Should India Worry about Russia-China partnership post-Ukraine Crisis?
Prof Rajaram Panda

Russia and China have developed a strong understanding after Russia launched its special military operation on 24 February 2022 in Ukraine. This single Russian military action has injected a huge dramatic turnaround in the diplomatic initiatives and foreign policy fronts in many countries of the world. While talks about NATO’s expansion with possible induction of Sweden and Finland have unnerved President Putin of Russia, some Scandinavian countries have already abandoned their policy of pacifism. Major powers particularly the 4-member Quad grouping have too activated their dialogue process on regional security issues.

When Japan was hosting the Quad summit on 24-25 May, Russian and Chinese military planes conducted a joint exercise close to Japan’s airspace, forcing Tokyo to scramble its own jets in response. This was the first joint exercise between Beijing and Moscow since Russia’s action of Ukraine, demonstrating increasing military convergence between them. When Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu announced that the military operations in Ukraine will continue until all objectives are met, it was clear that Moscow is in no mood to end the war anytime soon. The world ought to get prepared for a long-drawn-out conflict. When the world gets polarised with nations sharply divided, the situation becomes more volatile and any loose fault-line can unleash an event that can have unpredictable consequences.

This emerging friendship and understanding between Russia and China with similar expansionist designs present a serious challenge to the international community. Russia and China seem to have decided to form a close strategic-military compact to take on what they perceive as Western hegemony and therefore rewrite the international rules-based order on their own terms. Both countries also nurse deep-seated grudges. While President Putin cannot digest the collapse of the Soviet Union and keen to correct that “wrong”, China wants to right what it sees as 100 years of humiliation between the 19th and 20th centuries and restore the glory of the Middle Kingdom. Such thinking violates the established order and therefore, poses a serious challenge to the international community. [1]

It was natural that Japan would respond when Russian TU-95MS strategic missile-carrying bombers of the Russian Aerospace Force and Chinese H-6K (commonly known as Xian H-6) strategic bombers of the Air Force of the PLA flew over the East China Sea on the day when the Quad summit was going on as it saw as a threat to its territory. It expressed “serious concerns”. In fact a total of six Chinese and Russian Bombers though did not enter Japanese territorial airspace, made a joint flight through the Sea of Japan, East China Sea and into the Pacific Ocean.[2] According to the Russian Defence Ministry, a number of Russian Su-30SM jets provided fighter support for this air task force and at some sections of the route; the bombers were "escorted" by F-2 aircraft of the South Korean Air Force and F-15 jets of the Japanese Air Force.

While China justified the militaries staging the patrol was “in accordance with their annual military cooperation plan, Japan saw it as ‘provocative’ when the Quad summit was discussing the issue of regional security. The Quad members declared a “steadfast commitment to a free and open Indo-Pacific”. Japan’s Minister of Defence Nobuo Kishi communicated through diplomatic routes Japan’s “grave concerns" over the China-Russia joint patrol. It was the fourth such incident since November 2021. The Chinese Ministry of National Defense said a joint aerial strategic patrol was carried out "in the airspace over the waters of the Sea of Japan, the East China Sea and the western Pacific Ocean", and that it was “in accordance with their annual military cooperation plan". The Russian Defence Ministry however, denied that the joint patrol was aimed against third countries. Though Russia denied the Bombers in their 13-hour mission intruded into Japanese and South Korean airspace, South Korea claimed that the warplanes entered its Air Defense Zone several times during the day of the patrol. Russia defended that the warplanes “operated strictly in compliance with the provisions of international law."

This demonstrates that Russia-China strategic cooperation has deepened. It needs to be remembered that President Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping had held a summit in February 2022. Both said that bilateral partnership has "no limits" and "no forbidden areas of cooperation", and that cooperation is driven by strong internal dynamics and value for independence. They further said that it is not targeted at any third party and will not be affected by others. Interestingly, though Russia’s action in Ukraine pushed Russia and China closer, both China and also India refused to condemn Russia’s action in Ukraine, with India arguing for dialogue and diplomacy as the desirable routes to seek solution.

The Quad members issued a joint statement but China was not mentioned. The statement reaffirmed the grouping’s "resolve to uphold the international rules-based order where countries are free from all forms of military, economic and political coercion." Though not openly spoken about, the four Quad nations share concerns about China's growing influence and assertiveness in the Indo-Pacific. Beijing is aware of this and responds to international criticism by holding military drills and deployments.

The day US President Joe Biden said the US is “committed” to defending Taiwan in the event of a Chinese invasion and also committed to defend Japan if its ally comes under attack, China lost no time in announcing increased naval activities in the two strategically important straits northwest and southwest of Japan.

While two Type 054A frigates of the PLA Navy - the Xuzhou and the Handan - transited the Tsushima Strait towards the Sea of Japan, the Sovremenny-class destroyer Hangzhou entered the Pacific Ocean after crossing the Miyako Strait from the East China Sea. China also organized joint combat-readiness patrol and real-combat training exercises involving multiple services and arms in the waters and airspace around the Taiwan Island. [3] China meant to issue stern warning against the recent collusion activities between the US and the Taiwan independence separatist forces through such deployment activities in waters close to Japan and Taiwan. China considers Taiwan a breakaway province that should be unified with the mainland, by force if necessary.

Despite that Russia-China military cooperation has deepened, and China sharing Russia’s concerns over NATO’s expansion, it remains unclear if China’s military cooperation is only because of the Ukraine crisis or for other larger considerations. In the absence of such clarity, it is safe to conclude that their joint patrols were warnings to both the US and Japan.[4]

How does the growing Russia-China friendship affect India’s relations with Russia, which has remained India’s time-tested friend? It was demonstrated in India’s nuanced position on the Ukraine crisis[5] and that India abstained more than a dozen times at the UN resolutions that imposed crippling sanctions on Russia. Of course, India is concerned about Chinese incursions into India’s borders but India has gathered enough military muscle to fight its own battle even without outside help should China choose to be adventurous. Given the strategic matrix unfolding in world’s security theatre, the countries friendly to India are more likely to come to its rescue even without asking because of the perception that China is a threatening power as against India’s global image as a benign power.

The Quad members need to take note that there is a serious possibility that Beijing will use Moscow for its strategic security aims in the Indo-Pacific. If such a situation develops, India needs to craft its policies and respond appropriately and think seriously to reset its military ties with Russia. That would be a tough call for the foreign policy makers of India. Of course, Russia is unlikely to overlook India’s refusal to condemn Russia’s actions in Ukraine and stuck to its ingrained non-aligned position. India ought to stick to its issue-based stands that the West too holds.

Vietnam can be a model for India to follow. Since India and Vietnam have maintained strong ties in the economic and strategic domains, India can draw some lessons that despite the fact that Vietnam has maintained party-to-party relations with China, Hanoi staunchly defends its maritime-territorial claims in the South China Sea against Chinese belligerence and has joined the Japan-led Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership and the recently launched US-led Indo-Pacific Economic Framework. Vietnam also has historic ties with Russia as the Soviet Union strongly aided it during the Vietnam War. But this has not come on its way to develop close ties with the US. If communist Vietnam can take such nimble positions, India should, too. The editorial in the Times of India aptly observed that “staying permanently neutral on Russia if the Ukraine war gets even uglier and as the Moscow-Beijing axis gets stronger is not a smart diplomatic position for India”. Exploiting this opportunity, India should leverage by arguing its point on the huge trade deficit that it faces with China and take resort to, if needed, coercive measures to bridge this gap. Issues such as tariff reduction, market access on reciprocal basis, supply chain disruption, composition of trade basket and quantitative restrictions of import items are some of the basis of argument that India needs to leverage to pin down China economically. India also needs to rethink that it provides the biggest market for Chinese electronic gods and medical equipment and therefore, explore the possibility of sourcing from other sources.

India also needs to leverage its ties with Russia on the diplomatic front by abstaining from the UN resolution in Russia’s conflict with Ukraine. India is the biggest importer of Eurasian arms. India sources its military hardware of about 80 per cent from Russia. India needs to continue maintaining its robust ties with as it needs to get spare parts and upgrade the imported equipments. In an emerging multi-polar world that is in the making, it would serve India’s interest if it continues maintaining its consistent stances of strategic autonomy and take issue-based stand, be it bilateral, regional or global. After all national interest comes first than any other considerations. The past being the guide, there is no reason for India to worry that Russia’s partnership with China shall be at India’s expense. Though India has got close to the US, history would suggest that Russia shall remain far more trustworthy than the West.

Endnotes :

[1] “How to take sides: There’s a message to India from the Chinese-Russian air force exercise near Japan”, The Times of India, 25 May 2022, editorial, https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/blogs/toi-editorials/how-to-take-sides-theres-a-message-to-india-from-the-chinese-russian-air-force-exercise-near-japan/?comments=show
[2]Jesse Johnson, “’Serious concerns’ after Russian and Chinese bombers fly near Japan during ‘Quad’ summit”, The Japan Times, 24 May 2022, https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2022/05/24/national/china-russia-bombers-japan/
[3] “Japan criticizes 'provocative' China-Russia air patrol during Quad summit”, https://www.globalsecurity.org/military/library/news/2022/05/mil-220525-rfa01.htm?_m=3n%2e002a%2e3336%2eon0ao069c5%2e33g2
[4] Teddy Ng and Amber Wang, “Strong China-Russia ties on show in Pacific patrol, despite Beijing’s lack of military support in Ukraine”, 26 May 2022, https://www.scmp.com/news/china/military/article/3179115/strong-china-russia-ties-show-pacific-patrol-despite-beijings?utm_medium=email&utm_source=cm&utm_campaign=enlz-china
[5]See, Rajaram Panda, “Explained: Why India’s Stance on Russia-Ukraine Crisis Nuanced?”, 28 April 2022, https://www.vifindia.org/article/2022/april/28/Explained-Why-India-s-Stance-on-Russia-Ukraine-Crisis-is-uanced

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>


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