Over at The Pulse, Akhilesh Pillalamarri describes the relationship between Russia and India as the closest thing the latter has to an “all-weather” relationship. Interestingly, he notes that “If any country can bridge relations between China and India, it is likely to be Russia.” Given Russia’s position as a friend to both India and China, it’s worth considering if the Kremlin has the necessary leverage, or the interest, in bringing Asia’s two giants together.
Despite officially maintaining a policy of non-alignment since the 1950s, India grew close to the Soviet Union in the 1960s and ended up signing a treaty of friendship in 1971. Today, India, a net importer of defense equipment, relies on Russia-manufactured defense hardware for the bulk of its needs. More recently, India has generally been unenthusiastic about Western efforts to isolate Russia for its actions in Ukraine earlier this year, including the annexation of the Crimean peninsula. Russia, meanwhile, has generally been proactive about maintaining its relationship with India in good stead.
In recent years, Moscow has also made a special effort to maintain good relations with China as well. The two countries share a close bilateral relationship, cooperate in multilateral fora (including the Shanghai Cooperation Organization), and recently concluded a landmark $400 billion dollar natural gas deal. Relations between Beijing and Moscow have been on a steady trajectory towards strategic convergence since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Both nations are permanent members of the U.N. Security Council and seek to challenge the established Western order in different ways.
Meanwhile, the relationship between India and China, however, is marred by territorial disputes and strategic mistrust, at least from the Indian side, which has been somewhat of a constant since the two fought a war in 1962. Following India’s historic elections this year that granted an outright parliamentary majority to the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, China is trying its hand at a foreign policy “reset.” China has shown an interest in centering its bilateral relationship with India on economic issues which it sees as an undercapitalized area for cooperation with a potentially huge positive sum pay off. Meanwhile, India continues to be skeptical of China’s intentions, particularly along its disputed borders in Kashmir and Arunachal Pradesh.
Is Russia playing a role behind the scenes today in the recent spate of positive diplomacy that has come to define Sino-Indian relations in the first 100 days of India’s new government? Despite some speculation, it seems highly unlikely that the Kremlin has the foreign policy capital to spare on a relatively distant bilateral relationship. The benefits for Russia of India and China reconciling their differences and doubling down on economic cooperation are slight. Sure, India’s new government under the BJP does hold a healthy degree of skepticism of the Western order, but that doesn’t mean that it won’t continue to seek warmer ties with the United States. An India-China entente will not automatically expand to include Russia as a powerful trilateral encompassing the Asian landmass from north to south in opposition to the Western order.
Secondly, Russia does not command any significant diplomatic leverage over Beijing, at least not to the extent that it could motivate Xi Jinping to make a sudden overture towards India. For example, it is highly unlikely that Russian influence played any part in Xi’s decision to invite India to the APEC summit. China under Xi Jinping has shown considerable interest in forging an Asian order that would exclude the United States and Japan. By bringing India into this order, Beijing can serve its own interests. Furthermore, as most analysis of Russia’s recent $400 billion natural gas deal with China suggests, it is highly likely that Beijing was able to negotiate from a position of strength and will access Russian natural gas at an incredibly favorable price. If the Kremlin had the upper hand in this bilateral, this would not have been the case.
Despite Russia’s muted role in any potential strategic rapprochement between India and China, it does stand to serve an important role in some issues that involve the three countries. In particular, as Akhilesh notes, any Indian bid for a permanent U.N. Security Council seat will require both Russian and Chinese acquiescence. In such a scenario, one can imagine the Kremlin backing New Delhi, potentially assuaging Beijing’s misgivings about a permanent Indian presence on the Security Council. Similarly, the three countries already cooperate on Afghanistan. Following the U.S. and NATO drawdown at the end of this year, China, India and Russia will emerge as three powers with a major stake in Afghanistan’s future.
Finally, instead of Russia serving as the missing link for a warm India-China relationship, it is possible to imagine Beijing using Russia to condition Indian policy. To my knowledge, there are few examples of this to date, but as China’s clout grows in Asia, it is possible to imagine a scenario where Beijing manages to push the Kremlin’s hand on certain topics with India.
The concept of a strategically coherent “triangle” incorporating Russia, China and India isn’t a new idea by any means. It dates at least as far back as the Mikhail Gorbachev era. Gorbachev brought Sino-Soviet relations back into the realm of normalcy following two decades of estrangement after the Sino-Soviet split. He also wanted to place the U.S.S.R. squarely between India and China within a mutual cooperation framework. As Sergey Radchenko explained in The Diplomat:
Relations began to improve in the 1980s as Moscow turned to China amid international isolation and Western sanctions imposed after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the declaration of martial law in Poland. But the architect of Sino-Soviet normalization, Mikhail Gorbachev, sought to place the process of gradual rapprochement within the framework of what he called the Sino-Soviet-Indian “triangle.” It was a geopolitical conception of subtly anti-American connotations, and an effort to claim leadership in Asia as a broker between its major powers. Fundamentally, it also permitted Moscow to manage China in a broader multilateral context.
Gorbachev’s “triangle” idea did not work for various reasons, not the least of which was that neither China nor India cared much for mutual cooperation, and certainly not under Gorbachev’s leadership. Each of them was more interested in solid relations with the West than with each other. Nevertheless, the conception was rehabilitated in Yeltsin’s Russia by one of its original authors, and the godfather of Russia’s Asia policy, Evgeny Primakov. Its present-day embodiment is BRICS, where Russia claims a degree of moral leadership.
Indeed, the BRICS may be the closest we’ll get to a working prototype of Gorbachev’s imagined triangle. Russia simply does not carry the same clout as the Soviet Union did and today’s Asian strategic environment will necessitate more than a deft third-party to bring about cooperation without competition between India and China. The best Russia can hope for today is a strong bilateral relationship with each country separately–something it fortunately enjoys at the moment.