How can we explain New Delhi’s continuing cooperation with Moscow despite strong Sino-Russian ties? Experts and commentators in New Delhi are well aware of Russia’s tying of tighter knots of relations with China (and this is something I have written about elsewhere). The Indian government is certainly aware of this as well.
First of all, however, this is simply the natural state of international affairs. Each government plays its own foreign policy game across various political divides. If country A is not exceptionally weak, it is often able to influence its bilateral relations with state B, but affecting the way your partner, state B, deals with your rival, state C, is usually more challenging. India is forced to accept Russia’s friendship with China the same way it is forced to accept U.S. dealings with Pakistan. Washington is, in turn, mostly turning a blind eye on India’s cooperation with Russia, and Pakistan’s cooperation with China, and so on.
My three main conclusions about India’s place in this maze of relations is as follows: (1) New Delhi prefers to have simultaneous partnerships with two global centers of power — the West and Russia — while it sees a third world power, China, as a threat. (2) India is willing to cooperate with the West against Beijing because this is where they can make common cause. At the same time, New Delhi is aware that it cannot cooperate with Moscow on the same field. (3) The Indian government would prefer Russia not to grow to closer to China, I presume, and it must be well aware that Moscow and Beijing’s deepening interdependence will increasingly become a challenge for India. However, New Delhi simply lacks proper leverage to stop this process, or even slow it down.
The first two points, I dare say, are rather self-evident. Thus, what I will focus on here is only elaborating on the third.
A first critical point: China is a top destination for Russian exports, at a value far exceeding exports to India. Over the past four years (January 2019-December 2022), Russian exports to China have been rising, consistently retaining Beijing’s position of Moscow’s top customer. Even at their lowest point in this period, Russia’s exports to China exceeded in value those to India. That point was recorded in July 2019, when Russian exports to China were worth “only”$2.27 billion, as compared to $600 million to India. While exports to India jumped in value throughout 2022, because of crude shipments, exports to China grew even more, and for the same reason.
Second, China and India are both Russia’s top customers for military products. The arms trade remains a backbone of New Delhi’s relations with Moscow with most of the military products used by the Indian forces still being of Russian/Soviet production. But the same exchange remains a crucial element of Russia’s ties with China as well. The total value of such transfers to both India and China over the past two decades has been similar (as recorded by SIPRI). Yet, some of the more advanced Russian platforms, like the Su-35 jets, were transferred to China, and not to India (while the S-400 system was sold to both countries).
Third, China is a more important customer for Russian fossil fuels than India. Before 2022, India had been a marginal destination for Russian crude oil. It was only the difficult situation of Russian companies, caused by the fallout of Moscow’s decision to invade Ukraine, that forced them to sell oil to New Delhi at much cheaper prices. This has led to a surge of Russian exports to India. Before 2022, 1-2 percent of the value of Indian crude imports were sourced from Russia; in 2022, the proportion reached 17.7 percent (this is a subject I recently covered in a commentary, with more data available there).
However, exactly the same happened in the case of Turkey and China. After February 2022, New Delhi, Beijing and Ankara all accepted the cheaper Russian oil price and a high volume of imports, and thus India gained no comparative advantage over China in its dealings with Moscow. In August 2022, the value of Russian exports to India set a new record high of $4.96 billion, but at the same time a new record was set for Russian exports to the China: $11.2 billion.
Moreover, while at the moment both New Delhi and Beijing are buying large quantities of Russian crude, China is also purchasing Russian gas, while India does not. Geographical proximity also means that in future it will also be easier to enhance, or at least retain, the large volumes of Russian exports of fossil fuels to China, rather than to India.
Furthermore, New Delhi holds no leverage over Moscow when it comes to Russian imports from India. Here the Chinese edge is even sharper and broader. In 2018, 20.5 percent of the value of Russian imports came from China, as compared to 1.13 percent from India. That comparative scale of Chinese and Indian imports to Russia was 20.6 percent to 1.36 percent in 2019 and 23 percent to 1.3 percent in 2020. But perhaps more importantly, Indian imports to Russia are mostly not of large economic or strategic value (contrary to Russian exports to India which are strategically very important). These are dominated by commodities such as medicine: a product of great significance in itself, but not still not a card that New Delhi can play to pressure Moscow, given that India in turn depends on Russian arms imports.
And finally, China is Russia’s partner against the West, while India is the West’s partner against China. While both Beijing and New Delhi have decided to import heaps of barrels of Russian crude in 2022, and both decided not to condemn Moscow for its invasion of Ukraine, there are also significant differences between India and China’s position on the Russia-Ukraine war.
Chinese media and government sources have gone all-out to repeat Russian propaganda about Ukraine, while their Indian counterparts do not. For Beijing, the invasion is clearly an opportunity to strike the West, especially the U.S. and NATO, with whatever nonsense Russian propaganda may come up with. This is hardly surprising as China was already known for pouring its own propaganda on Washington and NATO, so why not add more fuel? New Delhi is, in turn, in a difficult diplomatic position, trying to retain the middle ground between the West and Russia.
All of these aspects taken together clearly do not make for any ground-breaking leverage. Can New Delhi caution Moscow not to sell too many armaments to Beijing, given that China is altogether a more important buyer for Russia? Can India warn Russia that it may buy less Russian military products or crude when Beijing is buying the same? Can India convince Russia not to cooperate too closely with China when Indo-Russian partnership is purely transactional, while the Sino-Russian partnership is based not only on business, but a geopolitical alignment? New Delhi will thus retain its partnership with Moscow not to keep Russia away from China – as this the Indian government cannot achieve – but rather despite Russia’s growing proximity to Beijing.