Ukraine crisis prompts India to reflect on ties with West, rediscover dignified position
Standing on par
Published: Mar 16, 2022 11:10 PM
Students who were evacuated from Ukraine arrive at the Hindon Airforce station in Ghaziabad, India, on March 3, 2022. Photo: AFP

Students who were evacuated from Ukraine arrive at the Hindon Airforce station in Ghaziabad, India, on March 3, 2022. Photo: AFP

While the Russia-Ukraine conflict unfolds with all the stakeholders following their respective scripts, the stance of a major country, India, has caught the attention of many globally, especially the Chinese public.

This time, India chose not to stand alongside the US - its perceived ally in  other instances in global affairs. The Indian government has, so far, refrained from taking clear sides, choosing not to join the West's chorus of condemnation of Russia. Domestically, a growing wave advocating for India to decouple from the West's control and implement a more independent diplomacy, or even calls for a joining of forces with China and other developing countries, have started brewing.

Though officially, India, within a short, has hardly relented in its stance toward China, reasonable and amicable voices have emerged in the country, especially among the elites that could serve as an impetus to ease tensions between the two most populous nations in the world, analysts noted.

So what has India and its people seen from the Russia-Ukraine conflict and the US' maneuvering that has allowed them think less from an American-friendly  perspective but rather for their own independent interests?

Growing objective voices toward China

A thorough online news search for the keywords "Ukraine," "Russia," "India," "China," and "West" resulted in some 350 articles containing these words as published by India's English-language news sites in the past seven days between March 10 and 16, the Global Times reporters have found. About 80 of the articles directly discussed India's or China's role in current Russia-Ukraine tensions.

Although Indian media had mixed reactions to the Ukraine crisis in general, many of the 80 articles - approximately accounting for 60 percent - presented a relatively neutral attitude rather than blindly applauding the US-led West's response, according to the Global Times analysis. In many opinion pieces by mainstream media outlets, Indian observers and scholars tended to re-examine the role India currently plays in a world order mainly controlled by the West, and re-evaluate the trajectory of India's relations with other major developing countries, including China, against a Western hegemony. 



In an article published by India Today on March 15, the co-authors criticized some of the West's reactions to Russia and the countries that abstained from voting on the recent UN resolution condemning Russia as "completely irrational." "..All cultural and humanitarian declarations (were) abandoned by chance," lamented the authors, columnist Abhishek Banerjee and international affairs expert Vijita Singh Aggarwal.

The authors think that while facing pressures from the West, India has the right to pursue an independent foreign policy strategy that suits its own interests. "We have no moral obligation to fit into binaries decided by the West," they stressed.

More Indians have examined the ugly face the West has shown in the Ukraine crisis, and what India can learn from it. "The West is engaged in a form of hysteria that doesn't serve the cause of the Ukrainian people caught in the conflict, or the larger cause of world peace," said an anonymous opinion piece published by India-based The Economic Times on March 12.

Disappointed by the West's response to the Russia-Ukraine tensions, as well as the deteriorating world order controlled by a Western hegemony, some Indian observers started to look outward to possible joint efforts made by China and India in easing tensions and bringing about peace. 

In the article "War in Ukraine is getting worse. A China-India initiative to bring peace is a good idea," published by The Print on March 15, the author, Prakash Menon, a scholar in strategic studies, wrote that with similar voting patterns at the UN, "a China-India initiative could be attempted, even as the two military powers stare at each other across the Himalayas."

On February 25, the United Nations Security Council voted on a draft resolution on the situation in Ukraine submitted by the US and Albania. The resolution has not been adopted and was vetoed by Russia. China, India, and the United Arab Emirates all abstained.

"What's currently unfolding in Ukraine has become a lesson for India to rethink its relationship with the US and the West," Hu Zhiyong, a research fellow at the Institute of International Relations at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences, told the Global Times, noting that it could be an opportunity for Modi's government to fix its relations with China.

Shared history, cultural basis

Compared with the Indian government's prudence over Russia-Ukraine tensions, numerous outspoken Indian netizens have expressed, on social media, their support for Russia and their distaste for the hypocrisy displayed by the West. Thousands of posts under hashtags like #StandWithRussia and #StandWithPutin have flooded Twitter in recent days, many of which were written and forwarded by Indian users, the Global Times found.

"The days of [the West's] supremacy is ending, [the] world is waking up from your lies, selfishness and hypocrisy," wrote another user by the Twitter username "SHARAN," whose Twitter placed his location in Belagavi City in southwestern India.

Indian web users also mentioned China, saying that China's attitude toward the West was worthy to be studied and referenced by India. "India needs to understand what China understood about the West at least three decades ago," wrote "Mohan Gawade," whose location is in Goa State in western India as Twitter showed.

"For most of recorded history (except for the last three centuries), the two civilizations have, together, contributed over 50 percent of world's GDP and 50 percent of global trade, with each accounting for about half of those numbers," Ganesh C Prasad, an Indian observer, said in his trending article "Indians Don't Understand History, Or, How India Can Reclaim Its Civilizational Destiny."

"Indeed, the East now has the opportunity to play the 'divide and rule' game against the West!" Prasad wrote. "India's switch can be the decisive moment that enables the long-delayed rise of Asia."

"The Indic civilization was once a participant in China's ancient Silk Road… The fact that India views the BRI as a new threat rather than as a familiar opportunity is yet another indication that Indian policymakers are ignorant of civilization history," he said.

"China and India should be partners for mutual success instead of adversaries of mutual attrition," Hua Chunying, spokesperson of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of China, tweeted on March 7.

Hua's post received more than 2,300 likes and hundreds of approving comments from netizens, mostly Indians. "[I] agree. Like all of [the] West is united and has a bloc. We should be united and stop trying to make each other weak. China should walk the talk and India will surely trust and support," replied Viraj Jain, an India Twitter user.

An Indian merchant (left) sells Indian handicrafts to customers at the 5th China (Quanzhou) Maritime Silk Road International Brand Expo in Quanzhou, East China's Fujian Province, on April 18, 2019. Photo: Xinhua

An Indian merchant (left) sells Indian handicrafts to customers at the 5th China (Quanzhou) Maritime Silk Road International Brand Expo in Quanzhou, East China's Fujian Province, on April 18, 2019. Photo: Xinhua

India's new ambassador to China, Pradeep Kumar Rawat, assumed office on March 14, greeted by welcoming voices and expectations from many Chinese people, which observers believe is a sign of positive momentum from the recent military talks.

The 15th round of China-India corps commander level meeting concluded on March 11, continuing the positive atmosphere since the 14th round of talks.

"I hope China and India will work together and work hard for the peace and prosperity of Asia," a Chinese web user commented under the post of the Indian Embassy's official Sina Weibo account introducing the new ambassador.

"India has already urged all parties to step up diplomatic efforts in order to find a peaceful solution as soon as possible. That, I believe, is a pretty mature plan. I must admire China's extraordinary maturity throughout this Russia-Ukraine crisis. China, as a responsible nation, has been asking for the de-escalation of the situation," Shamim Zakaria, an India journalist based in Beijing, told the Global Times.

Zakaria said that all countries should strive for peaceful coexistence rather than instigating strife like the US. "It is all about forging a community with a shared future for humanity."

An opportunity for Modi to recalibrate

Apart from the public opinion in India calling for an independent diplomacy and cooperation with China, some Chinese experts pointed out that Modi's governance may not be willing to give up the benefits of taking a pro-US route for now. Instead, it will attempt to walk a tightrope between Russia and the US, and will need to have its representation and voice in both sides of the divide.

The opinion echoes the Indian government's silence regardless of domestic proposals.

India's stance on the Russia-Ukraine issue has annoyed the US, which still wants to use India to contain and suppress China, so it may put more pressure on India, Lan Jianxue, director of the Department for Asia-Pacific Studies at the China Institute of International Studies, told the Global Times.

"Although India has shown a certain degree of strategic autonomy and independence on the Russia-Ukraine issue, India has not stepped out of the US' QUAD alliance line," Lan said.

Zakaria noted that both China and India are well aware of the US' strong-arm  tactics. The US recently warned India that it would face sanctions if it proceeded with its proposed defense contract with Russia. Additionally, the US has "warned" China against assisting Moscow.

Indian people carry slogans at a demonstration against NATO during a protest in New Delhi. Photo: AFP

Indian people carry slogans at a demonstration against NATO during a protest in New Delhi. Photo: AFP

"By supporting Russia, India is risking suffering the impact of sanctions from the West, which, for India, might be hard to overcome long-term," Hu, the China-India issue observer, noted.

"Moreover, under the Modi administration, its diplomatic strategy against China has been up and down. But in recent years, to serve his reelection and divert the public's attention from domestic issues, the relationship with China has been deteriorating," Hu said.

"Surely, China and India might get an opportunity to improve ties, but it very much depends on whether Modi's administration can grasp it," Hu said.