recent visit yielded little on that front.

And on water disputes, Beijing merely decided to take into account Indian concerns. China is building a series of dams on rivers that flow into India from Tibet.

As Mr Singh’s term comes to an end, the lesson for future Indian governments is that a prime minister who is weak at home cannot deliver abroad.

Though Mr Singh might have been keen to shape his legacy in foreign policy issues, his domestic weaknesses continue to haunt him.

The Russians and the Chinese, as well as the Americans and the Pakistanis, are now all looking beyond Mr Singh and are waiting to see what choices Indians themselves make before they decide to make their own adjustments.

At the moment, all they see is a prime minister with a declining amount of authority.

Harsh V Pant is a reader in international studies at King’s College London