Explained | At Vostok-22, why is India not joining naval drill? 

Explained | At Vostok-22, why is India not joining naval drill? 

What message does India’s participation at the military exercises send to U.S.-EU and Russia-China groupings? 

The story so far: From September 1-7, Russia is holding annual military exercises in its eastern region, with about 13 countries including India and China sending contingents. While the exercises in Vostok-2022 are routine, they are the first such multilateral exercises to be held since the Russian war in Ukraine began. They include a maritime component near the disputed islands of South Kuril, claimed by both Russia and Japan.

Who is taking part in Vostok-22?

The countries that have sent military contingents are Algeria, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, India, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, China, Laos, Mongolia, Nicaragua, Syria and Tajikistan, according to the Russian Ministry of Defence, which estimated that “more than 50,000 troops and 5,000 units of military equipment” including 140 aircraft and 60 warships would participate in the exercises. According to a statement issued by the Indian Defence Ministry, the Indian Army contingent is part of “joint manoeuvres to include joint field training exercises, combat discussions, and firepower exercises.”

However, India has only sent its army contingent of the 7/8 Gorkha Rifles, and will not take part in the maritime section of the two-part event. This is because, while the first part of the land exercises will be held in Russian military training grounds in Siberia and the Far Eastern Federal District, the maritime part of the exercises would be held in the Sea of Okhotsk and the Sea of Japan, near the disputed South Kuril islands. Japan’s Foreign Ministry issued a demarche calling on Russia to move the location of its maritime exercises, which the Russian Ambassador in Tokyo rejected, and India’s decision not to take part in the naval exercises is believed to be in deference to Tokyo’s sensitivities.

Why has Washington criticised the exercises?

In a statement ahead of the exercises, U.S. White House Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said that the U.S. has “concerns about any country exercising with Russia while Russia wages an unprovoked, brutal war against Ukraine,” adding that the decision to participate was up to each country, and that the government had been “pretty public” about its opposition to the exercises in talks. The Biden administration is in the process of stitching together support for more sanctions against Russia for its invasion of Ukraine, as well as a demand for price-caps on Russian oil exports, and the decision by India and other countries to participate in Vostok-2022 presents a divided approach towards Russia. The Ministry of External Affairs (MEA), however, rejected the concerns. “Let me just emphasise that India has been regularly participating in multilateral exercises in Russia, along with a number of other countries,” MEA spokesperson Arindam Bagchi said, adding that “there will be only army participation in the Vostok exercises this year.”

What does India’s participation mean and what is the likely impact?

By sending an army contingent to join Russian and Chinese troops in the exercises at this time, New Delhi is aiming to send a four-pronged message. The first is its continuing relationship with Russia despite the Ukraine war, where the Modi government has decided not to join the Western sanctions regime, or to curb oil imports and other economic engagement with Moscow.

The second is to signal balance and non-alignment in the current crisis, given India has mostly abstained from votes at the United Nations seeking to criticise Russia. India also takes part in routine Indo-Pacific exercises with its Western partners including the Quad, as well as in bilateral exercises, like the India-U.S. “Yudh Abhyas” in Uttarakhand next month. These exercises will take place just after Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Uzbekistan for the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) summit in September, where he will participate alongside leaders of Russia, China, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, who have sent contingents for Vostok-22 as well. It is a way of signalling that India remains comfortable in both its engagement with the U.S.-EU coalition and its rival groupings led by Russia-China. Third, by staying away from the maritime exercises, New Delhi has shown both its sensitivity to Japan’s concerns on maintaining the status quo over the disputed islands, as well as stressing the importance of territorial sovereignty and integrity for India. This coming week, India is hosting a Quad meeting on Indo-Pacific initiatives in Delhi and holding bilateral talks with U.S. and Japan on trade and defence as well.

Finally, the message the government continues to give is that it is willing to engage with China on a number of fronts, even as military talks with China at the LAC (Line of Actual Control) remain stuck. The government, however, asserts that it cannot be “business as usual” with China until the latest logjam over Chinese troops’ transgression since April 2020 is resolved.

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