In the last few months India has been engaged in frenetic activity on the international front. In February 2007 Chinese Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing led a 110-member Chinese delegation to India at the inauguration of a freshly renovated Hieun Tsang Memorial Hall in Nalanda. In August 2007, the then Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe came to India on a three-day visit and was warmly received. Japan is poised to give Indo-Japanese relations a genuinely strong push that has eluded the two Asian giants for decades.
In September 2007, External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee was in Seoul to address the Institute of Foreign Affairs and National Security, and told an inquirer that there was no question of cooperation between India and the US to ?act as some sort of containment of any country, including China?. Also in September was held in Beijing, the sixth meeting of the India-China Eminent Persons Group (EPG) when, in answer to a question, Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi said that ?India'sdevelopment in every aspect is in the interest of China and vice versa?. The red carpet was rolled out for Smt Sonia Gandhi when she visited China in October and the visit was described as a ?milestone? in relations between China and India.
In September again, there was a meeting of the India-Brazil-South Africa (IBSA) Forum. In November, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh made a brief visit to Moscow and held discussion with Vladimir Putin and signed four agreements in the sectors of space, defence, trade and narcotics control. In November again, a meeting of the East Asia summit was held in Singapore attended by India, with Singapore'sPrime Minister Lee Hsein Loong claiming that ?the links between India and Asia-Pacific are growing?.
In December, a meeting of the Indo-European Union was held with both sides likely to organise a bilateral trade agreement on the lines of a proposed free trade agreement that India is currently negotiating with the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN). But where do all these meetings, signed agreement, etc. take India to? Is India better off now than it was before? India is having a problem with the United States in the matter of the 123 Agreement. Ties with Russia seem to be strained. According to Asia Times ?the strains in India'srelations with China in the recent period have begun casting a shadow on the trilateral Russia-China-India format?.
This is a serious development. Can we afford to antagonise Russia, which has stood by us through thick and thin when the United States was blandly supporting Pakistan, especially on the issue of Jammu & Kashmir? For that matter, do we have to antagonise China as well? At the trilateral Foreign Ministers? meeting held in October 2007 at Harbin in China, it was evident that Russia had got closer to China in terms of its rise, than with India. According to a former career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service, the Harbin meeting brought out that on vital issues of Asian security, Russia and China share common perceptions, while India found itself standing at some distance from its two partners. The problem for Russia and China, reported the diplomat (Mainstream, November 9) was that the Indian position was ambivalent. Even while India was appearing to get closer to Japan, the other two were warning that Japan'smilitarisation may ?entail adverse consequences for regional stability? and would evoke an appropriate Russian response?.
There has been considerable Indian hype over the two-hour plus long meeting between Manmohan Singh and Putin at Moscow with Dr Singh claiming that ?ours is a strategic partnership that has stood the test of time?. But there are intimations of mild discord between Delhi and Moscow that need to be attended to. Under the Indo-Russian Inter-Governmental Contract signed in 2004, Russia was to deliver the air-craft carrier Admiral Gorshkov by 2008 for $ 1.5 billion. But now Moscow wants revision of the price upped to a whopping $ 2.7 billion, apart from wanting a longer time for delivery. Commenting on that, India'sNaval Chief Admiral Suresh Mehta was to say that such a delay makes it necessary to wonder ?where our relations are going to be with Moscow?. He is also opposed to pay more than what India was committed to pay under the 2004 Agreement. Besides, the Navy was also complaining that the Russian missiles India bought at an enormous price have fallen short of expectations. But for being overly frank, the Naval Chief has been promptly snubbed by the Defence Minister.
The Indian Naval discomfiture sounds ominous. The problem is that over 50 per cent of the equipment used by Indian Armed Forces presently, are of Soviet/Russian origin. But equally, if not more important is the fact that there has been long-standing dissatisfaction over the stagnant level of bilateral trade and investment. A two-way trade target of over $10 billion is not much to talk about, even if India has signed a massive contract with Russia worth an unbelievable Rs 4, 900 crore to import 357 T-90s main battle tanks, in additions to the 310 such tanks already imported. India has also agreed to join Russia in two huge projects, the fifth generation fighter aircraft and the multi-role military transport aircraft. But disappointment has been noticed by experts in the area of civilian nuclear cooperation, in the refusal of Delhi to sign a Memorandum of Intent with Russia for the construction of four additional nuclear reactors at Koodankulam. How come? Is India still planning to buy nuclear infrastructure from the US under the 123 Agreement? Can we rally believe Dr Manmohan Singh when he said after his meeting with Putin that the talks between them were marked ?by warmth, cordiality and unanimity on all issues of mutual interest??
Russia is one of the first countries to offer support to India in the 45-nation Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) after India and the US stuck a civil nuclear cooperation accord. Perhaps many people are only fancying some discontent between India and Russia. Would that be guesswork or based on reality? We never can be sure. But certainly Dr Singh and Putin have sorted out a long-standing dispute over the utilisation of the Rs 8,000 crore debt fund for Russian investment in India. As for the rest, only time can tell. There is no real reason for India and Russia to distance themselves. What India may be trying to project could be a newer face of alignment reflecting changing times. All relations have their ups and downs. That could hold good for Indo-Russian relations as well.