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The Russia-Ukraine conflict has further divided an already fragmented international community. While many countries in the Western world have expressed concerns over the Russia-Ukraine conflict, with some even extending military help to Ukraine, the situation in the Indo-Pacific region seems quite different. In the Southeast and South Asian region, for instance, the majority of the countries have maintained a neutral stand on the matter. More than 75 percent of countries from these regions abstained from the United Nations resolution against Russia demonstrating how the Russia-Ukraine conflict is perceived differently in different regions.

With the crisis almost two months old, one thing is clear: the US has been unable to find a military or diplomatic solution to the conflict, leading to fears that it may drag on until the end of 2023, as UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson recently pointed out. The US’s failure to clinically separate the Russia-Ukraine conflict from its relationships with Europe on the one hand, and equation with China as well as the Sino-Russia axis on the other, have proven to be a monumental challenge.

In the face of altering regional and worldwide strategic dynamics and the Russia-Ukraine conflict, India’s strategic autonomy and ‘non-aligned’ foreign policy, repackaged as ‘issue-based alignment’ (of course, with some crucial adjustments) in recent years, is being put to the test. On the one side, India is straddling the Quad partners, while on the other, it is straddling Russia, one of its long-standing strategic friends and a major arms supplier.

India has mostly been criticised in the Western media for keeping a neutral stance. India, on the other hand, is constant in communicating its national interests and working for its objectives. India’s commitment and role in the Indo-Pacific remains unquestioned, notwithstanding its stance on Russia. Last Over past few weeks, a flurry of diplomatic visits to India, including Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s visit, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s virtual summit with his Australian counterpart, Scott Morrison, the recently-concluded visit of the UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, and the ongoing visit of European Commission President Ursula Von Der Leyen, have proved critics wrong about India’s equation with Russia having any impact on its position in the Indo-Pacific and ties with Quad partners.

All of these events, which happened in quick succession, helped India and the Quad members endure regional tensions. It’s worth noting that although India was hosting a number of Western officials and ministers, it also hosted Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in New Delhi, who even had a meeting with Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Managing Quad Partners

Apart from the back-to-back high-profile visits, the Quad virtual meeting and the India-US 2+2 dialogue were both held recently. All of these initiatives highlight India’s confident position in the Quad, growing mutual understanding and trust among the Quad members – particularly with Japan and Australia, and India’s salience in the Indo-Pacific order.

Indeed, US President Joe Biden confirmed the dates for the second in-person Quad Summit during his recent virtual meeting with Prime Minister Modi, putting to rest any suspicion that Washington is drifting away from New Delhi. True, India and the United States disagree on some topics, but they also have managed to compartmentalize such issues in a manner that they do not impair the overall tempo of the relationship or obscure the Quad members’ visions of how the Indo-Pacific strategic order should evolve.

Of the Quad countries, India arguably shares the strongest ties with Japan. A range of Japanese investments in India’s critical sectors, investments in Northeast (where no other country has been able to make an entry yet), Asia-Africa Growth Corridor (AAGC), and joint investments in a third country make Japan a unique partner for India. After all, it was Shinzo Abe who termed India as the centre of the Indo-Pacific. Given India is one of Japan’s most significant partners as well as a regional and multilateral partner in the Indo-Pacific, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida is trying to ensure that the India-Japan relationship reaches new heights with global events having minimal bearing on India-Japan relations or the Quad. During his visit, Kishida explicitly said that he understood India’ position vis-a-vis the Russia-Ukraine conflict.

During Modi’s recent virtual summit with the Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison and the subsequent signing of the Australia-India Interim Free Trade Agreement, a similar message was delivered. Australia has fast emerged as a robust partner for India. However, not long ago, it used to be considered the weakest link in the Quad. It was Australia, after all that backed out of the Quad 1.0 a decade ago.

However, this time around, Australia is not only keen to make the Quad work, it is also willing to travel more than half to engage India on the economic front. Without a strong strategic thrust in the relationship Australia-India interim wouldn’t have been possible. Australia is getting increasingly sensitive and understanding of how it feels to have an aggressive and revisionist power – China – in the neighbourhood. The China-Solomon Island security agreement is likely to make Australia more forthcoming and firm in dealing with China. This would help bolster both Quad and AUKUS minilateral arrangements.

India’s SAGAR (Security and Growth for All) and IPOI (Indo-Pacific Oceans’ Initiative) initiatives of India have both Australia and Japan as its key members. Likewise, India is a key partner with Japan on the EPQI (Enhanced Partnership for Quality Infrastructure) initiative of Japan. These activities, taken together, provide a significant contribution to reinforcing the Indo-Pacific order’s foundations. The Asia-Africa Growth Corridor, the Supply Chain Resilience Initiative (which includes Australia), and a variety of cooperative arrangements in new and emerging technological sectors like 5G Tech, Artificial Intelligence, and Critical Information Infrastructure serve as fulcrums for this pivotal partnership involving Japan and Australia.

The China Factor

India has insisted that China, not Russia, poses a serious danger to the Indo-Pacific region’s strategic balance. India has also made it abundantly clear that, given its reliance on Russia for weaponry supplies and efforts to discourage Russia from siding with China, it must continue to engage with Russia – a point that has not gone unnoticed in Canberra and Tokyo, and also in London (as has been seen during Boris Johnson’s visit to India).

China has been instrumental in pushing India closer to its Quad partners, especially Japan. Both countries are embroiled in territorial conflicts and face comparable difficulties dealing with an assertive China. With China’s growing influence in the Solomon Islands, Australia is likely to find itself in a similar situation, where maritime resources, regional order, freedom of navigation, and unrestricted-undisputed access to regional waters are likely to become debated and contested concerns.

India and Japan’s joint investments in Colombo have added a new dimension to their joint efforts in tackling the challenges posed by China’s much controversial Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Given the recent allegations of debt-ridden BRI partner nations, it is past time for the Quad member countries to assess their cooperative projects. In this regard, Australia might play a significant role.

Clearly, for its Quad peers, India is not only a major responsible stakeholder in the Indo-Pacific region but also a critical partner which could substantially contribute to keeping the regional strategic equilibrium protected from the risks posed by an increasingly assertive China. While India’s relations with Russia is still a source of contention for the West, it does not appear to be affecting New Delhi’s Indo-Pacific orientation and policies. India has attempted to de-hyphenate its ties with Russia from Quad peers by effectively expressing its security interests and displaying a transparent, open, firm yet flexible approach, proving its steadfast commitment to make strategic autonomy and issue-based alignment work.

(The author is a Senior Lecturer at the Asia-Europe Institute, where he heads the European Studies programme. He is the Managing Editor of the AEI-Insights – the Institute’s peer-reviewed journal. He is also Associate, Centre for ASEAN Regionalism, University of Malaya. His latest publications include Asia and Europe in the 21st Century New Anxieties, New Opportunities (Routledge, 2021) and India’s Eastward Engagement from Antiquity to Act East Policy (SAGE, 2019). He tweets @rahulmishr_ Views expressed are personal and do not reflect the official position or policy of Financial Express Online. Reproducing this content without permission is prohibited).

Article was first published at Financial Express.

Last Update: 27/04/2022