India’s participation in multinational military exercises often reflects the imperative for it to walk a tightrope across the global geopolitical divide. However, the deepening and expanding friction points of the global divide are posing greater challenges for India’s ability to maintain a strategic posture that seeks context and issue-based cooperation. For more than two decades, India has carried out bilateral and multilateral military exercises with the US, China, Russia and a long list of nations mainly from Europe and Asia. It is no surprise that as the three-week-long, 13th Indo-US Joint Special Forces Exercise Vajra Prahar 2022 is underway in Himachal Pradesh, there are unconfirmed reports of India’s participation in the Russian-hosted Vostok 2022 slated from 30 August to 5 September.
Russia has been conducting multilateral exercises like Vostok 2022 since 2009. The geographical location of events determines the name of the exercise. In 2021, it was Zapad, which means ‘West’, and this year it is Vostok (East) and taking place on 13 training grounds in Russia’s eastern military district. Apart from showcasing Russia’s combat capability, its interoperability with the participating nations is a major area of focus.
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Long history of military participation
China first participated in Vostok in 2018. India’s first participation in a Russian quadrennial exercise was in Tsentr (Centre) 2019 along with Pakistan and other Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) members. By 2020, India’s relations with China and Pakistan had changed and therefore, it did not participate in Kavkaz (Caucasus) 2020 citing Covid-related issues. India participated in Zapad 2021, which was overshadowed by Belarus cosying up to Russia in the wake of its domestic dynamics and the adverse reaction of countries from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). India, Armenia, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Mongolia, Serbia, and Sri Lanka were the fully participating nations. China, as well as Pakistan, participated as ‘observers’ along with Vietnam, Myanmar, and Uzbekistan.
Earlier, India and China conducted eight bilateral exercises named ‘Hand-in-Hand’. Though none were held in 2017 due to the Doklam crisis, it was resumed in 2018 and followed up in 2019. The Ladakh aggression in 2020 put an end to all such cooperative ventures aimed at improving mutual understanding and trust.
Though, officially India has maintained silence, China’s defence ministry has now confirmed that Chinese troops will be participating in Vostok 2022, which will include India and other countries. The ministry also stated that the exercises were unrelated to the current international and regional situation and were part of an ongoing annual bilateral cooperation with Russia. As per Russia, the stated aim was to deepen practical and friendly cooperation with the armies of participating countries, enhance strategic collaboration and strengthen the ability to respond to various security threats. India does not fit into such a strategic framework and it seems incongruous with the commonality of interests that underpin the political foundation of joint military exercises.
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Complexities of India’s bilateral relations
It is evident that as the China-US rivalry deepens, the complexities of India’s relationships with the US, Russia and China will present both opportunities and challenges. The main opportunity lies in evading the path of being drawn into what is in essence a China-US power struggle. Also, considering the approach of both sides and the eruption of global military hotspots and the proliferation of economic and technological friction points, the possibility of a happy ending for all is bleak. The challenge for Indian Statecraft is to navigate the waters of global geopolitical turbulence while protecting its growth and development.
With China and Russia teaming up against the US-led West, India has sought to straddle both camps, reflected in its membership in groupings like SCO, Brazil-Russia-India-China-South Africa (BRICS), Russia-India-China (RIC) and the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QUAD). It is also manifested in the plethora of India’s participation in multilateral military exercises. After the Ladakh crisis in 2020, the weight of India’s strategic orientation in multilateral fora has shifted towards the US and its allies though it continues to retain its presence in groupings that include Russia and China.
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India must seek multipolar pathway
India has been steadfast in stating that relations with China cannot be ‘business as usual’ as long as Beijing does not restore the status quo in Ladakh. Last week in Bangkok, External Affairs Minister, S. Jaishankar described the relationship as going through an extremely difficult phase and pointed out that the ‘Asian Century’ would not happen if the two neighbours could not join hands. Whatever the extant difficulties, India continues to maintain that its interests are best met when its relations with both sides of the global divide rest on an even keel.
This formulation might seem an impractical proposition considering China’s attitude towards resolving the territorial and political issues that animate the relationship. Yet, the vision of the Asian Century must continue to guide India’s participation in multilateral groupings. The US seems to have mostly accepted India’s relationship with Russia, even if grudgingly. The recent explication by official US spokesperson Ned Price is revealing. From an Indian perspective, we should persevere to also get China to accept and accommodate our relations with the US and its allies as being part of a multipolar outlook.
Seeking a multipolar world order must continue to be India’s preferred pathway. Therefore, however incongruous India’s participation in Vostok 2022 might look in the light of China’s participation with troops and the aims of the military exercise, there is room for India to take part as an observer—a status that retains our presence while signalling distance. In the prevailing global geopolitical ambience, the observer status as a preferred choice would amount to strategic communication that could conform to India’s long-term vision of multipolar world order.
Lt Gen (Dr) Prakash Menon (retd) is Director, Strategic Studies Programme, Takshashila Institution; former military adviser, National Security Council Secretariat. He tweets @prakashmenon51. Views are personal.
(Edited by Zoya Bhatti)