Starting Thursday, India and Russia will hold a 10-day joint military exercise dubbed "Indra 2017." Although some believe the drill does not target any third party, it has caught unprecedented attention because it involves the armies, navies and air forces of the two sides for the first time, which India believes to be a landmark exercise. The drill is taking place near Vladivostok, which is close to China, and at a time when tensions in Northeast Asia are simmering.
Undoubtedly, India is an important defense partner of Russia. Sixty percent of weapons in the Indian army are from Russia. As bilateral military ties deepen, the two have begun to jointly research and develop aerospace technologies, nuclear weapons and satellite technologies.
Some observers believe Russia aims to show its new weapons equipment to India during this joint exercise so as to consolidate this huge arms market. But from India's perspective, the drill will reinforce India's rivalry mentality and its pursuit of regional clout.
First, India wants to balance its defense ties with both the US and Russia. In recent years, India has moved closer to the US and Japan. India is alleged to have increased the ratio of arms imported from the US or to even replace Russia with the US as its largest provider of arms. Some in India have questioned if New Delhi-Washington ties are jeopardizing New Delhi-Moscow relations.
With the US-Russia strategic competition escalating, India has forged a closer relationship with the US, thus provoking Russia's concerns. That India expands the scale of the joint drills with Russia is sending a signal to Russia that it is still an important defense partner.
Second, the involvement of the armies, navies and air forces will enrich the strategic partnership between India and Russia. During Russian President Vladimir Putin's visit to India in 2000, the two countries declared their strategic partnership. In December 2010, then Russian president Dmitry Medvedev visited India for the 11th Annual Summit and bilateral relations were elevated to a special and privileged strategic partnership.
In October 2016, Putin visited India again as Russian president. The two sides released a joint statement of Partnership for Global Peace and Stability. Noticeably, both saw military and security cooperation as an important means to boost their strategic partnership.
Although some Russian experts say that the latest joint drill is not targeted at a third country, India does not believe so, especially as Sino-Indian relations have experienced a chill in recent years. Since Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi took power, India has taken a hard-line diplomatic approach toward China and regards China as a strategic rival.
In the eyes of Indian strategists, China and Russia view each other as potential foes. They believe Russia hopes to postpone its potential conflict with China until it gets ready for it and it is the same with China. Therefore, India can join hands with Russia to counterbalance China. Russia may have no plans to target China, but India is calculating on using Russia to hold China at bay.
India is trying to boost its regional influence via the joint drill with Russia. With the US-Russia strategic rivalry intensifying, India is the one that both are eager to woo. The US and Japan have enhanced interaction with India in maritime security cooperation. The exercise with Russia also increases India's military presence in Northeast Asia. In the future, India may have a place in Northeast Asian affairs, such as the North Korean nuclear crisis.
Among all of India's calculations, countering China is obviously an unwise one. Russia faces enormous strategic pressure from the US, and India faces tough development tasks. If Russia, India and China indulge in a contest for regional influence in Asia, that is playing into the hands of the US.
From the recent Doklam standoff between China and India, it can be seen that India is prone to see China as a strategic rival, but it regards Russia, the US and Japan as allies who New Delhi can work with to squeeze China's strategic space. However, such a mentality does nothing to help India's big power dream.
Under the existing international pattern, it is impossible for India to enhance its influence without cooperating with China.