The Russia-West standoff in Ukraine has witnessed a sharp escalation amidst Russia’s recognition of independence of eastern Ukrainian provinces of Luhansk and Donetsk. Given the proverbial crossing of the Rubicon, all bets are off on the prospects of a de-escalation in tensions. However, what is clearly discernible is which sides nations have taken in this geopolitical contestation. And China is no exception.
Beijing showed its cards during the China-Russia Summit held in February 2022. Their joint statement spelt out China’s implicit support to Russia. A similar sentiment was also expressed by China during the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) debate on the Ukrainian issue.
The pertinent questions, therefore, are what is China’s gameplan in Eastern Europe? And how does it impinge on India’s geostrategic calculus?
China’s position appears more nuanced than what meets the eye. And a boiling European pot suits Beijing in multiple ways.
In this context, China’s support to Russia can be seen as part of Beijing’s larger strategy to undermine the US global influence. With the US having labelled Beijing and Moscow as its competitors, there exists a shared interest between China and Russia to strive for a redistribution of global power. This is reflected in their partnership acquiring form and substance – a remarkable feat given their chequered history. There also exists a convergence between them in pushing back against the US espousal of its own models of human rights and democracy apart from the perceived American interference in their internal affairs. A united front, especially on their core issues, enables China and Russia to more effectively tackle the US geo-strategic pressure.
While China has not outrightly endorsed Russian actions in Ukraine, yet its show of support for the Kremlin’s key security concerns reflects China’s implicit position. Beijing has supported Russia on the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) expansion, colour revolutions, indivisibility of security and missile defence. China’s restraint on the Ukraine issue is perhaps guided by its aversion to self-determination and redrawing of boundaries amidst churnings in Taiwan. Nevertheless, its insistence on the West acknowledging Russia’s “legitimate interests” as well the implementation of the Minsk agreements are a pointer to its tacit backing. Notably, the Minsk agreements will give Russia the levers to maintain its influence in eastern Ukraine through its proxies.
Today, a prolonged US-Russia confrontation suits China. It forces Moscow to seek a closer embrace of Beijing to withstand Western economic sanctions. China remains one of the few countries which can meet Russia’s trade and investment requirements and not be swayed by the West to boycott Moscow. This is reflected in China emerging as Russia’s principal partner in economic and technological realms. New markets, undoubtedly, help China to address its excess capacity as well. This is particularly relevant amidst China’s ongoing trade war with its largest trading partner in the US. Notably, the China-Russia bilateral trade crossed a record US$ 147 billion in 2020-21. Russia’s increased leaning on China is further reflected in the Kremlin holding 13 per cent of its international reserves in Yuan as part of Moscow’s diversification strategy.
China has sought to leverage this growing Russian dependency to seek the Kremlin’s support and concessions elsewhere. This is perhaps most evident in Russia increasingly batting for China on some of Beijing’s core concerns. These involve the origins of the Covid-19 pandemic and politicisation of the Olympics and Taiwan. Crucially, it even includes the Indo-Pacific where, by siding with China, Russia appears to be missing out on a strategic opportunity to project itself as a pole amidst the growing global bipolarity.
Meanwhile, a distracted United States, expending its energies on Eastern Europe, is likely to take its foot off the pedal on the Indo-Pacific. This would fit in with China’s game-plan of seeking an expulsion of the US from the region. Notably, it is the “Indo-Pacific” vis-à-vis the “Asia-Pacific” which dilutes China’s regional position. The latter would allow China to be the fulcrum of the security and economic architecture of the region. The Indo-Pacific also highlights the emerging role of India in regional geo-politics. These dynamics have led China to adopt an increasingly belligerent tone on the Indo-Pacific and other concomitant regional structures like the Quad and the AUKUS. Russia joining the Chinese bandwagon gives more credence to Beijing’s opposition of the “Indo-Pacific”.
Interestingly, the US moves to counter Russia’s actions in Ukraine would provide China with an insight into the American template. This could be useful in any attempts at unifying Taiwan. Perhaps, China’s recent aggressive actions in Taiwan were akin to testing the waters.
Also, a Russia-West rupture could force the European Union (EU) to sidestep its growing scepticism on ties with China. It is unlikely that Europe can afford to simultaneously beak ties with both China and Russia.
A Russia-US conflict would, moreover, nip in the bud any attempts by President Biden to engineer a reverse-Kissinger move. The US President had hinted at this incipient calculus during the June 2021 Geneva summit talks with President Putin. This strategy appears anchored in the US perception of Russia being in decline and, therefore, more manageable than China. Today, a sustained US pressure on both Russia and China has been a key factor in the strengthening of the Beijing-Moscow entente. Therefore, weaning Russia away from China, by leveraging Russia’s historical affinity of being a part of the West, would likely help the United States to better manage its dual confrontation with Moscow and Beijing.
Meanwhile, a robust partnership with Russia would secure China’s largest flank. This could enable Beijing to better channelise its resources towards tackling the US challenge – a hallmark of realpolitik.
Russia remains a key pillar of China’s energy security as well. It meets five and fifteen percent of China’s gas and oil requirements, respectively. The relevance of Russian gas is even more profound at a time when China has pledged to go carbon neutral by 2060. The mega hydrocarbon agreements signed during the February 2022 Summit is a reflection of this strategy. Concomitantly, a network of pipelines from Russia, guaranteeing steady energy supply, could lead to a dilution of China’s Malacca dilemma.
China has also sought to tap Russia’s defence technology to cover the chinks in its armour. These include aircraft engines and missile defence platforms. Similarly, Russia’s expertise in operating space stations could also be crucial in China’s long-term outer-space plans.
Meanwhile, Russian acquiescence is critical for China’s Eurasian access, given Russia’s traditional linkages with its “near abroad”. The Silk Road Economic Belt (SREB) which passes through the region is China’s singular land connection with Europe.
Against the backdrop of these dynamics, it is in China’s interests to nurture ties with Russia. Beijing has emphasised on its benign intentions to assuage Russia’s inherent apprehensions on account of the prevailing asymmetry in bilateral ties. Today, the Chinese economy dwarfs Russia’s. As such, the equilibrium in their ties now favours Beijing. This has seen China time and again insist on the three cardinal principles of “mutual respect, mutual benefit and peaceful co-existence”. To overcome their deep-seated institutional scepticism on account of the baggage of their history, the relationship is driven from the top, anchored in the personal bonhomie between the two Presidents.
Implications for India
A Russia-US confrontation as well as Russia’s closer embrace of China upends India’s geo-strategic calculus. The former puts India in a diplomatic tight-spot amidst growing expectations in Moscow and Washington to pick their side. This was evident during the recent Quad Foreign Ministers meeting held in Melbourne as well as the US sponsored UNSC vote on the Ukrainian issue.
However, the fact remains that India’s ties with Russia and the US are mutually beneficial and bolster India’s strategic autonomy. While Russia continues to be India’s traditional partner, crucially, the US has emerged as a key pillar for India in tackling the China threat.
This multi-alignment, which has served India well over the years, is likely to be tested as Russia ups the ante in eastern Ukraine. While India has appeared to implicitly back Moscow by emphasising on the need to respect the “legitimate security interests of all countries” and implementing the Minsk agreements, the growing Western chorus against Russia would call for deft diplomacy to navigate a minefield of competing interests.
A corollary to a Russia-US conflict is a potential spike in energy prices. For a predominantly hydrocarbon importing country like India, any great power confrontation would likely undermine India’s fiscal projections. Similarly, a US pre-occupation with Europe could dilute the American focus from the shared India-US objective of managing China’s rise.
Meanwhile, Russia’s growing dependence on China also complicates India’s geopolitical environment. A Russia which is increasingly leaning on China to withstand Western pressure could find its room for manoeuvre shrink amidst the strategic necessity to accommodate Beijing’s interests. This is particularly relevant amidst the ongoing friction in India-China relations.
In this context, Russia siding with China could alter the equilibrium in favour of Beijing in groupings like the Russia-India-China (RIC), Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa (BRICS) and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). Similarly, the balance of power in Eurasia could change if Russia is compelled to further accommodate China in its near abroad amidst Beijing’s ongoing attempts to expand its footprints in the region. This Pax Sinica could undermine India’s renewed outreach to the Central Asian Republics. There could also be questions raised on Russia’s commitment to India to not let China veto its defence exports to New Delhi. Besides, Russia could refrain from seeking convergence between its Greater Eurasia project and the Indo-Pacific, seen as a tool to expand areas of convergence between India and Russia.
Interestingly, a Russia-West confrontation, which strengthens China’s position to the detriment of India, is not a new phenomenon. The US embrace of China to weaken the Soviet Union during the Cold War ended up facilitating Beijing’s rise.
However, the dye has not yet been cast on either a permanent Russia-US rupture or a Russia-China entente. This makes it a compelling rationale for India to continue to explore new synergies of cooperation with Russia. It includes seeking to wean Russia away from China with both sides having a shared interest in managing China’s rise. Leveraging Russia’s discomfort with the prevailing asymmetry in ties with China could open up new vistas of collaboration. There remain questions on whether China would bail out Russia amidst the looming threat of Western sanctions on Chinese companies. Similarly, Russia would have likely taken note of China’s recent playbook of unilateralism, assertiveness and revanchism to get its way, notwithstanding the economic interdependence that Beijing shares with the opposing side. Notably, China’s historical grouse against the Tsarist takeover of Chinese territory under the “unequal treaties” runs deep. In this context, a robust relationship with India expands Russia’s scope for manoeuvre under its Pivot to Asia. Therefore, staying neutral on issues concerning each other, especially if they impinge on ties with other indispensable strategic partners, is the new normal amidst such multi-vectored foreign policies. Nevertheless, staying mindful of these emerging dynamics would be imperative as India and Russia head into unchartered territory.
Dr. Rajorshi Roy (Ph.D) is Associate Fellow at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (MP-IDSA). His areas of research and analysis cover the foreign, defence, security and domestic policies of Russia and the Central Asian countries.