Why India Won't Refuse Russian Arms Supplies Despite UK's Sweet Defence Deal, US Threats
18:33 GMT 22.04.2022 (Updated: 15:19 GMT 28.05.2023)
New Delhi and London struck a deal for expanded defence and security cooperation "to meet threats across land, sea and air, space and cyber," British Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced on 22 April. during his visit to India. That coincided with the South Asian state's 75th anniversary of independence from British colonial rule.
Speaking at the press conference alongside his Indian counterpart Narendra Modi, the British premier emphasised that India and the UK would bolster bilateral military cooperation.
That will include "partnering on new fighter jet technology, maritime technologies to detect and respond to threats in the oceans", Boris Johnson said.
In particular, the UK will authorise an India-specific open general export licence, cutting red tape and reducing delivery times for arms exports. According
to The Independent, Johnson wants New Delhi to reduce its arms imports from Russia, India's long-time defence partner.
"What does this mean in practice, it means that the UK will be able to sell certain military items to India and provide them with the materials in order to help develop their own domestic military defence production," explains John Devine, international affairs analyst with the International Team for the Study of Security Verona think tank. "As we are aware India is the largest arms importer in the world. It has made efforts to build up its own domestic capabilities, setting aside 65% of its defence procurement budget to domestic made equipment."
But a stronger UK-India relationship in defence is unlikely drive a wedge between Russian-Indian military cooperation, believes Robinder Sachdev, geopolitical and economic diplomacy analyst and founding president of The Imagindia Institute.
"Recently one of the UK ministers said that they realise that India’s cooperation with Russia is a different relationship, as compared to the UK-Russia relationship, thus acknowledging that India-Russia cooperation will have its own trajectory," the analyst says. "India is embarking on strategic sourcing of military equipment, especially combined with Transfer-of-Technology, and which contribute to India’s 'Atamnirbhar' (self-dependent), and Make-in-India objectives."
Unlike Russia, the UK is not a major source of military hardware for India, according to Dr Raj Kumar Sharma, Maharishi Kanad Fellow at Delhi School of Transnational Affairs, University of Delhi. He emphasises that India-Russia military cooperation has a long history and involves joint ventures and technology transfer.
"India would value this cooperation with the UK only if it helps India in being self-dependent
through tech transfer," the scholar explains. "I don't think we can compare Indian defence cooperation with Russia and the UK. Russia is way ahead and is likely to be that way in the near and medium term."
In fact, BoJo's efforts have no bearing on India's defence partnerships with other countries, but rather enhance fading Anglo-Indian defence ties, argues Harsh V Pant, professor of international relations in the Defence Studies Department and the India Institute at King's College London. In the last two to three decades, the UK was nearly usurped from the list of India's major defence partners by Russia, the US, Israel, France, according to the academic.
"And Britain, which used to be a very important one, is no longer there," Pant says. "It's unlikely that it is going to impact other actors in the short term, primarily making Britain more of a competitor in the Indian defence market."
Why US Unlikely to Deliver on Its Threats to Impose Sanctions on India
BoJo's charm offensive follows Washington's threats to impose sanctions on India over its military-technical cooperation with Moscow and reliance on Russian military equipment — amid Moscow's special operation in Ukraine. Earlier, New Delhi made it clear that it is inclined to maintain neutrality
with regard to the conflict in Eastern Europe.
"India is unlikely to give in to the sanctions threat from the US because Russia is important to India in areas other than defence," says Sharma. "We share the same geography with Russia in Eurasia and have no history of conflict with Russia. New Delhi has no reason or incentive to spoil its relationship with Russia. It would like to use its geopolitical position to avoid Russia's isolation."
Furthermore, India maintains an independent foreign policy and a non-aligned approach, which remains the centrepiece of its strategy, according to Sachdev.
He rules out Washington cracking down and imposing sanctions on New Delhi: "There are many inter-linkages and common interests between the US and India that would most probably preclude dire sanctions on India," the geopolitical analyst says.
For instance, India is part of the Quad grouping with the US, Japan and Australia that is seen by Washington as a potential bulwark against China in the Indo-Pacific region.
Striking Balance Between Russia and the West
New Delhi will try to strike a balance between Russia and the West — or, to be more precise, it will continue building its relations with all partners more on a bilateral basis, according to Sachdev. "India seeks to build a matrix of relations that will enhance India’s national security, and at same time bring harmony, balance, and peace in global geopolitics," Sachdev notes.
At the same time, India has zero illusions about Western powers and Great Britain in particular, notes Devine.
"Of course, there are many in Britain who view the empire in rose tinted glasses, particularly its rule in India," Devine says. "It has only in the past few years that people in Britain have begun to question this, while in India there has always been the knowledge of what happened during British rule. Britain has certainly influenced Indian culture but this agreement will be viewed from within India as more of a necessity than a warm embrace of its former coloniser."
New Delhi's willingness to cooperate with the UK and US largely stems from India's longstanding geopolitical competition with China, according to the observers. That is apparently why India recently welcomed the UK joining the Indo-Pacific Oceans Initiative under the maritime security pillar and agreed to cooperate closely in this region.
Britain's enhancement of defence cooperation with India is part of the UK's broader Indo-Pacific strategy, according to Devine.
"The UK has already increased its presence in the region over the past couple of years, and by permanently deploying two Royal Navy ships and joining in exercises with the US Navy. So it is unlikely to change anything in the immediate term, but it will signal Britain’s desire to be a permanent player in the region as well as bolstering Indian defence capabilities," the international affairs analyst sums up.