Though Defence Minister Rajnath Singh’s Moscow meeting with his Chinese counterpart Wei Fenghe on Friday has grabbed the headlines, his visit to Russia is important from many other angles as well.
First, the Wei meeting. Reports in the Chinese media state that Gen Wei told Singh that India was “entirely responsible” for the border standoff and that China will not lose “an inch of its territory”, which is as clear a signal you can get that Beijing is determined on its hardline posture in eastern Ladakh.
In his remarks to Wei, Singh would have certainly called for a status quo ante. That Beijing is clearly not listening is not a good sign.
Meeting with PLA Crucial
Even so, a face-to-face meeting with the Chinese minister who is one of the most senior Generals in the PLA and a member of the Communist Party’s Central Military Commission (CMC), has considerable significance.
This is because foreign policy in regard to the border with India is not made by China’s foreign ministry, but principally by the PLA.
This has been the case all through but manifested most clearly when the PLA Deputy Chief of Staff Admiral Sun Jianguo signed the last major border agreement with India – the Border Defence Cooperation Agreement of 2013. This was an outcome of the PLA’s frantic efforts to somehow persuade India to freeze its border construction activities.
Even if India is hoping – as External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar has repeatedly said that the problem in eastern Ladakh can be resolved through diplomatic dialogue – the route to Beijing’s decision lies via the CMC which is chaired by Xi, but contains senior military officers. And, of course, if messages have to be given to the PLA itself, there is no opportunity better than a face-to-face meeting with one of its Generals.
Singh’s visit took place on the occasion of the ministerial meet of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO). In his address to the SCO meeting on Friday, Singh said peace and security in the region demanded a climate of trust, non-aggression, peaceful resolution of differences and respect of international rules. This was a message clearly aimed at China over the issue of Eastern Ladakh.
External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar is also expected to travel to Russia in the coming week to attend a meeting of the SCO Foreign Ministers. He, too, is expected to hold talks with his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi at the sidelines of the meet.
China is Not the Only Focus
The meetings of Indian ministers with their Russian counterparts at the sidelines of the SCO meeting, though low key are equally significant. They underscore the importance India gives to its Russian relationship and, in turn, provides Moscow the opportunity to reassure India on account of its relationships with China and Pakistan.
At the meeting between Rajnath Singh and his Russian counterpart General Sergei Shoigu, the Russian side assured India that it would not supply arms to Pakistan.
Russia has been a largely uncomplaining supporter of India on the issue of Kashmir. For its part, New Delhi is seeking to draw in Russia into its notion of the Indo-Pacific paradigm. The recent ‘Exercise Indra’ between Russian and Indian naval ships in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands underscores this.
As it is, these visits come at an important juncture in Moscow’s relationships around the world. The Navalny poisoning incident is having a major fallout in Germany where the Russian Opposition leader is being treated. There is a great deal of pressure on Chancellor Angela Merkel to cancel the Nordstream 2 gas deal with Russia.
The two 1,230 km pipelines that will carry Russian gas to Germany are almost ready and its cancellation will be a severe blow to Moscow and lead to a further rupture in the European Union’s relations with Russia. The country is already under a number of EU and American sanctions but after initial setbacks, its economy has held up reasonably well. But the pressure on oil prices on account of COVID-19 could lead to turbulence ahead.
Europe and India have also a common purpose in preventing extreme measures against the Russians because of fears that it will drive Moscow closer to China. But Russia, or rather, Putin is working under his own compulsions and obeys only his own rules.
As for India, the continuing importance of Russia is underlined by the fact that this is Singh’s second visit to Moscow in recent months. He made a 3-day visit to Moscow on 22 June, shortly after the sharp deterioration in India-China ties following the Galwan incident. During the visit, Singh reviewed all the India-Russia arms transactions in the pipeline and also asked the Russians for emergency delivery for some of the items.
Russian arms exports to India have been falling in recent years, but India still accounted for 25 percent of total Russian arms exports. Russia remains the largest supplier to India, even though its share of Indian purchases fell from 72 percent to 56 percent between 2015-2019.
There are two key areas for which India continues to rely on Russia. The first is legacy systems which form a substantial part of the Indian military’s hardware, such as T72/T-90 tanks and SU-30MKI fighter jets. The second is for systems like the Brahmos supersonic cruise missile which no other country in the world is likely to supply to India.
In the coming years, the Russians are likely to help India push the Brahmos project to its next level by making a hypersonic version of it.
Further, they are also likely to be major partners for the ambitious project to make nuclear-powered attack submarines in India. Then, of course, there is the S-400 air defence system which is simply not available anywhere else in the world.
(The writer is a Distinguished Fellow, Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi. This is an opinion piece, and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)
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