Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 89

A three-day visit to India last week by Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov produced new declarations of Indian-Russian friendship, but also highlighted the extent to which U.S. missile defense plans are churning up long-established security relations across Asia. Ivanov’s trip to New Delhi was apparently intended to begin preparations for a Russian-Indian summit meeting planned for this fall. But while the Russian minister and the host of top-ranking Indian government officials with whom he met did make progress on this front, the talks in New Delhi appear in fact to have been dominated by a recent shift in Indian security policy which has left many analysts inside and outside the country stunned. This shift came on May 2 when the Indian Foreign Ministry released a statement which commended several aspects of U.S. President George W. Bush’s May 1 speech laying out U.S. missile defense plans.

Given New Delhi’s earlier, clearly stated condemnations of U.S. policy in this area, not to mention its traditionally friendly relations with Moscow, the stage seemed to be set for a confrontation of some sort when Ivanov arrived in the Indian capital on the evening of May 3. This proved not to be the case, however. Just as the Bush administration’s recent, unexpected overtures to India seem at least temporarily to have eased tensions over missile defense between Washington and New Delhi, so the U.S. administration’s equally recent promises of improved ties with Russia appeared to give New Delhi and Moscow enough space to find their own common ground. In fact, Ivanov did a credible enough job of turning the situation to Moscow’s advantage. He emphasized the Bush administration’s new commitment to move on a multilateral basis with respect to missile defense deployment–that is, to consult extensively with allies and with Moscow–and put Russian support for the Indian-U.S. rapprochement within that context. Moscow has itself commended Bush’s May 1 speech for what Russian officials contend is its more accommodating approach to relations with Russia and consultations over missile defense.

More to the point, perhaps, Ivanov also emerged from his talks in New Delhi with a clear and public confirmation of Indian support for Moscow’s long-standing defense of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. “We have always held the view that the ABM of 1972 should not be abrogated unilaterally… even through it is a bilateral treaty,” Indian Foreign and Defense Minister Jaswant Singh said following talks with Ivanov. He added that the treaty should “not be abrogated unilaterally because it has international ramifications,” and that the “United States should hold a constructive dialogue with Russia in this regard.” Ivanov, for his part, reiterated that, while Moscow is prepared to listen to U.S. missile defense plans, it also remains committed to promoting its own “vision” of nuclear arms control. He suggested that this vision includes substantial reductions in strategic nuclear arms and retention of the ABM accord. In this context, Ivanov said that Russia and India had also committed themselves to holding continuing bilateral consultations on strategic issues, including U.S. missile defense plans and their possible impact on global security. And he and Singh underscored that the “strategic partnership” agreement signed last year during a Russian-Indian summit remains in full force, and that the two countries continue to see eye to eye on most important international security issues. As reinforcement for that message, Ivanov delivered to Indian Prime Minister Atal Behary Vajpayee a letter from President Vladimir Putin indicating the importance Moscow continues to attach to Indian-Russian ties.

Given that Bush’s May 1 speech had stopped just short of announcing Washington’s intention to renounce the 1972 accord, and that most analysts see U.S. missile defense plans as inconsistent with the treaty’s terms, New Delhi’s stance on these issues–for missile defense but against abrogation of the ABM Treaty–seemed more than a little bit contradictory to many observers. Indeed, opinion was divided over whether the government’s position amounted to a “diplomatic rope trick” or, more charitably, to a “fine balancing act.” In fact, New Delhi’s qualified embrace of Bush’s May 1 speech appears to be based in part on the priority it has attached to seeing significant reductions made in the nuclear powers’ strategic nuclear arsenals. At the same time, New Delhi appears also to be responding to hints from the Bush administration that bilateral Indian-U.S. relations could get a boost if New Delhi falls into line on missile defense, and that military cooperation between the countries might even be increased. And there have been intimations in India that a rapprochement between New Delhi and Washington could even result in India’s being welcomed into the club of accepted nuclear powers (Times of India, May 4-6; Reuters, Russian agencies, May 4; Nezavisimaya Gazeta, Kyoto, Hindustan Times, VOA News, May 5; New York Times, Daily Star, Economic Times, The Hindu, May 6; Russian agencies, May 7).