The South Asia Channel

Friends Again at Folly’s Expense: U.S.-India Summit Skirts Kashmir and Ukraine

As Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi prepares for his inaugural visit to the United States and his long-anticipated meeting with U.S. President Barack Obama on 29 September, many are looking for signs that the bilateral relationship will now be put back on the fast track after several years of relative coolness. In anticipation, the White ...

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ALOVAISK, UKRAINE - SEPTEMBER 10: Tatyana Grigorivna, begs for help to locate her son who has disappeared from the town of Alovaisk which was damaged during heavy fighting in August on September 10, 2014 in Alovaisk, Ukraine. Alovaisk, which is about an hour outside of the separatist held city of Donetsk, saw sustained shelling in August and is still the site of fighting between Ukrainian troops and the Russian backed separatists. Despite a declared ceasefire between separatists forces and the Ukrainian military, tensions on the ground are still high throughout the east of the country. Sporadic shelling is heard in Donetsk daily and gunfire in the port city of Mariupol. The city of Donetsk has only around 300,000 people remaining out of a population of 900,000 due to the fighting. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

As Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi prepares for his inaugural visit to the United States and his long-anticipated meeting with U.S. President Barack Obama on 29 September, many are looking for signs that the bilateral relationship will now be put back on the fast track after several years of relative coolness. In anticipation, the White House even released a list of topics that the two leaders are expected to discuss.

The topic list, which includes economic growth, security cooperation, and regional issues, is the normal slate that one might expect for a summit meeting of this kind – but the omission of any mention of the situation in Ukraine is hard to overlook. That two globally influential countries like India and the United States would not discuss Ukraine, particularly given the current state of the situation, is actually a bit shocking.

But maybe it is not wholly surprising, as Ukraine has been entirely absent from Modi’s foreign policy agenda since he took office. Modi’s silence is disappointing in its own right, but made even more so because he has shown himself agile at handling international diplomacy. He has gone on a tour of East Asia, building ties not only with Japan, but also with China, India’s long-time adversary. He is openly pro-American, and has shown that he can play the major powers off each other to secure significant investments. So why the reticence on Ukraine?

The simple answer, of course, is that Modi is not ready to abandon Russia, India’s all-weather and time-tested ally. With significant and growing trade flowing between the two countries, a robust defense relationship, and close collaboration in a number of multi-lateral fora, Modi is undoubtedly making the calculation that India risks more drastic consequences by opposing Russia than it does by bucking the west.

The more complicated answer is that Modi has significantly shifted India’s stance on this issue simply by not mentioning it all. It was just a few months ago that the government of former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh publicly came to Russia’s defense on the matter of Ukraine. On March 6, 2014, then-National Security Adviser Shivshankar Menon referred to “legitimate Russian interests” in Ukraine. Even the official Indian statement called the situation an “internal” matter. Compared with this outright support of Russia, Modi’s silence is almost refreshing.

Whatever the motivation, by remaining silent, and thus implicitly on Russia’s side, New Delhi risks undermining its own cause on an issue central to its own national identity. For if India cannot find the will to speak out against the covert invasion of another country’s territory, then the rest of the world will have little patience for India’s complaints against Pakistan with regards to Indian-administered Kashmir.

Despite some obvious differences in geography, terrain, and location, the current situation in eastern Ukraine is surprisingly similar to the long-running Kashmir conflict. In both instances, a section of the host country is being subject to armed conflict designed to wrest control of the region to a neighboring country. In both instances, the regions in question have significant populations that identify themselves more closely with the neighboring country than with the host country. And in both instances, the host country is using military means to counter opposing forces, even at the risk of possibly alienating its own citizens.

Perhaps the strongest similarity though is the nature of the ongoing conflicts. In both cases, national authority is being challenged by “separatists” who claim to be indigenous and thus label themselves as modern-day freedom fighters. However, this story unravels in both conflicts. In Ukraine, any clear-eyed assessment of the situation will conclude that these “separatists” either come directly from Russia, or have received significant funding and arms from Moscow to carry out their business. This situation in Kashmir is a bit murkier, but the Indian government proclaims to anyone who will listen that Kashmiri freedom fighters are either Pakistani military forces or Pakistan-backed militants. While Moscow may be a bit more overt in its assistance to the Ukrainian rebels, from India’s perspective, Pakistan has been no less complicit in fomenting unrest and violence in Indian-administered Kashmir.

For all the similarities between these conflicts, though, there does remain one significant difference. Ukraine now has the support of the entire western world, which is working collaboratively to help restore Ukraine’s territorial integrity. The same cannot be said for India. Kashmir continues to simmer in the background, largely forgotten by the international community. This is due in part to India’s refusal to allow any third-party intervention, and also in part to Pakistan’s strategic location in battling terrorism. But it is also undoubtedly due in part to India’s global inconsistency on territorial issues.

All of this makes Modi’s silence on the Ukraine issue that much more curious. Given his nationalistic credentials and campaign, it is not hard to imagine that he would be first in line to speak out against territorial encroachment. In doing so, he could not only draw more attention to India’s claims of Pakistani interference in Kashmir, but he would also demonstrate that India is ready to take on its self-proclaimed mantle of global power. After years of feckless foreign policy under the previous government, such a bold move by Modi would signal India’s coming of age and be welcomed in many corners.

With this background, one cannot help but think that the summit between Obama and Modi will be a lost opportunity, at least on the specific issue of Ukraine. There is no doubt that the two leaders will declare that the U.S.-India relationship is back on track and holds great promise for the future. But by side-stepping an issue commanding such global attention these days, they will also unwittingly declare that the partnership is not yet ready for the type of global leadership that such a partnership would normally demonstrate. Obama should want to press Modi on Ukraine; and Modi should want to respond. Because for the United States and India, business as usual is no longer enough. The relationship must now stand for something.

 

Anish Goel is a senior South Asia fellow at the New America Foundation. He previously served in the White House’s National Security Council as senior director for South Asia.

Anish Goel is a senior South Asia fellow at the New America Foundation.

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