There have been widespread concerns about the prospect of closer Sino-Russian ties after the Ukraine crisis and its implications for India’s national security. Tanvi Madan, director of the India Project at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C., wrote that “a Moscow that is more beholden to Beijing would be particularly problematic at this moment when India is dependent on Russian military supplies and Sino-Indian border tensions could flare up again.” If Russia becomes more reliant on Chinese support, what choice would Moscow make if China asked it to stall supplies to India during a crisis? Madan cites the example of the 1962 Sino-Indian war to remind us that Soviet backing was crucial in Mao Zedong’s plans to wage war against India.
The COVID-19 pandemic and Western sanctions imposed in the aftermath of Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 had already forced Russia to seek deeper economic ties with China. For instance, a Carnegie Moscow Center report highlighted that China’s share in Russia’s trade turnover had increased from 10.5 percent ($88.8 billion) in 2013 to 15.7 percent ($108.3 billion) in 2019. Faced with harsher sanctions after its ongoing war in Ukraine and with the ruble dangerously volatile, Russia’s dependence on Chinese markets, capital, goods, and services, as well as general political backing, will only surge further. Already we have reports of China possibly sending financial and economic aid to support Russia’s war efforts in Ukraine.
What would this mean for India, which has – a vote by Justice Dalveer Bhandari at the International Court of Justice notwithstanding – painstakingly maintained its neutrality on the Ukraine crisis against Western pressure?
It is important to understand the strength and limits of India’s relationship with Russia. This relationship has proven resilient precisely because it is not contingent on their respective dealings with third parties. India harbors concerns about Russia’s involvement in China’s wider regional schemes that seek to narrow India’s strategic space, especially Russia’s growing defense ties with Pakistan. Similarly, Russia is apprehensive of India’s growing ties with Western partners, especially the United States, through initiatives like the Quad. However, while there would predictably be some efforts on both sides to shift preferences, neither Russia nor India has abandoned the bilateral partnership because of the other’s alliance choices.
The risk of China being able to persuade Russia to compromise critical defense supplies to India is low, too. As Dmitri Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center said: “Our Chinese neighbours are not much happy [sic] with Russia supplying arms to India…The Chinese are less overt in their pressure and they are less public about that and they also know that trying to pressure Russia will be counterproductive. You try it, and [it] may be the last time you do it.” India and Russia have both shown the willingness and ability to navigate complex geopolitical realities historically and have so far managed to isolate the dynamics of bilateral ties from being overridden by third-party preferences. Russia’s defense commitments to India are not unshakable, but they will depend on dynamics specific to the bilateral relationship and not on how far China-India ties fall.
We also should not discount the attractiveness of the Indian market for Russian exports. India accounted for 27.9 percent of total Russian arms exports between 2017 and 2021 and remains one of its largest export destinations. Moscow will also draw confidence from New Delhi’s recent offer to buy Russian oil and natural gas at discounted rates. For a Russia that is hobbled by Western sanctions, it would not be prudent to discard such a vital economic partnership.
However, it is also important to be realistic about the extent to which Russia would go to protect India’s interests. A deeper reading of the 1962 War is instructive in this regard.
Contrary to popular belief, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev repeatedly enjoined Mao to cut a deal with Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, even if this meant conceding territory to the Indians. The Soviets were anxious about a post-Nehru future in India, especially if Mao forced the Indians into the Anglo-American camp. However, when the pressures of the Cuban Missile Crisis mounted, Khrushchev tacitly conceded an offensive operation against India to Mao.
Just as the risk of Russia cutting India’s defense supplies is low, so is the possibility that Moscow will choose sides in India’s rivalry with China to the former’s benefit. The relationship with Russia services many of India’s national security needs, but balancing China is not one of them.
Another caveat is that although Russia’s dependence may grow, its relationship with China is unlikely to become noticeably more intimate as one would assume. Chinese President Xi Jinping stated in agreement with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and French President Emmanuel Macron that the situation in Ukraine was “worrisome and the Chinese side [was] deeply grieved by the outbreak of war again on the European continent. ”Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi told his Spanish counterpart José Manuel Albares that China was “not a party to the [Ukraine] crisis.” While the Chinese will not taper their relationship with Russia and could even welcome Moscow’s dependence as a sign of increasing influence in the region, it remains unclear how well China can remain unaffected by U.S. sanctions while doing so. China remains deeply skeptical of getting embroiled in Russia’s war efforts, whilst also exercising caution in how far it can go to help tacitly on the edges.
Beijing would also remember the fault lines that led to the Sino-Soviet split during the Cold War. If China assumes a junior role for their Russian counterparts moving forward (for example, by forcing Moscow to take a stand against India), it may rub against Russia’s conception of its status as a great power and replicate some of the grievances it shares with the West today. This was a mistake Khrushchev made with Mao, eventually alienating China by assuming Beijing would tag along with Moscow’s interests in the Communist bloc even at the cost of China’s own interests and status ambitions. This caused a decisive break and the Chinese decision to mend fences with the Americans, despite the ideological likeness and long-standing fraternal ties with the Soviets.
While there may be no immediate risk of an adverse change to India’s security environment in light of closer ties between Russia and China, this does not mean fewer challenges in the neighborhood in the aftermath of the Ukraine crisis. Russia’s decision to violate Ukraine’s territorial integrity and sovereignty has not only undercut India’s credibility as a sovereignty hawk, it has also devalued New Delhi’s status as a partner for the West. Moving forward, there might be more of a spotlight on India’s role in the Indo-Pacific. If India did not help in Europe, New Delhi would be under some pressure to show value as a partner elsewhere to continue to draw Western support – both of an economic (to aid growth) and military nature (to balance China), something that is absolutely essential and that the partnership with Russia cannot deliver.
The primary challenge for India after the Ukraine crisis does not stem from the prospect of Russia’s ties with China. Rather, New Delhi needs to address the disappointment in Western capitals and repair some of the loss of confidence due to its perceived unwillingness to uphold the rules-based order. If rapprochement with China remains out of sight, the need to secure the cooperation of the United States and its allies will be all the more pressing in the Indo-Pacific. Or else, as C. Raja Mohan has cautioned, “if the logic of a multipolar world leads to a ‘unipolar Asia’ led by China, India might find itself in the fire rather than the frying pan.”