Would Obama Match Putin’s Success When He Gets to India?

Would Obama Match Putin’s Success When He Gets to India?
Obama’s visit to New Delhi in the end of January might be marred by security issues, Washington’s own heavy-handed approach, and – a need to match the success of the Russian President Vladimir Putin's December visit. Would he deliver? Radio Sputnik discusses the issue with Boris Volkhonski of RISS, Russia.

Russia-India relations have acquired momentum this year and are likely to remain a defining factor in regional and global policies in 2015. A recent visit of Russian President Vladimir Putin to India appears to be one of the key steps in that direction.

The visit resulted in parties signing a whole range of important agreements that triggered reaction from Washington. "We continue to urge all countries not to conduct business as usual with Russia," State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki said.

US still describes India as its "key partner." Yet, weeks before Obama’s visit appear to be marred by Washington’s traditionally heavy-handed approach.

On Wednesday, New Delhi “refuted US International Trade Commission (USITC)’s claims that US imports were facing stringent trade barriers in India. India said the issue had not been taken up by the US government bilaterally or multilaterally and hence had “no validity”, Business Standard reported.

Days earlier Indian security agencies issued an alert warning of strikes during Obama’s visit. “There is an alert issued every year ahead of the Republic or Independence Day celebrations. However this time around due to the visit by Obama a man and country hated by Islamic terror groups, the alert levels have been risen to very high”, Oneindia News reports. 

And then, of course, Obama’s visit would invariably be compared to the recent Putin’s visit. “Expectations are rising against the backdrop of Putin’s visit”, Indian veteran diplomat M.K. Bhadrakumar wrote in his article titled “Run, Obama, Run”.

Says Boris Volkhonsky, Deputy Head of the Center for Asia and Middle East at the Russian Institute for Strategic Studies:

Every time summits like this happen, they are characterized as outstanding and unique. But this time is probably the first time in the recent history when I can say the words “total confidence”, because it doesn’t matter that there is a new Government in India, although this is an important factor as well. But what I would like to describe as unique is the content of the agreements, not the quantity of the agreements, but the content, the quality of the agreements reached at the summit.

And if they are implemented, and I hope they will be, they will really open a new page not only in the Russian-Indian bilateral relationship, but also in the whole situation in Eurasia in general. And since Eurasia is probably the most important part of the wordthat means that it will influence the global situation as well. I can go on with the concrete points.

The main document is the joint statement called Druzhba-Dosti. It is already very symbolic that the document, even in its English version, was called in the Russian and the Hindi word. Not just friendship, but druzhba and dosti, which means friendship in the two languages. The symbolism of this is that Russia and India are really going to establish the bilateral relationship which is not going to look around and see what reaction this may create from the other third parties.

This direction relationship is also symbolized in the fact that Russia and India have reached an agreement on polishing diamonds. Russia is the main area of extracting diamonds on the earth and India is the main, I don’t know how to call it in English, in cutting diamonds or producing cut diamonds. But the whole trade in this sphere is monopolized by some international and foreign investment companies. And the fact that the two countries have reached an agreement and established the direct links to have a direct flow of uncut diamonds from Russia to India, and cut diamonds from India elsewhere (and maybe some of them will go back to Russia), I think this is also symbolic.

Then, the symbolism is the fact that this was the third meeting of our two leaders – President Putin and Premier Narendra Modi after the new Government in India came to power. And the first two meetings took place within the framework of BRICS. One was the summit of BRICS in Brazil, in July, and the other was a mini summit of BRICS when the BRICS leaders met during the G20 summit in Brisbane, in Australia.

So, this also means that Russia and India are not just establishing or developing the bilateral relationship, but they are the pillars of a new very important and very influential center of power, which is the BRICS. The two countries are equally opposed to the unipolar world order and developing the relationship in the multilateral format is very important to oppose these attempts to retain the unipolar world order.

Also, what is very important is that during the summit Russia expressed its willingness and desire to see India as a permanent member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, which is also kind of an alternative to this unipolar world order I was talking about before. So, the BRICS is on the global arena and the SCO is in Eurasia, which also means that it is a global phenomenon.

And coming back to the bilateral relationship, I must say that politically and ideologically there have never been any contradictions between Russia or the union of socialist republics before and India. But the economic component of the relations has always been lagging behind. Ten or eleven billion dollars a year is nothing to talk about, compared to the trade between India and China, which, despite all their contradictions, has about $70 billion trade volume. The Russian-Chinese trade is approaching $100 billion. So, 10 or 11 billion between Russia and India is nothing to talk about.

And what is more important is that the basic component of our bilateral economic relations has always been the military defense cooperation. Now, if you look at the joint statement which has 35 points, only one point of them is specifically dedicated to the military defense cooperation. All the others are in the whole array of other spheres, which means that the need for broadening our cooperation and expanding it to other spheres is felt by the leaderships of the two countries.

So, do I get it right that the new prospects for developing cooperation and trade, and economic cooperation have come along with the change of the Government, with the change of the leadership in India?

Boris Volkhonsky: No, I don’t think so. I think the foundation for it was laid before. But, you see, the principle barrier for our bilateral cooperation is what in English is called the lack of connectivity. We don’t have a common border and we have thousands of miles between our countries. And there is no reliable land route which would allow the goods to be shipped from Russia to India and from India to Russia, because shipping them by sea takes a lot of time, shipping them by air is rather expensive. When we speak about diamonds, it is alright to ship them by air, because the value compared to the weight of the goods is very high. So, it doesn’t add too much.

But there is a project called International Northwest Transport Corridor which would connect the Indian sea ports on its western coast to the sea ports in Iran, then by the land routes they will go northwards via the Caucasus and the Central Asia to Russia and to the northern Europe. This project was launched around the year of 2000, I'm not exactly sure which year, but it was about 15 years ago. And its principle initiators were India, Russia and Iran. And now there are more than 15 countries participating in the project, but the project as such has not been realized yet.

The need for activating the project was also stressed in the joint statement. I think this is really a significant fact, if it is added to India joining the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, and Iran is also waiting for a membership in the SCO. So, if the project is launched and is launched in its full capacity, then it will mean that the barriers will be overcome.

The emotional contact between the two countries has been quite positive, with the exception of a certain period after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Boris Volkhonsky: Yes, you are right! The collapse of the Soviet Union produced a very severe blow to our relationship due to different factors. One of them was, very naturally, that the economies of both countries were undergoing very difficult periods of structural change or restructuring. And it is true both about Russia and India. Second was that in the early 1990s Russia's foreign policy was more oriented towards the West and somehow we forgot our old friends and not only India.  This is also true about the ties between Russia and Vietnam, for example, Russia and Mongolia – our very time-tested friends and allies.

And, of course, emotionally, that was a very difficult period for our countries and it needed some efforts on both sides to overcome it. I may say that there is a very famous phrase dating back to 1957 – Hindi-Russi bhai bhai; and that is – Indians and Russians are brothers. For my generation it is something that comes naturally, even if you don’t deal with India in your professional capacity, because of my generation remember it very clearly. It was pronounced in 1957 by the then Prime Minister of Russia Bulganin, and it became kind of a proverb in Russia.

I've checked it with the younger generations many times. People below 30 and now maybe even below 35, they don’t know this phrase, they don’t know what it means, they don’t know what is Hindi-Russi, they don’t know what it bhai bhai. And this is a really sad fact. But, on the other hand, there are certain stereotypes. For example, when you say India, for an ordinary Russian, what allusions that would cause? That would be: tea, elephants, that would be yoga, maybe Hindi films and Indian dancers. And I think that would exhaust all the associations.

But India has gone a long way, I wouldn’t say away from these stereotypes, because they are there and the Indian tea is still one of the best in the world, and the elephants are still there, and films and dancers are also very beautiful, but India is not limited to these stereotypes. India is one of the leaders in software production. It is a cosmic power, I would say. It is not a very well known fact, at least it wasn’t very much reflected in the Russian media that India’s satellite reached the Mars orbit very recently, about two months ago, I think in October or maybe late September.

It is a nuclear power.

Boris Volkhonsky: It is a nuclear power as well. And these facts, these features have also been reflected in the joint statement, because we are not going to cooperate in traditional goods only, but also in the innovative technologies, in the space sphere, in the nuclear power. An agreement has been reached to build three more power blocks in the Kudankulam nuclear power station, and also about ten blocks elsewhere in India. And President Putin, before his visit, had said that Russia has a potential to build 25 power stations in India. And probably ten would be a very good first step to implement that objective.

Well, quite ambitious prospects! And that, I'm certain, creates certain uneasiness in a country which also claims to be the key international partner of India. And that is the US. I believe that this visit has been very closely watched overseas.

Boris Volkhonsky: Yes, it was and it created a really nervous reaction in the US. Of course, they just used as a pretext that the leader of Crimea was included in the Russian delegation. And it also shows that Russia and India build their relationship on the bilateral basis and based on their national interests only; it is nobody else’s business who is included in this or that delegation. But of course, the US was troubled and, as you correctly said, it claims to be the key partner. It claims to be the key player everywhere in the world.

It is kind of overstretching its abilities, I believe.

Boris Volkhonsky: Well, if you’d like me to talk about the US, we would probably need another program, because it will take a long time. Definitely, it is trying to put a too big coat on a too small body.

Yes, I guess. But anyway, we have the visit of President Obama to India in January. And India is known for its pragmatic stance in the international politics. I'm pretty much sure that India is capable of handling it. Another question is whether the US is capable of handling it in this well balanced manner. But what could India expect from the US at this point of time?

Boris Volkhonsky: Definitely, the spheres in which India and Russia have reached some kind of agreement and memorandums of understanding are very competitive, including the nuclear energy. And this is probably one of the spheres where the US would like to increase its participation, especially after the so-called nuclear deal of 2005-2008 during the Bush’s presidency, which opened the way for the American firms to cooperate with India.

On a very doubtful basis, by the way. India has not got what it actually wanted from this deal. Do I get it right or am I missing something?

Boris Volkhonsky: Actually, the contracts have not been finalized. So, that is one of the issues. And I must say that India is not a very easy partner to calculate the details of the contract and it will always look at its own interests and national interests, in order to choose the best option.

That is a respectable position.

Boris Volkhonsky: Yes, sure! But sometimes it is not very easy to go on the inertia of the previous relationship. You know, you just say – we are friends and that’s why you are to present some preferences for us. No, that’s not the case with India. As you correctly said, India is always following its own balanced position and developing the relationship with one country, it doesn’t close the doors for all the others.

So, in the present situation with the US there is a very delicate and peculiar thing. I think that the invitation to Obama to visit the Republic Day celebrations in January is in a way also a symbolic gesture, because Premier Narendra Modi for many years was a very unwanted person in the US. He was denied a visa in 2005, and since then, until he actually came to power in spring this year, the State Department stated that it was not going to change its position. Only when it became clear that Narendra Modi will be the future Premier the US had to adjust its position.

And now it is trying to court India in any possible manner. This also should be looked at in a global context. I'm positively sure that the events in Ukraine, it was not a coincidence that they started after the BRICS countries decided to establish a common bank with the interactions in the local national currencies. Of course, it is not a matter of one or two years’ perspective, but it is a matter of a midterm perspective. And in the midterm perspective this means a severe blow to the monopoly of the US dollar, first of all, and to all the other remnants of the Bretton Woods system.

And I think that for the US, probably, the main task, the main objective they follow in its dealings with the other countries is to break this unity of BRICS countries. And it adopts different approaches to different members of the BRICS group. With Russia it is a direct confrontation. With China it is more or less concealed threats on some matters that might seem minor, like the intellectual property or something like this, hacking and so on. And with India it has adopted a policy of courting India and trying to bring it into its orbit. But it may be also noted that in the recent two or three years the US has surpassed Russia as the main supplier of arms to India. So, this is also a very important development we should be looking at with great attention.

And of course, the fact that Narendra Modi was denied a visa for many years cannot go unnoticed in India or elsewhere, but what the Government is trying to do now is to show that these personal matters do not matter in politics. And so, the invitation for Obama to visit the Republic Day celebration could be looked at as kind of an attempt to rectify the relationship, to eliminate the whatever ill feelings that could be felt from the past.

But look, the US is slowly going down to number two. It has been overcome by China in terms of PPP figures. Do you think that the US could recover?

Boris Volkhonsky: Well, we are coming to the issue of war and peace, because many analysts say that the only way for the US to recover is a new global war, which I hope will not happen. So, I wouldn’t like to see that kind of recovery.

I wouldn’t call that a recovery. I mean, getting blown away from the surface of the earth is not exactly a recovery, is it?

Boris Volkhonsky: Yes, but some strategists think that the US might feel that they are safe due to their system of antiballistic missiles.

That’s a lack of secondary education.

Boris Volkhonsky: Yes, but as for the trends in the global politics, I think that really the new centers of power are emerging. China, as you correctly said, has overcome the US in terms of the purchasing power, but not in the absolute figures, of course. I think that the total GDP of BRICS has overcome or is close to overcoming that of the EU. So, that means that the monopoly that the US felt during the second half of the 20th century is coming to an end.

I think it is necessary now for the US to revisit and reformulate their stance and the global position, because dealing with the others using the power of military force is not an option, even if we look at the countries like Iraq and Afghanistan where there was a military presence of the US for some years.

We see that they haven’t achieved their objectives there, and even on the contrary, they have created the powers that are now becoming dangerous for them and for the rest of the world as well.

Precisely! So, to survive it perhaps it could be a good idea for them to adopt a more conciliatory stance in the global matters.

Boris Volkhonsky: Well, but that doesn’t even depend on who will be the next president in the US. It depends on some other forces which are acting from behind the scene in the US. And those forces are still preserving that inertia of the old way of thinking, I'm afraid. So, I'm not over optimistic about the future of the global relationship.

Which means that, perhaps, the south Asia is going to become another arena of confrontation or, perhaps, we shall see numerous and various attempts by the old world to retain their influence, and to kind of survive. But hopefully, like you are saying, we could also see them revising their policies and their approaches.

Boris Volkhonsky: Well, in a way the south Asia for a long time has been in confrontation, if we look at the relations between India and Pakistan. But I was talking about the SCO, it is not only India which is waiting for a full membership in the SCO, it is also Pakistan. And there is a very high responsibility on the present members of the SCO not to prevent the two countries from bringing in their contradictions into that international organization, but rather to use the tools of the SCO in the ways to reconcile those countries and to soften their relationship, to soften their contradictions.

If we remember the recent talks between the Indian and the Chinese governments who, like you are saying, decided to restart it all, perhaps, and try to overcome the differences by not focusing on them – this is a really good sign.

Boris Volkhonsky: Definitely! I think that in a way India is a very good example to follow. India’s foreign policy is something of a very good example to follow for everybody, because it shows that it can adopt a pragmatic and mutually beneficial stance despite all the difficulties that exist. China is India’s main trade partner, despite the territorial and other problems they have. They have a perfect relationship with Russia, which doesn’t prevent them from developing a fruitful relationship with the US and so on.

India is establishing itself as a global power, at least a regional power for the time being, but with the ambitions to become a global power, maybe the third influential on the global arena by 2030 or 2050. There are no concrete time frameworks, but still the objective is there. So, I think this is an example of how you can develop a non-contradictory relationship despite all the contradictions you might have. That has always been the Indian policy – developing fruitful relationship, not interfering in other people’s affairs and minding its own business for its own benefit.

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