In India-China Conflict, Can Russia Really Side With Us?

Russia’s relationship with China dates back to Soviet times, but India-Russia ties have been an irritant for China.

Updated
Opinion
6 min read
Images of China’s flag, Indian flag, Russian flag used for representation.
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Many years ago, I had asked the late Russian Ambassador Alexander Kadakin about his views on the concept of RIC – the Russia-India-China Grouping. It was the brainchild of former Russian Prime Minister Alexander Primakov, floated in the late 1990s. The late ambassador’s response had been that it was all “about attaining positive goals.” “When the position of these three powers coincide,” he continued, “as it did regarding the aggression against Yugoslavia and the events in Kosovo, Kargil and Chechnya, we should simply work together, but not against somebody. This is the formula for such possible three-way cooperation.”

The idea of the RIC has since persisted over the years, with regular meetings of ministers and heads of the RIC grouping, widely perceived to be a counterweight to Western alliances and groupings.

Can RIC Help In India-China Conflict?

The most recent was on 23 June, when India’s External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar met with his Chinese and Russian counterparts – Wang Yi and Sergei Lavrov – in a virtual conference. The meeting took place against the backdrop of the most recent India-China face-off in the Galwan Valley, which has been a serious setback to bilateral ties. While Lavrov reiterated that “We are united by our rejection of unilateral methods in international relations, especially when these methods are applied by force,” Jaishankar stressed that “leading voices” should act in an exemplary manner by respecting international law and recognising the interests of partners – without naming any country – there is little doubt that he was referring to China.

While the RIC provides a platform for periodic meetings and discussions to the three countries, as of now it lacks substance.

If it was about working together when “the position of these three powers coincide,” then there are extremely few things that the three countries agree upon. Yet, these couple of years, the RIC had begun to see meetings at the highest levels – on the sidelines of multilateral fora like the BRICS and SCO – in which all three countries participate.

However, given the recent India-China confrontation after the investment made into bilateral relations by the Narendra Modi government, bilateral ties have taken a great hit, and it will take a long time to get it back where it had hitherto been till the time of the latest confrontation.

In this context, a platform like the RIC may assume greater significance: it will offer a platform for regular meetings and communication channels, important for conflict management.

However, what is assuming greater significance and being devoted more attention is Russia’s role in India-China relations.
Snapshot
  • While the RIC provides a platform for periodic meetings and discussions to the three countries, as of now it lacks substance.
  • But given the recent India-China confrontation after the investment made into bilateral relations by the Modi govt, bilateral ties have taken a great hit.
  • In this context, a platform like RIC may assume greater significance... for conflict management.
  • Russia has very close relations with China, nurtured over the decades, since the Soviet times.
  • In recent years, Russia has been pushed closer to China because of the sanctions imposed on it by the US for its annexation of Crimea, and later for alleged interference in US elections.
  • However, Russia’s relations with India have been an irritant in Sino-Russian relations. And this is not a recent phenomenon.

Amid Escalating US-China Trade War, Bilateral Ties Between Russia & China Have Grown

The current government has managed to check the drift in India-Russia relations. Through major arms purchases, like the S-400 missiles system, the government has cemented bilateral ties, as defence ties are always long-term, and pacified Russian disquiet over India’s growing closeness to the United States. Moreover, the orders for defence acquisition were made despite threats of US sanctions like CAATSA. With its longstanding support for India’s position on Jammu and Kashmir, including after the reorganisation of Jammu and Kashmir in 2019, India’s claims to the permanent membership of the UN Security Council and India’s entry into the NSG, Russia has proved itself to be India’s all-weather friend.

So, would Russia support India against China as a number of screeching headlines claim? There is no simple answer.

Russia has very close relations with China, nurtured over the decades, since the Soviet times. In recent years Russia has been pushed closer to China because of the sanctions imposed on it by the US for its annexation of Crimea, and later for alleged interference in US elections.

With the escalating US-China trade war, bilateral ties between Russia and China have been burgeoning. Their bilateral trade in 2018 stood at USD 107 billion, and Russia is today a major source of China’s energy and defence acquisitions, amid trade tariffs being imposed on China by the US and EU – so the Russian market assumes greater significance for China. Bilateral ties are almost all encompassing.

What Are The Irritants In Russia-China Relationship?

Nevertheless, there are numerous irritants in the Russia-China bilateral relations. For one, Russia and China share a 4300 kms common border, and they had their own border issues which were finally solved in 2005 with Russia ceding territory to China. Next, both Russia and China have competing claims on Central Asia – the countries of Kazakshtan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan – part of the former Soviet Union. While Russia considers this region its traditional sphere of influence, China too has been making inroads through its chequebook diplomacy.

China considers the region vital for energy security, trade, and for its Belt and Road Initiative, although it has not always been smooth-sailing, as clashes in Kazakshtan have shown. China has also levelled charges against Russia for trying to monopolise the Eurasian Economic Union (EEC), the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), and even accused it of trying to contain China in the South China Sea.

Russia’s relations with India have also been an irritant in Sino-Russian relations, as this article in the state mouthpiece Global Times proves. And this is not a recent phenomenon.

It is widely believed, for instance, in India too, that India’s entry into the SCO was ‘facilitated’ by Russia to balance China’s role in the organisation. While China has been an impediment to India’s entry into the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), Russia has actively backed India’s entry there.

As the RIC foreign ministers’ virtual meet on 24 June 2020 showed, Russia supports India’s claims to a permanent seat at the UN Security Council, and has consistently supported India’s stand on Jammu and Kashmir. Even India’s cooperation in the Russian Far East is believed to stem from an urge to balance Chinese influence there.

With China’s ‘Weaker’ Position, Can India & Russia Find More Space to Manoeuvre?

During the current India and China stand-off, Russia had ruled out mediating between the two sides. Foreign Minister Lavrov is reported to have said that “I do not think that India and China need any help, any kind of assistance, specifically aimed at helping them to resolve disputes.”

India is known to not be keen on third party mediation, politely refusing US President Donald Trump’s offer to mediate between India and China, and earlier, offers to mediate between India and Pakistan. Yet, facilitation and using good office by one state to promote dialogue between the contesting states is an established international norm.

Russia, with its proximity to China, is believed to have played a behind-the-scenes role in defusing tensions between India and China during the Doklam standoff between them in 2017, though it was economically dependent on China.

However, the COVID-19 pandemic has wrought more changes in the power equation than meets the eye.

China today finds itself largely isolated in the world. Its economy has taken a great hit not just due to the pandemic, but also with major trade tariffs announced by the US and the European Union on Chinese exports. There is unrest in Hong Kong, and rumblings inside the mainland itself because of the pandemic.

The outbreak of COVID has also caused tensions in bilateral ties between Russia and China, although it’s been kept under wraps. China, therefore, is no longer in the strong position it used to occupy. This time around, China may need Russia more than vice-versa, and India and Russia can find more space to manoeuvre – with or without the RIC.

(Aditi Bhaduri is a widely-published journalist and political analyst. She tweets @aditijan. This is an opinion piece. The views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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