India-China Clash: Why Russia Won’t Mediate But Will Ease Tension

“Russia is emerging as ‘a neutral ground’ for India and China to engage,” writes (Retd) Ambassador Vishnu Prakash.

Updated
Opinion
6 min read
Chinese, Indian and Russian flags (L-R) used for representational purposes.
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Over the centuries, if one society has consistently faced hardship and injustice, yet handled it with exceptional fortitude, and kept its sense of humour intact, it is the Russians. They are easily the proudest people that this author has known, having served twice in the sprawling nation, straddling two continents and eleven time zones. It is endowed with endless natural resources, is a nuclear, space and military power, as well as, a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC).

Nevertheless, Russia is somewhat adrift. Since the disintegration of the USSR in 1991, Russia has been facing an identity crisis.

It has alternately been shunned, lured and targeted by the west, resulting in progressive loss of influence and a sense of siege. It was invited to join the prestigious G7 grouping in 1998, but was dropped in 2014. The last straw was the overtures of the European Union (EU) and NATO to Ukraine. Kiev has since become a ‘priority partner’ of the EU, and an ‘Enhanced Opportunity Partner’ of NATO. Upset, disillusioned and isolated, Russia made common cause with China, to shore up its flanks.

China & Russia: A Chequered Past

China and Russia have had a chequered history. In the 1950s, China looked up to the Soviet Union which was at the pinnacle of its power and glory. However, in the sixties, they drifted apart due to ideological differences and Chinese angst at Moscow's tilt towards India. The USSR did not support China during the 1962 conflict with India. In 1969, both sides engaged in a border conflict lasting seven months (China still believes that vast stretches of its land in the Far Eastern region is unlawfully occupied by Russia). Next followed a four-decade long tango between China and the US.

Sino-Russia relations have noticeably deepened under President Xi Jinping since 2013, in parallel with cooling of western ardour towards them. Xi and President Putin have met at least 31 times.

During his eighth visit to Russia in 2019, Xi and Putin decided to elevate the relations to a ‘Comprehensive Strategic Partnership’. Xi described Putin as his “best and bosom friend”. He announced the gift of two pandas, a significant goodwill gesture in the Chinese playbook.

China is now Russia’s largest trading partner.

In 2019, bilateral trade stood at USD 110 billion compared to USD 11 billion between Russia and India. They have set a USD 200 billion target by 2024, which is achievable. China would also soon become the biggest buyer of Russian oil and gas. All the same, Russians are aware of Chinese global ambitions and are squeamish about becoming de facto the latter's junior partner. What a role reversal in three decades!

Snapshot
  • Since the disintegration of USSR, Russia has been facing an identity crisis.
  • China and Russia have a chequered past.
  • In the 1950s, China looked up to the Soviet Union which was at the pinnacle of its power and glory.
  • However, in the sixties, they drifted apart due to ideological differences and Chinese angst at Moscow’s tilt towards India.
  • China is now Russia’s largest trading partner.
  • Yet, in the geopolitical sphere, Russia and China are wary of each other.
  • It is noteworthy that Russia has not yet recognised Chinese claims over the South China Sea and maintains a close partnership with Vietnam.
  • Russia continues to be India’s principal defence partner. 68 percent of our arms imports in the last 5 years came from Russia.
  • Both sides are now wanting to move away from buyer-seller relations and undertake joint development and production.
  • All the same, greater content needs to be infused in the India-Russia relationship which is proving difficult.

Despite Trade Ties, Russia & China Remain Wary Of Each Other

The GDP of Russia and China in 1988 was USD 554.7 billion and USD 312.35 billion respectively. In 2018, it stood at USD 1.67 trillion and USD 13.6 trillion. Russia, a former tech giant, is now essentially an exporter of primary and energy products. It still retains strengths in defence hardware and space technology.

China has replaced Germany as the principal supplier of plant, machinery and technology to Russia. It is now the second biggest importer (after India) of Russian defence platforms (including the S400 missiles and 4th generation Su-35 fighter aircraft). However, it wantonly engages in reverse engineering, about which Moscow is upset but can do little. Yet, Russia has turned down Chinese demand for withholding defence supplies to India.

On 2 December 2019, Russian natural gas started flowing into China, through a USD 55 billion pipeline from Siberia. The pipeline is part of a USD 400 billion contract that concluded in 2014 to supply gas to China for 30 years. President Putin hailed it as the biggest agreement in the history of Russia’s gas industry.

Yet, in the geopolitical sphere, both sides are wary of each other.

There was an informal compact between them about the Stans (Central Asian Republics), observes a senior Indian diplomat. China was to strengthen economic ties while being mindful of the Stans being in the Russian political sphere of influence. In reality, Chinese influence in the region is increasing – and this worries Russia.

It is noteworthy that Russia has not yet recognised Chinese claims over the South China Sea and maintains a close partnership with Vietnam.

Likewise, Beijing has not endorsed Russian takeover of Crimea. Neither side wants to be seen as an ally of the other, and is content with strategic partnership. Both want to keep their options open. For example, Russia agrees with the US that there are ‘Arctic’ nations and ‘non-Arctic’ nations, but there is nothing called ‘near-Arctic’. China is challenging Russia in the Arctic by claiming to be ‘near-Arctic’ country.

India & Russia: From ‘Strategic Partnership’ To ‘Special & Privileged Strategic Partnership’

Earlier in May 2020, President Trump decided to invite Russia (and India) to the G7 Summit but pointedly excluded China. Contrary to the latter's expectations, Moscow signalled its intent to accept the invite, which did not sit well with Beijing.

“This is a time for us to engage America, manage China, cultivate Europe, reassure Russia, bring Japan into play, draw neighbours in, extend the neighbourhood and expand traditional constituencies of support,” opines EAM Dr S Jaishankar, in his book ‘The India Way’, released recently. He adds that, “Refreshing India's ties with Russia has required dedicated efforts”.

The disintegration of the USSR came as a blow to India.

What’s more, President Yeltsin and then Foreign Minister Kozyrev turned westwards, with India being accorded low priority. India too went about diversifying its ties and initiated the ‘Look East Policy’ in 1992.

The arrival of President Vladimir Putin on the scene in December 1999 rapidly arrested the drift. During his very first visit to India in October 2000, ‘Strategic Partnership’ was established – which was elevated to ‘Special and Privileged Strategic Partnership’ in December 2010.

Twenty annual summits have been held till 2019.

No Denying That Russia-China Ties Do Impact Russia-India Equation

Russia continues to be India’s principal defence partner. 68 percent of our arms imports in the last 5 years came from Russia. Both sides are now wanting to move away from buyer-seller relations and undertake joint development and production. We also have good cooperation in the energy sector. India has already invested USD15 billion in the Russian hydrocarbon sector. Russia is the only country to build nuclear power plants in India.

All the same, greater content needs to be infused in the relationship which is proving to be difficult. Trade remains sluggish.

There is no denying that Russia-China relations do impact the quality of India-Russia ties.

Russia values India and China as important diplomatic partners, and has been trying to push trilateral engagement. For example, India was reluctant to join the RIC (Russia, India and China) forum but Russia persuaded her. Similarly, Russia actively supported India’s membership of SCO (Shanghai Cooperation Organisation).

Therefore, the Sino-Indian estrangement bothers Russia, but it is careful about not offering its good offices.

Willy-nilly it is emerging as a neutral ground for Indian and Chinese leaders to engage each other. The Indian Defence Minister met his Chinese counterpart in Moscow on 4 September, and Foreign Ministers are likely to meet on 10 September.

Why Moscow Will Be Loathe To Choose Between Beijing & New Delhi

In short, Russia-China cohabitation is less a marriage of convenience and more an open live-in relationship, adaptable to evolving circumstances.

On the other hand, India-Russia engagement is genuinely time-tested and not by any stretch of imagination, a strategic threat to the other. Besides, it enhances India’s security and leverage. Granted the ties have cooled a bit, but Russia is no Soviet Union either.

Moscow will be loathe to choose between Beijing and New Delhi; will prefer neutrality; will never offer mediation but arguably is best placed to help – if required – in reducing the distrust between India and China.

(The writer is a former High Commissioner to Canada, Ambassador to South Korea and Official Spokesperson of the Ministry of External Affairs. He can be reached at @AmbVPrakash. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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