- Current political and economic issues succinctly explained.
American author and journalist Hal Borland once noted, “The year’s end is neither a beginning nor an end but a going on.” As India enters 2022, what are its most challenging geopolitical goings-on, and which interlinked relationships will continue to be the most consequential?
One of the most important partnerships for India today is that with the United States (US). Under the Trump administration, the bilateral relationship had accelerated rapidly – the two countries conducted joint exercises, signed three defence agreements, began the 2+2 Strategic Dialogue, and India was given access to a wider range of American technologies. This pace did not slacken in the first year of the Biden administration, despite important bilateral forums such as the 2+2 ministerial dialogue and the US-India CEO forum have not yet taken place. As a former high-ranking US official told me, there is now a “strategic compulsion” (read: China) to the relationship that cannot be denied.
That being said, there are irritants that, if not tended to, could prove stumbling blocks for the US-India relationship in 2022. One is India’s long-standing relationship with Russia, most recently emphasised when India began receiving deliveries of the Russian S-400 air defence system in December 2021. Other than this serving, for the US, as irksome evidence of India’s continued reliance on Russian military resupply and hardware (creating in effect a technical upper-ceiling on US-India defense cooperation), it raises the question of whether the United States will enforce the “Countering America’s Adversaries through Sanctions Act” or CAATSA. Under this federal law, the US has previously sanctioned not just China but also Turkey (a North Atlantic Treaty Organization ally) for buying S-400s. If President Joe Biden does not waive CAATSA sanctions for India, this will be a serious problem in the relationship.
Despite the S-400 sale, India faces a very real challenge in its relationship with Russia. On the one hand, President Putin, who has otherwise been skipping in-person summits, visited India in December. The Russian and Indian defence and foreign ministers also held a 2+2 ministerial dialogue. And India and Russia signed 28 MOUs on different issues, including a 10-year pact on military cooperation.
On the other hand, India’s deepening partnership with the US, and involvement in the Indo-Pacific Quad, may drive Moscow, India fears, towards a growing strategic partnership with China. India will be wary of taking steps that could spur Russian closeness with China even further while locking it into alignment with the US. For example, were Russia to invade Ukraine or engage in a limited incursion — as is possible given its ongoing military buildup — India’s response would be a test of the relationship. In 2014, Putin thanked the Indian government for its support of Russia’s position towards Ukraine. If, in 2022, Putin has reason to again extend his thanks, it would bode ill for the US-India relationship. But were India to voice opposition to Russia’s behaviour, historical solidarity within the India-Russia relationship will be diminished.
This brings us to India’s ongoing necessity of managing China. The latter’s infrastructure and force build-up continue along the Sino-Indian border in Ladakh. Beijing now maintains a large troop presence that it can sustain through the winter with the building of significant infrastructure, including small airports, landing strips, and heated buildings.
A permanent militarisation of the border would benefit neither country, yet talks have stalled. The China-Pakistan relationship, always valued by Pakistan, is also of value to the Chinese government. Chinese media touts the success of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, and broader Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) projects that India perceives as encircling, and highlights Pakistan’s consistent support for China and the growing people-to-people (P2P) relations – marking everything from appreciating Prime Minister Imran Khan’s decision to attend the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics to celebrating the 70th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic ties with Pakistan.
For China, Pakistan is also an important conduit to the Taliban, and, in the wake of the US withdrawal, Beijing hopes to expand and manage its influence in Afghanistan. After the Taliban takeover, China became the first country to offer humanitarian assistance to Afghanistan. Other than offering $31 million in aid, and food and medical supplies, including Covid-19 vaccines, China has reportedly agreed to finance building mosques (a significant step for the religion-allergic Chinese Communist Party) and wells in the country.
It maintains direct communication with the Taliban government, and Chinese and Afghan officials have met on multiple occasions to discuss reconstruction. This poses a challenge to India, which fears a Pakistan-friendly government in Kabul, the consequences of emboldened extremism, and the possible expansion of BRI into Afghanistan.
Separate from its position towards Afghanistan and China, India’s bête-noire, Pakistan will continue to be a significant challenge. Although a surprising and welcome ceasefire was announced along the border last year, the relationship will continue to be uncertain in 2022. Given the tensions along the China-India border, stabilising the India-Pakistan border would be beneficial, but a serious trust deficit between the two countries will likely prevent meaningful progress. Pakistan recently released its first National Security Policy document in which India unsurprisingly held the dubious honour of being mentioned more than any other country. For Pakistan, Kashmir remains top among its concerns, but for India, Pakistan-sponsored cross-border terrorism will be its priority.
The backdrop for all of these relationships is the world’s entry into year three of the Covid-19 pandemic. Whether 2022 proves to be just a “going on” for India will be determined by its ability balance these interconnected and complicated relationships.