Russia variable in India-China equationMoscow and Beijing are drifting closer because of their mutual interests.
Surendra Singh Rawal
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s latest diplomatic flurry from Beijing to New Delhi and then to Islamabad, immediately after the virtual Quad summit and the United States-China meeting in Alaska, demonstrates Russia’s stakes and interests in both the Indo-Pacific region and India-China relations. The timing and intensity of these diplomatic engagements add more meaning to Russian endeavours and priorities. This also indicates India’s adjustment of relationships with the great powers amid the shifting dynamics among them.
Although no longer a superpower, Russia still is a significant player on the world scene and has been striving to reclaim its erstwhile position primarily through military power and technological advancement. China, India and other major powers are also determined to claim their positions. The US is trying to strike a balance without ruling out diplomacy with Russia and China, but it is becoming increasingly difficult for America to walk the tight rope amidst burgeoning relations among nations in the region. In 2018, Henry Kissinger had suggested to then US president Donald Trump that America should work with Russia to contain a rising China.
Instead, the US approach and attitude have contributed to bringing China and Russia closer. The recent Quad summit and Alaska meeting have further accelerated the closing of the gap between the two. Russia criticised the Quad’s development as a counterbalance to China, and has maintained a neutral position on Chinese claims in the South China Sea. The declaration signed by Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi after their last meeting in Beijing vowed to reject the politicisation of human rights and interference in their countries’ internal affairs.
Despite the advocacy of a democratic alliance in the Indo-Pacific region, Moscow and Beijing are drifting closer because of their mutual interests. On top of bilateral trade, energy deals and 5G infrastructure, more Russia-China technological and military cooperation is forthcoming. They have also announced plans to build a joint lunar space station. US sanctions on China and Russia have also prompted them to develop alternatives to a dollar-dominated Western global financial architecture.
Moreover, both countries have developed a mutual understanding to cooperate in the Central Asian region—advancing Chinese economic interests through the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and maintaining Russian political and security primacy. They are also collaborating in the Arctic region through China’s Polar Silk Road, where Chinese capital and Russian transport logistics would create synergy to exploit Arctic energy resources.
Likewise, India is cautious about the current transitional period and the dynamics between three great powers—the US, China, and Russia—that could change sooner than later. In the Indian perception, the world heading towards multipolarity is an equal possibility as the great power competition between the US and China. After the recent meeting with Lavrov in New Delhi, Indian Minister of External Affairs S Jaishankar said, ‘I shared our viewpoint on the Indo-Pacific… Contemporary challenges require countries to work together in new and different ways. Such cooperation also reflects the multipolar and rebalanced character of global politics.’ This shows India does not fully embrace the great power competition conception.
The quote ‘In international relations, there are no permanent friends or permanent enemies, only permanent interests’ is attributed to Lord Palmerston of Great Britain, but Indian policymakers seem to hold that spirit close to their heart. India has a longstanding relationship with Russia. Nevertheless, through a growing strategic partnership with Europe and the US, India is trying to rebalance its relationship with the great powers, maintaining overall equilibrium and its own strategic autonomy. New Delhi is also expanding its ties with Asian middle powers like Korea, Japan and Australia.
Some speculate that the Russia-India strategic relation is waning because of growing US-India closeness and Russia-China partnership. But that does not seem to be the case. During the same meeting between Jaishankar and Lavrov, India and Russia discussed establishing a manufacturing facility to produce Russian arms under the ‘Make in India’ drive and extend military-technical cooperation between the two. Recently, New Delhi cleared Russia’s Sputnik V vaccines for use in India, and it is also manufacturing the Russian vaccine in facilities across the country. Besides, New Delhi is looking for a long-term partnership in nuclear and space technology with Moscow.
India understands that Russia is an important player in the Indo-Pacific region. Both countries have initiated cooperation in some geographical locations in this area. Not just the Eastern Maritime Corridor (Chennai-Vladivostok), India and Russia are also exploring the possibilities of Japan-India-Russia trilateral economic cooperation in Russia’s Far East region. In the midst of such relations, the future of the Quad is likely to hinge on various economic trajectories in the making. Referring to his recent visit to China, Lavrov has assured India that Russian relations with China 'do not pursue the goal of establishing a military alliance'. Last year, acting as a pragmatic interlocutor, Russia had quietly played a constructive role in diffusing the Line of Actual Control standoff between India and China.
Withdrawal from Afghanistan
The Biden Administration’s announcement of a complete American troop withdrawal from Afghanistan by September might have created some worry among Indian policymakers about India’s stake in Kabul. Regardless of the existing Russia-China-Pakistan troika, Russia considers India a major stakeholder on the issue of Afghanistan. Moscow is careful not to hurt New Delhi’s sentiment in the region. The Economic Times writes, 'During Jaishankar-Lavrov dialogue, the Russian side also reiterated its support for India’s position on Kashmir and Pakistan besides making it clear that will neither join CPEC nor supply defense equipment to Islamabad.'
Furthermore, China’s 25-year deal with Iran, India’s investment in Iran’s Chabahar port, and International North-South Transport Corridor connecting Russia and Central Asia make the Russian role even more meaningful in striking a balance between Indian and Chinese interests in Iran and the strategically important region. So far, Russia has been a significant variable in the India-China equation on multiple fronts, creating an equilibrium rather than an imbalance. Indeed, balance and stability between India and China appear to be in Russia’s best interest for now.