Navigating India’s Way between Russia and China During the Ukraine War

Khyati Anand
26th June 2022

Picture Courtesy: PIB

Russia’s war in Ukraine caused a state of turbulence among the non-western countries as they had to choose between condemning the aggressor and their own self-interests. This exercise of choice did cost many countries billions of dollars. The Ukraine conflict has lasted over a hundred days. Since day one, India, strict in its neutrality, has demanded an immediate cessation of hostilities and a resolution through dialogue and diplomacy. Due to the ongoing conflict in the European region, Russia has already faced widespread criticism and disapproval. On the other hand, China is engaged with the US as rivals in the Indo-Pacific. This has resulted in the formation of two camps, one with Russia and China and the other with the United States, European nations, and a few other supporters. The current international scenario, mainly the western sanctions, has increased the proximity of interaction between Russia and China, pushing them closer together. Their relative isolation will undoubtedly increase their interdependence which might be a cause of concern for India.

Russia-China

Relations between Russia and China have been close since the 1950s, with the emergence of the PRC and the beginning of the cold war dynamics. Their relationship is built upon close cultural ties and natural geographic vicinity. Russia has abundant natural resources, and China has a huge population, advanced technology, and a similar anti-western ideology, so the two complement each other. Both nations have authoritarian governments, comparable tendencies to exert influence abroad, and a shared understanding of the importance of refraining from interfering in each other’s business. Although they are not naturally friendly toward one another, their interactions with the West have placed them in a position where cooperation is essential for achieving mutually beneficial outcomes.

Amid the ongoing conflict, China has supported Russia like no other. Due to Western sanctions, Russia’s crippled economy has turned to China for its rescue, to increase trade relations and make payments in local currencies. However, China’s tolerance of Russia over the Ukraine conflict has impacted its valued relations with the EU. China is the EU’s largest trade partner and accounted for 22.4% of its all imports in 2021. Due to various issues, including economic coercion and violations of human rights in China, their bilateral relations suffered during the COVID years. The Chinese had hoped for an improvement in the tense relations, but China’s stance on the Ukraine war has further strained them.

According to experts, the Sino-Russian relationship is driven more by their common rivalry against the United States than any natural affinity for each other. China and Russia are still dedicated to providing one another with mutual support in matters pertaining to each other’s fundamental interests and top priorities, such as sovereignty and security. Because of global events, both nations are compelled to continue their close strategic ties. Thus, these testing times have reinforced the Sino-Russian relationship.

India-Russia

Over the last seven decades, India and Russia have had a close relationship. Russia has been an all-weather friend of India and has supported India at crucial moments. India-Russia ties have taken on a qualitatively new character after the signing of the “Declaration on the India-Russia Strategic Partnership” in October 2000, with increased levels of cooperation in all areas. Russia has backed India’s claims for a permanent seat at the UNSC, and its veto power has acted as a saviour in many situations. The current crisis has put India in a diplomatic quandary. India has not been able to stand with Russia as China did but has taken calculated steps in handling the situation. The Russian side praised India’s stance on the issue as they aim toward a balanced world order. Nevertheless, Russian friendship remains crucial as a counterweight to western supremacy.

India-China

China and India, two neighbouring countries whose main contention is border disputes, are still at odds. The nature of the border relations between India and China, as articulated from the Indian side, determines the state of their bilateral relations. Infrastructure developments along the Himalayan border have further strained the hostile relationship. India requires relations with the West and Russia to counter Chinese influence, which is a major pain in the neck. Also, both countries engage with each other for the sake of bilateral trade, which has surged despite the standoff and is important for their respective economies. Many instances of disputes as well as agreements in the India-China relationship highlight the complexities of global politics.

Russia-China Strategic Alliance: Should India be Concerned?

The answer, of course, is relative to the current international scenario. According to the contemporary scenario, their relations do not appear to be a major concern for India. Russia is unlikely to take sides in the India-China conflict, as it has never done before. The Russia-India-China (RIC) triangle is still significant, at least for Russia. The rivalry between China and India could cost Russia dearly if it loses India to the western powers. Russia must balance China in the region by giving equal weight to both countries. This is because, in this time of isolation and challenges, a true friend is exactly what Russia requires. India has attempted to deliver just below what Russia expected by abstaining from voting and sticking to its diplomatic stance. With the sanctions faced by Russia, India acceded to purchasing more oil, tenacious of the western repercussions. China also played its part in saving Russia’s skin and proved to be a close and trustworthy ally.

There is a mutual understanding between Russia and the United States regarding their importance to India. Both recognise each other’s presence to counter the dragon in completely different contexts. The Russia-China relationship has been subjected to mutual mistrust, and Russia unwelcomes China’s intentions to become a dominant force in the region. Keeping India closer has an undue advantage for Russia and is critical for balancing China’s growing influence. For the US, India serves as a regional counter to restrain China’s power as China is believed to be striving to replace the US in all spheres. The recently held Quad summit has reaffirmed the tacit growing competition between the US and China in the Indo-Pacific. Cooperation between India and the United States as well as India’s position as a regional leader could support a world order that maintains democracies’ dominance, particularly in the face of China’s authoritarian rise.

Russia would not want to push India to have close ties with the West. Russia envisions a multipolar Asia like that of India. China has harboured hegemonic tendencies and wishes to lead the region. Due to the presence of other countries in the region that favour multipolarity, such Chinese tendencies do not appear to be realised. It is up to China to recognise that its neighbours are unwilling to be led by a hegemon. The world has witnessed the cold war and its consequences. Every country, especially the fast-paced ones, wants equal treatment and a world with multiple heads, which may help ensure accountability and act as a check to maintain power balance.

India is far more important in world affairs than ever. Amid the crisis, a dilemma for India emerged: to purchase oil from Russia at discounted prices, which might contradict India’s neutrality otherwise. However, thanks to India’s evolving and more than ever resolute foreign policy, it was able to retort the west, demonstrating its needs and retaining strategic autonomy. India’s external affairs minister, Mr. Jaishankar, called out the west for pointing fingers at India for purchasing discounted oil and reminded them of the four fingers that were pointed back at them by nudging the developed countries regarding the amount of Europe’s purchase of imported energy in an afternoon. India has tried to keep in mind its interests, strategic imperatives, and partnerships on both sides of the conflict. Maintaining neutrality and balancing ties while walking on a delicate line is a win-win situation for India. This is an opportunity for India to explore possibilities and negotiate deals that will help it increase its economic growth, retain key relationships, and proceed steadily.

All this complexity and ambiguity are like the clouds in the sky, leaving the international community unsure whether it will rain or not. The world is restructuring, and no one knows what the future holds. India is attempting to navigate its way into a multipolar world. India’s rising potential in nearly every sphere has aided India’s international relations by allowing it to emerge as a rising regional power. One thing is certain: India has risen to prominence on the international stage and will play a critical role in maintaining global stability. All these events have made it crucial for India to juggle the opposites. Balancing old and new ties is a difficult task that necessitates focus and undivided attention to make the most of this opportunity.

*The Author is a Post Graduate Student at the Amity Institute of International Studies (AIIS), Amity University, Noida.  

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