NEW YORK -- When the annual India-Russia summit was canceled in December for the first time since it kicked off two decades ago, COVID-19 was cited as the convenient and obvious reason.
But Moscow was widely reported to have been uneasy about its old South Asian partner getting too close to the U.S., especially as India steps up participation in the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue -- also known as the Quad -- an informal arrangement among Australia, India, Japan and the U.S. that is increasingly likened to an "Asian NATO."
The analysis had teeth.
Russia likes to rely on its relations with regional powers like India to preserve room to maneuver and magnify its own position as a Eurasian power, experts say. With a decades-old defense, trade and diplomatic relationship with India threatened by new players, Moscow stood disturbed about its own traction and currency.
"Moscow views the U.S.-China rivalry as the organizing principle of international relations today," said Cyrus Newlin, associate fellow with the Europe, Russia and Eurasia program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. "New Delhi's growing security alignment with Washington could upset this dynamic. Though India remains an important foreign policy vector for Russia, Moscow is concerned that a less independently minded India will in turn increase Russia's dependence on China. For Russia, regional balance and diversification are a strategic imperative," he said.
After decades of following a policy of nonalignment, India seems to be flirting with the idea of an alliance with the U.S. In 2020, India participated in the Malabar naval exercise, bringing Australia back into the exclusive war games held in its maritime backyard.
New Delhi did so at the behest of Washington, having concluded with the Pentagon a series of intelligence-sharing agreements granting India ally-level access to American military satellites. The agreement came in late October at the "two-plus-two" dialogue between American and Indian defense and foreign ministers and secretaries. Clearly, COVID-19 had not been reason enough to cancel this meeting.
Then there are the lucrative arms deals. Over the past decade, the U.S. had climbed to No. 2 among suppliers of weapons to India, the world's largest arms importer from 2010 to 2019, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, which tracks the global arms trade.
This discomforted Russia, India's primary weapons provider for decades -- and still the source of around two-thirds of the South Asian country's arms imports, by SIPRI's yardstick.
Washington and New Delhi's warmer security ties come in response to Beijing. While Sino-American tensions have been mounting for years over flashpoints ranging from cyberspace to trade to diplomatic finger-pointing over COVID-19, India has had its own run-in with China.
Last June, the Chinese and Indian armies clashed along the Line of Actual Control -- the ironic name of the disputed de facto border in the Himalayas. Twenty Indian soldiers died, and the People's Liberation Army occupied Indian alpine positions.
In the furor that followed in New Delhi, the restrained doctrine of nonalignment was widely challenged. After decades of strategic autonomy, to which avoiding hard alliances is inherent, Indian political and military elites seemed ready to throw their weight behind the U.S.
India had to respond to China, and it did in a manner remarkably similar to how Washington had been dealing with Beijing. Export licenses were canceled for Chinese companies. Tariffs were slapped on Chinese electronics. TikTok, along with dozens of other Chinese apps, was banned.
But India is now clarifying its position and has launched a de-escalation process.
This comes as the Biden administration puts trust in New Delhi to be a vital part of its strategy to deal with Beijing. "We will deepen our partnership with India ... to advance shared objectives," the administration said Wednesday in its Interim National Security Strategic Guidance document.
Recent weeks have seen India begin a "simultaneous disengagement" with China, pulling back front-line troops in the disputed Ladakh region. In all, India had deployed at least 60,000 in the area. Along the other contested border in Kashmir, India went a step further and announced a cease-fire with old rival Pakistan, a fervent Chinese ally.
Amid New Delhi's ongoing thaw with Beijing and its well-maintained ties with Moscow, Indian diplomats and security experts are insisting on a relationship with America that encompasses more than security and arms deals. As the debate takes shape, India is asking its new friends and old partners to be patient.
"India's attitude towards cooperation [with the United States] is not just based necessarily against X or Y," said Taranjit Singh Sandhu, India's ambassador to the U.S., on Thursday during a webinar hosted by the Los Angeles World Affairs Council & Town Hall.
Without naming China, Sandhu said that "we do share with the U.S. a commitment to a free and open Indo-Pacific, with freedom of navigation, rules-based order," and that there is an increasing conversions in visions. "We share the same democratic ethos and similar approach with our like-minded countries, too."
Responding to a question, Sandhu said the Quad is more than just a security mechanism. Rather, he said, the arrangement -- not a coalition, not a partnership, not an alliance -- has larger goals.
"There is a positive agenda here," he said. "When the Quad foreign ministers had their interaction ... there was a broader touch on being political democracies, market economies, pluralistic societies, and they will work together [on those issues] besides a rules-based international order."
The Quad, he said, has had regular exchanges on "COVID, health care, including vaccination programs ... climate change, maritime security, supply chain resilience and counterterrorism. There is a lot of agenda discussed between the Quad. It is an important consultative mechanism that has emerged."
But in New Delhi, experts insist that security remains an important consideration for India, the only country to have had an actual military engagement with China in recent years.
"People forget: The 'Quad' is short for 'Quadrilateral Security Dialogue.' 'Security' ties up the four countries into dialogue," said retired Rear Adm. Sudarshan Shrikhande, the former head of Indian Naval Intelligence. "Clearly, China has triggered the Quad to move from talking the talk to walking the walk. It's all right to say it's not against China, but one can say it's about China."
Shrikhande agreed with Sandhu that the Quad has emerged as one of the more concrete manifestations of the Indo-Pacific arrangement.
"However, the Quad is less about the Indo-Pacific as oceanic expanses and more about balancing China. After all, NATO was less about North Atlantic and more about Western Hemisphere security concerns about the Soviet Union," he said. "An oceanic name -- Indo-Pacific -- is surely neutral and fits well. But it's not the ocean as much as the nations and peoples around them that matter."
On India's strategic thinking, Shrikhande urged both the U.S. and Russia to view India beyond its role as the world's largest buyer of military hardware or a bulwark against China.
"Larger issues must be looked at. Security, political and economic issues, rather than this or that military hardware to sell India, need to drive the complex relationships," he said. "There are larger security drivers that Russia and India need to look at together, and the U.S. and India need to look at together, and here is where there could be a future Russo-Indo-Americano 'trilateral' with longer-lasting potential."
"Yes, the Quad is the flavor of the month, and perhaps the decade, and may likely gather traction," Shrikhande said. "Everybody, including old friends like Russia, need to accept that and even think of mutual leverages that such arrangements could provide."
Speaking to the American Enterprise Institute and underscoring the Pentagon's view on the arrangement's future, Adm. Philip Davidson, commander of the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, on Thursday called the Quad a "diamond of democracies" willing to work together on diplomacy and economics, with "remarkable potential." The Quad format is potentially "extremely influential" across the whole Indo-Pacific and the globe, he said.