India wary of growing Russia-Pakistan military ties

Vladimir Putin, Russia's president, gestures as he speaks during a panel session on day one of the VTB Capital Investment "Russia Calling" Forum in Moscow, Russia.
Vladimir Putin, Russia's president, gestures as he speaks during a panel session on day one of the VTB Capital Investment "Russia Calling" Forum in Moscow, Russia. PHOTO: BLOOMBERG

India has expressed concern over Russia's fledgling but growing defence relationship with Pakistan, ahead of a meeting between Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Russian President Vladimir Putin on the sidelines of a world summit in India.

Mr Putin has, in recent years, moved to establish defence ties with Pakistan as India began diversifying beyond Russia for its defence equipment and deepening ties with the US.

Russia and Pakistan have held discussions over the sale of military hardware and signed an agreement last year for the sale of four attack helicopters to Islamabad. In a sign of their growing defence engagement, the two countries held their first joint military exercise, "Friendship 2016", that ended on Monday, much to New Delhi's unease.

"We have conveyed our views to the Russian side that military cooperation with Pakistan, which is a state that sponsors and practises terrorism as a matter of state policy, is a wrong approach and it will only create further problems," India's Ambassador to Russia Pankaj Saran was quoted as saying to Russian news agency Ria Novosti last Friday.

Russia and India are fond of calling each other "time-tested friends" and are Cold War allies with a diplomatic relationship dating back to 1947.

THORN IN BILATERAL TIES

We have always seen Russia as a close ally. Russia will remain important but the Modi government is clearly annoyed with Russia over Pakistan and it is making that clear.

FORMER INDIAN FOREIGN SECRETARY LALIT MANSINGH

For years, India depended on Russia for all its military supply. While the two countries remain major defence partners, India is now increasingly sourcing weapons from other countries such as the US and France. Moscow has lost out on major jet and helicopter deals to other countries. Bilateral trade between India and Russia is below US$10 billion (S$13.8 billion), partly due to poor transport links. India's trade with the US is now more than US$100 billion.

Officials said Russia would remain an important country for India but experts noted that ties between Pakistan and Russia would remain an irritant for India.

"We have always seen Russia as a close ally. Russia will remain important but the Modi government is clearly annoyed with Russia over Pakistan and it is making that clear," said former Indian foreign secretary Lalit Mansingh.

The military exercises between Russia and Pakistan were held at a time when India has been trying to pressure Pakistan to take action against terror following an attack on an army camp on Sept 18 in which 19 Indian soldiers were killed. Neighbouring countries like Bhutan and Bangladesh even pulled out of a regional meet to show solidarity with India.

Dr Gulshan Sachdeva, from the Jawaharlal Nehru University, said: "With the military exercises, Russia is also trying to signal that it has other options. This will affect ties between India and Russia."

Russia is reaching out to Pakistan partly because of Afghanistan, said Dr Sachdeva. Incidentally, Soviet forces were expelled by Mujahideen fighters backed by Pakistan from Afghanistan in the 1980s.

"The Russians are a bit worried about the instability coming out from Afghanistan and that it will spread to Central Asia... In that context they may feel some kind of working relations with Pakistan would be useful."

Mr Modi is expected to meet Mr Putin on Saturday at the annual India-Russia summit which is taking place this year in the state of Goa on the sidelines of Brics, an acronym for a grouping of emerging economies including Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa.

According to a press statement from India's Ministry of External Affairs, "important bilateral agreements are expected to be concluded and a joint statement released" after the meeting.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 13, 2016, with the headline 'India wary of growing Russia-Pakistan military ties'. Print Edition | Subscribe