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India’s Neutrality: How the Ukraine Crisis is Dividing the Quad

Apr 22, 2022

During the 2022 Munich Security Conference in February, no less than India’s External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar told the author that his country largely views Quad as a “a natural [partnership]… [whereby] four countries which have common interests, common values, and a great degree of [diplomatic] comfort” work on issues of common concerns, since “no [single] country, not even the U.S. today has the ability to address the big global challenges.”  

Over the past three years, the Quad powers have launched regular high-level meetings, including a summit among their heads of state; conducted major naval drills across the Indo-Pacific; and coordinated their efforts on key international issues, including COVID-19 vaccine production. By all indications, the West has been enjoying a ‘golden age’ of bilateral relations with India, Asia’s other rising power. 

Visibly comfortable among his counterparts from the United States, Japan and Australia, Jaishankar waxed poetic during an hour-long panel talk in Munich about the deep and robust state of strategic cooperation among the four Indo-Pacific powers. While nonchalantly dismissing any suggestion that the Quad is an “Asia NATO”, which is supposedly aimed at constraining a rising China, the veteran Indian diplomat  expressed tremendous optimism about his country’s blossoming strategic cooperation with the three treaty allied nations of the U.S., Australia, and Japan. 

Just over a month later, India and the West are at loggerheads over the crisis in Ukraine. While shared concerns over a resurgent China helped bring the two sides together, profound disagreements over Russia are now threatening to tear a seemingly blossoming alliance asunder. In recent weeks, top U.S. and Australian officials have openly criticized India’s cozy relationship with Russia, while Washington deployed a top national security official to warn New Delhi against any efforts to  help Moscow "circumvent or backfill" Western sanctions. With India insisting on principled ‘neutrality’, the future of the Quad has all of a sudden come under question. 

The New Darling 

In his best-selling book, The Post-American World, Fareed Zakaria presented India as the penultimate swing state of the 21st century: The influential Indian-American journalist presented New Delhi as a self-confident rising power, which is not only shedding its long tradition of Nehruvian neutrality, but could also emerge as ‘the ally’ of the West. A vibrant democracy with an increasingly dynamic economy, India shares many fundamental values with the West. 

Meanwhile, Robert Kaplan foresaw the emergence of India as one of the three major naval powers in the Indo-Pacific, along with China and the U.S., over the coming decades. Perhaps no foreign leader has been more optimistic about China than Japan’s former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who saw India as a key component of an emerging “democratic security diamond” in the Indo-Pacific in tandem with the U.S., Japan, and Australia. 

The new wave of optimism over India was far from unfounded. After all, India recently joined the ranks of the top five largest economies in the world, with its Gross Domestic Product (GDP) expected to become the second largest by the middle of the century. Boosted by a growing economy, India has also been modernizing its armed forces, which now enjoys the third largest defense budget ($72.9 billion) in the world. 

Crucially, India has also become a major source of development aid, including COVID-19 vaccine donations, to post-colonial nations in South Asia and beyond. By some accounts, up to two-thirds of India’s Ministry of External Affairs budget is spent on overseas assistance initiatives such as the International Technical and Economic Cooperation (ITEC) program. 

In the past decade, India has also expanded its strategic and defense footprint across Asia under its 'Act East' policy’, which aims to expand its power across the Indo-Pacific. In 2018, India became only the second nation (after Australia) to host a bilateral summit with all members of the Association of Southeast Asia Nations (ASEAN). 

Shortly after, New Delhi kickstarted negotiations over large-scale defense deals with ASEAN counterparts, which culminated in the U.S.$375 million BrahMos supersonic cruise missile deal with the Philippines. India has also began to flex its muscle by deploying naval contingents across the Indo-Pacific, including to the hotly-contested South China Sea. 

Quad and its Discontents 

A more self-assured India also became more confident in its dealings with the West, which began courting the South Asian power as a key member of an emerging Quad alliance in the Indo-Pacific. Overseeing a burgeoning armed forces and mega-economy, and perturbed by escalating tensions with China from the Himalayas to the Indian Ocean, New Delhi began to reciprocate overtures from the West. 

Soon, leading India experts such as Dhruva Jaishankar began to argue that India was effectively abandoning its foreign policy tradition of ‘non-alignment’ in favor of robust defense cooperation with other Quad members: “For all intents and purposes, non-alignment is not just over, but it is not particularly useful or applicable in today’s context,” namely shared concerns over a resurgent China. 

The dramatic reorientation in India’s strategic calculus largely explains the flurry of high-level meetings and joint naval drills between the South Asian powers and fellow Quad members in recent years. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, however, could torpedo the burgeoning alliance between India and the West. 

Similar to China, India has refused to condemn Russia’s latest actions by instead repeatedly abstaining in various United Nations resolutions on the Ukraine crisis. Moreover, the South Asian power has even indicated its willingness to expand its purchase of Russian energy goods, albeit on highly favorable terms, as well as press ahead with acquisition of state-of-the-art Russian weaponries. 

India’s traditionally warm ties with Russia is a byproduct of its Cold War trauma, most notably the West’s decision to back Pakistan, an archrival, throughout the late-20th century and beyond. Moreover, New Delhi has also been irked by the West’s prior refusal to share civilian nuclear technology as well as continued U.S. threats of sanctions against Indian imports of Russian military hardware.  

The long-simmering tensions with the West have resurfaced in recent weeks amid a public spat over India’s warm ties with Russia. As New Delhi prepared to host Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, the U.S. Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo called on India to “stand on the right side of history, and to stand with the United States and dozens of other countries, standing up for freedom, democracy and sovereignty with the Ukrainian people, and not funding and fueling and aiding President Putin’s war.”  

Her Australian counterpart, Dan Tehan, reminded India of its commitment to “the rules-based approach that we’ve had since the second world war”, cautioning the South Asian power against aiding Russia. To drive home its disappointment with New Delhi, the White House dispatched Deputy National Security Advisor Daleep Singh, who oversees the latest wave of anti-Russia sanctions, to warn India against any major trade and defense deals with Moscow. 

During his visit to New Delhi, the top Biden official openly warned India against adopting “mechanisms that are designed to prop up the rouble or to undermine the dollar-based financial system or to circumvent our financial sanctions." In short, the U.S. made it clear that no sanctions waivers would be on the horizon should India press ahead with major purchases, including defense equipment from Russia. With India insisting on its sovereign prerogative and principled neutrality vis-à-vis Moscow, the future of its bilateral relations with Washington and the broader Quad is now in doubt. 

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