Why Russia won't choose sides between China and India
A few weeks after a military standoff between Chinese and Indian troops began near the Doklam plateau in June, the China Global Television Network, a 24 hours English-language state-owned news channel, asked why Russia had been “silent” on the matter. Granted, Moscow had made few public comments about the border tensions. But so, too, had America and the EU, both of which knew that siding with one party would anger the other.
The standoff eventually dissipated in August when the two nations agreed to withdraw their troops. But the geopolitical fallout leaves pertinent questions. If tensions between China and India are to become a new normal, as some analysts think, then how do other nations respond? Just as important, how are Asia’s superpowers, including China, India and Russia, going to balance competing interests?
Is Moscow Meddling?
In April, before the border dispute began, news emerged that the Russian government had tried to bring together the Indian and Chinese defense ministers for a meeting in Moscow. Beijing, however, reportedly refused to send along Defense Minister Chang Wanquan, who was already in the Russian capital for an international security conference.
Some believe this was because India had recently hosted the Dalai Lama in Arunachal Pradesh, an Indian state that borders China’s “autonomous” region of Tibet. Others saw it as an indication of Beijing’s distrust of Moscow’s real motives. In July, Global Times, a jingoistic Chinese state-run tabloid, opined that New Delhi “wants to weigh which is more important to Russia: China or itself.”
There is the opinion that Moscow wants a more assertive India to counterbalance China’s growing hegemony in Asia . Russia has long supported India’s ascension to having a permanent seat in a “reformed” UN Security Council, for example. And, in March, the Kremlin publicly backed India’s bid to become a member of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), a coalition of 48 nuclear supplier countries that control the export of nuclear equipment and technology.
For India, which possesses nuclear power, inclusion in the group is important given that its northern enemy, Pakistan, also has nuclear capabilities. Moreover, nuclear energy is an economic concern for India-Russia relations. Moscow and Delhi signed an agreement in 2014 that aims to build 12 Russia-designed nuclear power stations in India. But China has opposed India’s accession to the group since it first tried to join last year. Formally, it says this is because New Delhi is not yet a signatory to the Non-Nuclear-Proliferation Treaty. China’s opposition was successful, and India has to wait another year to apply to join the group.
Russia is also thought to have backed India’s successful ascension, in July, to the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), a Eurasian security and economic bloc. Derek Grossman, a senior defense analyst at the RAND Corporation, an American think tank, claimed that Russia sponsored India “mainly to constrain China’s growing influence in the organization.” He added, in his article for the Diplomat, that Russia is concerned the post-Soviet SCO members like Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan “are drifting too far into China’s geostrategic orbit.” This is clearly a view supported by some Chinese intellectuals.
“Does Russia support India’s accession to the SCO for the sake of common development, or for counterbalancing China?” a Global Times editorial asked in July.
More Than Bilateralism
Russia’s relationship with India has been solid since the Soviet era and this year marks the 70th anniversary of diplomatic relations. But relying on the past might not be enough, according to a joint report published recently by two think tanks, the Russian International Affairs Council and India’s Vivekananda International Foundation. “Giving a new impetus to Moscow-New Delhi relations would allow Russia to diversify its efforts in Asia. It is necessary for India and Russia to prevent third countries from exerting significant influence on their bilateral ties,” it reads.
Clearly, this is intended to indicate concerns within Moscow and New Delhi that the other party is gravitating towards their adversaries. Russia knows India wants to form closer ties to the U.S. and European nations. Just this week, India took part in talks with Japan, America and Australia over reforming the disbanded Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, an ostensible counter-China pact that seeks to curb Beijing’s expansionism in the South China Sea and Indian Ocean.
A month after Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Moscow in June, China’s warships engaged in the first-ever joint war games with the Russian fleet in the Baltic Sea. The Economist reported that Russia and China “wanted to send a message to America and to audiences at home: we are united in opposing the West’s domination, and we are not afraid to show off our muscle in NATO’s backyard.” The same month, Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Moscow where Putin decorated him with the Order of St Andrew, Russia’s highest state award. Xi has visited Moscow more often than any other capital since coming to power in 2012, the Economist also noted. In addition, New Delhi is concerned about Russia’s relations with Pakistan, India’s long-time foe, which have been improving since the early 2000s.
The RIC Returns
But stressing anti-Western cooperation with China isn’t the same as the Kremlin turning its back on India , nor fully embracing relations with Beijing. Russia, under Putin, has tried to defy a supposed unipolar global order led by America and, today, a united Europe overseen by the EU. Now, it appears, Russia is balking against a possible uni-polar Asia and Eurasia dominated by China. Supporting India, then, becomes a way for Russia to achieve this. But Western sanctions on Russia have meant it has had to move closer to China, further complicating its role as an intermediary between India and China.
Indeed, while many in India’s defense community think better relations with the West is the way forward, some are of the opinion that more effort should be put on strengthening the trilateral annual Russia-India-China (RIC) meetings, which have taken place since 2002 between scholars, business leaders and foreign ministers. However, these have so far failed to upgrade into regular political or security summits. The next RIC Foreign Ministers meeting is expected to be held in New Delhi next month.
Maybe, then, we will learn more about how Russia views its position between India and China.
David Hutt is a Southeast Asia-based journalist who reports on Asia-Pacific politics
The original article was published in Forbes.