By Rajeev Sharma
It has been a busy diplomatic year for India, which has just ticked off Russia to complete its list of P5 country leaders to visit New Delhi in the past 12 months.
The visit by Russian President Dmitry Medvedev on December 21 was a historic moment for India, and offered a boost to what have of late been lukewarm Indo-Russian ties. One indication of the change was the fact that the two sides signed 29 agreements—11 in the presence of Medvedev and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and 18 on the sidelines of the two leaders’ annual summit in New Delhi. The agreements, both government to government and business to business, covered a diverse range of fields including defence, disaster management, oil and gas, science and technology, nuclear energy, information technology, pharmaceuticals, trade and banking.
Of the agreements inked, the key one was a contract for the preliminary design of the Indo-Russian Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft, signed between India’s Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) and Russia’s Rosoboronexport and Sukhoi. This is the biggest-ever defence programme in India’s history, and is a development that will no doubt be watched with a certain amount of trepidation in China and Pakistan.
The total value of the entire project, involving production of between 200 to 250 aircraft, will top the $30 billion mark. India’s Defence Ministry, commenting on the deal, said: ‘Today’s contract is only the first in a series of such contracts which will cover different stages of this complex programme. The total cost including options and the value of production aircraft will make this the biggest defence programme ever in the history of India.’
The project is for design and development of a 5th generation fighter aircraft that will include stealth and super-cruise capabilities as well as enhanced situational awareness, internal carriage of weapons and network centric warfare capabilities.The aircraft will be based on Russia’s T-50 prototype 5th generation fighter, and is expected to be inducted into the Russian Air Force by 2015, while the Indian Air Force will have it in service two to five years after that. India and Russia will also be jointly marketing it to third countries. This has the potential of pitchforking India into the lucrative defence exports market in a big way and earning billions of dollars worth foreign exchange.
Another very important Indo-Russian agreement, that has gone largely unnoticed and un-commented in the Indian media, is Russia agreeing to provide GLONASS high-precision navigation signals to India. This can be a game changer in war times. Now a days most missiles and weapon systems depend on satellite signals. Since India does not have a military satellite of its own as of now, this agreement will be crucial in the event of a war. Hitherto, India depends on America’s GPS navigation system for signals and the Americans give this facility only for civilian purposes.
Medvedev also made all the right noises by supporting India’s candidature for United Nations Security Council’s permanent membership and expressing Russia’s keenness to set up ‘additional nuclear reactors’ in Kundankulam, Tamil Nadu. The two issues are important for India. With Medvedev’s reiteration of backing for India’s candidature for UNSC permanent seat, all P5 nations barring China have come out with unequivocal support. Only China is maintaining a pregnant silence on the issue. This should bring more pressure on China who dare not speak positively on the subject given their recent foreign policy shift wherein the Chinese have openly and blatantly cast their lot with Pakistan at the cost of India. While the rest of the P5 nations have finally de-hyphenated India from Pakistan, China has more aggressively practiced its India-Pakistan hyphenation policy. This is evident from the fact that except Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao none of the rest of P5 nations’ leaders who visited India this year cared to visit Pakistan.
Medvedev strongly supported his country’s support for India’s bid for a permanent seat in the UN Security Council saying “Russia wants India to have a permanent seat in the UNSC if the decision to expand the organ is taken” and described India as a “strong and deserving candidate”. Significantly, Medvedev also backed India’s full membership in such world bodies as the Nuclear Suppliers Group and the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) which presently are a preserve of select nations.
On the nuclear civilian energy cooperation front, Medvedev’s visit produced a minor setback of sorts. The two sides were expected to sign the deal for 3rd and 4th units of Kundankulam, but they didn’t. Instead, Medvedev merely conveyed Russian keenness for setting up “additional nuclear reactors” in Kudankulam in Tamil Nadu. Perhaps the recently enacted Indian nuclear liability laws have been worrying the Russians, though the Russians have not made angry remarks on the subject as the Americans and the French have done. The straws in the wind suggest that the Russians may still move forward and sign deals for constructing more nuclear power reactors because unlike France and the US, the Russian companies dealing in civilian nuclear energy are state-controlled and giving a $ 500 million payout as compensation in a nuclear accident that may happen at some point in future (stipulated in the Indian nuclear liability law) will not be considered a wise option by the Russian government, particularly when more lucrative business deals can be clinched.
The Russians signing more nuclear deals with India is a matter of when, not if. India has already offered Russia land in Haripur, West Bengal for building a nuclear park. The Russians have conveyed their intent to construct eight units which together will produce about 10,000 MW of nuclear power. In case some unforeseen socio-political problems arise and the government of West Bengal is not able to go ahead with the Haripur Indo-Russian project, the Government of India has offered Orissa as a back-up.
During his just-concluded India visit, Medvedev dwelt on the issue of terrorism and gave his piece of mind to Pakistan, though he was nowhere as brutally candid as British Prime Minister David Cameron was during his India trip in July. Cameron’s harsh remarks against Pakistan from the Indian soil had even cast a cloud on Britain-Pakistan diplomatic relations. Medvedev remarked, without mentioning Pakistan by name, that ‘no civilized state can hide terrorists’. After his delegation -level talks with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, Medvedev was asked a terrorism related question at a joint press conference with Singh. He replied: “Terrorists are criminals. They, of course, should be punished. Those who hide terrorists conceal their crimes. No modern civilized state can hide terrorists as law abiding citizens. They are subject to punishment.” He also called for elimination of “safe havens for terrorism and violent extremism that are present in Afghanistan and Pakistan.”
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh also gave his reply to the question, saying that India and Russia needed to cooperate in information sharing, intelligence sharing and devise effective counter-terrorism strategies together. “India and Russia are both victims of terrorists, as such there is a natural synergy of interests in working together to deal with this menace,” the Prime Minister said.
On the trade front, the two sides pledged to double their bilateral trade to $ 15 billion by 2015 which should be an easy target considering the reinvigoration of Indo-Russian ties that Medvedev’s visit has imparted.
(The writer is a New Delhi-based journalist-author and a strategic analyst. He can be reached at [email protected])